When Realism is Unrealistic: Trump's Foreign Policy as Impediment to US and Allied Security

US President Donald Trump's needlessly corrosive foreign policy of "America First" ignores world system interdependence, and sets the stage for cascading security harms to itself and the country's closest allies, including Israel. Opinion

Photo: AP

"You, created only a little lower than

The angels, have crouched too long in

The bruising darkness

Have lain too long

Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words

Armed for slaughter."

Maya Angelou, recited at US President Bill Clinton's inauguration, January 20, 1993


Although hailed by US President Donald Trump as admirably "realistic," the foreign policy of "America First" is anything but pragmatic. Rather, in its meager intellectual underpinnings, "face down in ignorance," such a shallow policy remains altogether fanciful. Within these plainly fragile foundations, there can exist not a scintilla of serious benefit for American national security or (derivatively) for the security of its closest allies. This includes the State of Israel.

Viable preparations for any genuine security policy must begin at the beginning, with the individual human being. In this connection, the plainly universal fear of death may prove important. When considered together with the easy-to-validate understanding that human death fear can create darkly irresistible inclinations toward collective violence, this particular difficult insight may reveal a still inconspicuous foreign policy opportunity.

Somehow, we all still fail to understand something distinctly primary. The always universal apprehension of death, acknowledged as a truly common human anguish, could help us to prevent both war and terror. More specifically, if creatively "exploited," this ubiquitous apprehension could invite a steadily expanding ambit of human empathy and worldwide compassion.

By definition, any such positive and welcome expansion would represent the literal opposite of "American First."

US President Trump's "America First" remains a deformed policy based not upon any measured or tangible analytic foundations, but instead on a visceral and incrementally caustic celebration of human self-centeredness.

Left in place, "America First" is apt to prove wholly injurious to US national interests, and to the related security interests of certain close allies. Reciprocally, only a serious eleventh-hour attempt to understand an imperative global "oneness" and interrelatedness can save the United States and those allies from the hazards of an American foreign policy built upon sand.

The United States and its closest allies can never be assisted or saved by narrowly political solutions fashioned ad hoc, as the evident antitheses of authentic thought. Foreign policy is not, as Mr. Trump still rigidly maintains, "about attitude, not preparation." On the contrary, it must always be the well-reasoned product of historical and scientific understanding – in other words, of preparation.

To succeed in all meaningful ways, US national security policy must steer clear of ritualistic presidential calls to an endless belligerence, and instead embrace an identifiable commitment to more far-reaching global cooperation. Only then, and together with all others, could America become recognizably "first." Already, back in 1758, Emmerich de Vattel had noted, in The Law of Nations (Or the Principles of Natural Law): "Nations, being no less subject to the laws of nature than individuals, what one man owes to other men, one Nation, in its turn, owes to other Nations."

Later, the eighteenth-century jurist continued: "The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations." In other words, we learn from the Swiss legal scholar, narrowly nationalistic or nativist foreign policies are inevitably the diametric opposite of what is urgently required.

But what is required? In global politics, any appropriately durable remediation will demand a far more penetrating depth of analytic thought. Accordingly, at the outset of his needed conceptual turnaround, this US president will have to accept a fully imaginative and broadly global set of security policy understandings. This challenging set would express the subtle but unavoidable awareness that outer worlds of politics and statecraft are always a mirrored reflection of our innermost private selves.

It is within the deeply opaque mysteries of individual human mortality – mysteries focused on the effectively timeless and universal preoccupation with securing earthly power over death – that we must seek to discover the core truths of human interdependence and American/Allied national security. It follows that whenever we look toward more secure management of terrorism, war, and genocide, any stubbornly continuous posture of America First would merely undermine America's most sacred and indispensable national objectives.

There is much more for this White House to learn. At a minimum, US President Trump ought not draw any credible hopes for creating an improved and lawful US national security policy by clinging to well-worn and hackneyed examples of American "exceptionalism." Though gleefully unacknowledged even in our best schools and universities, there remains a noteworthy and palpable gap between humankind's advancing technical understanding and its persistently uncontrollable passions.

Where then shall we go from here? Exeunt omnes? The American president seems to have demonstrably few original ideas, and, correspondingly, a never-ending panoply of bewilderingly backward and law-violating policy notions. Among the latter are various manifestly unhelpful distortions of global trade policies, and also a blatantly counter-productive interference with fully law-based immigrations.

Back to the microcosm. Leaving aside certain obvious intellectual advantages, we are assuredly not the same as other species. There is rampant killing among the "lower" animals, of course, but it is only residually willful or gratuitous. Mostly, it is survival driven. Such killing may simply be "natural." Biologically, at least, it can generally "make sense."

What sort of human species, we will then need to inquire, can tolerate or even venerate more purely hideous and maladaptive sources of personal gratification? To what extent, if any, is this markedly venal quality related to our steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern civilizations upon still-promising premises of human oneness? And once more, we must inquire, to what extent, if any, does human murderousness derive from an utterly primary and more-or-less ubiquitous human death fear?

This last question is more important than it is obvious, even for the rational formulation of American foreign policy and for implementing certain corollary obligations of global consciousness and world legal order.

"Our unconscious," wrote Freud, "does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal." What we ordinarily describe as heroism may in some cases actually be nothing more than denial. Still, however widely disregarded, an expanded acceptance of personal mortality may effectively represent the very last best chance the US still has to endure as a once-enviable nation.

Can President Trump and his advisors learn something here that might benefit the nation, its closest allies and the wider global community?

Death "happens" to us all, but our potentially useful awareness of this expectation is blunted by multiple deceptions. To somehow accept forthrightly that we are all authentically flesh and blood creatures of biology is basically more than most humans can bear. "Normally," there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of the dead and dying.

That we, as individuals, should still cleave so desperately to various allegedly sacred promises of redemption and immortality is not, by itself, a global-survival or national-survival issue. It becomes a truly existential problem, and one that we may thus convincingly associate with war, terrorism, or genocide, only when these various promises are forcibly reserved to certain selected national or religious segments of humanity, and are then openly denied to other presumptively less-worthy nations.

In the end, as US President Trump must still learn to understand, all national and global politics are merely reflection, a thinly symptomatic expression of much more deeply underlying and compellingly troublesome private needs. Undoubtedly, the most pressing of all these accumulated needs is the avoidance of personal death.

Much as we might prefer to comfort ourselves with various qualitative presumptions of societal hierarchy and national differentiation, we humans are really pretty much the same. This incontestable sameness is already plainly manifest to all capable scientists and physicians. Still, our single most important similarity, and the one least subject to any reasonable hint of counter-argument, is that we all die.

Ironically, perhaps, whatever our more-or-less divergent views on what might actually happen to us after personal death, the basic mortality that we share could still represent the very last best chance we have for global coexistence and a more secure world community. This is the case, however, only if we can first accomplish the astoundingly difficult leap from acknowledging a shared common fate to "operationalizing" our pertinent feelings of empathy and caring.

Across an entire planet, we can care for one another as humans, but only after we have first accepted that the judgment of a resolutely common fate will not be waived by any palpable harms that are inflicted upon "others." While markedly inconspicuous, modern crimes of war, terror, and genocide are often "just" conveniently sanitized disguised expressions of religious sacrifice. In the most starkly egregious instances, examples especially well-known to the people of Israel, corresponding violence could represent a twisted human hope of overcoming private mortality through the mass killing or exclusion of specific "others."

Americans and other residents of an interconnected planet have a right to expect that any president of the United States should attempt to understand these complex ways of thinking. Here, national policies must build upon more genuinely intellectual sorts of understanding. Always, just wars, counter-terrorism conflicts, and anti-genocide programs must be fought or conducted as intricate contests of mind over mind, and not just as narrowly tactical struggles of mind over matter.

Only a dual awareness of our common human destination, which is death, and the associated futility of sacrificial violence, can offer an accessible "medicine" against North Korea, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Russia, Iran, and certain other more-or-less foreseeable adversaries in the global "state of nature." Ultimately, only this difficult awareness can relieve an otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian war of "all against all."

Human death fear has much to do with a better understanding of America's current enemies, and the enemies of its closest allies (both national and sub-national.) Reciprocally, only a people who can feel deeply within itself the unalterable fate and suffering of a much broader global population will ever be able to decently embrace compassion and to "rationally" reject collective violence. To be sure, this American president should finally prepare to understand what this implies, both with pointedly specific reference to the United States and to America's various (and increasing) state and sub-state adversaries.

Always, the existence of system in the world is obvious and immutable. Accordingly, America First means America Alone and America Last. America and its closest allies can never be truly "first" so long as this US president insists upon achieving needed security at the palpably grievous expense of designated others. To seek to secure ourselves from war, terror and genocide by routinely diminishing these others is inevitably a playbook for America Lost and Allies Last.

It is high time for US President Donald Trump to recognize that his alleged policies of realism – "...spilling words armed for slaughter" – are in fact overwhelmingly unrealistic.


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with national security studies and Israel's nuclear strategy. 

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