Empathy, and not more munitions, may be key to establishing peace and ameliorating global suffering from terrorism and war.
By Louis René Beres*
Donald Trump’s foreign policy is bereft of any overarching debate over the urgent threats confronting the United States and the entire global system. The most serious threats, easily identifiable, include war, terrorism and genocide. To counter such complex threats, whether as Americans or “world citizens,” it’s vital to bear in mind that these two identifications overlap and are mutually reinforcing.
Taking a narrow “America First” stance on terrorism ignores the intersecting nature of major terrorist groups and organizations, quickly leading to unstable situations. For example, Trump’s needlessly announced preference for certain Sunni dictatorships over Shiite dictatorships, or for selected Sunni dictatorships like Saudi Arabia over other Sunnis like Qatar, introduces more instability in the Middle East. If US foreign policy were conceptualized, originally, from a broadly system-wide perspective rather than from a self-defeating stance of “America First,” Washington could establish a single plausible criterion of support and intervention. Such an unwavering standard would benefit the US and its allies, while simultaneously countering the core strategic interests of relevant adversaries.
The Trump administration recently signed a southern Syria ceasefire agreement with Russia, underscoring a particularly visceral America First strategy for dealing with Damascus. Among other liabilities, this agreement perpetuates Iran’s unhelpful presence in Syria. Taken together with Trump’s soon-to-be expected endorsement of the Allen Plan for Palestinian statehood – a plan, that would inter alia, replace Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley with UN forces – the new ceasefire calls upon Moscow to secure Israel’s border with Syria, undermining regional order in general and Israel in particular.
The president and his counselors must cope with such intersecting perils that require far more than “common sense.” Many might ask, what would a suitably more thoughtful American foreign policy actually look like. Answers depend on a myriad of individual human needs and expectations. Demonstrably global elucidation, either intellectually or “operationally,” is not easy.
Determinative factors include “aloneness,” not fully belonging to a specific tribe, nation or faith, and the primal human fear of simply “not being.” Individual fear of death can contribute to collective violence, yet the insight also reveals an overlooked opportunity for widening human empathy.
Only a serious attempt to understand an imperative global oneness can save the United States from irremediable hazards. Significantly, Trump’s America First orientation represents the opposite of this sorely needed global effort and could undermine any remaining chances for meaningful safety. As for the planet’s physical environment, Trump is indifferent to climate change studies and the global ecology. US withdrawal from the Paris accord on climate change is a retrograde abrogation that undermines US and global interests while placing billions of people on an unalterable trajectory of human declension.
Instead, national security is about collective human growth and species survival. In global politics, true remediation requires sincere depth of analytic thought and a fully imaginative and broadly global set of policy understandings. Power over death is the most eagerly sought-after form of power in world politics. Perhaps this is why science and technology notwithstanding, cruelty still reigns throughout the world – unreformed, undimmed and proudly undiminished. Historically, a juxtaposition of healing and murder is not without precedent. In Syria, dictator Bashar al-Assad is a trained ophthalmologist. During the Holocaust, death camp gassings were identified as a “medical matter,” supervised by physicians.
More than many might care to admit, education and enlightenment have had precious little tangible bearing on the “human condition.” Prima facie, too, steadily expanding technologies of mega-destruction have done little to transform people into more responsible stewards of this endangered planet. Instead, with unhindered arrogance, whole nations continue to revel in virtually every conceivable form of mass neglect and violence. Most of the time, this ominously primal immersion is advanced as some sort of immutably zero-sum or us-versus-them struggle for domination.
Far too many often take delight in observing the sufferings of others. The specific German term for experiencing such twisted pleasure is schadenfreude. To what extent, if any, is this markedly venal quality related to our steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern global civilizations upon aptly resurrected premises of human oneness? To what extent, if any, does this corrosive trait derive from human death fear? – a crucial question for rational formulation of American foreign policy and for certain corollary obligations of global consciousness.
Sigmund Freud argued that the human unconscious behaves as if it were immortal. Still, however widely disregarded, an expanded acceptance of personal mortality may represent the last best chance for the United States to endure as an enviable nation. This represents the very opposite of America First and the ongoing association of immortality with inflicting grave harms upon others.
Viable forms of wider cooperation represent the only credible path toward moving beyond schadenfreude. Such core orientations are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing. Death “happens” to us all, but acceptance is more than most humans can bear. At times, it is almost as if dying had somehow been reserved exclusively for “others.”
Most of us do not choose when we should die. Still, we can choose to recognize our common fate, and thereby our unbreakable interdependence. This powerful intellectual recognition could carry with it an equally significant global promise.
Ironically, regardless of divergent views on what actually happens after personal death, the basic mortality shared by all could represent a chance for global coexistence. This requires the difficult leap from acknowledging a shared common fate to actually “operationalizing” more generalized feelings of needed empathy and caring. Across an entire planet, we can care for one another as humans, but only after accepting that the indisputable judgment of a resolutely common fate will not be waived by palpable harms deliberately inflicted upon “others” through war, terror and genocide. Always, our just wars, counterterrorism conflicts and anti-genocide programs must be fought as intricate contests of mind over mind and not just narrowly tactical struggles of mind over matter.
Ultimately, only a dual awareness of death as our common human destination and the associated futility of sacrificial violence can offer an accessible defense against the Islamic State, North Korea, Russia, Iran and other adversaries in the global “state of nature.” This “natural” or structural condition of anarchy was well known to the founding fathers of the United States, and only this difficult awareness can relieve an otherwise incessant Hobbesian war of “all against all.” Significantly, US advisers H.R. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn articulated a “Trump Doctrine” premised on fully Hobbesian perspectives: “President Trump has a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a `global community,’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” They then added as a concessionary coda: “Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
American democracy was founded upon authentic learning and not flippantly corrosive clichés or abundantly empty witticisms. Human death fear has much to do with a better understanding of enemies. Reciprocally, only a people who can feel deeply within itself the unalterable fate and suffering of a broader global population can embrace genuine compassion and thereby reject collective violence.
America can never be truly “first” as long as its president insists upon achieving such misconceived status at the unavoidable expense of others. Inevitably, the Trump administration must recognize that American and global survival remain not only bewilderingly complicated, but also mutually interdependent and inextricably intertwined.
Global politics are never a “zero-sum” game or a furiously merciless contest wherein one country’s expected gain requires another’s loss. Apropos of French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s relevant wisdom, no single player in this grievously complex global system can expect to survive and prosper except “with and by all the others with itself.” For President Donald Trump, there is still time for lucidity, but not a great deal of time.
*Louis René Beres, Emeritus professor of international law at Purdue, was educated at Princeton (PhD, 1971). He is currently examining certain previously unexplored connections between human death fears and world politics. Beres is the author of many books and articles on international relations and international law. A previous contributor to YaleGlobal Online, his latest writings have appeared in the Harvard National Security Journal; Jurist; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; Israel Defense; The Jerusalem Post; The Hill; US News & World Report; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; and Oxford University Press. His 12th book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).