After the American Election: Overcoming Plague, Chaos and “Mass”
Louis René Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, analyses America’s future after the 2020 Presidential Elections…
“The mass-man has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.” – Jose Ortega y’Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930)
In the United States, prima facie, presidential elections represent a core fixture of democracy. Nonetheless, though necessary – and never more so than in the just-completed defeat of Donald J. Trump – they are sorely insufficient in dealing with this country’s most deeply underlying problems. To deal satisfactorily with the coronavirus pandemic (our current worldwide “plague”) and with a more-or-less corresponding global chaos, America will first have to “fix the microcosm.” More precisely, we must diminish the always-corrosive influence of “mass-man.”
This obligation, in turn, will require various tangible reforms. The goal must be a citizenry that can finally take learning, science and law with evident seriousness. To effectively meet this goal, Americans must first work diligently at taking themselves more seriously. No long-term survival goals can be met by an electorate that nods predictably and approvingly to nonsensical howls of presidential gibberish and presidential execration.
Let us be candid. American democracy is now largely an oxymoron. It’s not just the steep wealth disparities between individuals and groups – inequalities steadily enlarged during the dissembling Trump-Era. It is also the de jure validation of an institutionalized plutocracy. Oddly enough, counted among the most numerous and strenuous supporters of Trump-generated inequalities were millions of newly-deprived and badly-treated American workers.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers with considerable prescience. “I believe because it is absurd.”
But now it’s all about our national future after the election. Now, more than ever, we must look forward. And we must look systematically.
Basic questions arise. What are the most significant post-election threats facing the United States? To answer properly, these substantial perils will need to be approached holistically, in their entirety; that is, conceptually, analytically and cumulatively.
Quo vadis? Above all else, this means, inter alia, a society rising high above the previously-deflecting politics of individual personality and strident partisanship; and a polity paying a sincere heed to the immutable primacy of intellect or “mind.”
For too long, incontestably, this unhappy country has mired itself in the sordid and superficial orientations of personal animosity, demeaning cliché and callous indifference to law. This last dereliction refers to both US domestic law and to international law. These mainstay normative systems are always closely bound up with each other. To suggest otherwise is to accept a flagrantly false dichotomy.
To accept such falsehood is tantamount to sacrilizing a heavy ignorance.
Truth is exculpatory, especially in matters of law. One basic truth goes like this: The United States now stands at a once inconceivable level of national impotence and legal invidium. On America’s international legal wrongdoings, we have been witness to a President who routinely follows the authoritarian lead of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other retrograde world leaders. On our more conspicuous domestic derelictions, “We the people…” have had to endure, again and again, a President who acts as if peremptory legal norms were non-existent, and who led chanting rallies as if he had been taught by Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.
None of this is an exaggeration or hyperbole; rather, the anti-law similarities are overwhelming, deeply consequential and foreboding. In one repeatedly grotesque Trump refrain, “Lock him up” (earlier, for Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up”), the explicit call was for casually shelving the proper Constitutional protections of “due process of law.” When, most recently, the object of Trump’s orchestrated rancor became the female governor of Michigan – and this immediately after Gretchen Whitmer had become the intended target of a Trump-backing US terrorist group – it once again became “Lock her up.”
Either way, the crude chants were a shameless rejection of Constitutional government and long-codified legal protections.
There is more. This ritualized obeisance to lawlessness was not confined simply to adrenalized and incoherent chants. Just days before his second presidential debate with Democrat candidate Joe Biden, Donald Trumps sought to convince his Attorney General to launch a full investigation of his opponent. This time, however, William Barr, ordinarily a dutiful sycophant to the end, stopped short of cowardly capitulation.
There is still more to understand. If the nation’s leaders and citizens could finally bring themselves to soar above this bitter amalgam of societal atrophy and mass wrongdoing – a measurably low point in both legal and socio-political terms – it will quickly become apparent that a single “archetype” of contemporary American life should become our present-day focal point of remediation. This ubiquitous object is the philosopher’s “mass man,” a one person distillation (male or female) of all that is most unworthy and law-violating in American life.
Clarifications are in order. To explain, this philosopher’s “mass man” is the “herd” person who all-too-often prefers anti-reason to reason and intimations of conspiracy to any tangible science. During the closing days of the recent presidential campaign, President Donald Trump several-times ridiculed Joe Biden because he would base his pandemic decisions on “the scientists.” Here, hewing to scientists rather than propagandists was described as a pejorative.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers.
There is more. At this still-unraveling time of “plague” and impending chaos, more precise and respectable normative standards will be necessary for guidance. Ongoing and prospective perils are generally intersecting; also, such intersections could often be “synergistic.” Accordingly, the “whole” corpus of relevant harms could on occasion be even greater than the sum of all relevant “parts.”
In these matters of leadership, it is time for celebrations of intellect or “mind.” In principle, at least, following a US leadership era that had proudly and loudly loathed science and learning, Americans should “look back” at authentic political and legal thought. We ought to be learning from Plato, Cicero and Blackstone, not from Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh.
In his seventeenth century work of classical philosophy, Thomas Hobbes – a little-read but still-foundational author of the eighteenth century American Republic – explored deductively “the natural condition of mankind.” Published just a few years after the Peace of Westphalia, the 1648 treaty that ended the Thirty Years War and ushered in the “state system.” Hobbes’ Leviathan placed its primary emphasis on what we would call today geo-strategic context.
There is more. Hobbes’ analytic focus was directed toward understanding the always-crucial connections between individual or personal weaknesses and world system anarchy or chaos. The thinker concluded that in the “Westphalian” system of international law, a condition of permanent war must obtain, not just during episodes of “actual fighting,” but whenever these exists “a known disposition thereto.” At that particular point in history, however, the philosopher was not taking into account the rare but catastrophic factor of worldwide disease pandemic.
One needn’t be an historian or legal scholar to understand that such a relentlessly insidious disposition to conflict remains current for America, in 2020. Indeed, at the present historical moment – especially in consideration of verifiable evidence for ongoing nuclear proliferation – we are devolving still further from traditional anarchy toward a far more stubbornly remorseless and indecipherable chaos. It follows, for scholars and relevant policy makers, that to better understand America’s changing “risk profile,” more attention must now be oriented to central matters of intellect and thought.
Now that the presidential election is behind us, what does all this really signify? In the United States, as a direct consequence of Donald Trump’s disjointed pandemic policies, tens of millions of Americans have been pushed ruthlessly into poverty. Lest anyone mistakenly feel that such an American poverty is relatively benign or gentle, the numbers make clear something far different. This poverty includes several distinctly palpable forms of hunger. Considered against the backdrop of the rest of the so-called developed world, Americans in general are now anything but enviable. We surely did not become “great again.”
In critical matters of foreign affairs and international law, the United States displays assorted and comparably distressing failures. Now faced with significantly strengthened adversaries in Russia and China, and with a greatly weakened set of once-viable alliances, even the most plausible strategic outlooks include a steady expansion of war and terrorism. Such an expectation has very deep roots in President Donald J. Trump’s manifold disregard for America’s obligations under international law – obligations ipso facto a part of US law.
Even before the creation of the modern state system in 1648 – indeed, from time immemorial – world politics have been rooted in some more-or-less bitter species of Realpolitik or power politics. Although such traditionally rancorous patterns of thinking are normally accepted as “realistic,” they have actually proven to be starkly shortsighted and insufferably transient. It follows, among several other things, that America’s president would be well-advised to finally acknowledge the inherent limitations of a persistently fragile global threat system, and begin to identify more promising and substantially more law-supporting patterns of international interaction.
There is a bigger picture. The United States, in the fashion of every other state, is plainly part of a much larger world system. But this more comprehensive system has steadily diminishing chances for achieving any sustainable success within a transient pattern of endlessly competitive sovereignties. What then, one must promptly inquire, is the point of continuing to maintain a qualitative military edge? After all, we coexist in a system that is resolutely destined to fail.
“What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” asks Samuel Beckett philosophically in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?”
Realpolitik or balance of power world politics, has never succeeded for longer than brief and dreadfully uncertain intervals. From time to time, in the future, this unsteady foundation could be further exacerbated by multiple systemic failures, sometimes mutually reinforcing or “synergistic,” sometimes perhaps involving weapons of mass destruction. Most portentous, in this regard, would be nuclear weapons.
By definition, a failure of nuclear Realpolitik could be not “only” catastrophic, but sui generis. This truth obtains if the failure is judged in the full or cumulative scope of its resultant declensions.
Remedial steps need to be taken. Immediately, all states that depend upon some form or other of nuclear deterrence must prepare to think more self-consciously and imaginatively about alternative systems of world politics; that is, about creating viable configurations that are more reliably war-averse and cooperation-centered. While any hint of interest in complex patterns of expanding global integration, or what Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls “planetization,” will sound fanciful to “realists,” the opposite is vastly more plausible.
Now, it is more pragmatic to acknowledge that our “every man for himself” ethos in world politics is both degrading and incapable of conferring any credible survival reassurances.
Now it is plain that absolutely nothing could be less realistic for governments than to remain on the present collision course.
There is more. To grasp rapidly disappearing opportunities for long-term survival, America’s president must seize upon the penetrating insight of thinker Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never ending process of creating one world and one humanity.” Whenever we speak of civilization, we must also speak prominently of law. Jurisprudentially, of course, no particular national leadership has any special or primary obligations in this regard, nor could one reasonably afford to build its own security policies upon vaguely distant hopes.
Even after the corrupting and attenuating Trump presidency, the United States remains a key part of the world legal community, and its president must now do whatever he can to detach an already weakened America from the time-dishonored “state of nature.” Any such willful detachment should be expressed as part of a still-wider vision for a more durable and justice-centered global politics. Over the longer term, Washington will have to do its part to best preserve the world system as a whole.
“America Together,” not “America First,” must now become the preferred and expressed national mantra.
However impractical this may first sound, nothing could possibly be more fanciful than continuing indefinitely on a repeatedly discredited policy course.
Everything changes. In particular, the geo-strategic world within which we must all necessarily endure is endlessly in flux. Apropos of this transience, the specific kinds of anarchy or chaos facing the United States and all other states in the years ahead will be very different from what had earlier emerged in the seventeenth century.
What then? Though hardly compensatory in any meaningful human sense, there would nonetheless be present an optimal occasion for seeking greater precision in all pertinent analyses. American strategic thinkers should already understand that refractory threats that still lie ahead ominously may originate less with formidable enemy armies than with multiple forms of decisional miscalculation or inadvertence. These threats, furthermore, are now magnified or “force-multiplied” by an inherently many-sided pandemic.
Examples abound. One current example could center on any still-planned US deployment of intermediate range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region, a provocative step that would especially worry China (a state sorely needed by the United States to assist with still-accelerating nuclear developments in North Korea, and with a host of other more fundamental economic survival matters).
Already, for its part, at least on one key level, China indicates it has no intention of joining any nuclear weapons reduction talks with the US, pointing (understandably) to the huge gap in size between China’s nuclear arsenal and America’s. At the same time, it would be a grievous error in American strategic thinking to conclude that the more destructive US nuclear arsenal will necessarily bestow any corresponding increase in overall American global power or influence. For too many years, even long before the grievously misdirected Trump presidency, the United States had consistently confused power of destruction with more general species of influence.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, China has an estimated 290 nuclear warheads currently deployed, compared to 1,750 for the US.
Another problematic area of possibly expanding chaos and corollary nuclear confrontation might be Kashmir. Here, America could quickly or suddenly find itself caught between variously unpredictable India-Pakistan escalations. Of course, even if the US were not directly involved in any such unprecedented levels of warfare, any nuclear war in southwest Asia would inevitably prove generally injurious (an evident understatement) for the planet as a whole.
An even more primary axis of conflict in world politics will require closer conceptual attention by American strategic thinkers and planners. Recalling Thomas Hobbes’ definition of war as not merely “actual fighting,” but also as a “known disposition thereto,” the US president should take far more explicit note that we are already in the thickening midst of “Cold War II.” This steadily expanding adversarial posture between Russia and the United States is both similar and dissimilar to the original Cold War. In any event, it defines the most plausibly basic context within which US nuclear strategy must from now on be fashioned and/or refined.
Even this “most basic context” will be impacted by expanding hazards of worldwide disease epidemic, primarily by their largely unpredictable effect upon national decision makers and by their similarly unknowable effects upon relevant decisional synergies.
These issues are not susceptible to solution by applying the dreadful clichés or empty witticisms of the previous US administration. Instead, they will require some serious engagement by a small number of genuinely gifted thinkers and planners, individuals who have been the beneficiaries of a comprehensive and challenging formal education. This is not the time for core policy judgments by “mass man.” Though Donald Trump claimed to “love the poorly educated,” these are not the people who can best guide America’s imperiled ship of state through uncharted waters.
There is more. In a world increasingly prone to periodic and potentially primal conflict, the role of nuclear weapons will need to be more closely and specifically considered. This overriding obligation pertains not only to the nuclear capacities and intentions of the United States and its most obvious foes, but also to their several and most probable intersections with various other countries.
Because such plausible intersections could sometimes become “synergistic,” American strategists will need to best ensure that (1) there will occur no further spread of nuclear weapons among recognizable state or sub-state enemies, and (2) attempting to counter any one designable enemy would not wittingly or unwittingly assist another. Even more potentially bewildering in these pandemic-focused times, these strategists would need to take meticulously proper account of expanding disease impact upon both enemy decision-makers and on our own.
Among other things, this will not be a task for thinly-educated, narrowly political or commerce-oriented public personalities.
Soon, too, American decision-makers will need to more fully acknowledge that geo-strategic context can be broadly intellectual rather than just narrowly geopolitical or geographic. Expressed in terms of Thomas Hobbes’ aptly fearful argument about the “state of nature,” America must do whatever it can to avoid any “dreadful equality” from emerging in enemy nuclear capacity. Here, still more precisely, Washington could learn purposefully from Leviathan, “…the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.”
By definition, the capacities of law to aid human survival and human betterment would be diminished by any such “equality.”
No matter how “powerful” this country may first appear vis-à-vis its relevant adversaries, even a seemingly “less-powerful” North Korea could bring nuclear harms to the United States or its allies. We ought not to presume, therefore, any clear existential benefit to national nuclear superiority. In the more formal parlance of original Cold War nuclear theory, absolutely any nuclear harms would be “unacceptable.”
Another specific threat must be factored in or considered. Looking even further ahead, assorted terror groups could gain incremental access to usable forms of profoundly dangerous weapons, including biological materials or crude nuclear ordnance. As a result, any still latent or residual civilizational capacity to deal with global chaos would immediately obligate the US to enter the fray with appropriate forms of remediation. To meet this demanding obligation in extremis atomicum, the American president should have firmly in hand, in advance, a suitably coherent “playbook,” one that takes into account (both legal and strategic) the discoverable capacities of patron states and their plausible intersections with pandemic-impacted sub-state actors.
Once again, this will not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted. It is not a task for the philosopher’s “mass man.”
Strategy is a “game” that an American president must always be prepared to play with very conspicuous skill and without suffering any significant losses or declensions. Behind the manifold complexities of such an expanding chaotic context is the derivative obligation to see things through the eyes of each applicable adversary. Fundamentally, this must quickly become a psychological or psychiatric obligation, one not in any way specific to orthodox military calculations. It has been succinctly summarized by existentialist thinker Rollo May in The Discovery of Being (1983): “The problem is how we are to understand the other person’s world.”
Now, of necessity, to make matters more of an analytic problem, we must add: “…during a time of pandemic.”
Sooner or later, a visibly stark juxtaposition of pre-modern ideologies with nuclear weapon systems could present a unique challenge to the United States for dealing with chaos. This complex and pandemic-affected challenge could be exacerbated by (a) persistently “opaque” considerations of enemy rationality; and (b) steadily expanding uncertainties of decisional miscalculation and/or escalation. These overlapping factors could become still more daunting whenever the dynamic relationships between them becomes determinably synergistic, especially at a time of expanding biological adversity.
There is more. Struggling amid chaos, it should realistically be expected that we could fail to discover any reassuring succor in international law. This regrettable expectation is reinforced not only by President Donald Trump’s unilateral US withdrawal from the JCPOA 2015 Vienna Pact regarding Iran, but also by US withdrawal from the INF Treaty with Russia. Today, one might also add Donald Trump’s gratuitous and generally injurious attacks on the World Health Organization in Geneva, or his continuing attempt to deflect blame for pandemic harms upon Beijing. For Trump, the coronavirus has always been the “China Virus.”
To be sure, thinking people all over the world are still shaking their heads in disbelief about these wholly destructive and irrational US deflections.
One consequence of such shortsighted behaviors is that the United States will have to deal with multiple effects of a nuclear Iran in a shorter period of time, and to face simultaneously an expanding nuclear arms race with the Russian superpower. It should be unsurprising, therefore, when the already palpable global slide toward chaos eventually becomes unstoppable.
For the US, the expected perils of any emerging primal chaos must be particular and unique. Conceivably, the calculable probability of world system chaos could be enlarged by certain unforeseen instances of enemy irrationality. If, for example, America should have to face a Jihadist adversary that would value certain presumed religious expectations more highly than its own physical survival (e.g., Islamic expectations of a Shahid or “martyr), this country’s applicable deterrent could be correspondingly diminished or immobilized.
Presumptively foreseeable worst case scenarios would involve an irrational nuclear North Korea or Pakistan; that is, in essence, a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Here, once it had been convincingly determined in Washington that enemy leaders were meaningfully susceptible to certain non-rational judgments vis-à-vis the United States, this country’s rational incentive to strike first defensively could become overwhelming or even irresistible. Naturally, however, there could then be no reasonable or reciprocal assurances that actively yielding to such an incentive would be in the overall security interests of the United States.
None at all.
There is more. America could discard the preemption option – one that would likely be described in more expressly legal terms as “anticipatory self defense” – but it would then still need to identify other usable and multi-vector strategies of secure deterrence. Any such identification could then further require diminished ambiguity about selected elements of this country’s nuclear forces; an enhanced and at least partial disclosure of certain strategic targeting options; more substantial and simultaneously less ambiguous ballistic missile defense postures; and/or increasingly recognizable steps to ensure the perceived survivability of America’s nuclear retaliatory forces.
Going forward, America will need serious preparation, not just “attitude.” These alternative American strategies should be carefully worked out in advance of any specific crisis. In all such calculations, chaos itself would need to be included as a potentially salient explanatory factor or “independent variable”. In short, pandemic-rein forced chaos would maintain its analytic pride of place, however distasteful to America’s currently operating strategists and policy-makers.
At that disintegrative point, there might remain no reasonable expectations of safety in arms, of rescues from higher political authority or of any comforting reassurances from science. As with any true forms of chaos, new wars could rage until every flower of culture were trampled and until many things human had been flattened in a vast and barbarous cauldron of biological disorder. In such dire circumstances, even the best-laid plans for collective defense or alliance guarantees could quickly become little more than iconic cultural artifacts of a world order that had once been “merely anarchic.”
At that singularly portentous point, Carl von Clausewitz’s idea of “friction” (that is, “the effects of reality on ideas and intentions in war”) would trump all earlier hopes for both predictability and conflict resolution.
At that fearful point, the only fully predictable insight would be that nothing was any longer predictable.
Some further clarifications are still in order. Since the seventeenth century, our anarchic world can best be described as a system. What happens in any one part of this world necessarily affects what would happen in some or potentially all of the other parts. When a particular deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation to another, the disintegrative effects would quickly undermine regional and/or international stability.
We are still living in a planetary system. But now, there are significant points of difference from classic “Westphalian” dynamics. Now, when deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as it would be following the start of any unconventional war and/or act of unconventional terrorism, the corollary effects would be immediate and overwhelming. These critical effects would be chaotic.
Soon, aware that even an incremental collapse of remaining world authority structures would impact its friends as well as its enemies, leaders of the United States, in order to chart more patently durable paths to survival, will need to openly advance certain credible premonitions of global collapse. Such considerations will be uniformly distasteful, of course, and are most likely not yet underway. Still, even without charting any compellingly precise Spenglerian theory of decline, American strategists ought not to seek to avoid this primary obligation.
In the final analysis, the only way for the American president to deliver us from the intersecting ills of pandemic and chaos will be by freeing us from the law-debasing tyrannies of “mass man.” As a practical matter, this will be a multi-faceted struggle against political falsehood, and a many-sided reaffirmation of fundamental international law. For this coming presidential administration, a corollary presumption must be that American interests and world system interests are intimately intertwined, and that extracting the United States from Realpolitik and “America First” will be required. Though any such extraction will at first appear impractical or naive, there can be no other way.
If United States presidential elections are to continue as a critically viable expression of American democracy, this expressly primary shift to a more cooperative world order has now become indispensable.
Jose Ortega y’Gasset’s “mass man” is the authentic root of our governance problem. To better ensure a safe and decent future for the United States going forward – that is, in this critical post-election period – Americans will need to heed another worthy philosopher’s quintessential counsel. It is Friedrich Nietzsche’s call for “self overcoming,” for finally understanding that a society (the macrocosm) can never be any better than its individual human components (the microcosm).
There is more. The corresponding “will to power” has nothing to do with the subordination or exploitation of others, with “making a big noise in the world,” or with the “wretched idée fixe” of obtaining progress though politics and marketplace. Rather, it represents the imperative of each singular person to wittingly defy mass and resist or “overcome” the valueless temptations of the “herd.”
In the final analysis, the only way this too-long-deceived nation can make proper use of America’s legal traditions and norms is to set itself on a determined path of science, intellect and “overcoming.” As always, elections will have their proper place, but they ought help to liberate us from the endless lies of “mass” and “herd,” not to imprison us further. Too often ignored in the past, this sage counsel might not be enough to protect us from some future Trump-style era of derelictions and deprivations. In assessing future elections, history should be granted appropriate pride of place. Before America can avert yet another onslaught of egregious presidential wrongdoing, one that could sometime become an irrecoverable national catastrophe, this country must first plan to fix the “microcosm.” Until we wittingly reject “herd” and “mass” in every segment of presidential selection, all other efforts at electoral remediation will remain beside the point.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in Jurist