“In the end, we are creatures of our own making.”-Goethe, Faust
From the start of the current worldwide “plague,” US President Donald J. Trump has claimed the coronavirus crisis can be easily managed. “Soon,” he has predicted again and again, “it will go away, miraculously.” This stubborn expectation is silly at best and homicidal at worst. Founded upon nothing of recognizable intellectual consequence, that is, of any actual tangible evidence, it remains a grimly false and self-serving expectation.
Prima facie, in view of its palpable human costs, it is one of the most heinous presidential derelictions in American history.
An antecedent question also arises. Why should an American president in the 21st century openly prefer gibberish-nonsense to science or “mind”? The correct answer is discoverable, at least in part, in the unchanging mentality of “mass man.” This all-too-conspicuous, nefarious, and universal historical figure, as we may learn from twentieth-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses,1930), “has no use for Reason.”
“He learns,” warns Ortega famously, “only in his own flesh.”
When Donald Trump went to Singapore for his initial summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un on June 12, 2028, he volunteered that he needed “no preparation,” just “attitude.” Here, incarnate, was the conspiracy-believing “mass man,” figuring things out only “in his own flesh.” Here was an American president who blames catastrophic multi-state fires on “forest management,” not climate change, who recommends injecting Covid patients with household disinfectants, and eagerly plays obedient lap-dog to Vladimir Putin.
Here, in short, was a fearful archetype, the American herald of continuously approaching misfortune and fatality.
Though there can be no persuasive reassurances in any such president’s anti-science/anti-reason diatribes, an unhidden potential for good may still lie latent in this pandemic. More precisely, purposefully exploiting the vast pathogenic challenge of corona virus could help all affected peoples to reaffirm their integral human interdependence. Beyond any question, this obviously unwanted and unwitting “benefactor” now confronts humankind indiscriminately, in toto.
There is more. This plague delivers its toxic and corrosive debilities without any regard for national, racial, ethnic, religious or ideological differences. The basic lesson here is simple, yet powerful: In primal matters of biology, of “being human,” we are all essentially the same. Still, that evident “sameness” is not exclusively biological. Instead, it carries over to humankind’s multiple and intersecting needs as communities, nations and planet.
Fittingly, pandemic can be approached not only as a pathological scourge but also as a prospective global unifier. In this regard, corona virus harms could become a genuine source of a fragmented world’s long-sought human unity.
How could this happen? It is a sensible query, one that merits serious and systematic attention. It’s not just a silly or offhanded thought. In reality, of course, it is utopian, but nonetheless necessary. What happens, we must now inquire, when what is improbable is also necessary? It’s not a question for the intellectually faint-hearted.
Where do we stand today? As a partial but important response, Donald J. Trump’s United States remains oriented toward the diametric opposite of global community, of solidarity, of what Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardon in The Phenomenon of Man (1955) imaginatively calls “planetization.” This president’s incessantly cynical postures of belligerent nationalism represent a gratuitously rancorous rejection of human commonality. This ill-fated rejection has no recognizable jurisprudential basis in either codified or customary international law.
Background matters. In 1758, in The Law of Nations, famed legal scholar Emmerich de Vattel affirmed the irrefutable primacy of human interdependence. Said the great Swiss jurist: “Nations….are bound mutually to advance human society….The first general law …is that each nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.” Vattel’s visionary ideals have never held any tangible sway in global politics, but today, in the grievously tarnished Trump-era, these ideals have been pushed farther away than ever before.
Why should one allegedly “powerful” country, the United States, seek prosperity at the expense of other countries? Left unmodified, the most palpable effect of this unprepared American president’s retrograde policies will be a more starkly accelerating global tribalism. To the extent that the corrosive effects of this false communion could sometime display or ignite even a nuclear conflict, these effects (whether sudden or incremental) could propel this imperiled planet toward irreversible catastrophe and enduring chaos.
A timely example would be Trump’s continuing references to the “China Virus,” a defiling derivative of this president’s “America First” posture. Among other things, a firm rejection of any such atavistic American tribalism could prove generally clarifying and indispensably gainful.
There is more. Ultimately, if we humans are going to merely survive as a species, truth must win out over political wizardry. For Americans, one unavoidable conclusion here is that any continuance of national safety and prosperity must be linked inextricably with wider global impact. It is profoundly and unforgivably foolish to suppose that this nation – or, indeed, any other nation on this bleeding earth – should ever expect meaningful security progress at the intentional expense of other nations.
The bottom line? We, humans, are all in this together. The current pandemic is universal or near-universal, and could thus provide impetus not only for mitigating a particular and insidious pathology, but also for institutionalizing wider patterns of durable global cooperation.
By its very nature, the US president’s core mantra of celebrating a perpetually belligerent nationalism is crude and injurious. Now, instead of “America First,” the only sensible posture for Donald J. Trump or his successor must be some plausible variation of “we’re all in the lifeboat together.” Such an improved mantra might not be all that difficult to operationalize if there were first to emerge some antecedent political will.
The basic idea behind underscoring and exploiting a basic human “oneness” is readily discoverable in the elegant words of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of everyone for himself,” summarizes the French Jesuit scientist and philosopher, “is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”
The key message here is simple, straightforward, and illogical to contest or oppose. This message communicates, among other things, that no single country’s individual success can ever be achieved at the planned expense of other countries. Correspondingly, we should learn from the very same primal message that no national success is ever sustainable if the world as a whole must thereby expect a diminishing future.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers: “I believe because it is absurd.” The pandemic can bring many discrepant civilizational matters into striking focus. No conceivably gainful configuration of Planet Earth can ever prove rewarding if the vast but segmented human legions which comprise it remain morally, spiritually, economically, and intellectually adrift.
It is, however, precisely such a willful detachment from more secure national and international moorings that is the legacy America’s Donald J. Trump.
In every important sense, the philosophers are correct. For the world as a whole, chaos and anarchy are never the genuinely underlying “disease.” Always, that more determinative pathology remains rooted in certain ostentatiously great and powerful states that fail to recognize the overriding imperatives of human interrelatedness. This core incapacity to acknowledge our species’ indestructible biological “oneness” (a fact more utterly obvious with today’s Covid-19 pandemic) has been a long-term problem.
It is not particular to any one American president or to the United States in its entirety.
Now, in the literal midst of a worldwide pathological assault from the coronavirus, what should we expect from President Trump’s unhidden contempt for cooperative world community? Increasingly, if left unimproved, world politics will further encourage an already basic human deficit. This deficit or shortfall is the incapacity of individual citizens and their respective states to discover authentic self-worth as individual persons; that is, deeply, thoughtfully, within themselves. Such an enduring deficit was prominently foreseen in the eighteenth century by America’s then-leading person of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Today, unsurprisingly, the still-vital insights of Emerson’s “American Transcendentalism” remain recognizable to only a tiny minority of citizens. How could it be any different? In the current United States, almost no one reads books. As for serious books of literature or science, the revealed minority of readers becomes excruciatingly small. This cryptic observation is not offered here in any offhanded or gratuitously mean spirited fashion, but, quite the contrary, as a simple fact of American life, one famously commented upon during the first third of the nineteenth century by distinguished French visitor to the new republic, Alexis de Tocqueville (See Democracy in America). This same fact led the Founding Fathers of the United States to rail against uneducated mass participation in the new nation’s formal governance.
The United States was never even imagined as a democracy. Back then, in the 18th century, creating a republic was revolutionary enough.
Today, our relevant focus must be on world politics, and on getting beyond state centrism. From pandemic control to war avoidance, belligerent nationalism has always been misconceived. Left to fester on its own intrinsic demerits, this atavistic mantra will do little more than harden the hearts of America’s most recalcitrant state enemies. What we need now, as Americans, citizens of other countries, or as worried inhabitants of an imperiled planet, is a marked broadening of support for global solidarity and human interconnectedness.
From the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the last of the religious wars sparked by the Reformation, international relations and international law have been shaped by an ever-changing but perpetually unstable “balance of power.” Hope still exists, more-or-less, but now it must sing softly, sotto voce, in an embarrassed undertone. Although counter-intuitive, the time for any visceral celebrations of nationalism, military technology and even artificial intelligence is at least partially over.
What is to be done? Always, the macrocosm follows microcosm. In order to merely survive on a fragmented planet, all of us, together, must seek to rediscover a consciously individual life, one that is wittingly detached from all pre-patterned kinds of nationalistic conformance and from mass-determined visages of some imagined tribal happiness.
Only then might we finally learn that the most suffocating insecurities of life on earth can never be undone by militarizing global economics, by building larger missiles, by abrogating international treaties, or by advancing ”realistic” definitions of national security.
In the end, whatever happens in the crumbling world of politics and nationality, truth must remain exculpatory. Accordingly, and in a uniquely promising paradox, disease pandemic can help us see a much larger truth than the ones we have wrongly cultivated for centuries. This particular truth, a conclusion broadly pertinent and intellectually cosmopolitan, is that Americans must become more explicitly conscious of human unity and relatedness. Significantly, such a heightened consciousness or lucidity is not a luxury we can simply choose to accept or reject.
Its selection is indispensable.
It represents an ineradicable prerequisite of national and species survival. “Civilization,” offers Lewis Mumford In the Name of Sanity (1954), “is the never-ending process of creating one world and one humanity.” The visionary prophets of world integration and human oneness ought no longer be dismissed out of hand as foolishly utopian. Now, more than ever, they define the residual wellsprings of human survival.
Macrocosm follows microcosm. All things must be seen in their totality. By itself, the coronavirus pandemic is uniformly harmful and grievously corrosive. At the same time, and precisely because it represents such a conspicuously lethal threat to the world as a whole, it could be viewed as a prospectively life-affirming human unifier.
“In the end,” Goethe reminds us, “we are creatures of our own making.” To continue, every national society, but the United States in particular, will need to embrace leaderships who can finally understand the irrevocable meanings of human interdependence and human “oneness.” In this auspicious embrace, all will need to understand the differences between a “freedom” that is uniformly gainful and one that selectively disregards the needs of certain others. In this regard, as President of the United States, Donald J. Trump has supported the most strikingly nefarious meaning of freedom, a freedom not to care about other people (Americans and “foreigners” ). He has displayed such injurious orientations primarily with his retrograde anti-mask policies on Corona Virus, and by his corresponding antipathies toward science and scientists.
In the words of this lethal president, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other properly-credentialed epidemiologists have now been reduced lexically to the status of “idiots.”
What we require are not refractory affirmations of homicidal indifference, but a renewed awareness that true knowledge is inevitably much more than a manufactured contrivance. Going forward, public policy must follow disciplined logic (correct reasoning) and rigorous science. Anything else would be inexcusable “wizardry,” and would lead us even farther astray from residual pandemic-based opportunities.
In essence, the prescribed task still before us is complex, daunting, many-sided, and bewildering, but there are no sane alternative options. None at all. Whatever policy particulars we should ultimately adopt, America’s initial focus must remain steadfast on considerations of human interrelatedness and “mind.” Until now, the grotesque Trump paradigm of bitter rancor and endless conflict has driven us further from both survival and law. It is time to sweep that ill-conceived paradigm into the oft-referenced “ashbin of history.”
Wittingly, Trump policies have produced devastating misfortune, mass dying, and mounting casualties. Surely America can do better. Surely there must be more capable and decent leaders discoverable in the wings. Surely we can all do much better than merely cling to corrosive presidential postures of callous indifference and murderous egocentrism.
If not, it’s time to inquire, what can even be the point of our being here? We are, after all, “creatures of our own making.”
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 Modern Diplomacy