How Obama or Romney Must Deal With World Politics as President

Here is a thoughtful plan to avoid our global misfortunes.

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Louis René Beres is a professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II, he is the author of many major books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy.

Whether President Barack Obama or former Gov. Mitt Romney wins in November, the victor will finally have to look behind the news. Examining recent riots and related violence in the Middle East and North Africa, here are some core lessons that he will need to learn.

Lesson No. 1. When negotiating the treacherous landscapes of world politics, generality always trumps particulars. In any science of policy, foreign or domestic, generality-based knowledge represents the irreducible core of serious meanings.

To gather attention, current news focuses on tantalizing specifics, e.g., Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Israel, Russia, North Korea, Pakistan, etc. But what ultimately matters most is something far more complex. It is the capacity for systematic identification of recurring policy issues and problems.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

Detailed facts concerning war, revolution, riots, despotism, terrorism, and genocide are more captivating than seemingly abstract theories, but the point of locating specific facts must ultimately be a tangible improvement. In turn, any such civilizational betterment must itself be contingent on much deeper forms of awareness.

What, exactly, are these forms? Above all, they concern discoverable regularities. Only by exploring individual cases in world politics as parts of a larger class of cases, can our leaders hope to learn something usefully predictive. Although counterintuitive, it is only by deliberately seeking more general explanations that we can ever hope to "fix" the imperiled world.

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed," lamented the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, and "everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned." Today's global harms and instabilities, whether still simmering, or already explosive, are best understood as a singular symptom of general fragility. It is not helpful to our leaders for them to be regarded as isolated or somehow unique problems.

What are the basic contours of such an unrelenting general fragility?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

One critically important answer concerns the seemingly irremediable incapacity of human beings to find meaning and identity within themselves. In world politics, it is something other than one's own Self that is usually held sacred. As a result, our species remains stubbornly determined to demarcate preferentially between "us" and "them," and to sustain a rigidly segmented tribal universe. This overriding point could not possibly be made more painfully obvious than in the recent "video riots" and associated Islamist killings across the Middle East and North Africa.

Lesson No. 2. In such a fractionated universe, nonmembers are always treated as subordinate and inferior. This fatal treatment, whose logical end point is inevitably "tribal" extermination, had already been recognized by Kierkegaard, Stirner (Max Stirner's The Ego and its Own was the intellectual starting point for Ayn Rand), Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung. Stunningly, it is a lethal inclination that was essentially responsible for both world wars, and for the Holocaust. Need anyone say more about its importance?

From the beginning, from the moment that our primal species first swerved enthusiastically toward the bruising darkness, world affairs have been driven by some form or other of tribal conflict. Without a clear and persisting sense of an outsider, of an enemy, of a suitable "other," we must surmise whole societies would have felt lost in the world. Drawing their self-worth from membership in the state or the faith or the race, from what Freud, following Nietzsche's "herd," had called the "horde," such dehumanized humans could never have hoped to satisfy the requirements of world peace.