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.
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?
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.
Every sham may have a patina. Our obvious species progresses in technical and scientific realms still has no discernible counterpart in cooperative human relations. Yes, we can certainly manufacture advanced jet aircraft, send astronauts into space, and even communicate by "Twitter" or "tweet" (whatever that means), but before we are allowed to board commercial airline flights, we must first take off our shoes. The plan is not to enhance our personal comfort, but only to ensure that we don't blow up the plane.
What kind of self-defiling habitat have we erected here on earth? This is a reasonable and plainly urgent question. How have we managed, in such perversely steady increments of willful disregard, to so blithely scandalize our own creation? Why do world politics continue to bear the grotesquely injurious stigmata of our most egregious individual failings?
Much as we like to cast ourselves as a "higher" species, the veneer of human society remains razor thin. Although largely inured to civilizational horror, we must still witness matter-of-fact accounts of child soldier atrocities, rampant slavery, proliferating terrorism, human trafficking, rape camps, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Somehow, although suitably conversant with statistics and science, entire nations still manage to glance smugly over mountains of freshly eviscerated corpses, and to declare, unashamedly, "Life is good."
Mass societies, the voracious product of our all-consuming human desperation to belong and to fit in, greedily suck out the marrow of human wisdom, reverence, and (above all) compassion. In the Islamic Middle East, true Jihadi power now has little to do with land or territory or armies. Here, instead, the most sought after form of power is power over death.
For the Jihadists, as we should be learning from the anthropologists, terrorism is only superficially about politics or ideology. At its heart, it is rather the newest and most efficient form of human sacrifice, a convenient path to both personal belonging and life everlasting. What could be better?
Until this vastly underestimated calculation is finally understood in Washington, all of our current and future American wars will remain beside the point. Indeed, if this indispensable insight had been understood earlier, few if any American lives or treasure would have been wasted in Iraq or Afghanistan. And if this insight is not understood soon, we will likely suffer similar losses in such presently expanding war zones as Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia.
Hope exists, to be sure, but it must sing softly, so as not to become a source of frustration. The "blood-dimmed tide" creates a deathly pollution, but it is still possible to search for transient signs of grace and purity. We must all learn to pay rapt attention to our personal feelings of empathy, anxiety, restlessness, and desperation. While they may remain unrecognized as causal elements of a wider world politics, these intimate and innately human feelings are actually determinative for all international relations.
Oddly enough, even at presidential election time, we Americans still don't really understand that life must ultimately be about the individual. In essence, the time for "modernization," "globalization," "artificial intelligence," and "new information methodologies" is already over. To survive together, cooperating residents of this endangered planet must finally learn to discover an authentic human existence, one that is detached from concocted and corrosive tribal distinctions. Here, too, we require detachment from a suffocating ethos of banal conformance, shallow optimism, and an always conspicuously contrived happiness.
Lesson No. 3. It is only in the vital expression of an awakened human spirit that we can ever learn to recognize what is most important: that is, that agony is more predictive than astronomy, that cries of despair are more urgent than the disembodied powers of technology, and that our solitary tears have far greater social significance than assorted Facebook ramblings.
"The man who laughs," warned the poet Bertolt Brecht, "has simply not yet heard the horrible news."
The enduring barbarisms of life on earth can never be undone by improving global economies, building larger missiles, fashioning new international treaties, spreading democracy, or even by supporting periodic "democratic" revolutions. Inevitably, we intertwined humans still lack a tolerable future not because we have been too slow to learn, but because we have failed to learn what is important.
To improve our survival odds, to better avoid our recurring global misfortunes, we must finally learn to look behind the news. In so doing, we could productively acknowledge that the vital root explanations for war, riots, revolution, despotism, terrorism, and genocide are not primarily discoverable in readily recognizable political institutions or ideologies. Instead, we would be instructed, these explanations lie more or less hidden, dormant but still latent, in the ineradicably timeless needs of individuals.
For both President Obama and former Governor Romney, this is a trio of survival lessons genuinely worth learning.
- Read Peter Roff: Romney Video Distracts From Obama's Libya Crisis
- Read Robert Schlesinger: Romney's Foreign Policy Would Play Into the Terrorists' Hands
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.