Reimagining World Politics: The Longer View of an American "Victory"
Louis René Beres
"Everyone knows that the world-situation in which we live is not a final one."
-- Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age (1951)
At first glance, the main argument here may appear counter-intuitive. It suggests that the United States should become less concerned about achieving any future military victories than optimizing its overall national security. Such a sensible argument would already have appeared orthodox to Carl von Clausewitz. After all, this foundational military strategist's On War assessed every international conflict from the irreducible standpoint of maximizing a determinative "political object."
But this now classic view has never been popular with ordinary American citizens or their presidents.
Accordingly, does anyone care to remember a not-so-distant Asian conflict in a place called Vietnam?
On such core US security matters, there has been no palpable learning from illustrative lessons of the past. Today especially, in the rancorous and expansively incoherent Trump Era, politicians on all sides generally presume that this nation must always seek some sort or other of military "victory." Still, as history makes abundantly clear, every calculable victory, even if tangibly impressive, can offer us little more than a temporary reprieve from interminable global hostilities.
Going forward on such a time-dishonored course, the best we can ever expect must be a more-or-less reassuring "holding action," a short-termed respite that could obtain only until the next inevitable conflict.
Accordingly, it is time for more patently useful American visions of world politics and national security. In the final analysis, what is most desperately needed is not just another technically updated operational warfare plan or a more nuanced "order of battle,"[i] but a markedly lucid vision for reimagining international relations.
Naturally, this goal presents a very tall order. On its face, or prima facie, any such ambitious expectation will initially appear futile. Viscerally, at least, any hubris-laced talk of "victory" by a sitting American president would seem to be more reasonable and more satisfying. Indeed, any sage advice that might actually go beyond the traditional considerations of strategy and tactics would be promptly rejected as "unrealistic." In short, any such challenging advice can expect to be dismissed as "utopian."
Nonetheless, it would be sound advice. There remain certain conspicuous domains of human concern in which a stubborn American commitment to "realism" must actually represent the naivest national security posture of all. Unquestionably, this is exactly one of these critical domains.
Warned famed Italian film director, Federico Fellini, though not speaking about world politics in particular, "The visionary is the only realist."
Ordinarily, while the filmmaker is not a legitimate source of insight into global politics or war outcomes, truth always remains "exculpatory." Apropos of this most rudimentary understanding, Realpolitik or geopolitics has never "succeeded" in keeping the peace for more than distressingly brief historical intervals. In the future, moreover, though defensive first strikes might still be launched against certain prospective aggressors,[ii] systemic failures could involve assorted weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
In these plausibly foreseeable cases, any specific failures of power politics could prove not "only" catastrophic, but unprecedented. Adopting the more precise language of logic and scientific method, these failures would be sui generis or unique. What if we should then suddenly or incrementally find ourselves in extremis atomicum? Applying properly mathematical terms, there could be no accurate way to ascertain the true probability of any conceivable follow-on catastrophes.
This is because "true probabilities" must depend upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events.
And by irremediable definition, there could be no such "pertinent past events."
Thankfully, none at all.
There is more. A determinedly zero-sum national orientation to world politics has become so darkly unpromising and competitive that the planet already previews a recognizable and incipient chaos. In the shadowy years ahead, only one thing remains reasonably certain about world politics. It is that the longstanding Hobbesian universe of relentless war (the international "state of nature") can never be sustained.[iii]
Soon, all states, but especially those that rely implicitly or explicitly upon some form or other of nuclear deterrence, must begin to think more self-consciously about creating alternative systems of world politics. While even the tiniest hint of interest in global unification or integration (or what French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls "planetization") will sound unacceptably contrived to "realists," such sentiments would be much more realistic than seeking to continue on the world system's "collision course."[iv] Expressed more succinctly as a theoretic "axiom" from which various operational hypotheses might subsequently be deduced, the appropriate "major premise" must be as follows:
The still-prevailing "every man for himself" ethos in world politics is time-dishonored and destined to fail.[v]
Again, and again - and at some point, perhaps irretrievably - world systemic failures could become intolerable. Here, it will not be enough for leaders and strategists to merely tinker at the jagged edges of some ultimately presumptive national "victory." Then (it will finally be revealed) there will have been no good reason for forging endless ad hoc agreements between recalcitrant states, or between these states and various surrogate sub-state organizations (i.e., "hybrid" actors).
Once again, the playwright may be more helpful to strategists than the diplomat or soldier: "What is the good," inquires Samuel Beckett in Endgame, "of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?" Could any query possibly be more sensible or well-founded?
There can be only one purposeful and correct reply. In the longer term, any longer term, the only sort of realism that can make any real sense, the only sort of Beckettian "good" for the United States, will be a stance that points toward a "higher" awareness of global oneness and world system interdependence.
A much higher level of awareness.
And the less hesitant such an indispensable stance, the better.
In its most fully optimized expressions, any such potentially promising awareness would coalesce around what the ancients had originally called "cosmopolis," or world city. Of course, the lucid and willing prophets of any more integrated and harmonious world civilization must remain few and far between. This obstructive "inertia" is not on account of some intrinsic lack of need for intellectual "prophecy." Instead, it reflects a progressively imperiled species' nearsighted unwillingness to finally take itself seriously. Now is the moment to more fully recognize the following: The only sort of common loyalty that can meaningfully rescue states must embrace a wider species commitment to all humankind.
At its heart, this is not really such a complicated or bewildering idea. It is hardly a medical or biological secret that those basic factors and behaviors most common to all human beings greatly outnumber those superficial traits that continue to differentiate one species segment from another. Unless the leaders of major states on Planet Earth can finally understand that the survival of any one state will inevitably be contingent upon the survival of all, true national security will continue to elude absolutely every nation.
This consequential failure would include the "most powerful" states, even the US and Russian superpowers now very plainly caught up in "Cold War II."
Always, global reform must derive from serious thought, not endlessly elusive "victories." Still, one truth in the study of world politics remains far from receiving even some presumptive recognition. This central truth is the irrefutable understanding that our planet represents an indissoluble or organic whole, a fragile but intersectional "unity" that exhibits irrevocably lost opportunities for both human justice and global peace.[vi]
To seize any still-residual opportunities (our only rational option), "visionaries" throughout the world must learn to build upon the foundational insights of Francis Bacon, Galileo and Isaac Newton,[vii] and correspondingly on the more recent observation of seminal thinker Lewis Mumford: "Civilization is the never ending process of creating one world and one humanity."[viii] Today, nothing could be more to the point.
In the short term, US military strikes against Iran or some other adversary of the moment might still represent a reasonable and cost-effective instance of law-enforcement (both international and domestic) in our anarchic world system. But in the longer term, which is indisputably most important, such vigilante or "self-help" remedies will need to be supplanted by something far more enduring than episodic threats or predictably ritualistic reprisals. While no one has yet figured out just how to bring about such required transformations, it is also obvious that proceeding along a fiendishly corrosive course of interstate rivalries can never succeed. "Staying the Realpolitik course," our American leaders must finally understand, can produce only an unceasing maelstrom of reciprocal deceptions and periodic human annihilations.
If history is any guide, this latter consequence could include not "only" war, but also genocide.
Already, the basic US imperative to seek goals beyond temporary or delusional "victories" is unmistakable. Soon, though seemingly fanciful or improbable, we will need to think more systematically and courageously about creating alternative world futures.[ix] Once suitably informed by capable scholars who have finally been freed from the desolate clairvoyance of a so-called geopolitical "realism," there might still be enough time for an eleventh-hour national and global rescue.
In any event, for the American president and his counselors, there could be no more compelling security obligation.
None at all.
[i] This kind of "codification" should also cause us to recall Clausewitz's famous concept of "friction," or "the difference between war on paper and war as it actually is" (On War). Presently, US strategic planning focus is most evidently upon North Korea, China, Russia and Iran.
[ii] Under authoritative international law, such strikes (when permissible) could be characterized as "anticipatory self-defense."
[iii] Drawn from the name of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. Interestingly, Leviathan was a literal philosophical foundation for the American Founding Fathers back in 1776. In crafting the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson was intimately familiar with Hobbesian analysis. In those days, an American president (or at least a future American president) could still read and write meaningfully.
[iv] The historic origins of our decentralized "state of nature" in world politics lie in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty-Years' War and ushered in the bitterly belligerent "balance of power" state system.
[v] In the words of the great Jesuit scientist and philosopher, writing in his The Phenomenon of Man: "The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself' is false and against nature. No element could move and grow except with and by all the others with itself."
[vi] Because war and genocide are not mutually exclusive, either strategically or jurisprudentially, taking proper systemic steps toward war avoidance would plausibly also reduce the likelihood of various "crimes against humanity."
[vii] Regarding science in such matters, Niccolo Machiavelli had joined Aristotle's plan for a more scientific study of politics generally with various core assumptions about geopolitics or Realpolitik. His best known conclusion, in this particular suggestion, focuses on the eternally stark dilemma of practicing goodness in a world that is more generally evil. "A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything, must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good." See: The Prince, Chapter XV. Although this argument is largely unassailable, there is also a corresponding need to disavow "naive realism," and to recognize that, in the longer term, the only plausible outcome of "eye for an eye" mantras in world politics will be universal blindness.
[viii] As an essential bulwark of such a civilization, international law - which is an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics - already assumes a reciprocally common general obligation to supply benefits to one another. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a "peremptory" or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not even subject to question. It can be found already in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).
[ix] In this regard, see earlier efforts, by this author: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres and Harry R. Targ, Reordering the Planet: Constructing Alternative World Futures (1974); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975); and Louis René Beres and Harry R. Targ, Planning Alternative World Futures;: Values, Methods and Models (1975).