In world politics and international law, a meaningful explanation must always begin with the lone human being, with the microcosm. This generalized individual, regardless of nationality, seeks to maximize one form of power above all others. Essentially, this sought-after ultimate power is power over death.
Moving on, there are considerable legal details for researchers to ponder. The cumulative individual hopes of rising “above mortality” can have critical consequences for the macrocosm, that is, for war, peace and human rights on planet Earth. In the 19th century, when it was posthumously published Policy Conference (1896), the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality. Earlier, the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel had opined Philosophy of law (1820) that the state represents “the walk of God in the world”.
Today, these links expressed earlier between Realpolitik or belligerent nationalism and any hoped-for immortality remain relevant to the application of international law. However, to truly understand these defining links, we must first understand “sovereignty”. Established by Jean Bodin as a legal concept in From Republica (1576), sovereignty quickly came to be regarded as the supreme human political power, absolute, and above all other recognizable forms of law.
In the oft-recited and often-studied words of Thomas Hobbes Leviathan: “Where there is no common power, there is no law.”
When understood in terms of modern international law, the doctrine of sovereignty promotes the refractory notion that states stand above and beyond legal regulation in their interactions with each other and act rationally every time they seek tangible benefits at the expense of other states. After the period of Trump’s highly visible disturbances, this primal doctrine began to threaten a general collapse of the global legal order. Today, with Vladimir Putin’s Nuremberg-level crimes against Ukraine, that order faces diverse and unprecedented perils. Even in the darkest days of the Nazi Holocaust, evildoers did not have access to nuclear weapon technologies.
There is more. Among others, Considered in itself, immortality remains an unworthy and unseemly human end, both because it is scientific nonsense (“An immortal is a contradiction in terms” says Emmanuel Lévinas) and because it promotes endlessly harmful human behavior such as war, terrorism and genocide. . The worthy task, then, is not to try to suppress individual human hope from soar above death (i.e., to achieve some sort of tangible immortality), but to “decouple” this futile and vainglorious pursuit from seriously destructive human behavior.
But how best to proceed with such a complex and confusing task? There are no science-based guidelines or answers here. Even if there were such availability, it is not just another ordinary problem that can yield to solutions based on rationality.
Not at all.
Aware of this dilemma, the philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote in Reason and anti-reason in our time (1952): “There is something in each of us which yearns not for reason, but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….” Always, and we understand this, the most seductive of these irrational whispers are those which propose to confer a power over death. But it is in the expressed criteria of such “selection” that ostensibly extensive evils must actually arise. This is because any promise of power over death requires the “sacrifice” of some despised “other”.
Lawbreakers like Vladimir Putin fail to emerge on the global legal scene Ex nihilo, From scratch. On the contrary, inconsistent, corrupt and murderous national leaders represent the inevitable outcome of a society that has long since devalued serious thought. When such a society no longer asks itself the “great philosophical questions” – for example, “what is the ‘good’ in government and law”? or “How can I lead a good life as a person and a citizen”? or “How can I best promote the well-being of other human beings”? – the hideous outcome may become inevitable.
What to assume now? It will take a long-delayed obligation to recognize the fundamental interdependence of all peoples and the binding universality of international law. To survive as a planet and as constituent mortal individuals, more people will have to become seriously well educated, not as well-trained cogs in a vast industrial machine, but as empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself”, warns Martin Heidegger in being and time (1932), but this elementary lesson, once detectable in a myriad of sacred texts, is no longer easily operationalized today. Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of such “operationalization” that the human legal order has most flagrantly failed.
“Is the end approaching”, asks Karl Jaspers in modern man (1951) “or a start.” The meaningful answer, which lies far beyond the measuring hands of clocks, is by no means obvious. Determining that answer is now a fundamental expectation of global political destiny.
Nothing could be more important.
Soon, as we have just seen, humanity will have to move firmly beyond the degrading banalities of geopolitics, beyond the distracting and potentially murderous “shadows” of what is important. Immutably, but also unseen, most human residents of planet Earth will continue to regard “power over death” as the highest form of power imaginable. Yet it will likely remain unclear how such ultimate power can be deliberately tied to the overthrow. Realpolitik-directed foreign policies.
There is more. To properly look beyond the Platonic “shadows,” humanity must discover that there are two other main animating forces in its legal-political realm. These forces concern Sense and Belonging. They represent other true images of the global legal order—additional images to immortality or “power over death”—that can confer tangible feelings of self-worth. Such images coalesce around activities that can confer pleasurable human emotions of “time well spent” and/or belonging to a group. The overriding problem is that these activities are not always benign and can include war, terrorism and genocide.
In his modern classical study, being and time (1953), Martin Heidegger laments what he calls (in German) das Mann, or “The They”. Fruitfully drawing on certain earlier founding ideas of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the omnipresence herd, crowd, horde or Mass, an “untruth” (the term favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) that can too quickly stifle intellectual growth. For Heidegger’s ubiquitous ‘They’, the crowning achievement of the human lie lies in the ‘collective’ acceptance of immortality at institutional and personal levels, and in the collective encouragement of the idea that power over death is sometimes derived (remember earlier Hegel and Treitschke) from membership in nation states.
History reveals, At first glance, that it can become an insidious notion.
Any reassuring notion about a potential for personal immortality itself depends on the alleged “sacredness”. Here, only membership in a presumed “sacred” group can serve to confer eternal life. In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler points out that the ultimate form of power in world politics is power over death. In his own terminology, such power – long associated with warlike international relations – is essential to conquering “metaphysical fear”. Although it may not be obvious, what we see daily in Russia’s barbaric war against Ukraine is at least partly an epiphenomenon; that is, a mere reflection of more primal fears, hopes, and expectations.
Although unknown even to himself, Vladimir Putin could see in Russia’s deliberate destruction of Ukraine the “realization of his earthly immortality”. Before Ukraine can be rescued from the Russian leader’s penchant for genocide and genocide-like crimes, scholars and policymakers will therefore need a deeper conceptual understanding of all the deadly intersections involved. These disconcerting connections represent variously complex fusions of mass murder and belligerent nationalism.
Ultimately, the flagrant crimes of Vladimir Putin against Ukraine (war crimes, crimes against peaceand crimes against humanity) must be understood and explained at difficult levels of jurisprudence. It will not suffice to discuss them in expressly legal terms. Before the world simply throws up its hands in despair at what is happening in the 21st century, scholars and jurists will have to look deeper. behind the news.
Louis René Beres studied at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles dealing with international relations and international law. Some of his publications have appeared in The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Atlantic; US News and World Report; The national interest; e-Global (University of California, Santa Barbara); Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Israeli Journal of Foreign Affairs; The New York Times; The Hudson Review; American Journal of Political Science; American Journal of International Law; LAWYER; Bulletin of Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Air and Space Operations Review (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); Institute of Modern Warfare (West Point); Defense of Israel (Tel-Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); INSS (Tel Aviv); Horasis (Zurich); Annual Oxford Jurisprudence Yearbook; and Oxford University Press. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.
Suggested quote: Louis René Beres, Poutine’s Nuremberg-Level Crimes: A Deeper Look Behind the News, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 3, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/05/louis-rene-beres-putins – crimes-in-nuremberg/.
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