The Pandemic As Opportunity
“The visionary is the only realist.”
Federico Fellini, Italian film director
Normally, pandemic disease, like war and terror, is very different from “opportunity.” Nonetheless, there are occasions when wisdom is counter-intuitive and progress becomes a paradox. This is one of these rare and potentially gainful occasions.
At one level, the explanations are not hidden or mysterious. In essence, the world exists as an organic whole, a coherent unity, and anything that would intentionally seek to impair this coherence is ipso facto irrational and misconceived. It follows that centuries of belligerent nationalism and zero-sum thinking in world politics ought finally be rejected.
But the challenging task can be managed only if the almost 200 states on planet earth can first identify a common enemy, one that could provide the mobilizing ethos for more consciously cooperative systems of international relations.
When I was a child in New York City attending popular movies in the 1950s, the on-screen enemy was always a giant ant, spider, lizard, or ape (horror movies) or (adventure movies) “Martians.” After a time, in these narratives, Russian (Soviet) and American armies would band together bravely (and more-or-less capably) against the common foe. The problem, of course, is that this scenario was entirely fictional, and that we ought not be placing our still-emerging “world order” hopes on monsters or extra-terrestrial invasions.
Biological or microbial attacks, a plague of pandemic disease, is another matter altogether. Accordingly, the ongoing global assault from corona virus is authentically ubiquitous, and not subject to any political prophecies of “magical disappearance.” This suggests that absolutely every nation in world politics is subject to manifestly severe pathology-based harms, and that worldwide cooperation against this common enemy – now no longer a fictive contrivance – is desperately needed.
While such cooperation would focus initially on disease mitigation (a plainly meritorious focus unto itself), it could quickly morph into certain more comprehensive and generalized forms of worldwide harmony. This suggestion is not a novel sort of theory or paradigm; back in the mid-20th century, it even had a name. It was expressly called “functionalism.”
Why not resurrect such reassuringly positive thinking, and thereby seek to transform global suffering and personal pain to expanding opportunity and human revitalization?
There is more. An unhidden potential for good lies latent in this oft-politicized pandemic. Exploiting the vast pathogenic challenge of corona virus could help all affected peoples to reaffirm something that is both obvious and indispensable. This is their integral and perpetual human interdependence.
Beyond any question, an unwanted and unwitting disease “benefactor” is now confronting humankind in toto. Reciprocally, humankind should respond as “one,” with a calculated and augmented view that such a common response to this peril might be replicated vis-à-vis other grievous perils.
Irrefutably, the Corona19 pandemic is delivering its furiously toxic and corrosive debilities without any regard for national, racial, ethnic, religious or ideological differences. The most basic lesson here is simple, yet powerful: In the manifestly primal matters of biology, matters of “being human,” we are all fundamentally the same. This overlooked “sameness” is not exclusively biological. It “carries over” to humankind’s other multiple and intersecting needs as communities, nations and as a planet.
In these matters, metaphor can sometimes be clarifying. 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 principal animating source of human unity.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”
How exactly could this happen; how might we take the “lemons” of Covid19 and make “lemonade?” It is a sensible query, one that merits serious attention. It’s not just a silly or offhanded thought, but rather the product of suitably dialectical reasoning.
Potentially, it is visionary.
Where do we stand today on belligerent national competition and world order reform? As a partial but important response, the United States remains actively directed toward the diametric opposite of global community and solidarity, of what Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man (1955) imaginatively calls “planetization.” The present American president’s determined postures of military bravado offer an explicit rejection of absolutely any human commonality.
Moreover, this ill-fated rejection has no recognizable jurisprudential basis, whether in codified or customary international law.
Already, in The Law of Nations (1758), the legal scholar Emmerich de Vattel affirmed the 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 tangible sway in global politics, but today, in the rapidly dissembling 21st century, they have been pushed farther away than ever before.
Why should one allegedly “powerful” country, the United States, continually seek prosperity at the sacrificial expense of other countries? Why, even more than before, should Americans prefer endlessly “parasitic” to “symbiotic” international relationships? Why, again and again, should a major state opt for the blatantly wrong metaphor?
Left unmodified, the most palpable effect of this country’s retrograde foreign policies will be a more starkly accelerating global tribalism . To the extent that the corrosive effects of this false communion could sometime display or even ignite a nuclear conflict, these effects (whether sudden or incremental) could propel this imperiled planet toward even further catastrophe and a riveting chaos.
A timely example would be the current American leader’s continuing references to the “China Virus,” a conspicuous derivative of his “America First” posture. Among other things, a firm rejection of such atavistic American tribalism could prove nationally and generally gainful.
Ultimately, if we humans are going to merely survive as a species, truth must win out decisively over assorted political deformations of language. For Americans, an unavoidable conclusion is that any continuance of national safety and prosperity must be linked inextricably with its wider global impact. It is profoundly and unforgivably foolish to suppose that this nation – or, indeed, any other nation on planet earth – should ever expect meaningful security progress at the intentional expense of other nations.
The bottom line? We humans are all in this difficulty together. Among other things, the current pandemic is universal or near-universal, and could provide impetus not only for mitigating a particularly insidious pathology, but also for institutionalizing far wider patterns of durable global cooperation.
There is more. By its very nature, a US president’s core mantra of celebrating perpetually belligerent nationalism is deflecting and injurious. Now, instead of “America First,” the only sensible posture for Donald J. Trump or his successor should 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 some antecedent political will. Nor would it need to be unenduringly or bewilderingly complex.
The basic idea is readily discoverable in the prescient 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,” summarized 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. This overriding message communicates that no single country’s individual success can be planned at the expense of other countries. Correspondingly, we should learn from the very same primal message that no national success is sustainable if the world as a whole must thereby expect a steadily diminishing future.
The pandemic can bring many 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 being fostered by America’s current president.
Earlier, observed William Butler Yeats, in what already represented a broadly metaphorical indictment of what could still be expected, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.” But just as it appeared then for the reasoning Irish poet, today’s expanding global chaos is primarily a symptom. It is what professional philosophers would prefer to identify as “epiphenomenal.”
In every important sense, the lovers of wisdom would be 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 persistently fail to recognize the core imperatives of human interrelatedness. This stubborn incapacity to acknowledge our species’ indestructible biological “oneness” (a core commonality amid today’s Covid-19 pandemic) has remained a long-term problem. Significantly, it is not in any way particular to one specific American president or even to the United States in its entirety.
Now, literally in the midst of a worldwide pathological assault from the corona virus, we must inquire candidly: What should we expect from an American President’s unhidden contempt for cooperative world community? Increasingly, if it is left unimproved, world politics will further encourage an already basic human deficit. This deficit or shortfall is the worrisome incapacity of individual citizens to discover enviable self-worth as individual persons; that is, deeply within themselves.
Such an enduring deficit had already been foreseen in the eighteenth century by America’s then-leading person of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, we may recall, wanted his fellow Americans to practice “plain living and high thinking.” It hasn’t exactly worked out this way.
Today, unsurprisingly, still-vital insights of American Transcendentalism remain recognizable only to a tiny minority of citizens. How could it be different. In the United States, almost no one reads any books. As for serious books of literature, history, art or science, this revealed minority becomes excruciatingly small.
Such a cryptic observation is not offered here in any offhanded or gratuitously mean spirited fashion, but merely as a lamentable fact of observable American life, one famously commented upon during the first third of the nineteenth century by a distinguished French visitor to the new republic. In his classic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville already recognized what western philosophers would later call a docile “herd” (Nietzsche); “crowd” (Kierkegaard); “horde” (Freud); or “mass” (Jung).This same fact led the Founding Fathers of the United States to rail against any uneducated mass participation in the new nation’s governance.
The United States was never conceived or imagined as a democracy.
In the graphic terminology of Alexander Hamilton, “The people, sir, are a great beast.”
Let us return to world politics. From pandemic control to war avoidance, belligerent nationalism has always been sorely mistaken and misconceived. Today, left to fester on its own intrinsic demerits, this atavistic mantra will only harden the hearts of America’s most recalcitrant enemies, reciprocate their crude intentions and replicate further across the globe in the precise fashion of a potentially terminal virus.
What we all need now, instead, whether as Americans or as reasoning citizens of other countries, is a stark broadening of visible support for global solidarity and human interconnectedness.
Nothing could possibly be more important.
The pertinent impulses could prove enduring and pacifying.
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 inherently unstable “balance of power.” To be sure, hope still exists, more-or-less, but now it must sing softly, sotto voce, in an embarrassed undertone, and with marked circumspection. Although sometimes hard to decipher, the time for more visceral celebrations of nationalism, military technology and even artificial intelligence is at least partially over.
It may seem nice to travel in automobiles that can drive themselves, but to what palpable benefits if the planet in toto should remain a cauldron of inequality and slaughter? Does it really make any sense to spend scarce national wealth on futile war programs called “Space Force” when the nation is fully exploding with poverty, crime and an all-pervasive collective unhappiness?
What is to be done? Always, the macrocosm follows microcosm. In order to merely survive on a fragmented planet, all of us, together, must finally seek to rediscover a dignified individual life, one wittingly detached from all pre-patterned forms of nationalistic conformance and contrived visages of some once foolishly-imagined “tribal” happiness.
Only then could we learn that the most suffocating insecurities of life on earth can never be undone by militarizing global economics, by building larger and larger missiles, by abrogating necessary international treaties or advancing brutally competitive definitions of national security. Only then could we truly understand just why the visionary is the only realist.
In the end, whatever happens in the crumbling world of day-to-day politics, truth must remain exculpatory. Accordingly, and in a promising paradox, disease pandemic can help us see a much larger truth than endless international belligerence and conflict. This particular truth, broadly and intellectually cosmopolitan, is that Americans and others must become more determinedly conscious of human unity and relatedness.
Such a heightened consciousness , a true awareness, is not a luxury we can plausibly choose to accept or reject. It is, rather, an irresistible obligation, an existential lucidity, a liberating prise de conscience. It is today an utterly ineradicable prerequisite of both national and species survival.
However ironic or counter-intuitive, the common global enemy of worldwide disease pandemic could become the starting point for necessary human beginnings on other fronts. For all of us, the pertinent human vision must stem from a comprehensive yet decidedly simple mantra: Out of many, one.
For Americans, though at a less encompassing level of inclusion, this is already a familiar mantra. Formalized on the great seal of the United States, the words tie us all together plainly on planet earth: E pluribus unum. These are very good words for the future.
Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, At Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he studied German literature and German philosophy along with nuclear strategy, international law and classical jurisprudence.