Thursday, September 3, 2015
Foreign Policy or Mythology?
We hear it all the time: the evil empire, the axis of evil, the big Satan, the little Satan. How many times have we heard and read that Iran is the most evil regime in the history of humanity. Where does all this “evil/satan” language come from? What I would suggest is that this is age-old and deeply ingrained mythic language, which is designed mainly to instill fear, but which truly has no role to play in a rational foreign policy.
Several days ago, former member of Congress and current distinguished scholar at Indian University Lee Hamilton wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “A Case of Diplomacy.” As one might expect, it was written in support of the nuclear deal worked out by the P5+1 with Iran. In the piece, Hamilton contrasted the words from President Kennedy’s inaugural speech, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate,” with the words, “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it,” which Hamilton attributes to former Vice-President Dick Cheney, a stanch opponent of the Iran deal (surprise, surprise).
It’s striking that this word “evil” keeps popping up in foreign affairs. In a 1983 speech, Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” Coming six years after the release of the movie “Star Wars,” a name that was also attached to Reagan’s anti-ballistic missile proposal, it’s no wonder that the president could arouse people sense of fear with images of Darth Vader attacking from the east. Not to be outdone, George W. Bush, seeking to advance his wish to invade Iraq in 2002-03, referred to the combination of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as “the axis of evil,” and we mustn’t forget that, turn about being fair play, the Iranians refer to us as “the Great Satan,” while our little brother Israel is called—you guessed it—“the Little Satan. So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, what’s with all this evil/Satan stuff?
In his 1988 work Creation and the Persistence of Evil, Harvard theologian Jon Levenson reminds us of a biblical worldview which understands that at the beginning of time, God created an ordered cosmos out of the chaotic primordial waters, a theme well attested elsewhere in the Bible and in much of world mythology. The story in Genesis goes on, of course, to describe the divine role in creating world order by means of the appointment of the people of Israel as God’s covenant community, which will then become the recipient of the ultimate emblem of the divinely ordered world, the Torah.
What Levenson points out, however, is that this divinely established cosmic and world order is never permanent. The struggle to contain those chaotic waters never ends. Chaos and its moral counterpart, evil, are continuously threatening. One of the best examples of this is Psalm 74. It’s quite clear that the psalm begins with a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It then goes on to glorify God’s primordial deeds.
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.
This passage is reminiscent of the several iterations in the Bible and in the mythology of the ancient Near East depicting a storm god defeating a chaotic sea dragon in order to create cosmic and world order. It is a well-known mythic theme in the ancient world best exemplified by the extensive Babylonian poem known as Enuma Elish. What Levenson points out is that this biblical poet understands the Babylonian onslaught not simply as a military defeat, but as a sort of return to a primordial, chaotic, evil condition, and calls upon the God of Israel to restore cosmic and world order.
The sea dragon returns in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature of the Greco-Roman period. In Daniel 7, the beast that emerges from the sea is a mythologized reference to the persecution of the Jews of Judea by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It is this persecution that sparked the rebellion by the Hasmonean family led by Judah Maccabee, which then forms the historical background to the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. The dragon emerges from the sea once again in Revelation wreaking a havoc that has its historical background in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Domitian. These historical events—the defeat of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians, the persecutions undertaken by Antiochus and Domitian—are, for these biblical writers, far more than simply military, political defeats. They are threats to the people of God and therefore they are, in effect, challenges to a divinely ordained cosmic and world order. They represent the epitome of chaos and evil.
This tendency to understand historical processes in terms of chaos versus order, good versus evil is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. In 1845, the journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny” to justify American territorial expansionism in terms of divine providence. In 1900, Senator Albert T. Beveridge of Indiana, defending the concept of Manifest Destiny, rose on the Senate floor and declared
“God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns... He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples… The superiority of the "white race" is the foundation on which the Anti-Indian Movement organizers and right-wing helpers rest their efforts to dismember Indian tribes.”
In other words, the “efforts to dismember Indian tribes” was not simply a military and political endeavor. It was part of the destiny of “English-speaking and Teutonic people… to establish system where chaos reigns.”
In his classic work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, the eminent sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that an essential element of religion is the bifurcation of reality into the realms of the sacred and the profane. The eminent anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss expanded on the notion of binarism in the religious life. The religious mind makes a sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane, good and evil, order and chaos, nature and culture, the cooked and the raw, the edible and the inedible.
In fact, these binarisms may be related to what the eminent psychologist Karl Jung called “archtypes,” patterns of reality that our collective unconscious receives from our primitive ancestors. In fact these binary archetypes are useful to us in terms of how we come to understand reality. Having these binary distinctions revealed to us in this absolute manner provides us with a valuable epistemological tool, a way to come to understand the world. By demonstrating absolute good and absolute evil, absolute chaos and absolute order, these paradigms help us identify good and evil, order and chaos.
The problem is that these binary patterns are symbols of reality; they are not reality itself. There really is no “Evil Empire” outside of Hollywood. Ronald Reagan negotiated several arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Remember “trust but verify”? Despite his rhetoric, Reagan was able to separate myth from reality, and thereby make the world a bit safer from nuclear holocaust.
If we want to continue to make the world more safe, secure, peaceful and prosperous, we have to move away from mythic binarism—depicting our opponents as the embodiment of pure evil, expressed mainly to instill fear—and pursue foreign policy based on a realpolitik, i.e., a rational foreign policy based on realistic, actual needs and interests in a world full of overlapping and conflicting needs and interests.