If you look up the meaning of the term “reactionary,” you will probably get something like the following: “A reactionary is a person who holds political views that favor a return to the status quo ante, the previous political state of society, which they believe possessed characteristics that are … absent from the contemporary status quo of a society.”
Historically, this sort of person pops up over and again: the agents of monarchy fighting to reimpose the divine right of kings, the devotee of religious movements seeking to return society to some purer golden age, the leader of the social movement seeking to censor evolution, and, more to our present point, Donald Trump’s call to “make America Great Again” by reintroducing racism and ultra-nationalism as guides for public policy.
As the last example suggests, it is usually bad news when the reactionary gains power.
One aspect of the status quo ante we are dealing with here is represented by the Trump administration’s assertion that, as the leader of the government of a sovereign state, he has the right to act in an unrestrained manner.
For President Trump, such an alleged right is a sine qua non for “making America great again.” This assertion is, of course, not unique to Trump. Most U.S. presidents (and other leaders) have sought to act in an unrestrained way.
But most have also given at least lip-service to a set of international rules—even if they are only of a diplomatic nature.
Not so with Trump, who seems willing to dismantle treaties, alliances and trade pacts based on personal feelings. His only enduring alliance is with Israel, perhaps based on mutual racist inclinations. Present (that is, status quo) institutions that attempt to impose international rules of behavior are targets for Trump and his reactionary allies.
To Trump, these institutions must be done away with just because they stand in the way of the nation’s alleged traditional unfettered right to act as, in this case, President Trump sees fit. Specifically, which institutions are we referring to? They are the relatively weak international institutions that came into being after World War II, such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court (ICC).
These are organizations put into place to discourage the type of state-bred chaos and crimes that almost destroyed civilization in the 1930s and 1940s. Therefore, there is no doubt that this effort is central to the world’s future peace and progress. As George Santayana famously noted, “those who forget the the past are condemned to repeat it.” The same goes for those who simply ignore the past’s lessons
The ICC, which was established by a multilateral treaty known as the Rome Statute, has been functioning since 2002. It seeks to prosecute, among other things, any repeat of two horrid past mistakes: the commission of war crimes and the practice of apartheid.
Recently, the ICC has sought to officially investigate possible U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan as well as Israeli policies and actions against Gaza and on the occupied West Bank.
Part II—John Bolton
It appears that these efforts on the part of the ICC have set off a storm of indignation at the White House. In response, President Trump has set loose his present National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to orchestrate an attack on the international court.
Bolton is nothing if not a pit bull in human form—the perfect point man to carry on the administration’s war on those who would keep the peace through the application of international law.
Thus, in early September, 2018, Bolton declared the following: “The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.”
Alas, Bolton is using “false news” here. There is nothing illegitimate about the ICC. As noted, its establishment was by international treaty and followed a strict ratification process. To date, 123 countries have ratified the Rome Statute.
Also note that Bolton is assuming future prosecution as a reason for trying to block the present investigation. That would suggest that he believes the U.S. is vulnerable. And finally, the allies referenced here amount to just one.
Bolton stated that the “Palestinian Liberation Organization’s office in Washington was being ordered closed out of concern about Palestinian attempts to prompt an ICC investigation of Israel.”
So what will the U.S. do if the ICC persists? Bolton, at this point working up a real head of steam, declared that “We will not cooperate with ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own.
After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.” In addition, “if the inquiry goes ahead, the administration will consider banning judges and prosecutors from entering the United States, put sanctions on any funds they have in the U.S. financial system and prosecute them in American courts.”
Part III—Enemy of Our Future
To the extent that the United States, or any other country, reverts to ultra-nationalism and stands against institutions such as the United Nations and the ICC, it endangers the future of not only Americans, but everyone else.
And that is one of the reasons why John Bolton, and his boss President Donald Trump, are enemies of our future. It is not that they have forgotten the tragedies brought upon the world by nationalism and its wars—culminating in the genocidal bloodbath of World War II. It is probable that they do not see these tragedies as criminal.
Rather they see them as necessary actions on the road to national greatness. This is a perspective they would call “realistic” and in line with mankind’s aggressive nature. Thus, institutions that seek to criminalize such behavior are just hopelessly “idealistic” roadblocks to the pursuit of the national interests of the United States.
Perhaps more important is that the rest of the world’s population has also either remained ignorant of or forgotten such vital lessons, and so once more can be led by dangerously narrow-minded leaders into the next abyss.
Karl M. von der Heyden, who as a small child survived the destruction of Berlin at the end of World War II, has written a brief testimony to the consequences of war and inadequate memory. Mr. von der Heyden tells us that now, “seventy years after World War II, millions of people in the U.S. and Europe have forgotten the lessons learned from that war.”
That is why “ultra-nationalist and xenophobic appeals” are once more politically acceptable and successful. Thus, in the long run, “nothing can be taken for granted.”
This raises questions about the adequacy of not only our political system, but also our educational system. It would seem that the two are different sides of the same coin. The political system can work only if the educational system can sustain the memory of important national lessons learned in the past. At this point both systems have failed us—allowing into power enemies of our future.
Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history from West Chester University in West Chester PA. His academic research focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He taught courses in Middle East history, the history of science and modern European intellectual history.
The article was first published by ICH
The 21st Century