APPROACHING IRAN: THE FLAWS OF IMPERIAL DIPLOMACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

28 Jun

[Prefatory Note: This post consists of six segments devoted to relations of the West to Iran, centering on whether the United States post-Trump will attempt to reduce tensions with Iran or opt for continuity, and greater policy coordination with Israel’s new post-Netanyahu leadership. Naphtali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister, has already made clear that he views Iran no differently than Netanyahu, opposes a return to the 2015 Nuclear Program Agreement (JCPOA) and seems to have authorized at unprovoked attack on the Karaj facility on June 23rd that produces centrifuges needed to obtain enriched uranium.

When the U.S. Government withdrew from the hard bargained Obama Era nuclear agreement in 2018 accompanied by a revamping of sanctions against Iran, tensions once again dangerously escalated. Biden pledged as a candidate for the American presidency to restore JCPOA, but has so far shown only a limited commitment to rejoin the earlier agreement, and seems to be insisting on a new agreement that is more restrictive of Iran’s nuclear program and even its regional political activity. The U.S. Government seems to forget that it was its actions that led to the breakdown of the agreement, and that Iran continued to comply for an entire year before embarking upon a more ambitious program of nuclear enrichment, accumulating three tons above the agreed limits, ten times the amount allowed by the lapsed agreement, yet still short of the level of enrichment need to produce nuclear weapons. Six rounds of negotiations have taken place during recent months in Vienna among the five remaining parties to the 2015 agreement (China, Russia, France, UK, Germany) and Iran, as well as indirect negotiations between Iran and the U.S. with the other governments serving as intermediaries.

Authoritative voices from Vienna tell us that an agreement is ‘within reach,’ whatever that may mean, yet they also say its restoration remains uncertain due to Israeli pressures, the recent election of a hardline Iranian President—Ebrahim Raisi, and the American insistence on a longer timeline for the agreement as well as a reported demand that Iran cease its support for ‘terrorist’ entities in the region and reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium.

The Western media fails to understand the relevance of Iranian grievances with respect to its nuclear program, seems totally insensitive to double standards in its reportage, and so the issue is portrayed to the public in an exceedingly misleading manner. Among Iranian grievances the following are especially important: Iran is portrayed as a supporter of terrorism in the region while there is virtually no mention of the blatant pattern of Israel ‘terrorism’ against Iran, and specifically against its nuclear program that has breached no international norms. In the period 2010-2012 four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated by Israel: Masoud Alimohammedi, Majid Shahriari, Darioush Rezaeinejad, Mostafa Ahmed Roshan. As recently as November 2020 Iran’s leading nuclear scientist associated with Iran’s program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed by a Mossad operation while driving in a car near Tehran. The U.S. has done its share of state-sponsored terrorism: disabling 1,000 centrifuges by cyber Stuxnet attacks back in 2010 and assassinating a leading military and political figure, Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 while he was on a diplomatic peace mission in Iraq. Israel also seems responsible for periodic attacks on the Natanz nuclears facility, as well.

For further contextualization it is well to recall that it was Trump who ruptured JCPOA when it was working well, which was confirmed by assessments of U.S. intelligence reports. Maybe even more important was the U.S. failure to object to such Israeli violation of Iranian sovereign rights, as well as aggressive acts that violated the basic norms of the UN Charter, as well as to curb its own recourse to overt and covert violations of Iran’s legal rights.

Despite this abusive pattern Iran refrained from challenging the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal, or even coupling its commitment to refrain from acquiring the weapons or even the capability to produce the weaponry with a demand for a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. This pattern should remind us that Western colonialism is largely dead, yet Western imperialism persists almost undetected by the normative radar by which international behavior should be judged. Antony Blinken’s ‘rules-governed’ international order has some gaping black holes, and Iran continues to be victimized in the process, while Blinken’s silence is totally overlooked.

Finally, two statements indicative of Israel’s rogue behavioral ethos toward Iran. The Defense Minister, and alternate opponent of Netanyahu, Benny Gantz speaking on June 24, 2021 put his view of Iran in direct language: “..a murderous and dangerous enemy, building arms of terror around the State of Israel, seeks to acquire a nuclear weapon to threaten Israel, and the stability of the entire region.” Iran’s ‘arms of terror’ presumably contrast with Israel’s ‘weapons of self-defense,’ such are the distortions of hegemonic political discourse. Allon Ben David writing in Ma’ariv on the same day as Gantz spoke was engagingly candid in masking Israeli embrace of terror as a peacetime tactic: “..the Mossad and IDF will contribute in their quiet way part of the effort to delay Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.” The word ‘quiet’ is code talk for ‘secret,’ and the quiet work consists of killing scientists and planting explosives in Iran’s nuclear facilities, or even sending drones on armed missions carried out in Iranian or Syrian territory.

Two interviews are also included that address Iranian leadership issues. It is almost comical that one hears shouts of indignation about an extremist leader being elected in Iran, whereas discussing Bennett’s extremist support of the unlawful encroachment of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territories or refusal to support the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state is hardly mentioned, or set off against Biden’s endorsement of a two-state solution.]

APPROACHING IRAN: THE FLAWS OF IMPERIAL DIPLOMACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

(1) Responses of Richard Falk to Interview Questions of journalist Niloofar Adibnia (19 April 2021)

What is your analysis of the Vienna meeting?

The so-called ‘indirect talks’ in Vienna likely have several distinct goals. (1) Holding the talks include the purpose of involving the four other P5 (Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and Germany) in the process of restoring American participation in and Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action, known as JCPOA, and also, as the ‘5 +1 Agreement’; the U.S. and Iran separately interact with representatives of these five governments, which in turn inform U.S. and Iran, which then in turn provide responses; it is a dialogue with intermediaries; (2) The indirectness of the process allows each side to make an assessment as to whether it is worth the risks of international failure and domestic backlash as a result of disagreements as to the respective expectations of the two sides in a high profile diplomatic effort at restoring JCPOA along the lines of its original character in 2015; (3) The Vienna process also should be helpful in identifying sticking points with respect to the removal of sanctions on Iran, the restraint of Iranian regional diplomacy in the Middle East, and any further adjustments such as reparations for ‘nuclear terrorism’ or agreed ceilings on uranium enrichment, allowing both countries to decide how serious these gaps are.

Will the Vienna Summit Lead to the Revival of the Nuclear Deal?

I think part of the purpose of the Vienna talks is to allow the parties to determine whether the timing is right at present for a renewal of JCPOA. The U.S. is under pressure from Israel, and some Arab states not to participate again within the JCPOA framework unless new burdensome conditions are imposed on Iran. On its side, Iran is likely unwilling to alter its enrichment levels without assurances that ‘nuclear terrorism’ will be treated as a criminal disruption in the future, and appropriate steps taken including reparations. Iran may also insist upon unconditional removal of sanctions in view of its experience during the Trump presidency. In opposition, Biden may insist on flexibility with respect to sanctions relief in the event that Iran enriches uranium beyond agreed levels.

Will the US lift sanctions?

I think the sanctions will be lifted by stages if Iran agrees to return to the 2015 enrichment levels, and perhaps, agrees to transfer any stockpile of enriched uranium beyond these levels in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal in 2018 to an international depository or placed in a depot subject to periodic inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nuclear agreement is not likely to become again operative unless the U.S. sanctions are completely removed. It is assumed that Iran learned its lesson of relying on the U.S. commitment to lift sanctions when Obama was president, while experiencing their reinstatement in harsher form when Trump became president. Undoubtedly, this sequence partly explains the discrediting of the so-called ‘moderates’ in Iran and their replacement by the ‘hardline’ faction, making diplomatic de-escalation seem somewhat more problematic

Do you think the nuclear deal will be revived?

It seems as though there exists a political will on both sides to proceed cautiously in that direction, with the intention of reviving the 2015 arrangements regulating Iran’s nuclear program. Whether this political will is strong enough on both sides remains to be seen as does whether some of the issues turn out to be non-negotiable, and hence deal breakers. Such include enrichment ceilings, treatment of ‘nuclear terrorism. There is also some uncertainty arising from domestic politics in both countries. Will Biden give priority to satisfying Israeli concerns or to reaching a major diplomatic goal of reviving JCPOA? Will Iran insist on a clear pledge of unconditional irreversible removal of the sanctions?

Is there a determination to keep the nuclear deal alive?

I think there is a widespread desire on both sides to give renewed life and relevance to the nuclear agreement,
But there are competing forces on both sides that are more ambivalent about the agreement or are even opposed to its existence. At this point it is difficult to determine with any confidence whether the pro-agreement forces in both countries are strong enough to withstand pressures from anti-agreement forces. The impact of other issues may turn out to be decisive. Will the Natanz attack harden Iran’s demands or soften the U.S. diplomatic stance? So far the indications are not encouraging, and even less so after the Karaj attack on Iran centrifuge production facility. The American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has called Iran’s lifting of the enrichment ceiling from 20% to 60% as ‘provocative’ without putting forth the slightest gesture of criticism of its Natanz attack, widely presumed to have been carried out by Mossad operatives acting on Israel’s behalf.

Will Iran return to full implementation of its nuclear obligations in the nuclear deal?

I cannot imagine the revival of JCPOA unless Iran agrees to comply, and maintains compliance. The more important question is whether Iranian compliance requirements will be set by reference to the initial standards agreed upon in 2015 or whether there will be new standards reflecting intervening developments and to some extent negotiating demands accepted, and. going into effect when the agreement is again operative.

what is your analysis about sabotage on natanz? can it derail vienna negotiation?can it lead to war?

It would seem that Israel intended the attack on the Natanz underground facility as a provocation that would by inducing a major Iranian retaliation and make progress in the Vienna talks problematic. Some have thought that the attack was only designed to give Israel a seat at the Vienna table. The attack should be internationally condemned as a form of ‘nuclear terrorism’ as well as a serious violation of Iran’s sovereign rights. The relative international silence, including by the IAEA is disappointing, and the Blinken response referred to above is unacceptable.

I do not think this event will lead either to the breakdown of the Vienna indirect talks or to regional war, although both possibilities certainly exist. It may delay reaching an agreement in Vienna, and has already raised regional tensions. My view is that with tensions rising in relation to China and Russia, the U.S. will not irresponsibly escalate the conflict dimensions of its relations with Iran, but there are many surrounding complications that
make such speculation unreliable.

We can only hope that peace-oriented pressures on both sides hold sway, and JCPOA again becomes operative. Many will hail this as a diplomatic breakthrough if this happens, and when sanctions are removed, Iranian societal life will benefit greatly, improving the regional and international atmosphere.

(2) Responses of Richard Falk to Amir Mohadded Ismaeli Questions for Mehr News Agency (April 14, 2021)

Q1: Who’s behind Natanz sabotage?

At this point, we have only the uncontested reports that Israel is responsible, having virtually confessed as much. Apparently Israel used Mossad to carry out the attack on the Natanz underground nuclear enrichment facility on April 10, 2021. The attack came only a day after new more advanced cetrifuges began operating at Natanz. The attack took the form of a major explosion 65 meters below the ground. The explosives used are believed to have been smuggled past security guards by being sealed within a steel table and then detonated from a remote location. The complete destruction of the power distribution supply system used to make the centrifuges work has been confirmed as the main damage. It has been estimated by Israelis that it might take Iran as long as nine months to make the facility operational again.

The United States has officially declared that it had no role in this act of sabotage, but it is hard to believe that Washington did not have advance knowledge, and there is no evidence of any attempt to prevent the attack from being carried out or complaints after the fact. Israel leaders although evasive, seemed to justify the attack as part of the country’s defense against the controversial assumption that despite Tehran assurances, Iran is developing the capacity to produce nuclear warheads that could be attached to missiles or rockets, posing dire threats to Israeli security. Iran continues to deny that it is seeking a nuclear weapons capacity. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, has vowed unspecified ‘revenge’ for the attack on Natanz, but there is no indication that this is meant to signal a reversal of Iran’s policy toward the acquisition of the weaponry.

In the background, is the reality of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal that seems to stay below the radar of proliferation concerns and overlooks Iran’s reasonable apprehension of what this could mean in the future for its own security.

Q2: In your view, what purposes are behind this sabotage?

On the basis of circumstantial evidence, contrary to the posture taken by Israel that the Natanz incident was directed at slowing Iran race to the nuclear weapons threshold, I believe the attack had as its primary purpose, a provocation designed to escalate tensions between Iran and Israel, and encourage the U.S. to stick with the Trump approach to relations with Iran. More immediately, the attack is sure to complicate current efforts in Vienna to create the conditions leading to the resumption of U.S. participation in JCPOA through direct negotiations. As is widely understood, Iran has been demanding that its compliance with JCPOA depends upon an American commitment to terminate the sanctions imposed during the Trump presidency in conjunction with its unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in 2018.

This hypothesis of provocation is reinforced by the highly belligerent statements made by Netanyahu when asked about the Natanz attack. Instead of a denial or even a claim of Israeli worries, he chose to treat the relationship between the two countries as a relation between two enemies poised to destroy one another. He is quoted as claiming that the ‘fanatical regime’ governing Iran without doubt intends to acquire nuclear weapons so as to destroy Israel in pursuit of their ‘genocidal goal of eliminating Israel.” Netanyahu added that Israel would continue ‘to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism’ as if Iran was the provocateur. Such language offers an official indirect justification for what happened an Natanz, as well uses warlike language of implacable hostility.

I suspect that Israel by such high-profile sabotage and incendiary language is doing its best to tie the hands of the Biden presidency, agitate pro-Israeli sentiments in the U.S. Congress and Western media. The secondary objective is to obstruct the Iranian nuclear program, which is consistent with such past acts of aggression as the disabling of centrifuges through the insertion of the Stuxnet virus back in 2010 as well as through targeted assassination of leading nuclear scientists, including Iran’s leading nuclear specialist, Mohsen Fakhrizadez in November 2020. This pattern of covert violence has long violated Iran’s sovereign rights and has been understandably denounced by Iranian officials as ‘nuclear terrorism.’

What is uncertain at this time is whether Israel will commit further provocations, how Iran will react, and whether the United States will take the bait, and either delay JCPOA negotiations or demand Iranian compliance with new conditions beyond the original agreement before it lifts or even eases the sanctions or resumes its own participation.

Q3: Do you think there is a coordination between the US and Israel for implementing the sabotage?

It is difficult to say. There is some reason to believe that if there was such coordination it would not be necessary for Israel to take the risks arising from such serious provocations. As with the Obama diplomacy that led to the agreement in 2015, there are differences between the U.S. interest in regional stability and the Israeli determination to keep destabilizing Iran so as to realize at some point its undisguised goal of regime change.

At the same time, with the COVID challenge uppermost as a policy priority for Biden, there may be some level of coordination, involving reassurances to Israel that it will not make things easy for Iran with respect to the sanctions or JCPOA. Biden seems eager to avoid diversionary issues in America that would allege that the U.S. is failing to uphold reasonable Israeli security demands.

As of now, resort to the ‘indirect talks’ in Vienna suggest that both sides are proceeding cautiously, keeping their options open. The next month or so will make clearer whether the U.S. will separate its search for normalization with Iran due to pressures arising from its special relationship with Israel or will pursue a diplomatic course in accord with its national interest. It will never be able to satisfy Israel and reach a negotiated agreement with Iran. It must choose, and hopefully opting for peace and diplomacy rather than coercion and hostility.

Q4: Some scholars believe that the International Atomic Energy Agency and JCPOA parties should clarify their stances and condemn this sabotage, as it’s been done while Iran has been trying to revive the agreement in Vienna. What do you think?

I do believe that if an investigation confirms Israeli responsibility for the Natanz attack it should be condemned by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by the parties to JCPOA (that is, the five Permanent Members of the Security Council and Germany). Such a step would be a major step toward depoliticization of regional tensions, and offer some hope that the current crisis atmosphere can be overcome. What is being called ‘the shadow war’ between Israel and Iran is dangerous and every effort should be made to end it. It also should be acknowledged as widely as possible that Israel has the main responsibility for recourse to this surge of war-mongering propaganda and acts of aggression that violate international law and the UN Charter. The UN should stop watching such dangerous and unlawful events in a spirit of silent detachment, and take its own Charter responsibilities seriously.

(3)Zahra Mirzafarjouyan interview questions, May 30, 2021, Mehr News Agency

1- An Israeli leader described Islamic revolution as “earthquake of century”. What have been the effects of the Imam Khomeini-lead revolution in the region that worried Israelis?

Imam Khomeini made clear his opposition to Israel and the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish state inside the Islamic World, although he was also clear that he regarded Judaism as an authentic religion deserving respect. When I had a meeting with Imam Khomeini in Paris days before he returned to Iran, he said explicitly that so long as Jews were not active in supporting Israel, it would be ‘a tragedy for us if they left Iran after the revolution.’ His outlook was anti-Israeli, but not anti-Semitic.

I am not familiar with this quote although it makes sense. Israel had enjoyed positive relations with Iran during the period of the Shah’s rule. The Islamic Revolution was perceived as an immediate threat to Israel because it sought to reclaim political control for the ancestral peoples, long resident in the region under the auspices of a political movement espousing Islamic principles and opposed to all forms of secular and Western penetration, especially in the form of a settler colonial state. And such a movement had successfully challenged the Pahlavi regime in Iran, which had the most elaborate modernized internal security apparatus in the region. If it could in Iran, it was supposed that such revolutionary movements could and would succeed elsewhere in the region.

Whether ‘earthquake of the century’ is an overstatement can be discussed, and challenged. It competes with the Russian and Chinese Revolutions and the rise of Hitler, World Wars I & II as alternative candidates for such an assertion. Possibly, seen in the context of the Middle East, and from the perspective of Israel, it was seen as an extreme disruptive event, with an anti-Israeli mobilizing potential that would influence the peoples of the region, and at the same time deprived Israel of its most sympathetic support as centered previously in Iran.

2- What features of the Islamic Revolution have worried the western powers?

I suppose the most worrisome aspect of the Islamic Revolution from the perspective of the West was its resolve to eliminate all forms of Western influence—geopolitical, political, economic, and cultural. In this sense, the events in Iran could be interpreted as anti-imperial as well as anti-colonial, that is, not only opposing European colonialism but its sequel taking the form of the project of U.S. influence in strategic partnership with the hostile regimes and Israel.

A second source of concern was the rejection of Western ideas about governance and the place of religion in the life of society. Western ideas of political legitimacy rested on a premise of separating church and state, while the Islamic Revolution favored their organic connection, giving primacy to religious leadership, although accompanied by a political sphere that was legitimated by periodic free elections.

Other issues involved imposing religious traditions contrary to Western cultural ideas. This can be observed, especially, in relation to the dress and appearance of women, and with respect to education, social life, and entertainment.

The West celebrates ‘freedom’ by reference to social practices, including music, consumption of alcohol, pornography, and tolerance of anti-religious ideas. It perceived Iran after the Islamic Revolution as prohibiting what in the West were regarded as achievements of the Enlightenment and modernity.

In the end, the most fundamental opposition to the Islamic Revolution arose from the belief that political Islam would be resistant to Western penetration and hegemonic control after the collapse of European colonialism, and thus threatened crucial Western strategic interests, including access to energy, security of Israel, ideological anti-Marxist solidarity, and neoliberal globalization.

3- How do you see the role of Imam Khomeini in uniting the Muslim world?

I believe that Imam Khomeini had a major impact in demonstrating to the Muslim world
the mobilization of national populations could be effective in challenging corrupt and decadent forms of political leadership. It gave rise to Islamic activism and extremism, which in turn produced Islamophobic reactions in Europe and North America. Iran itself
opposed such Sunni extremism associated with ISIS and the Taliban as in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Imam Khomeini has so far failed in uniting the Muslim world, especially if measured by the outlook of governing elites. Indeed, it seems more reasonable to conclude that his
Influence has led to deeper divisions and a rise in sectarian rivalries, especially in the Middle East. Imam Khomeini was as opposed to the Gulf dynasties, especially Saudi Arabia, than he was about Israel, secularism, and Western influence. In turn, these conservative monarchies, although purporting to adhere to Islamic law and practices,
were severely threatened by populist advocacy of an Islamic orientation of government. It is no secret that Gulf monarchies, along with Israel, opposed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood anywhere in the region, especially Egypt. Islam from below, as in Iran, was
consistently opposed by Sunni elites in the region.

4- Imam Khomeini always hated compromising with arrogant powers and Zionists and believed in resistance. How has the culture of resistance been able to change the balance of power in the region?

Except for Iran itself, I do not see any shift in the balance of power in the region arising from Imam Khomeini’s support for a culture of resistance. It could be argued that the Arab uprising of 2010-11 reflected a certain influence of the Imam and the Iranian experience of revolutionary success inspired people to act collectively in mounting challenges to the status quo. Even if this is so it must be offset by counter-revolutionary moves that followed these uprisings, producing chaos in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and intensifications of the harsh rule of Arab monarchies. It may be correct that Western influence has somewhat declined, and is being now challenged by other extra-regional forces, China and Russia. These changes are affecting the role of global geopolitics in the Islamic world, but I don’t associate these developments with manifestations of a culture of resistance.

Iran’s foreign policy has enjoyed a measure of success in Lebanon, Palestine, and above all, Syria, but it seems premature to speak of a new balance of power in the region. The Palestinian resistance is the most impressive example of a culture of
resistance that is active in the region. Although the Palestinian struggle has been led for 20 years by Hamas, its movement of resistance seems remote from any direct influence by Imam Khomeini, whom I believe would be disappointed that his legacy has not extended beyond Iran.

(5) Responses of Richard Falk to Questions posed by Javad Arab Shirazi(May 9, 2021) (Press TV)
Q#1: Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei on Friday marked the International Quds Day, voicing confidence that the downward movement of the Zionist regime has already started and “it will never stop”. What do you think?
I agree with the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Israeli apartheid state has suffered a series of defeats in the symbolic domain of politics in the first months of 2021: the preliminary decision of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the Prosecutor possesses the legal authority to investigate allegations of Israel’s criminality in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem that occurred after 2015; influential reports by the Israeli NGO, B’Tselem and by the leading U.S. NGO, Human Rights Watch conclude that the practices and policies of Israel throughout Israel and occupied Palestine constitute the international crime of apartheid; and significant worldwide increases in global solidarity initiatives in support of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, including the inalienable right of self-determination enjoyed by every people.

These symbolic advances suggest that Palestine is winning the Legitimacy War fought between Israel and Palestine over the relative legal, moral, and spiritual entitlements in their struggle. The record of the struggles against colonial rule since 1945 suggest that the side that prevails in a Legitimacy War eventually controls the political outcome. In this respect, the statement of Ayatollah Khamenei about a downward Israeli spiral accords with the flow of history.
At the same time Israel will not easily accept defeat. It has tried to deflect attention by accusing individuals and even institutions, such as the UN and ICC, of being ‘antisemitic.’ This is a display of ‘the politics of deflection.’ Such deflection attempts to wound the messenger rather than heed the message. Israel also enjoys the geopolitical backing of the United States and to a lesser extent, the European Union, and has benefitted from ‘the normalization agreements’ reached in 2020 with several Arab governments as encouraged by the Trump presidency during its last months. These factors suggest that it will be a difficult and likely prolonged struggle.
In the meantime, the Palestinian people are being severely subjugated in their own homeland, including ever since the Nakba in 1948 being victimized by ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. It is necessary to appreciate that symbolic successes do not translate immediately into substantive results, and often have the opposite short-term effects because the oppressor senses its vulnerability. Such an experience is currently the fate of the Palestinian people.

Q#2: The Leader said the policies of the oppressive and cruel capitalism “have driven a people out of their homes, their homeland and their ancestral roots and instead, it has installed a terrorist regime and has housed a foreign people therein.” What are your thoughts on this?
My response to the prior question addresses this language on the level of the existential suffering of the Palestinian people within and outside their homeland, including in refugee camps in neighboring countries and through the dispersion of Palestinians in involuntary exile around the world.
I think that the abuses of capitalism are not essential aspects of the basic crimes of displacement and oppression of the Palestinian people so as to enable the Zionist Project to succeed in establishing a Jewish state in the Palestinian homeland. These crimes are virtually acknowledged in Israel’s Basic Law of 2018. Capitalist patterns of exploitation of Palestinian labor and resources are part of this overall picture but incidental to the apartheid and colonial structures that exert comprehensive control over Palestinian activities.

Q#3: “Today, the situation in the world is not like those days. We should keep this reality within sight. Today, the balance of power has swung in favor of the world of Islam. Various political and social incidents in Europe and in the United States have laid bare the weaknesses and the deep structural, managerial and moral conflicts among westerners. The electoral events in the US and the notoriously scandalous failures of the hubristic and arrogant managers in that country, the unsuccessful one-year fight against the pandemic in the US and Europe and the embarrassing incidents that ensued, and also the recent political and social instabilities in the most important European countries are all signs of the downward movement of the western camp”, the Leader said. What do you think?

There is much evidence of Western decline as the quoted language of Ayatollah Khamanei suggests, but the world future remains obscure. Historical tendencies appear to favor the rise of Asia and a more multipolar world order. There are also indications of Western, particularly U.S. decline, as in its handling of the COVID pandemic and prolonged failure to update and improve the quality of its infrastructure, spending excessively on armaments instead of investing
in a sustainable and equitable future.

Yet there are some contradictions that prevent any assured image of the future. At present, there are prospects of a dangerous confrontation between China and the United States, which could confirm Chinese ascendency or lead to regional conflict, and possibly wider tensions in the form of a second cold war. It is also possible that prudence and humane judgment will lead to a geopolitics of accommodation, allowing proper attention being given to managing global challenges of unprecedented magnitude.

It is not clear to me that the Islamic world can escape from the constraining logic of statism, particularly in the Middle East where sectarian strains and regional rivalries appear stronger at present than religious and civilizational bonds.

There is also uncertainty arising from the novelty of global scale challenges amid many inequalities causing both impulses toward cooperation and withdrawals from internationalism in the form of exclusive forms of statism. The modern world system has never been challenged as a totality by anything like climate change in the past, and whether it has the flexibility and resilience to adapt remains to be seen, although the evidence to date is not encouraging. The failures to suspend sanctions during the pandemic in response to humanitarian appeals and the vaccine diplomacy emphasizing profits over people that accompanied the COVID suggest that the political elites have not caught up with history, and are ill-equipped to conceive of national wellbeing beneath the bluer skies of human wellbeing.

There is a need for forward-looking global leadership that is informed by a commitment to the global public good. It may be that this leadership could emerge from below, from a transnational movement animated by a struggle for ecological balance and species identity.
Instead of patriots of the nation or state, patriots of humanity; instead of entrepreneurs for profit, guardians of nature. New values and new identities to sustain a responsible anthropocentrism.

(5)Interview Questions from Javad Arabshirazi, Press TV on domain seizures (June 23, 2021)

Q#1: In what seems to be a coordinated action, a similar message has appeared on the websites of a series of Iranian and regional television networks that claims their domains have been “seized by the United States Government.” The notice, which appeared late Tuesday on the website of English-language television news network Press TV as well as a number of other Iranian and regional news channels, cited US sanctions laws for the seizure and was accompanied by the seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Department of Commerce. What is your take on this?

A#1: It is important to recall that a similar seizure of Iran-related news sites occurred on October 7, 2020. It was justified at the time as the implementation of U.S. sanctions and directed at preventing alleged dissemination of ‘disinformation.’ It was further claimed that the step was taken in response to threatss to U.S. national security and its ‘democratic process.’ Significantly, the identification of the seized website domains was a result of cooperation between the U.S. Government and the high tech giants Twitter, Google, and Facebook. Such a move was seen in 2020 as an effort to increase pressure on Iran by way of improper interference with its sovereign rights, an intensifying of coercive pressures.

The rationale of this latest phase of domain seizures repeats the earlier pattern of justification, again with accusations that these supposed Iranian news outlets were disguised governmental operations that used their media platforms to subvert democratic procedures in the United States. Again this time the seizures were presented as implementations of the U.S. sanctions procedures. The timing is suspicious, coming a few days after a new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected and just prior to the resumption of a seventh round of talks in Vienna to negotiate indirectly the restoration of U.S. participation in the Iran Nuclear Program deal of 2016 coupled with a phasing out of the sanctions.

These developments raise crucial questions about motivation and goals: does it reflect Israeli influence designed to prevent restoring U.S. participation in and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, the technical name of the nuclear deal? Or is it a reaction to the outcome of the Iranian presidential election, which resulted in a landslide victory for a candidate presented as hostile to the West, and particularly to Israel and the United States? Perhaps, the best answer is to postulate a combination of factors. It should be noted that an American spokesperson for the government in Washington claims that the election of Ayatollah Raisi is not relevant to the Vienna diplomacy as whoever was president of Iran, it was asserted, the final decision on such issues of vital policy would be made not by an elected official but by the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Q#2: Do you believe that the move shows Washington’s selective view towards freedom of speech and democracy?

A#2: If the seizures turn out to be official acts of the U.S. Government, it would express a serious moral hypocrisy and double standards, and unlawful encroachment on sovereign rights. The U.S. seeks to control the public discourse on matters of international concern, especially if part of the background is conflict and strife as here. There are also in the U.S. ongoing struggles behind the scene between moderate and hardline attitudes toward Iran, which also reflects degrees of direct and indirect Israeli influence. The more aggressive tendencies opposes moves toward normalization, favoring high tensions. Having one-sided presentations of conflictual situations tends to inhibit compromise and normalization of relations among states, producing an atmosphere of might makes right.

Q#3: The US is in possession of the mainstream media and can easily change and distort narratives around the world. What has irked the US government? Why do you think a TV network like Press TV should be seized by the US government?

Control of the political narrative is an important dimension of geopolitics in the digital age. Fake news and manipulation of reality are coercive means if deployed in uncontested political settings. By shutting down Press TV the US is attempting to deprive Iran of its capacity to challenge hostile propaganda, and put forth its own counter-narrative of controversial events, and more generally of peace, justice, and democratic governance. In effect, being able to exercise monopoly control of media platforms is a crucial representation of power, as important in some settings as guns and missiles. Underneath this manipulation of information is an extremely dangerous tendency to substitute one-sides propaganda for truth and dialogue.

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Responses to an Iranian journalist, Javad Heiran-Nia Interview Questions on U.S. Elections (8 Oct 2020).]

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

  1. What is the most important issue affecting the upcoming US presidential election? (Economy; Foreign Policy; Domestic Policy; etc.)

For the voters in America the most important issues at this time are the (mis)management of the health crisis by Trump and the impact on the recovery of the U.S. economy. At this point there is a surge of criticism directed at the present U.S. leadership with respect to the Coronavirus pandemic: more infections and deaths per capita than almost any country in the world, intentional disregard of guidance by health specialists, dishonest and irresponsible reassurances, and economic relief favoring the rich and influential while understating the economic distress caused others by the loss of jobs, food insecurities, and threats of eviction. There is little interest, at least up to this point, in foreign policy with the single exception of international economic relations and geopolitical tensions with China. Both candidates for the presidency seem to adopt anti-Chinese positions, but Biden seems less militaristic and provocative than Trump. Biden refrains from blaming China for the virus, and seems somewhat less likely to embrace a strategy in East Asia that will lead to a second cold war.

For the peoples of the Middle East and elsewhere, the foreign policy implications of the elections assume greater importance. As with China, Trump seems more inclined than Biden to push the anti-Iran coalition of Israel, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia toward the brink of war, with the hope that the persistence of ‘maximum pressure’ will cause destabilization in Iran, and if possible, regime change. Biden would not likely change very much in terms of alignment, but might be expected to be more cautious in endorsing aggressive policies, and might even restore the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program negotiated toward the end of the Obama presidency. At the same time, Biden might be more inclined than Trump to push an anti-Russian approach that could take the form of regional and global confrontations, as well as arms races in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.  

One cost of such foreign policy initiatives is to weaken the attention given to challenges  that can only be solved by multilateral cooperation at a time when it is most needed, especially in relation to climate change, the control of nuclear weaponry, migration flows, and health issues. As noted above, Biden is much more likely to renew American support for ‘liberal internationalism’ than Trump, and can almost certainly be expected to do so unless geopolitically distracted.

There are other hot spots around the world that are capable of generating dangerous foreign policy crises, especially in relation to Korea or India/Pakistan.

2. Which candidate has the best chance of winning? (Trump or Biden)

As of now, it appears that Biden will win the election rather decisively, but in 2016 there existed a comparable clear outlook close to vote, reinforced by public opinion polls. It created a strong impression that Hillary Clinton would win easily over Donald Trump, a view almost universally shared by the media, and reportedly even by the Trump campaign. The American political mood is unstable, and could be influenced by developments in the coming weeks as the date of the election approaches that are supportive of Trump’s campaign for reelection as, for example, violent riots in American cities, a further surge in the financial markets, a crisis in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula. .

Additionally, there are a series of factors that sow doubt about present expectations of a Biden victory that go beyond which candidate will gain the most votess: first of all, Biden could win the popular vote by a wide margin, and yet lose the election because of the way in which the peculiar American institution of the Electoral College determines the outcome of presidential elections by counting the results on a federal state by state basis rather than nationally. This happened in 2016, Hillary Clinton winning by wide margins in New York and California, but losing close votes in such battleground states as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan. According to the Electoral College a candidate receives the same number of electoral votes assigned to a state if he wins by one vote or 10 million votes. The value of the vote in states where one party dominates, an individual vote becomes of diluted value, whereas if both parties are more or less of similar popularity, the value of an individual vote is inflated. The question posed is whether the Electoral College vote will again override the popular vote as it did in 2106.

Secondly, it is well known that Republican control of governments in the 50 states making up the U.S. has resulted in a variety of voter suppression schemes that make it harder to vote, and particularly affects African Americans and the very poor, making voting more difficult i cities and the rural South. Trump has also attacked mail-in voting as subject to mass fraud although the evidence in no way supports the accusation. Less votes are seen as helping Trump. Republicans are better organized and more disciplined than Democrats, although the Democrats have devoted great energy this year to getting out the vote.

Thirdly, Trump has intimated that he can only lose the election if it is has been ‘rigged’ by the Democrats. The reality seems to justify a different complaint that targets the Republicans. Much of the rigging that occurred in 2016 was attributable to Russia, and definitely worked in Trump’s favor, being intended to do so. Back then such partisan interference seemed welcomed by the Republican campaign, and likely would be again.  There are concerns that similar interferences might occur again this time around as Russia continues to prefer Trump to Biden, although there seems to be a greater effort in 2020 to insulate the election process from outside interferences, especially in relation to social media.

It is important to grasp a basic ideological feature of recent American elections of the presidency. Ever since the unified response to fascism during World War II the political parties have accepted a ‘bipartisan consensus’ that almost completely excludes certain crucial policy commitments from political controversy. The most important of these is overinvestment in the military, the predatory features of global capitalism, and so-called ‘special relationships’ with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and European alliance partners. This consensus held up throughout the Cold War, was sustained during the banner years of neoliberal globalization in the decade of the 1990s, and reinvigorated after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon after George W. Bush launched the war on terror, and Barack Obama continued it. 

Bernie Sanders challenged this consensus as it impacted upon policy discourse during his two campaigns to obtain the Democratic Party nomination, but his efforts were rejected by the party elite because he threatened the consensus, defied the ‘deep state,’ worried the Washington foreign policy establishment, and frightened the large private sector donors whose funding support depended on respecting the bipartisan consensus. In this sense, the Democrats successfully subordinated in their own party all radical elements that enjoyed movement support, especially among youth. The Republicans sidelined their moderate leadership, giving over control of the party to extremists that formed the base of Trump support. And so while the Democratic Party establishment neutralized the progressive Sanders’ challenge the Republican Party was radicalized from the right giving Trump control over all mechanism.

In part, it is this issue of party identity, and its relation to the governmental structures of power, that may be the most important effect of the November elections. If Biden wins, the bipartisan consensus is reaffirmed, while if Trump somehow prevails, the bipartisan will be further weakened, and even threatened by replacing the consensus with a right-wing policy agenda. If Biden loses, the consensus will be further discredited by its mistaken view that moving toward the political center is what wins election. What evidence exists by polls and other measurements of public opinion suggest that Sanders would have been a stronger candidate than Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020, but for reasons suggested above, adhering to the bipartisan consensus was more important or Democrats than winning elections. 

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Dangerous Gaps: Knowledge, Action, and Justice

16 Jan

[Prefatory Note: The following essay was published on the website of This View of Life (TVOL) <thisviewoflife.com>, which brings to bear the views of science and evolutionary biology on a series of global challenges increasingly overwhelming the capabilities of civilizational modernity. A series of related articles can be found on the TVOL website. My essay was published there on January 13, 2022.]

Dangerous Gaps: Knowledge, Action, and Justice

Knowledge without Action

Modernity prides itself on its core achievement—basing political order and economic progress on the tools of reason and a trust in science-based knowledge. Yet when it comes to grappling with the large problems of our time it is obvious that there exist wide and dangerous gaps between what we know and what we do, both individually and collectively. Organized governance structures have only selectively integrated the Enlightenment ethos into their formation and implementation of policy, and this explains part of the path of the pathos of Modernity, which despite the technological wonders it has wrought has led to the first bio-ethical-ecological crisis in all of planetary history. To address responsibly such a crisis in relation to climate change or other problems of global scope requires an adequate diagnosis together with new strategies for bringing our knowledge and collective wisdom to bear. Additionally, there exists a discrediting, and likely paralyzing, normative gap between what we do and should be doing in relation to the ethical and political dimensions of climate change.

The severe threats to present and even more to future human generations and habitat wellbeing have long been convincingly confirmed by a consensus among climate experts. [see Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, Columbia University Press, 2014; Climate Change 2021, 6th Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2021, and earlier assessment reports ] Civil society activists, most charismatically a young Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, have been sounding the alarm, raising public awareness and anger throughout the world as much as the unprecedented frequency of extreme weather events. Thunberg, speaking to an audience composed of UN diplomatic representatives of member governments gave the issue an embittered inter-generational twist: “You will die of old age. I will die from climate change.”

Not only do we know and increasingly experience the multiple harms due to global warming, but we also have increasingly dire and reliable warnings that unless the underlying situation is corrected within a narrow temporal window of diminishing opportunity, the effects of climate change will cause a series of worsening events and impacts. These include extreme weather causing flooding, drought, heatwaves, and super-storms; sea levels rising; destruction of river systems and lakes; glacial melting and polar warming; unmanageable migratory flows; polarized citizenries leading to extremist politics, demagogic styles of political leadership, and deteriorating quality of democratic governance. We have possessed this knowledge for several decades, and most governmental responses remain deeply disappointing and what is worse, objectively menacing.

Helen Camakaris in a brilliantly perceptive article writes: “The existential risks we now face are largely the consequence of neoliberal capitalism and partisan politics, super-charging growth, greed, and short-term self-interest.”[See Camakaris, “Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts,” In This View of Life, March 9, 2021.] She sensibly concludes that the time has come to rethink the fundamentals of democracy and the economy, and act “to quiet the partisan rage that is currently tearing the US apart.” It is my view that this partisan rage together with the greed-fueled preoccupation with maximizing the efficiencies of capital at the expense of human wellbeing and habitat sustainability is additional to the causal explanation Camakaris provides, a product of historical circumstances and the form of world order that has been evolving since the middle of the 17th Century when it began to take shape in Europe.

Historical Circumstances

Two elements of the historical circumstances bear heavily on why the present context fails to take rational account of the scientific consensus and its evidence-based warnings about the future when it comes to climate change. The first of these circumstances relate to the outcome of the Cold War, which induced a triumphal mood in the West about the superiority of what was touted at the time as ‘market-based constitutionalism’ that resulted in privileging capital flows at the expense of people, giving rise to ‘economic globalization’ as guided by neoliberal ideology. As long as the Soviet Union was associated with a socialist alternative on national stages, the political class in the West, including its economic elites, felt obliged to supply a measure of social protection to their citizenry and to place some limits on the accumulation of wealth by the ultra-rich. With the Soviet collapse, countervailing ideological forces no longer existed to exert a restraining impact on economic and social policies, and the result was to appraise economic wellbeing by aggregate GDP statistics and corporate profitability. In other words, humanity and natural habitat are paying this enduring price for a distorted and shortsighted response by the political classes in the West, led by the United States, to the Soviet collapse and the related discrediting of socialism as an alternative.

The second historical circumstance of particular relevance to the difficulties associated with mobilizing a political consensus on climate change at a global level that adequately complements the scientific or expert consensus relates to the post-colonial character of intergovernmental relations at the UN and elsewhere. Newly independent countries in Asia and Africa either refused to be distracted in their efforts to give the highest policy priorities to rapid economic and social development or challenged whether their relationship to industrialization deserved to be burdened by constraints designed to keep global warming within tolerable limits. Indeed, the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere was predominantly brought about by industrialization in the West, yet the countries suffering most from climate change are in Africa and the Middle East, including the destruction of the agricultural foundation of their economic viability, prompting millions of climate refugees to flee their countries, and seek entry elsewhere to improve their livelihood prospects. The countries in the West assume scant responsibility, and when they do, it is not because of an acknowledgment of these causal connections of their behavior with migration flows, but as a hypocritical and purely discretionary humanitarian gesture displaying their high moral standards. Yet analyzing and negotiating safe limits on carbon emissions has largely ignored the underlying injustices arising from the historical antecedents of colonial governance, an aspect of which was keeping colonized peoples backward so that they retain their predominant role in the colonial era–providing raw materials and agricultural goods sought by the factories and lifestyles of the West. [See Deepak Nayyar, Resurgent Asia: Diversity in Development, Oxford University Press, 2019 on the de-development of Asia during the period of European colonialization.]

Dysfunctional Structures, Norms, and Ideologies

The failures of rational response to climate change also reflect the impacts of the deeply engrained and legitimated fragmentation of world order. There are many references to the efforts of ‘the global community’ to act and perform cooperatively, but behavioral patterns do not vindicate such rhetoric of solidarity. International institutions are overwhelmingly controlled by governments of sovereign states, whose representatives are beholden to national interests rather than either human or global interests. It could not be otherwise given the ideology of nationalism, ‘political realism,’ and geopolitical ambition that orients behavior toward the wellbeing of individual sovereign states, in other words maximizing what is good for the part rather than the whole.

Now it may be that the process of evolution, which has demonstrated that natural selection privileges cooperation, is in the early stages of manifesting an evolutionary jump ahead by the human species. It is possible that global cooperative potential is on the verge of breakthroughs, which if they occur, will only be adequately explained retrospectively being hidden from view until after their unexpected occurrence. As matters now stand there are not sufficient shared values at the global level to constitute community, and the cooperative alignments that are most robust in terms of commitment and funding take the form of alliances confronting adversary states.

This pattern was recently exemplified by the kind of vaccine diplomacy that illustrated the primary international realities of geopolitics and statism, the secondary reality of multi-state antagonistic clusters, and the tertiary reality of special interest private sector actors, especially the large vaccine manufacturers. Some civil society transnational actors are oriented toward holistic perspectives but exert almost no influence in settings where important global challenges are addressed, as for example, climate change, COVID pandemic, regulation of markets, migrant rights, and nuclear weapons.

Evolutionary Relevance

At first glance, the timelines of both biological and cultural evolution seem much too long to be relevant to unraveling the prospect for a timely, effective, and just response to the multiple challenges posed by climate change. And yet we cannot be certain that there has not been in progress over the course of antecedent decades and centuries natural selection events that incline toward the emergence of species identity along with an appreciation of the mutual benefits of collective cooperation at a global scale. In effect, humanity in various contexts seems increasingly aware that the tepid response to climate change, and perhaps other apocalyptic menaces to the future of humanity, are indeed dire news, having produced the first bio-ethical-ecological crisis in human history.

It is possible that the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, although falling short of what the scientific consensus prescribed with respect to reductions of carbon emissions necessary for assurances that a safe ceiling for global warming will be achieved, was a partial breakthrough with respect to collective action with response to climate change at a global level. It seemed a dramatic recognition by 196 governments of sovereign entities that collective action in the form of global cooperation was indispensable in view of the dangers confronting humanity, and to be achieved needed to take account of diverse capabilities, vulnerabilities, and experience of these state actors. Such an event constituted a global moment of universal recognition, although limited by the voluntary nature of participation and subject to withdrawal, could be understood as a manifestation of an emergent evolutionary trend. The withdrawal of the United States from the Agreement by the Trump Presidency in 2018 followed by the promise of a return to full participation in 2021 by the Biden Presidency can be interpreted in contradictory ways or as the ebb and flow of the underlying evolutionary reality. It may be best understood as revealing the opaqueness of evolution. In this instance, in relation to the fragility and weakness of moves toward global cooperative problem-solving or as signifying the need to modify behavior within the prevailing fragmented world order.

Because inter-governmental behavior continues to be driven by short-termism as well as nationalism, sovereign rights, and geopolitical ambition, it would seem that transnational civil society activism is faced with an evolutionary responsibility and opportunity to act more forcibly in support of a transition from statism to regionalism/globalism, with a corresponding appreciation at the state level that deference to international law and other mechanisms to contain militarism and capitalism serve a drastically revised view of ‘political realism’ and ‘geopolitical ambition.’ [See Ahmet Davutoglu, Systemic Earthquake and the Struggle for World Order, Cambridge University Press, 2021; Robert C. Johansen, Where the Evidence Leads: A Realistic Strategy for Peace and Human Security, Oxford University Press, 2021; Richard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Zed Books, 2016; also, Jeremy Brecher, Common Preservation in a Time of Mutual Destruction, PM Press, 2020; Brecher, Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual, PM Press, 2017.]

If there is to be a positive outcome to the bio-ethical-ecological crisis it will necessarily be more comprehensive than bridging the current gap between knowledge and action as reflected in the polarized politics within sovereign states that misdirects the popular imagination toward subsidiary concerns of national egoism, obscuring the unprecedented challenge to human wellbeing, and species survival. Also, of crucial importance is the parallel normative gap between neoliberal capital-driven ethics and eco-humanistic ethics expressive of an inclusive practice of justice responsive both to human rights and the rights of nature. [See Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (2010) setting forth widely accepted normative frameworks.] If bold action is taken to bridge these gaps, we can begin to be somewhat hopeful about the prospects for overcoming the current ‘evolutionary mismatch,’ but not until then.

Richard Falk

Richard Falk

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London,  Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. Falk is currently acting as interim Director of the Centre of Climate Crime and Justice at Queen Mary. He directs the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published March 2021. He has been nominated annually for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2021.

Glimpsing the Light

10 Jan

My last blog [“January 6: A Year Later”] could be read as an anguished first draft for the obituary of democracy in the United States, and it without question looks at the national future through a glass darkly. I received some feedback that complained about the tone, the darkness of the forebodings, and the foreclosure of liberating surprises. Although my Enlightenment mind fails to find good reasons to paint the U.S. national and indeed the human future in brighter colors, my undernourished spiritual side has not given up, discovering feelings of hopefulness from radical uncertainty, grace, and ‘the politics of impossibility.’ 

I am not pretending that the impossible can happen, but only that what now seems impossible becomes possible with the passage of time and the creative impact of hidden forces of justice and change. From this vantage point I have grounds for hope, and if hope exists, then there exist a moral and spiritual imperative to engaged in struggles for a better national future for which outcomes are inherently unforeseeable, although if we are blessed and receptive, emancipatory glimpses can be foretasted and cherished. 

I find myself engaged in struggles to save American procedural (or electoral) democracy from the ravages that would be wrought by the onset of fascism. Beyond this rescue operation from the mobilized, violently disposed militant Trump base in full control of the Republican Party lies the more ambitious agenda to restore and extend the New Deal by creating social protection for everyone residing within American borders in relation to health, work, housing, education, food, clean air and water, natural habitat. A visionary commitment to the creation of a polity that combines substantiveand procedural democracy, and beyond that participates in a parallel movement for global democracy, a matter of planetary urgency. 

On the agenda of global democracy: giving priority to ecological responsibility, mobilizing against nuclearism and militarism, against racism, against predatory capitalism, and on behalf of a stronger United Nations, rights of self-determination for currently oppressed nations, on behalf of global problem-solving, against geopolitical impunity, for humane governance at all levels of social organization, on identity befitting citizen pilgrims seeking to construct a global community of shared values and visions, for human security, for love, wisdom, beauty,  compassion, and explorations of cosmic consciousness.

I add this picture capturing the reality of light in a dark sky as well representing this metaphysical moment in the evolution of the human species. It is a photo taken by my dear friend and collaborator, an exemplary citizen pilgrim, Hans von Sponeck on his daily morning meditative walk in the countryside of southern Germany. 

January 6th: A Year Later

6 Jan

In retrospect, the attempted insurrection at the Capitol was about a great deal more than an angry expression of disappointment by the populist side of gun culture America. The coup attempt of January 6th failed, yet it succeeded in undermining the unwritten, yet vital, social contract that brought high levels of stability to United States since the republic was established in 1789. The contract had featured a long succession of peaceful transfers of power after national elections. In effect, the U.S. more than almost anywhere earned high praise for its sustained establishment of procedural democracy, further enhanced by a two-party system that put aside differences during times of national emergency proclaiming bipartisanship a political virtue if national security was at risk.

This stability was unquestionably a great achievement for an ethnically and religiously diverse country with a large population, but this American record should be celebrated cautiously, with humility, and massive qualifications that must never be ignored. This U.S. rise to great power status rested on genocidally driven ethnic cleansing of native Americans combined with economic prosperity for a land-based settler colonial white elite that owed its high standard of living to the racist and exploitative benefits of slavery. Even after the American Civil War and the end of slavery, racism remained, was cruel in its dehumanizing effects on perpetrators as well as victims, and extended to the entire country. That the United States could constantly invoke its own exceptionalism and convince most of the world that it was ‘the city on the hill,’ ‘the new Jerusalem,’ and ‘a light unto the nations’ remains without doubt a masterful triumph of public relations and state propaganda, a precursor of the capitalist empires built by Madison Avenue advertising ingenuity. But truth it is not, and never was!

What was true, which was a truthful exception to the big early lies, was the widespread adherence to the electoral process by which political leadership was determined, and legitimized. Procedural democracy at its core remains about the sanctity of elections as credible expressions of citizen consent. Even though there is no text it was this core provision of the social contract that was dangerously weakened by the January 6th assault on the Capitol, and even more than the assault itself, by the instigating and cheerleading role played by Trump and his immediate entourage. Even more telling is the commitment a year later by one of the two major political parties to a manifest falsehood of the greatest political consequence. The Republican Party overwhelmingly supports the central lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and this Trump deserves to be president. We can safely assume that most of the Republican leadership knows that it is endorsing a falsehood, but does so nevertheless for cynical reasons associated with calculations about their own political futures.

In the recent past this national ethos that expected politicians, whatever their ideology, to be good losers was strong enough in 1960 to lead Richard Nixon, not noted for his high morals, to forego any effort to overturn the official results despite strong indications that the votes recorded in Illinois were fraudulently manipulated to hand John F. Kennedy a victory he may not deserved if the votes had been fairly counted. Similarly, in 2000 Al Gore handed the presidency to George W. Bush despite some chicanery in Florida that invalidated a large number of Gore votes and may well have handed the White House over to the Republicans even though they ‘lost’ the elections. The point is not to revisit such controversies, but to show how previously strong was this sense that even when electoral outcomes that possibly had decisive, rough edges the official outcome should be respected for the sake of maintaining  confidence among the citizenry in the trustworthiness of the process. In mounting this ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign Trump repudiated this tradition in a context that lacked even a credible basis for questioning the propriety of the electoral process.

Such behavior prefigures downfall in a political system that stakes its legitimacy on the periodic opportunity of its political parties to nominate candidates, adopt platforms, and compete for the support of the citizenry. Such a procedural democracy does not pretend to rest its legitimacy on justice, yet early on the Constitution was amended to confer civil and political rights on its citizenry with the central abuse of power by the government. Yet to this day America never purported to become a substantive democracy that extends effective social protection or universal human rights to all of its citizens in the manner of many European countries that have upheld a quite different social democratic contract with their citizens . In that sense, the most basic freedom of all for American  citizens, although not inscribed in parchment or openly proclaimed, has been preserving the right of every citizen to fail, a right substantially upheld through times of prosperity and hardship, reflecting the boom and bust bedrock cycles of capitalist theory and practice. The mixture of a cult of individualism together with minimally regulated capitalism is as much a part of constitutional order as are elections and the rule of law, but rarely avowed.

Under the economic weight and political challenges of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the New Deal fashioned by FDR and the Democrats served to rescue capitalism, a recovery process further helped by the onset of World War II. This was something so-called principled conservatives never liked, considering it an encroachment on individualism, which included the sanctified right to fail, and the willingness of those who fail to accept the often cruel consequences resulting in homelessness and denials of health care. A sophisticated interpretation of January 6th would be to regard it as a long deferred payback by Republicans for the alleged abandonment by Democrats of this right to fail, including attendant flirtations with the New Deal safety net of social protection, demonized by the Republicans at the time and ever since as ‘crypto-socialism,’ if not outright socialism. Already in the 1980s Ronald Reagan built the ideological foundations upon which the House of Trump was erected, including dislike of the left, including liberals with particular hostility to organized labor, reproductive rights for woman, permissiveness toward racism, racially tainted toughness on crime, and initiatives that gave the 50 states much more of a governance role in the country at the expense of the central governance structures that operated out of Washington. 

What is almost as worrisome are that the defenders of the old order, mainly the Democrats and the Democratic establishment, are sleepwalking while political subversion on a large scale occurs. Democrats are disunited, lack coherent ideas, and mostly without passion, except at the progressive edges represented by Black Lives Matter and Alexandria Ortega-Cortez and the squad. Remember that AOC, despite being the clearest voice of national conscience was only allowed 30 seconds to speak at the Democratic Party nominating convention in 2019. Also, when it comes to truthfulness, the Democrats also have dirty hands. How many among their leadership condemn the apartheid nature of the Israel state despite the preponderance of the evidence, confirmed by mainstream human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem)? Or propose sanctioning Saudi Arabia in response to the brutal murder of an internationally respected journalist, Jamal Khasoggi, in the Saudi Consulate in 2018, a state crime carried out on orders of the government? And despite school shootings and an epidemic of urban gun violence how many Democrats are willing to advocate the repeal of the Second Amendment or take the political risk of voting against a bloated military budget at a time of growing domestic economic misery? Bringing Joe Biden to the White House in 2021 was a metaphoric display of a moribund opposition that didn’t seem to grasp the central reality that the country was facing a growing crisis of toxic polarization. Biden obviously didn’t understand that his repeated early calls for national unity were not only ineffectual, but called attention to how out of touch he was with political tides sweeping across the country, which were yearning for confrontation, not societal harmony. As Noam Chomsky has been warning us what happened lasst January is still happening. In other words, the coup was not only an event, but that a process that is continuing to haunt our future, gains momentum, and engages willing architects draw up plans for achieving its dark goals.

Such a situation is dire, not only at home but globally. The needed focus on climate change, COVID, refugees and migrants, nuclearism and militarism, international law and the UN, peacemaking in the Middle East is missing, and other concerns is absent.

In other words, January 6th not only broke the social contract between state and society, but also exposed the ineptitude and decay of two-party democracy. Such an exposure should not be limited to the U.S. as parallel descents into political infernos are evident in such varied national contexts as Brazil, India, Myanmar, Philippines, Hungary, Russia. There seems to be a structural flight from humane patterns of governance due almost everywhere, at least partly due to the effects of neoliberal globalization intensifying inequalities and deepens alienation.

What must be evident is that without a surge of revolutionary energies responsive to national, sub-national, regional, and global challenges, the human future is unfolding beneath darkening clouds. Smoothing the rough edges of this American political crisis may buy some needed time to reinvent humane politics in the 21st century at the onset of this first bio-political-ecological-ethical-spiritual crisis ever to confront the human species, and then the hard work of inventing and deploying a transformative politics begins.     

WHAT’S AHEAD FOR PALESTINE IN 2022

2 Jan

[Prefatory Note: A shorter version of this essay was published on the Middle East Eye website on 31 Dec 2021, as one of six pieces in a section called “Middle East Debate” with thetitle “More Traditional Diplomacy, but no stability.” This is a title conferred that I would not have chosen, and so here where I have autonomy, I use a title that I think is more descriptive.]

What’s Ahead for Palestine in 2022

Even before COVID people everywhere were living at a time of great complexity, uncertainty, and confusion. The future is always opaque when it comes to predictions other than near-term projections of current trends, which often turn out to miss occurrences that shatter mainstream expectations. For the Middle East, even modest predictions are often upset by a sudden swerve of events, and in relation to the Israel/Palestine struggle even more so. Putting aside this disclaimer, there are some expectations about 2022 that are worth expressing and sharing.

To begin with, we will witness a growing awareness that traditional diplomacy will not bring stability, much less peace with justice to this struggle that has gone on for more than a century. 2022 is likely going to experience an overdue funeral that finally pronounces the death of Oslo Diplomacy along with its reliance on direct negotiations between the two sides and supposed to end with the establishment of a sovereign Palestine. Throughout the process the U.S. was cast in the role of neutral intermediary, sometimes half ironically identified as ‘honest broker.’ This might have seemed plausible enough in Netflix TV series, but in the real world Oslo from the outset set a trap for the Palestinians, served as an expansionist opportunity for the Israelis, and continued to allow Washington to persist in its theater role of projecting a false sense of good will to all, a peacemaker rather than a geopolitical manager.  

It has by now dawned on everyone with even half open eyes that the political leaders of Israel don’t want a political compromise of the sort embedded in the Oslo process even, as was assume, its contours would lean heavily in Israel’s favor. Israeli has long shrugged off international pressures to comply with international law or to pretend support for a peace process guided from Washington. It is evident that Israel has for some years felt confident enough to stop pretending that it supports a diplomatically arranged solution. No foreseeable surge of Palestinian armed resistance is perceived as posing much of a threat, especially as neighboring Arab regimes have become distracted or detached from the conflict, with some governments displaying a willingness to accept normal diplomatic relations and join openly with Israel in confronting Iran.

This image of dead-end diplomacy when it comes to Palestine is reinforced by the U.S. posture post-Trump. On the one side, the Biden presidency has signaled that it will not challenge Trump’s signature moves, including relocating the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, confirming Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, endorsing the ‘Normalization Accords’ and even actively promoting their expansion, capped by reassurances to Israel that it will collaborate regionally, especially when it comes to Iran. At the same time, Biden seeks to appear moderate in tone, which explains Washington’s renewal of public avowal of support for a two-state solution and the issuance of mild rebukes when Israel uses excessive violence against Palestinian civilians or moves to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. I would suppose that even Biden realizes that the two-state solution has long been a Zombie fix that allows Israel to let the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians continue indefinitely while verbally holding onto a commitment that includes acknowledging a Palestinian right of self-determination. In this sense, the best guess is that when it comes to substance Biden will go along with Trump’s, while adopting a public stance that is less shrilly partisan than was his predecessor in the White House. As matters now stand the Biden presidency is weak, unable to push forward its domestic agenda, which has disappointed the American public, tanking Biden’s approval ratings. Under these circumstances, the last thing Biden wants in 2022 is even the mildest break with Israel of the sort that occurred toward the end of the Obama presidency. The fear of Israeli wrath knows no bounds when it comes to mainstream American politicians.

At the international level, it seems likely that no meaningful additional pressure will be placed on Israel to seek a sustainable peace or even to uphold its obligations under international humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The UN Human Rights Council will continue to issue reports critical of Israel’s behavior and Israel will continue to disregard the basic human rights of Palestinians living under occupation, and suffer no adverse consequences for doing so, and yet hysterically complain about Israel-bashing at the UN. The General Assembly will pass more resolutions in 2022 condemning Israel’s policies, and calling for censure and possibly an arms embargo, but nothing will happen except that UN will stand further accused, with implications that Jews are once again the victims of anti-Semitism. The only internationalist hope is that the International Criminal Court (ICC) will proceed next year with its investigations of Israeli flagrant violations of international criminal law since 2014, but this is a slender reed. The ICC has a new UK prosecutor who is thought to be receptive to US/Israeli opposition with going forward, and may prove susceptible to strong back channel geopolitical efforts to induce the ICC to drop the case. He has certainly taken his time to announce plans to carry forward the investigatory process. In my view there is less than a 50/50 chance that even should investigation be resumed, it will be allowed to reach the indictment stage despite overwhelming evidence of Israeli criminality. However, if the ICC jumps ship altogether, it will likely provoke widespread outrage, encouraging Palestinian resistance and global solidarity.

In my view, the most notable developments in 2022 will flow from the impacts of disillusionment with any hope that constructive action can follow from the peace diplomacy of the past or new UN pressures. Palestinian resistance will continue to send signals to the world that the struggle goes on no matter how hard Israel works to convince the public opinion that it has prevailed in the struggle, and that the best that the Palestinians can hope for are economic benefits to be bestowed following a Palestinian political surrender in the form of an acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state along with a pledge not to oppose Zionist Ambitions to conquer what remains of the ‘promised land.’ In other words, the year ahead will likely announce to the world that Israel is opting for a one-state unilateral solution based on Jewish supremacy along with a Palestinian refusal to swallow such toxic Kool Aid.

Given this line of thinking, the most encouraging development for the Palestinians in the year ahead is in the symbolic domain of politics, what I have previously called the Legitimacy War dimensions of political conflict. It is here the Palestinians are winning even in America, especially among younger Jews, along with some signs that the bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress is splintering, at least at the edges.

We all need to keep reminding ourselves of four salient features of the present context: (1) the Palestinians are fighting an anti-colonial war against an apartheid government in Israel; (2) the major anti-colonial wars have been won, not by the stronger side militarily, but by the winner of the Legitimacy War as the U.S. discovered in Vietnam, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan; (3) as Israel is a settler colonial state with racist overtones, such struggles should be understood as the most vicious and pronounced and more difficult to bring to an end that ordinary anti-colonial wars; (4) the Palestinians will be increasing seen by the informed global public and media as winning the Legitimacy War; this impression will  be supported by continued fact-finding at the UN and possibly by further engagement on the part of the ICC.

2022 will in all likelihood not bear witness to any transformative event bearing on Palestinian prospects for achieving their basic rights, but the anticipated shift from investing false hopes in inter-governmental diplomacy to civil society activism will become better understood, giving rise to patterns of stronger non-violent solidarity efforts. The analogies to apartheid South Africa is becoming more widely appreciated. This makes South Africa’s alignment with the Palestinian struggle by its support of BDS, advocacy of an arms embargo, and other initiatives has great symbolic significance during the year ahead in relation to the all-important Legitimacy War. Israel’s attempt of a few months ago to destroy the vitality and funding base of Palestinian civil society by branding six leading human rights NGOs as ‘terrorist’ entities should be seen as not only a severe violation of its obligations as Occupying Power under the Geneva Conventions, but more significantly as a desperate sign of weakness in the ongoing Legitimacy War.

Private Prescriptions for a Better Life in 2022

1 Jan

[Prefatory Note: a thoughtful Indian friend in Paris sent this listas her prescription for a better life in 2022. I adopted her list and added to it. I invite readers of this blog to propose their own additions and subtractions.]

2022

More sleep

More music

More tea

More books

More creating

More long walks

More Laughter

More Dreaming

More Love                  

RAF Additions

+more peace

+more justice

+ more tennis

+more poems

+more chess

Was China’s amazing rise due to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ or ‘capitalism with a Chinese facade? Or a little of both?  

23 Dec

There has in recent months many discussions centering around the proper characterization of China from an ideological point of view. The Chinese leadership has its own reasons for doing this, seeking to present what it deems a glorious self-image. In contrast, the West, especially the United States has wanted to offer an ideological explanation of its confrontational stance with China. Part of the ideological confusion is whether or not China can be considered to be a type of ‘democratic’ state, which it sometimes claims to be. China was not invited to take part in Biden’s Summit of Democracies, but questionable democracies as Israel, India, and the Philippines received invitations. What the United States has refrained from doing is to attribute China’s success to its mastery of and reliance upon maket-managed economic policy.

In my judgement, China’s self-identification as ‘a Communist state’ in certain contexts is no more misleading than the U.S. assumption that it possesses all the credentials to be claimed the world’s leading ‘democracy.’ There are features of both political systems that defy such labels from a descriptive perspective. China accelerated its amazing development process of the last 50 years by sometimes defining its system of governance as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ which was a coded way of expressing its participation at home and internationally in the capitalist world economy guided by a perspective usually described as ‘neoliberal globalization.’ Such an identity was underscored by Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), widely accepted as an institutional body entrusted with overseeing and promoting global capitalism in its neoliberal phase. It is became common for economists to describe China after the market friendly reforms to attract foreign investment and promoted trade associated with Deng Xiaoping leadership in 1991 as establishing a ‘socialist market economy.’ To ideological militants in the West to be ‘socialist’ amounts to being ‘communist,’ a negative characterization applicable not only to China but also to social democracy in Scandinavia or liberal tendencies of the Democratic Party in the United States.

It is obvious that invoking the label ‘Communist’ by a party leader in Beijing is quite different than its use as a political slur by right-wing politics in Europe and North America. When Chinese officials insist on ascribing a Communist identity to China it functions as a claim of  legitimacy, confirming fidelity to its founding ideology and recalling its revolutionary struggle. When agitators inside and outside of government in the West call China ‘Communist,’ or even ‘Socialist’ it is meant as both as an insult and a warning about an alien ideology that poses a domestic threat by way of leftist and even left liberal politics.

Looked at differently, China exemplifies the Communist political tradition after the Cold War associated with Marx and Lenin, and later Mao, in certain crucial respects. The Communist Party provides authoritative ideological guidance in relation to its own governing process, overseees one-party rule, provides guidance for political education and citizenship, and entrusts leadership to a single person essentially for lifetime. The current leader, Xi Jinping exemplifies this tradition in all respects. No political alternatives are accepted as legitimate challengers to Communist rule. In periodic five-year high-level conferences of the Chinese Communist Party leadership ideological articles of faith are reaffirmed and adjustments made by expressions of consensus seemingly shaped by the leader.  The Chinese government from the moment of its takeover of the Chinese mainland in 1949 has suppressed dissent, and insisted on an extreme form of secularism that has regulated religious movements strictly, sometimes harshly, particularly if they dare to exhibit political ambitions.

Despite some superficial resemblances to the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, it would be deeply misleading to view China through a Soviet lens or by way of post-World War II geopolitics. Two extraordinary differences highlight the gaps between the Cold War era and the present confrontation with China: first, in contrast to the Soviet Union, China has compiled a remarkable record of administrative competence, which has overseen the greatest economic and geopolitical ascent of any country in all of history, a story confirmed by spectacular growth, alleviation of extreme poverty, and increasing dominance of the most significant technological frontiers of 21st innovation; secondly, China’s expansionist foreign policy has been completely reliant on soft power instruments of influence, producing many win/win solutions, including its hyper-ambitious Belt and Road Project, and contrasting dramatically with the Western rise and Soviet attainment of superpower status which were based on military conquest and imperial forms of coercive control. It is the U.S. hostile reaction that confronts China rather than cooperates that seems mainly responsible for

inducing China to place an ever greater emphasis on military capabilities to maintain its national interests by discouraging U.S. provocations. The West should be learning from China rather than treating China as the second coming of the USSR, necessitating an ideological and militarizing mobilization for a new cold war that the world cannot afford, diverting attention and resources from a series of urgent global challenges posed by climate change, pandemics, global migration, gross inequalities that did not seriously impact on international relations.

Only the costly arms race, especially its nuclear dimension, made the last half of the 20th century vulnerable to catastrophe on a global scale, threatening species survival, prepared the public sphere for its present policy agenda.

Xi Jinping has been claiming that he is adapting Marxism to contemporary condition under the banner of ‘Marxism for the 21st Century.’ As near I can tell this terminology is used mainly as a way to identify and highlight the charismatic relevance of Xi Jinping personal leadership, and in the process elevate him to the status of the most eminent of revolutionary leaders, above all as the equal of Mao Zedong. Xi’s  ideological viewpoint has been also associated with explaining what is meant by the phrase ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In ideological discourse, especially internationally, Xi commonly refers to the ‘socialist’ nature of the Chinese approach rather than to claim its ‘communist’ character.’ Xi clearly wants his various audiences to believe that Marxist thought remains as dynamic and relevant as ever, being ‘full of vitality,’ and thus the key to future human happiness.


The Chinese references to 21sst century Marxism is also a way of entering dialogue with Marxist political parties in other societies and creating a common global discourse. It also seems a way to be faithful to Markist-Leninis traditions of thought without having to comment critically upon the Soviet-led interval as a departure from Marxism. Put in positive terms Marxism in the 21st century calls for dedication to ‘human progress’ focused on building ‘a shared future for humanity’ in collaboration with congenial forces around the world

Whether China is viewed as a Communist center of power or not is less important than for the West to relate to China in a manner that is mutually beneficial for world peace and multilateralism. The policy emphasis on the West should be on not only learning from China but on bringing out the most constructive responses in relation to China’s potential indispensable contributions to world order. Such a view is not blind to Chinese violations of human rights or the excesses of Han nationalism, but it views these undeniable blemishes as best left to dynamics of internal reform and to the pressures mounted by global civil society, rather than as presently, a form of geopolitical harassment and anti-Chinese mobilization.

Covering Up Failure: Ignoring the Record of Regime-Changing Interventions

6 Dec

[Prefatory Note: the post below is the modified text of a keynote presentation at Fifth International Conference in Public Administration, Sofia University, Kliment Ohridski, “Public Governance after 2020: What we Know When we Know Nothing?” the title of my remarks was “The Record of American Military Intervention Since Vietnam: Why Knowledge Rarely Matters.” My central claim was that the militarized U.S. political class rejects the record of failure with respect to regime-changing interventions since suffering defeat in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.]

“Covering up Failure: Ignoring the Record of Regime-Changing Interventions”

My remarks may seem somewhat almost irrelevant to the conference theme of “public governance.” In actuality, I think this inquiry is uncomfortably on point, provided we treat law, morality, knowledge as vital components of public governance. The central question being asked is ‘why American foreign policy persists in carrying out regime-changing interventions in countries of the Global South when the performative record has been so consistently dismal since 1975. These interventions have proved to be costly failures ever since Vietnam, and include Iraq and indirectly Libya, and most recently Afghanistan. With such a record surely the members of the U.S. political class, generally intelligent and well-educated, can be assumed to have become aware that under 21st century conditions such political/military undertakings do not work. This was not a welcome message in Washington, and was not allowed to influence American foreign policy, excepts in marginal respects.

It would seem that knowledge of failure doesn’t fundamentally reshape policy when strong bureaucratic and private special interests oppose a major substantive adjustment that challenges entrenched power. The negative assessment by the public of the lost war was dubbed in establishment circles as the ‘the Vietnam syndrome,’ suggesting a medical disorder in the body politic that was having the effect of irrationally constraining U.S. threats and uses of military force in light of the Vietnam experience. At first, some tactical adjustments were made by strategic planners in Washington that were hoped to serve as a cure for what had gone wrong in Vietnam without rejecting the viability of military intervention if future geopolitical challenges arise. These adjustments included professionalizing the U.S. armed forces (and eliminating the draft of ordinary citizens that sparked the anti-war movement as casualties accumulated), embedding media representative with combat units as well as not showing on TV returning servicemen and women in coffins, and refashioning counterinsurgency doctrine to stress bonding with the national population. Such changes helped restore the viability of regime-change, quickly restoring credibility of such undertakings in elite circles. These adjustments while well received in government circles, but were not sufficient to convince the American public that it was

desirable for the country to get back in the intervention business. It took the First Gulf War of 1991 to achieve this result, a quick battlefield victory in a war with widespread regional and international support, which showed to advantage American superior weaponry and had the added of largely being financed by allies of the US. It was left to President George H.W. Bush to run the victory lap: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” Sadly, Bush’s comment was vindicated by revived U.S. militarism and foreign intervention, especially in the Middle East.

The victory achieved against Iraq’s inferior military forces was projected as an impressive instance of the decisive relevance of military superiority, but its relevance to the Vietnam-type experience was misinterpreted, possibly deliberately. The First Gulf War in 1991 was essentially a conventional war, a typical undertaking of collective self-defense resolved by encounters between opposed military force, and having the single goal of reversing Iraq’s prior conquest, occupation, and annexation of Kuwait. The war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not involve intervention for regime-change or interference with the post-war political orientation of Kuwait. In fact, regime change in Baghdad was explicitly rejected as a goal by the American president. On the contrary, Kuwait’s sovereignty and independence was restored, while Iraq’s sovereignty and independence was respected, although the Iraqi people were seriously victimized by the imposition of post-war sanctions.

Despite the character of the First Gulf War, it proved possible to sell the victory to the American people as providing renewed confidence in U.S. capabilities to wage again cost effective warfare, especially on missions calling for regime change and occupation. In effect, the bad memories of Vietnam were erased prematurely. This shift in strategic outlook and the public mood paved the way to the notable  failures of subsequent years in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. True these failures were politically mild as compared to Vietnam largely by the political effect of shifting battlefield tactics away from land warfare, by relying on weapons and tactical innovations that produced many fewer American casualties and what deaths did occur were those of professional soldiers that assumed such risk by their own volition, and by privatizing war-making through contract arrangements with new commercial undertakings of a mercenary nature. These features of subsequent interventions in the Global South had the net effect of weakening anti-war activism in the United States despite the fact that the Iraq War of 2003 replicated the experience of the Vietnam, completely failing in its political objectives, including securing a friendly reception from the targeted society.

The larger dynamic involves the public management of unwelcome knowledge. An awkward challenge faced the foreign policy elite in the U.S.–What should we do when we know something we would rather not know? A condition of radical uncertainty pertains to the future of international relations. Governments are confronting increasingly problematic relations of knowledge, policy, and behavior with respect to public governance. I believe this reflects the pressures exerted by an unprecedented bio-ethical-political-ecological crisis for which there is no diagnosis—as in the Asian acknowledgement of helplessness: ‘disease unknown, cure unknown.’ The knowledge foundations of modernity resting on science, rationality, empirical observation, open debate has been subverted. ‘Why do nothing when we know something’ (versus What We Know When We Know Nothing) With a mobilized political will governments have the tools, knowhow,

and capability to address climate change even if unable to reach consensus as to the underlying malaise

Why intervention has not been a successful policy option for militarily strong states seeking to retain entrenched colonial possessions or pursue hegemonic/geopolitical ambitions in the world since the end of WW II? During the Cold War this observation applied to both the Soviet Union and the U.S.? The Soviet experience in Eastern Europe and later in Afghanistan strengthened impression of widespread illegitimacy and impotence of these forms of militarist geopolitics, inducing persevering forms of national resistance and leading to an eventual successful assertion of national self-determination that produced political failure for the intervening side of the struggle.

The U.S. experience was somewhat more ambiguous but also bloodier than that of its closest allies, the main European colonial powers were encountering historical forces that were part of a worldwide decolonizing momentum. Israel was the most important exception to such a transformative global trend. For distinctive reasons the Zionist movement managed to establish a settler colonial state in Palestine at a time when the historical flow was strongly favorable to anti-colonial aspirations due to the weakening of Europe by the two world wars, rising nationalism elsewhere, a favorable normative climate for European decolonization associated with Soviet opposition to colonialism and US ambivalence.

The American War in Vietnam was a sequel to the lost French colonial war in Indochina. It was a war fought at the interface between the colonial era and the Cold War epoch. signaling the hazards of large-scale external military intervention seeking to control the political future of a formerly colonized country in the Global South. The outcome exhibited the failure of intervention despite being backed by overwhelming military superiority. This bewildering reality was confirmed over and over again in subsequent years. It should have demonstrated to the political class in the Global North that enjoying an edge on the battlefield was no match for determined resistance especially if bolstered by external assistance, skilled tactics of resistance, and sustained by the deep roots of nationalism.

We are left with some questions. Why has this repeated experience of defeat insufficiently convincing to discourage intervention? How was China able to learn to satisfy its geopolitical ambitions outside its immediate region and border areas by non-military means? Is this learning disparity the key factor that explains U.S. decline and China’s rise? Or is it more a matter of state-guided capitalism being superior to market-driven capitalism, at least against the background of Asian political culture? Or are the economistic benefits of authoritarian order, including the distribution of material benefits, a large part of the story of the rise and fall of great powers under contemporary conditions?

What we should know by now is that imperial reliance by the Global North on hard power to control societies in the Global South is a costly, prolonged undertaking, prone to failure and is a major reason for the power shifts from West to East during the last half century. Whether the West, led by the U.S. will continue to rely on militarist geopolitics to confront the challenge of China, and the East, still remains an open question. As does the complementary question as to how China and others will respond, whether by geopolitical realignment or by a reflexive geopolitics that confronts Western militarization with its own versions of militarized postures in foreign policy and at home. Not far in the background are the ecological challenges associated with climate change that may make traditional geopolitics, including the diversion of energies and resources associated with arms races and war, a fatal indulgence for the human species.

Climate Change in an Unjust World

23 Nov

Climate Change in an Unjust World

–It is a great pleasure to participate once again in this annual Congress on Agricultural and Food Ethics. The fact that it coincides with the UN COP-26 Summit on CC taking place is especially appropriate for at least two reasons: (1) it recognizes the degree to which ethical limits pertaining to agriculture and all aspects of food security are being tested by the worsening of the climate change crisis; (2) looking ahead it becomes apparent that conflict patterns and the source of the majority of migrants will arise from global warming impacting on agriculture and food security in ways that call attention to the unjustness of the world on many levels, including geoeconomics, ecological, political, with the ethical lines most crudely drawn to display the boundaries between the Global North and the Global South.

–My topic is somewhat broader than the explicit focus of the Congress as it does not directly consider the agricultural and food dimensions of an unjust world. Yet if the specificity of the victimization of societies and peoples in the Global South are analyzed it will be quickly appreciated that the nature of their vulnerability to climate change reflects above all the relevance of agriculture and food security. There is little doubt that these more vulnerable countries, whose challenges have been aggravated by neoliberal globalization, gross inequalities, elite corruption, the paucity of resources, exploitative foreign investments, as well as the vagaries of climate. Such practices as large-scale land-grabbing by foreign companies to enable the development of industrial agriculture often disrupting communities inhabited by people dependent on traditional farming and agricultural become among those hardest hit by CC and least able to cope with it. These conditions of deprivation, which characteristically exhibit the cumulative impacts of various forms of injustice, including the greening of Europe at the ecological expense of Africa. In effect, the dynamics of climate change, including adjustments made to lessen or postpone its impacts—‘buying time’—have the effects of reproducing and accentuating the myriad injustices of the global system of international order;

–a root reality of injustice experience in the way global warming points to data that shows that the 1% of the world population is currently subject to barely livable climate conditions, This figure is expected to increase in the future reaching an incredible anticipated 19% by 2070. What should disturb us is that literally all of the affected countries are situated in the Global South, mainly Africa and large portions of Northern South America and Central America. It is estimated that these extreme conditions of livelihood will alone produce more than a billion climate refugees; in addition, even the rich countries of the Gulf may face severe crises in coming decades if the fossil fuel phase out is implemented in the Global North as seems increasingly likely. This core of CC adaptation is almost certain to take no more than minimal account of the inequities of the preoccupation in the North with reducing carbon emissions as rapidly as possible, which will entail its own more local adjustment calamities, and would lead these governments to give much attention by way of funding to the effect of softening the human impacts of such dislocations. It seems evident as never before in human history that it has become an urgent and practical necessity to find win/win solutions to CC challenges. This will not be easy as Western capitalism and geopolitics has ascended the ladders of wealth and power by relentlessly pursuing win/lose logics. It may be time to appreciate and learn from Chinese mastery of a win/win approach to foreign policy as exemplified by their Road and Belt Project and their ascent from a poor and weak nation to a challenger for the top position. Of course, the challenges of development are not the same as those of CC but the reliance on soft power as a prime policy mechanism is highly relevant both ecologically and ethically.

–Climate change in the world we know operates as what policy analysts call ‘threat multipliers.’ For instance, Syria suffered from poverty, discontent, and ethnic/religious tensions before 2011, but when climate change seemed responsible for drought in the North, undermining agriculture as a way of life, it internally displaced Syrians in the North, aggravating tensions elsewhere in the country. This Syrian crisis was further aggravated by a Chinese food shortage at the time that led China to make large purchases on world markets driving food prices much higher. This produced a tipping point in Syria where long simmering tensions turned to massive violence at a time of regional upheaval known as the Arab Spring. The resulting decade long civil strife caused more than 494 & 606k deaths, and more that 6.7 million internally displaced and 5.1 refugees (3.8m in Turkey, 670k Germany). It also exported extremes of chauvinistic or anti-migrant nationalism throughout the Global North, especially in Europe. Gross injustices were intensified for the direct victims of the Syrian strife that illuminate patterns of victimization on a global scale. The tragedies experienced by Syrians forced to leave their homeland in search of livelihoods and even subsistence to support themselves and families encountered hostility wherever they went, and were treated as disposable human beings;

There is some moderately good news: Quincy Institute—rethinking national security to overcome grip on policy of political class holding onto obsolete paradigm of ‘political realism’ what Anatol Lieven in an important article calls the anachronistic influence of ‘residual elites’ [“This is not a failure of the Biden administration alone. Rather, it stems from deeply embedded cultures, traditions, and interests within the U.S. establishment as a whole. America today is suffering from an acute case of “residual elites” — elites that came into being in one historical context and to meet one set of historical challenges, and are by nature unfit to deal with a new historical era and a new set of national tasks.”] that are out of touch with threats to national security; in the U.S. seems more enlightened about CC than the foreign policy establishment, elevating the dangers of CC high above those being caused by the deepening geopolitical rivalry with China. Will the leaders listen? Will the public, especially the

awakening youth, exert enough pressure to make the political class cut themselves off from the militarist mind-set and traditional special interests.

–increased recognition that the cost of not offsetting the damage being caused by CC with substantial financial assistance will cause local conflict, material shortages, and generate streams of climate migrants desperate to escape the devastation and loss of livelihood due to rising sea levels, extreme weather events, industrial agriculture that lead to massive human displacements as well as mutually beneficial interdependence of natural habitats and human wellbeing;

–only a transnational ethos of human solidarity based on the genuine search for win/win solutions can hope to respond effectively to the magnitude and diversity of the growing CC challenge. Only a transition to such an ethos alter the world trend of retreating into nationalist enclaves of protectionism that intensified the political and psychological fragmentation of the world. A midway position between the functionally necessary and the ethically desirable meta-nationalist perspective would be what is being called ‘responsible statecraft’ by the richer, more powerful countries—an acknowledgement of their rising national self-interest in maximizing CC adaptation and mitigation efforts at their source. For this to work it requires a sufficient consensus in the Global North to apportion assessments for assisting countries in need, mainly in the Global South, while encouraging responsible internal statecraft in the recipient countries.

–altering the present mismatch between gravity and proximate causes of harm and mobilizing effective responses; importance of civil society activism and local initiative, also procedures for responsibility, accountability, and enlightened self-interest, precautionary principle; overcoming short-termism; reciprocity present due migrants, source of food supply, overall stability, promotion of basic human rights.

On the Collective Will of the Human Species to Survive

23 Nov

The human will to survive is often uncritically taken for granted, which was of little consequence prior to the advent of the nuclear age in 1945. That the first atomic explosion was the event chosen by the scientific community agreed to signal the advent of the age of the Anthropocene is of added significance. The general understanding of the Anthropocene is that of human activity that is impactful on the basic equilibrium of the planetary ecosystem. Subsequent developments associated with the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming have confirmed the alarming extent of reckless human agency with respect to the ecological equilibrium of the planet.

The inverse effects of the Anthropocene have received less attention, that is, of the ecological backlash that imperils the survival of the human species. For the first time in world history the intentional activities of the human species endanger its own existence and future, as well as various global, regional, and local ecosystems that have collapsed or are collapsing. Of course, throughout world history species in particular locales have behaved in ways that brought about their collective destruction, and this certainly includes the human species. In the past, there have been waves of non-human extinction that have altered the biodiversity of the planet. {see Collapse; Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: The Unnatural History (2014)]. The scale of past threats to human existence were all at the sub-species level, affecting the destinies of imperiled society or civilization. [See Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004)].

What is unique about the present historical conjunction of circumstances is that the dominant threats so far posed in this century are directed toward the species as a whole. This threat is compounded by the realities of human experience that have been organized so as to promote sub-species survival, especially, at the level of the territorial sovereign state. This fundamental organizational feature of world order in strongly reinforced by ideologies of nationalism that rely on sub-species optics of appraisal, and unreflectively solidify sub-species loyalty as the loftiest aspiration of a fragmented species. Extra-nationalist identities do exist, sometimes strongly, in the form or religious affiliation, civilizational sentiments of belonging, ethnic, ideological, and gender bonding of various sorts. What does not exist with sufficient strength to counter the tyranny of sub-species primacy are mechanisms of sufficient capability to protect the distinctly human interest in species survival or the global interest in essential forms of inter-species coexistence.  

After the major wars of the prior century, there were let loose strong bio-political impulses on the part of publics and leaders of victorious powers to regulate and even institutionalize the human interest. The Just War Doctrine had earlier tried to give a religious and quasi-legal underpinning of universal justice to recourse to and conduct of war, but its interpretation was subordinated to the interpretive manipulations and geopolitical ambitions of leaders of sovereign states especially in the West, making clear that sub-species priorities prevail over international law whenever they clash. The historical disruptions of the major 20th century wars gave rise a widespread sense of human jeopardy in the West that led to the establishment of global institutions. The carnage of World War I led to the establishment of the League of Nations and the atom bomb imparted a sense of urgency after World War II to the prevention of a feared World War III. Yet the outcomes of these institutional strivings did not seriously challenge sub-species dominance, and provided convenient venues for global communication and cooperative arrangements that served the reciprocal and mutual interests of sovereign states while leaving global hierarchies intact. Despite the rhetoric of globalism, the heavy lifting of war prevention was self-consciously attached to the nationalist mechanisms of sub-species management of statist and alliance security systems that featured deterrence and crisis management. The UN has proved to be valuable in many contexts, despite being designed to fail when it came to the protection of species well-being as distinct from promoting the interests of one category of sub-species political actors, that is, dominant sovereign states. This deliberate dynamic is signaled in the case of the UN by giving the most dangerous states a generalized veto power that indirectly confers impunity and non-accountability. UN deference to geopolitics was also expressed by leaving funding under the control of the member governments, and by curtailing the authority of the chief executive officer, the Secretary General. This shortcoming of the UN was more telling than the earlier experience with the League as the atomic bomb forewarned of an unprecedented apocalyptic menace to the entire species, a new reality in human experience, perhaps not entirely new, given earlier experiences with pandemics that created political imaginaries of the end of the world and the acknowledged possibility that a giant meteor might crash into the planet changing its orbit and habitability. 

Europe has experimented since after World War II with efforts to overcome the dangers of sub-species conflict at the level of the region, with mixed results. Its achievements include almost totally avoiding intra-regional warfare of the sort that had ravaged Europe for centuries, as well as defending Western Europe against real or imagined threats posed by feared Soviet aggression (a result achieved with the help of the American-led NATO alliance).  Europe also established a common currency that allowed European economies to flourish over a period of seven decades, and also facilitated trade and travel with Europe. At the same time, regional identity never took root, and most Europeans continued to define themselves by reference to their country, a dynamic manifested most clearly by the BREXIT withdrawal of the United Kingdom from European Union membership despite the material benefits of belonging. Even if the EU manages to fulfill most of the dreams of its supporters it would still be a sub-species actor, perhaps with a more enlightened outlook, but still subject to the priorities and worldview associated with sub-species perspectives on the formation of global policy. If there were any doubts about this, they were removed in recent years by the hostile receptions accorded to migrants from combat zones in the Middle East and African countries most victimized by global warming.

Even if nuclearism as security posture and near catastrophe didn’t tip the balance in the direction of species due to its abstract character and the coherence of the sub-species regimes set up to exert allegedly rational control under geopolitical auspices, I would have supposed that climate change would do the necessary job of reconstructing in globalist directions the way we think, feel, and act. [See Martin J. Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (2020)] Unlike recourse to nuclear war, which stimulated a genre of dystopian literature and scenarios of doom, the climate change threats were confirmed as virtual certainties by a strong consensus prevailing among those climate experts, and presented to the world by a host of reliable interpreters, including the UN Panel on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [See especially dire warnings, Sixth Assessment Report 2021: The Physical Basis (on climate system and climate change)]. In other words the knowledge paradigm that was associated with modernity, which was supposedly based on science, rationality, empirical observation, data, and experimental validation, would have led to transformative energies that gave emergency backing to a species-scale imperative to transcend national interests in favor of human and global interests.[Naomi Oreskes & Erik W. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2004)] Yet despite the evidence, the sub-species framework for problem-solving remains unchallenged except by civil society activists. [Robert C. Johansen, Where the Evidence Leads: A Realistic Strategy for Peace and Human Security (2021)]

There is a widespread recognition that the COP-26 Glasgow Climate Change Summit was a major disappointment. Not only was the sub-species architecture entrusted with responding to the multiple challenges, but disparities of national circumstances precluded meaningful levels of sub-species cooperative arrangements and left the commitments that were made in the aspirational language of pledges and voluntary undertakings.. Entrenched interests exerted far too much influence, as did embedded notions of ‘political realism,’ which continued to link security of people to governmental protection against military threats and geopolitical rivalry and paid far too little attention to the critical challenge of a looming bio-ecological-ethical-political-spiritual crisis that cannot be overcome without the emergence of robust collective will of the human species to survive, which implies a radical transformation of what makes life worth living for most human inhabitants of the planet.  

Is This a Sputnik Moment? or a Paranoid Geopolitical Moment?

6 Nov

US Military Interests Are Promoting a Culture of Fear With China

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley listens to a question during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on September 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley listens to a question during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on September 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington,

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a slightly modified interview with Daniel Falcone that was publisher on Nov. 5, 2021 by TRUTHOUT. It attempts to challenge the pathological geopolitics that diverts attention from climate change and the global justice agenda in a period of growing dangers.]

Daniel Falcone introduction: Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley recently interpreted China’s testing of a hypersonic missile as designed to evade U.S. nuclear defenses as “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” for the United States. The comments underscore an ongoing pattern on the part of the U.S. government and corporate media structure that reinforces and instigates dangerous preexisting geopolitical tensions with China, a rhetorical theme unnecessarily produced by a Sinophobic bipartisan U.S. political elite.

In this interview, international relations scholar Richard Falk provides the historical context of Sputnik and summarizes U.S. interests in promoting a culture of fear with China. Falk also outlines how prospects for a new Cold War could ultimately subside due to increased focuses about the climate emergency and COVID, thus rendering geopolitics less relevant, which is both fortunate and unfortunate for its own sets of reasons. 

Daniel Falcone: On Bloomberg Television, Gen. Mark Milley referred to China’s hypersonic weapons test as close to a “Sputnik moment” that has our attention. Can you comment on the meaning of this language and provide historical context.

Richard Falk: I interpret General Milley’s remark as primarily intended to raise security concerns relating to the deepening geopolitical rivalry with China, or perhaps as a reflection of these. To call the hypersonic weapons test by China “close to a Sputnik moment” was suggesting that it was posing a systemic threat to American technological supremacy directly relevant to national security and the relative military capabilities of the two countries. The reference to a Sputnik moment was a way of recalling an instance when the geopolitical rival of the day, which in 1957 was of course the Soviet Union, suddenly caught the U.S. by a frightening surprise, becoming the first sovereign state with the capacity to send a satellite into space with an ability to orbit the Earth, and possibly in the future by this means dominate the political life of the entire planet. 

This capacity was not in of itself a threat but was taken to mean that the Soviet Union was more technologically sophisticated than was understood by the public, and apparently even by the U.S. intelligence. It was politically used as a spur to increased investment in space technology, and it led some years later to a triumphant moment for the United States when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, enabling the U.S. to reclaim the lead in the space dimension of the Cold War rivalry and to indirectly recover confidence in its military prowess and geopolitical preeminence. In retrospect, the actual relevance of the Sputnik moment was in the domain of symbolic geopolitics without real relevance to the course or outcome of the Cold War, or even the course of space exploration, although it may havCe infused these technological developments with the feverish spirit of Cold War competition. 

Supposedly the aim of the Chinese test is to develop a supersonic missile capable of encircling the Earth by means of a spatial orbit and a flexible reentry capability, which is perceived as having the ability to evade radar and existing defense systems currently in use to intercept incoming missiles. In that sense, Milley’s pronouncement in the course of the Bloomberg interview can best be understood as an intensification of the slide toward geopolitical confrontation, and an accompanying arms race with China, a set of circumstances that already possesses many features of a second Cold War, although occurring under radically different historical circumstances than the rivalry with the Soviet Union, and with its chief political actors much less similar in their modes of behavior.

It will likely become the beginning of agitation and a campaign to increase the bloated defense budget still further, which is as always likely to find a receptive and gullible bipartisan audience in the U.S. Congress. No recent statement by a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has enjoyed such success as Milley in setting off national security alarm bells, uncritically highlighted and endorsed by mainstream media.

What I found surprising, yet in keeping with the mobilization of anti-China public opinion, was the failure of both Milley and the commentary to suggest a different twist to this news item. It could have been presented a dangerous and expensive technological threshold that calls for mutual restraint and possibly agreements limiting further developments or even contemplating cooperative arrangements. President Joe Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken could have used the occasion to declare that the world at this stage could not afford such costly and risky distractions, as an all-out arms race in space. 

It seems that this Sputnik moment by an imaginative military leader could have been turned into an opportunity for peace rather than a threat of future war. It might have provided a dramatic moment to embark upon a path of reconciliation with China that would benefit not only the two countries but humanity in general. Of course, such a turn would be viciously attacked by the militarists in both parties as weakness instead of strength. Remember the derision heaped on President Barack Obama for daring “to lead from behind” in the 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervention in Libya. Given the mess resulting from that military operation, there is reason to view Obama’s reluctance as a show of strategic wisdom as well as prudence. 

Q: Is this a political statement in your estimation, or a sober comment by high-ranking official?

I do consider Milley’s statement, made without qualifications and accompanying comments, as providing the basis for two possible lines of response: a geopolitical reflex of alarm and heightened tensions in keeping with the confrontational character of recent American foreign policy, or a measured reaction that urged mutual restraint and a search for a cooperative framework with respect to the militarization of space in the interests of world peace, but also with respect to the avoidance of an expensive and highly uncertain extensions of arms competition. 

The fact this “road not taken” was not even mentioned by Milley as an alternative is deeply disappointing, although in keeping with the prevailing mood in Washington. As well, the feverish media reportage of his provocative sounding of Sputnik alarm bells suggests that public policy debate is taking place in an atmosphere of ideological closure if the issue involves China. This should be deeply worrying.

Q: President Biden recently participated in a CNN “town hall” and again instigated China. China does not seem to be intimidated by the United States. Can you elaborate on how that reality impacts heads of state overall?

We are witnessing once again a superpower interaction that threatens to dominate international politics — this time in a global setting still trying to recover from the COVID pandemic and faced with dire warnings in the form of a consensus from climate experts that if more is not done with a sense of urgency to address climate change, catastrophic harm will result. In this new configuration of global social, political and ecological forces, if rationality prevails, geopolitics will be moved to the sidelines so as to focus on ecological challenges that cannot be ignored or deferred any longer. It is unfortunate that that political will in the U.S. remains mainly geared toward addressing real and imagined traditional security threats stemming from conflict and nothing else when it comes to foreign policy. 

Q: Some advocates for peace are worried that a failed or stalled infrastructure legislative package will force liberal Democrats into more hawkish positions in order to show “resolve.” Can you comment on the validity of this concern?

A persisting shadow hovering over American politics is the sobering realization that there seems to be no down side for hawkishness by a politician when it comes to embracing the warped logic of geopolitical rivalry or military spending. Whether this will have an impact upon the bargaining component of the search for sufficient support in Congress to fund a domestic infrastructure program is not knowable at this time, but it would come as no surprise. Many liberal Democrats do not depart from the bipartisan mainstream if the issues at stake are defense, Israel and now China, especially when a favored domestic program seems in jeopardy. 

Q: NPR has reported on how “Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on countries to support Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations. The self-governed island has not been a member of the body since October 1971, when the U.N. gave Beijing a seat at the table and removed Taiwan.” What are the regional implications of the Taiwan factor regarding Biden’s and Milley’s remarks? How is this pertinent and what is happening here? 

It was a most unfortunate departure from the Shanghai Communique of 1972 establishing relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to speak in favor of giving Taiwan a more active role in the UN system. First, it seemed contrary to the spirit of what was agreed upon with respect to Taiwan in 1972, centering on an acceptance by Washington of a “One China” policy. As Henry Kissinger has argued, the language used deliberately avoided endorsing the PRC view of “One China,” leaving open the interpretation followed by Washington that Beijing could only extend its territorial sovereignty to Taiwan by way of a diplomatic agreement with Taiwan (formerly, the Republic of China, which had lost the right to represent China at the UN). 

Despite efforts by Taiwan to gain diplomatic recognition as a separate political entity, it has only managed to secure a favorable response from 15 countries, and not one “important” country among them, with even the United States refraining. At one point, Taiwan did attempt to become a member of the UN, but the effort was firmly rejected by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, relying on UN General Assembly Resolution 2756, which set the terms of Chinese representation in 1971, relegating Taiwan (what had been represented by China at the UN until that time as the Republic of China) as “the province of Taiwan” within the larger reality of China. A strenuous U.S. effort in 1971 to retain the Republic of China as a participant in UN activities was rejected, leaving the PRC as the sole representative of China.

What makes the Blinken comment doubly inflammatory is that it occurred in the midst of increasing overall U.S.-China tensions with a growing focus on the security of Taiwan. With China apparently testing the nerves of Taiwan and the resolve of the United States by a naval buildup and air intrusions, for Blinken to choose this moment to support an increased independent status for Taiwan is either misguided or clearly meant to be provocative. Such irresponsible talk was further amplified by Biden’s implications that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if attacked rather than calling for a tension reducing diplomatic conference. Then comes General Milley’s “Sputnik moment” remark, as if the Chinese security challenge has crossed a threshold of strategic threat to the United States that it dares not ignore. Further signals of hostility were sent to China by activating the QUAD informal alliance (U.S., Japan, India and Australia) some months ago, and more recently establishing the AUKUS alliance, which included Australian development of nuclear-powered submarines.

There are two lines of structural threat that seem to be creating an atmosphere of pre-crisis confrontation: firstly, the so-called Thucydides Trap by which a hitherto dominant power faces an ascending challenger and opts for war while it still commands superior military capabilities rather than waiting until its rival catches up or gains the upper hand; the Milley comment and reaction must be viewed in this light. And secondly, the insistent belligerent assertion that what is at stake with Taiwan is the larger ideological struggle going on in the region and world between those governments that are democracies and those that are authoritarian. The Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, in a recent articlein Foreign Affairs stridently articulated this theme, and so imparted larger meaning to what was at stake by keeping Taiwan safe and independent.

From a longer temporal perspective, the right-wing of the political class in Washington has never gotten over the trauma of “losing China” as if it were the U.S.’s to lose! It is the persistence of this geopolitical hubris that edges Taiwan tensions ever closer to an armed encounter, with true losers on both sides. A further reason to favor diplomatic de-escalation while there is still time is the apparent realization that the U.S. cannot match China in the South China Sea by relying on conventional weapons and can only avoid defeat by having recourse to nuclear weaponry. This is not alarmism. It has been openly declared by leading voices in the Pentagon.

This geopolitical context should not lead the world or the region to overlook the well-being of the 23.5 million people of Taiwan. Given what is at stake, the best approach would be to restore the “constructive ambiguity” that was deliberately written into the Shanghai Communique, and work for an atmosphere where Taiwan and the PRC can negotiate their futures on the basis of common interests. Although the recent experience in Hong Kong suggests that this, too, is a treacherous path, but less so than flirting with a geopolitical flare-up that could easily get grotesquely out of hand.

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