Archive | May, 2021

On Being a Citizen Pilgrim

7 May

[Prefatory Note: The following interview was published  on May 7, 2021, https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/05/07/the-fascinating-memoir-of-a-citizen-pilgrim-qa-with-richard-falk/

I apologize for the self-promotion but I suppose that is what a blog of this sort is inevitably partially about.]

The Fascinating Memoir of a “Citizen Pilgrim”: Q&A with Richard Falk

BY BUSRA CICEK – DANIEL FALCONE

Image Source: Cover art for the book Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim

Richard Falk, the well-known international relations scholar, taught at Princeton University for four decades. Starting in 2002 he has taught Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Falk is also a chair for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. This lengthy interview is about his latest book, a memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim, that explores his career as an academic, activist, rapporteur, political theorist, and professor.

Daniel Falcone: Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim is considered both an autobiography and a book about international relations. I like how you provide the reader, with a narrative-analysis. In other words, it seems that you are interested in explaining a great deal of your (and others) analytical frameworks by unpacking your own life in the pursuits of these intellectual developments. Can you comment on this?

Richard Falk: From the beginning I was seeking to understand the interfaces connecting the personal, professional, and political that seemed to have dominated the adult portions of my life journey. In doing this, I realized that it was an exercise in self-scrutiny that is comparable with self-administered post-Freudian therapy. I was, in part, motivated by the goal of understanding why I had chosen several less traveled paths in shaping life experience, as well as narrating my journey guided in its last stages by a progressive imaginary. I decided, also, to risk recalling my past totally on the basis of memory, without recourse to such materials as journals and books in my possession. Of course, this was hazardous at any age, but particularly on a project that did not get fully underway until my late 80s. I doubt that it would have been more selective in distorting ways than if I had checked my recollections against the records I kept over the years.

I also had a strong sense that my problematic childhood and adolescence was relevant to what came later. I am quite sure that my interpretative gaze would have been quite different if I had started this project five or ten years earlier, which suggests that there is a degree of contingency embedded in attempting a memoir. The personal and historical context would have been different, and hence the lens by which I reconstructed my life.  I felt strongly that I should be as honest as possible, while taking on responsibilities of not without being hurtful to persons who were alive and with whom I had once been intimate. I found it difficult to decide whether explaining why a romantic relationship did not endure was worse than overlooking the relationship altogether, which was the course chosen in several instances. 

Early on as I reflected upon my childhood, why it was so humdrum, exhibiting little by way of achievement or even sense of direction. Aside from my own failings, I attribute the snail pace of my development, perhaps overly, to the impact of my divorced parents, my mother detached and uncaring, my father too protective and deeply disappointed by the downward trajectory of his own life. In some ways, I think my insecurity of those years helped me avoid the worst sorts of failures. In a real sense, I lacked the courage to fail altogether, hanging on to the edge of the cliff with my fingernails because of my fear of falling. I began to gain a certain composure, probably nothing more than a fragile veneer of self-confidence as a college undergraduate, then a law school student, and later as a young faculty member at a large mid-western university. Each of these experiences in an academic institution by stages helped me find a political identity of my own. I had long lounged under the umbrella of my father’s ultra-conservative stance, which was both anti-New Deal and unconditionally anti-Communist. I was not at ease with such a political outlook, but I lacked an alternative.

The publisher of my memoir, supportive and empathetic from start to finish, rightly instructed me cut 100,000 words that I had struggled to find during the ordeal of composition. As it said, sometimes the best of a film is left on the floor of the cutting room, I am not sure whether my editorial surgery was properly selective in its arbitrary decisions about what could go and what should stay. In retrospect, the subjectivity of constructing one’s own life by staring for several years at oneself in a rear view mirror made me aware that there is a much finer line separating fiction from non-fiction than I had assumed for the prior 90 years.

Maybe a better book, certainly a different one, would have emerged if I had allowed myself the freedom to embellish my life rather than to try to render it. Is it important, in other words, to keep the faith? Or would most readers prefer to wander with me down phantasy lane? Is there really such a thing as a ‘fake life’ any more than there is a ‘true life.’ Of course, appalled by Trump’s dodges of truth and truthfulness, I felt it a political obligation to be as truthful as possible. And maybe this worked to skew the narrative toward an unimaginative literalness, and is the sort of historical contextual circumstance that tilts the tone and substance in a different way than I had embarked the memoir writing experience during the Obama presidency.

Daniel Falcone: I particularly enjoyed reading about the impacts that students from Puerto Rico had on your educational leadership, your politics in general, and how they helped you gain an appreciation for the politics of the islandspecifically. Can you inform readers of this experience and what these mentorships and friendships cultivated and produced?

Richard Falk: You pose an interesting series of questions about friendship with a particular stress on friendship with students. It may be had I responded to these questions prior to writing this memoir I would have approached these issues in more perceptive ways. Pondering now why friendship has always loomed large in my enjoyment of life at every stage, I would have to acknowledge that it probably reflects the shortcomings of the family dimensions of my life, leading me to search elsewhere for meaning and affection. As well, the absence of the kind of community affiliations that bestows a sense of both identity and belonging that most frequently arise from religious practices and cultural traditions was entirely absent, leading to feelings of envy for apparent ‘normalcy’ of my school classmates who almost all seemed more attached to their families and ethnic backgrounds than I.

As so much of my early pleasure and later of wellbeing involved competitive sports. I found many early friends on these playing fields, and this kind of satisfying bonding continued to be a sustaining feature of my social life throughout my life. Especially at Princeton where so many students were talented and ambitious, I found many young persons who interested me, especially among those who came from less privileged backgrounds at graduate levels. At the same time, because my research interests and political activities situated me at the professional margins, I found students by and large less judgmental than my faculty colleagues and often more congenial and interesting. It embarrasses me, yet only slightly, that after 40 years at Princeton, with a few notable exceptions, my only close faculty friends on campus, with a few exceptions, were those with whom I played tennis and squash with on a weekly basis over many years. Others with strong shared interests and views were not to be found on campus, but were either former students or those with whom I bonded through shared political commitments or other forms of sympathetic intimacy.

What I discovered early on in my faculty experience was that teaching provided a great arena for learning provided I had the self-confidence to listen carefully even to objections and also to approach my lectures without excessive preparation, which I realize may sound strange. This latter characteristic might seem odd, and it can be taken too far, or prove disastrous if not familiar with the overall subject-matter, particularly its framework. The advantage of being creatively underprepared is that it leaves space for spontaneous free associations and opens more space for dialogue with students. If relying on old notes or even transcripts of old lectures there is a fixation on text, a corresponding reluctance to explore uncharted territory, and at atmosphere not receptive to dialogue.

In my memoir I describe lingering impressions of students who made a career with a public resonance, often having the opportunity to relate to them in small-class atmospheres or as thesis advisees. Among the most notable were Robert Muller, David Petraeus, Richard Perle, Saud Faisal, Moulay Hicham Abdullah, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. They were a diverse group, which sometimes anticipated what they became later on in ‘the real world’ and other times surprised me. Except for Moulay Hicham these celebrity students never became friends, and we lost contact after they left Princeton, but they left imprint with their strong personalities. I take note of the fact, with regret, that were male with a single exception.

I think your question is primarily concerned with the interplay between the pedagogy of university education and arenas of political activism. By pointing to the exertion of influence by a Puerto Rican student, you hit upon a good example, although it relates more to my being influenced by students than befriending them. In this particular instance, a graduate student in history at Princeton who came from a political independentista background educated me about the tawdry nature of what I came to regard as the ‘internal colonialism’ in his homeland within my homeland.

Through this student I came into contact with several leading Puerto Rican political figures and intellectuals, and visited the country, not in the normal tourist modalities but to understand more experientially the detrimental impacts associated with making PR serve U.S. military priorities, and caught between the emotions of nationalism and the practical advantages of tax advantages that derived from their intermediate status as a commonwealth within the frame of U.S, sovereignty. This squeezed identity is expressed by singing songs of liberations in barrooms and voting to remain tied to the commonwealth reality.

I was especially struck by visiting the small island of Vieques (part of the PR island group), two-thirds of which was appropriated as a naval artillery range for U.S. warships greatly harming the traditional island’s economy and traditional way of life based on small-scale fishing and farming. Above all, I learned a valuable lesson from this involvement. It taught me that supplementing academic learning with the experience of being there in some caring (not for a research project) capacity contributed a dimension to understanding that could not be derived from tourism or even prolonged academic field trips. As it happened, I soon became preoccupied with the Vietnam War, and lost contact with my Puerto Rican student mentor, but the effects of his pedagogy lingered.

More associated with the interplay between classroom and being there was my contact with the somewhat analogous role played by the United States in the Philippines. The Marcos dictatorship was providing hospitality for large U.S. military bases that compromised political independence and provided a cover for elite corruption that kept the country poor, and its citizenry repressed and antagonized. In this instance, two Filipino students with deep and abiding ties to the national struggle for human rights, democracy, and true political independence, kindled my interest and arranged for me to make several trips to the country, either related to the nationalist movement of opposition to the bases that included several politicians who were leading members of the Senate, and who also became my friends in the course of these visits.

The students back in Princeton, Walden Bello and Lester Ruiz, went on to have important careers of their own, and they remain among my cherished friends to this day. Walden became a leading anti-imperial voice through his books and activism, while Lester became a colleague in my more future-oriented work in the World Order Models Project that devoted itself to envisaging a humane world order, its structure and how to bring into being. What I want to stress is that the original interaction in the classroom led to a learning experience in a distant country, which deepened my understanding and motivation when I returned to the classroom.

It was not just a matter of being there, but being engaged while in the Philippines, leaving a lasting imprint, and making me, I believe, a more effective lecturer. The experiential factor was thus not observational in the spirit of anthropology but enlivened by active solidarity with ongoing struggles for justice that provided insight into a range of analogous issues in an array of countries throughout the global south. The friendship dimension was integral to the existential context, enabling me to be received in communities of solidarity in an atmosphere of trust, friendship, and disclosure.

Daniel Falcone: Although you are a widely read international relations scholar, with experience in research schools and global institutions, I learned in the book that you often navigated a common humbling experience of everyday life within the humanities and education. Your teaching at Ohio State and Princeton at times brought you into contact with people interested in athletics and activities that were prioritized over your subject matter. Can you talk about this more, as I think teachers and professors would find your insights helpful.

Richard Falk: Over the years in academic life, I came under various sorts of pressure, which were more-subtle during my time at Princeton than during the five years spent at Ohio State University at the end of the 1950s. OSU was a nationally ranked team in the two major college sports of football and basketball, and it was the source of institutional pride for its alumni and administrators. I was approached on one occasion by an adjunct member of the faculty who made his name and his fortune as a lawyer in private practice in Columbus with an angry request that I change the grade of a student in my first year class in criminal law because, and solely because he was the son of a prominent figure in Ohio state politics. This lawyer, used to getting his way confronted me as a young untenured member of the law faculty with what amounted to a diktat, and when I declined, he stormed out of my office never to speak to me again. After the incident I was rather sure he would approach the dean of our faculty who was known to have ambitions to become president of OSU, and I feared that this would be my last year at the university. Actually, nothing came of my refusal to adjust this student’s grade, perhaps because it was such a crass attempt to encroach upon faculty grading autonomy. He could have at least pleaded the case for a grade change by some sort of story that the boy was under unusual pressure because his parents were going through an ugly divorce, and a low grade would have devastated him further.

At Princeton, pressures from the alumni were frequent and more sophisticated. For one thing, the Princeton alums felt as an entitlement to interfere as many were major annual donors, accounting for the wealth of the university, and university administrators wanted them to feel a stake in the institution. Some conservative alumni were upset with my political activism, and visibility in the national public sphere. I was told by a sympathetic administrator in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that it was estimated that my anti-war stands cost Princeton $1,000,000 per year as a result of donors flexing their philanthropic muscles.

After my visit in 1979 to Iran to view the unfolding of the Iranian Revolution, which was widely reported including a NY Times opinion piece that I had been solicited to write, members of the Board of Trustees in conjunction with enraged members of the alumni informally established a ‘Committee to Investigate Richard Falk.’ I am not sure whether this committee ever did any investigating, but the pushback against my activism came to nothing.

Another time, I was asked by NBC to comment on the appointment of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, and they listed my Princeton title under my name on the TV screen—‘Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice, Princeton University.’ I received a message from the Princeton President reporting that the Milbank family requested that I not be identified in public by reference to the Chair that they had endowed. I responded that I was not even aware that my title had been shown, and that I never mention it in media appearances. Again, nothing came of it, beyond giving me a reputation as ‘controversial,’ which had the undisclosed blessing of keeping me from being appointed to university-wide committees that would call attention to my presence in the campus community.

For some years in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW), a glossy magazine designed to keep the alumni connected with the university after graduation, and hopefully financially supportive, I was for years a habitual target of disgruntled alums who blamed me (falsely) for broader changes at Princeton that they believed tarnished their fondest memories of the place. I was blamed for the admission of women as students, political activism on campus, and disappointment that their children developed with what the U.S. was doing in the world. Week after week these hostile letters appeared in the PAW blaming me for a range of developments that they disapproved, many of which I had no connection. If the truth was told in those activist years on the campus between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s I was much more influenced by the students than the other way around.

I think over time has led me to become what I would call ‘a patriot of humanity,’ a term more expressive of this ethos of solidarity for me than proclaiming myself ‘a world citizen,’ which lacks real substance given the non-existence of a ‘world community.’ Citizenship is only meaningful to the extent that allows participation in what can be legitimately called a community that coheres because of shared perceptions of security, justice, identity bound together by effective procedures of governance, respect for diversity of belief and practice reflected in some form of effective legal order. These elements of political community are lacking at the global level although the UN and some elements of international law express aspirations and strivings for such a world community, yet it remains largely unrealized.

In retrospect, I believe that if my overall profile as someone who advocated controversial positions through journalism, media appearances, publicized visits to countries at odds with the U.S. had been clearer during my years at OSU, the Princeton gatekeepers would have barred my entry. However, once through the gates, academic criteria sufficiently prevailed with respect to career assessments, and I published enough scholarly work and enjoyed a decent reputation among colleagues in my field. I felt no pushback in terms of salary and leaves of absence, and was glad about my status as someone who was never invited to speak at alumni events when Princetonians returned to the campus for a weekend of drinking and exposure to faculty talks on current events and research at frontiers of specialized knowledge in the natural and social sciences.

Only once when I was invited to accompany a Princeton alumni cruise in Asia as a faculty lecturer, which was an expensive, secure, and luxurious way to visit foreign countries, a public relations service of the university presumably reinforcing alumni loyalty. I enjoyed the experience of lecturing to these conservatives as we traveling the Mekong River visiting Vietnam and Cambodia. I was amused when one of passengers told me that several of those who had signed up for the cruise were on the verge of canceling because I was one of the two lecturers. In his words, “we thought you had horns, but happily our experience was good.” I found this reaction amusing and instructive because I developed friendly and appreciative relations with these Princeton ultra-privileged alums, another instance of how experiencing the other can be enlightening, avoiding stereotyping dismissals of those with whom we have both real and imagined disagreements.

Busra Cicek: I admired your personal, academic, and activist story while discussing encounters with authoritarian regimes re: Philippines and South Korea, apartheid South Africa, wartime Vietnam, revolutionary Iran, repressed Palestine, polarized Turkey, and the United States. In your work, you stated your awareness of your “Ivy-league educated, white, and American, privileged way of living that was free from oppression or acute pressures of deprivation.” Could you talk about how you managed to intellectually escape the United States’ political imagination?

Richard Falk: I have wondered about this myself. Part of the explanation is that I did not find my father’s strong anti-Communist ideology combined with enthusiasm for the armed forces congenial. It took me a long time to work out my own way of engaging politically with the world. All along I was helped by encounters with progressive friends. My educational experience, particularly at Yale Law School, I came under the influence of several gifted lecturers who endorsed the prevailing Cold War worldview, and rather than persuading me, stimulated strong contrarian tendencies, which by then I was capable confident enough to rely upon as providing independent rationalizations of my alternative worldview. I felt as though I was finally walking on my own path. As described in an earlier response, at every stage there were people, often students, who encouraged me to take an interest in particular problems involving injustices of a systemic nature. Additionally, later on my public visibility as an anti-war critic of the Vietnam War opened other my eyes to many other ongoing struggles of resistance against U.S. intervention and to human rights abuses in distant countries, as well as here at home.

I did not altogether escape from the influence of U.S. dominant forms as I inhabited, although more and more of a dissenter from within than participant, including such influential platforms as Princeton, the Council of Foreign Relations, and the American Society of International Law. This gave me an insider/outsider identity that was rather unusual and came about as a result of unplanned circumstances, resulting from a combination of good credentials, late political maturity, and a curiosity as to what elites were really thinking. I was more a witness than a participant. I learned to stand my ground when important issues of principle came to the surface. It was not always easy. There were costs as I never belonged anywhere, producing a degree of loneliness.

I think that the decisive influences came from experience and likeminded friends, not ideology, and moral intuition. I was influenced both by experience taking the form of direct contact with the realities of injustice, or through artistic renderings that combined screams of rage and plaintive calls for help. I felt that I began to understand the structures of racism upon reading James Baldwin, Fire Next Time and Toni Morrison, Beloved and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cornel West speak. I was not clear about Vietnam and South African racism until I visited Hanoi in 1968 during the war, and in the same year, Pretoria and Johannesburg during the height of the apartheid regime. I was influenced forever by what I saw and heard, and the feelings of empathy for those who suffered and admiration for those who resisted.

The same pattern holds true with respect to the Palestinian struggle. Friendship with Edward Said and Raji Sourani, followed by visits to Israel and Occupied Palestine shifted my perspective from an opinionated observer to a dedicated advocate of Palestinian basic rights. I began telling my students that knowledge without experience tends to be barren, and there is only so much you can learn from reading and lectures. I guess I am expressing a truism: that emotional underpinnings are integral to political engagement. This helps explain why feelings/values arise from experience and background, and it also accounts for why novels and poems often proved to be my favorite teachers when it came to understanding how the world works.

Most of my faculty colleagues seemed more comfortable being compliant ‘children of the enlightenment,’ trusting in the sufficiency of the rational mind, scientific method, and the implicit biases of middle class social positioning, liberal in disposition, risk averse. Inevitably, I still partake of this mentality, more than I realized until Donald Trump came on the scene with his post-truth politics. It allowed me to rediscover the virtues of the Enlightenment at least as a shield against bigotry and lies and made me think that I had blamed the failures of modernity too much on its reliance upon instrumental rationality. I still think the marginalization of conscience is the curse haunting modernity, accounting for its insensitive exploitation of nature and imperial forms of domination over variously victimized peoples.

There are a few exceptional events that can be understood sufficiently without direct experience or artistic renderings—images of Nazi death camps and the atomic bombings of Japanese cities need no commentary to be felt. When visiting Hiroshima thirty years after the fact, it struck me that the city of Hiroshima was the one place where the memory of that horrendous event was erased or minimized because the residents did not want to go through life with their identities tied to that horrifying and traumatizing past. The past was not altogether ignored in Hiroshima. There was a peace museum in Hiroshimadevoted to the radioactive birth of the nuclear age, but it was visited when I was there mainly by foreigners. And annual anniversaries of remembrance, acknowledging and bemoaning the tragedy. The images of ‘the mushroom cloud’ and the burning victims or the Nazi death camps and the starving and pathetic victims are so vivid as to provoke our silent screams.

Busra Cicek:  In your work, you shared your academic and diplomatic experiences as “a critic of Israel and Zionism in the context of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and an activist to opposing the Vietnam War from the perspective of international law” that situated you on “the far left,” meanwhile you positioned yourself as a “visionary humanist.” Could you please talk about what this position means in the context of the American political spectrum? What does it tell us about current American academics and students engaged in critical scholarship? How can your notions of “humane realism,” “progressive internationalism,” and “visionary humanism” shape progressive academia?

Richard Falk: To some extent, my prior response addresses this question. I guess for liberals and right-wing people I am perceived as being on the left, but among those dogmatically or organizationally on the left I am not one of them. I do not explain myself or my politics by reference to any variant of Marxist thought or even the leftism of Antonio Gramsci, and besides my receptivity to religion and spirituality is not rooted in an institutionalized canon of thought as was the case with ‘liberation theology.’ I find kinship with those traditions of systematic thought but I tend to learn on the job. Your question makes me realize that I have never been recruited by formalized leftist such as political parties or NGOs.

I suppose I felt closer to the progressive variants of existentialist thinking that prevailed after World War II as it stripped away the metaphysics of fixed belief and seemed to align with those that were struggling for emancipation in one form or another without demonstrating ‘scientifically’ that it was materially conditioned or preordained by the contradictions of class conflict. Existentialism took its shape in reflections on and resistance to the Nazi experience.

I suppose that my language of ‘visionary humanism’ makes clear that I don’t belong to any of the familiar political categories. My anti-militarist, anti-interventionist, anti-business and socialist approaches to health, education, and welfare to alienate and antagonize the right. Liberals, or so-called independents, favor making incremental changes that are ‘realistic’ and tend to avoid what they deem as extremes on either side of the political spectrum, generally refraining from dwelling on divisive structural explanations of social policy that focus on predatory capitalism, systematic racism, and entrenched militarism. The liberal/independent orientation aims to improve the quality of democracy one step at a time, doing what is feasible in the political domain, while I advocate what I believe to be necessary and desirable even though not feasible from the perspective of politics as the art of the possible.

This has pushed me in the direction of what is deemed by the mainstream as ‘utopia,’ which I call a ‘necessary utopia’ or ‘a politics of impossibility.’ On some immediate agenda issues such as restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran or avoiding a cold war with China I feel almost comfortable making common cause with liberals/independents. On other issues I gladly take a left position such as support for self-determination in Venezuela and Palestine, demilitarization, and opposition to imposing sanctions on adversaries of the United States that makes those who are centrists, drawing support from ‘both sides of aisle’ uncomfortable. Their politics of feasibility is based on what for me is delusional, that the only way to get things done in America is by building a broad coalition that stretches beyond independents to incorporate moderate Republicans, pointing to issues such as immigration, tax reform, climate change, and minimum wage to prove their point. This may be a description of the workings of top down American politics in the last half century, but it does not meaningfully respond to the crucial challenges that require transformative initiatives based on pressures from the street.

My efforts over the years have been divided between resistance to existing policies by solidarity with ongoing struggles or structural longer term critiques of global governance that aim at sustainability, justice, and nonviolence, hoping for the emergence of ‘patriots of humanity’ and ‘guardians of nature’ who seek equitable management of the planetary agenda and minimum governmentality in societal arrangements.

Busra Cicek:  You describe the current national and international order as neither “ethically acceptable, politically legitimate, nor ecologically sustainable, [thus] creating an unprecedented challenge to the political, moral, and cultural imaginations and practices of all.” Can you share your thoughts on the future of disadvantaged people and all citizens more broadly, and especially the prospects for those who do not belong to the “minority near the top of the social and economic pyramid?” How can we talk about “social and ecological revitalization, and of the [hope for] progressive versions of democracy” better?

Richard Falk: On the level of critique, the grossest ethical deficiencies of the current form of global governance is expressed by reliance on ‘ethically unacceptable’ practices and policies including systemic  denials of fundamental human rights, dependence on warfare and coercive diplomacy for the resolution on conflict, multiple forms of inequality, and imposition of destructive forms of dominion over nature. There are failures of ‘political legitimacy’ associated above all with the inability to address adequately challenges of global scope including nuclear weaponry, climate change, hunger and malnutrition, migration and asylum, and the extension of legal accountability to geopolitical actors. Finally, there are disastrous shortcomings when it comes to ‘ecological sustainability’ the most prominent of which are insufficient regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, failures to protect the viability of the global commons, especially air, soil, water (rivers, oceans), and jeopardizing the quality of life of future generations. These conditions affect even the most privileged elites whose imaginary increasingly veers toward escapist scenarios that borrow from science fiction. At their extreme are plans for migrating to the moon, building underground habitable structures in New Zealand, or being content with denialism. In these circumstances, the poor and disadvantaged feel the heaviest blows from a world order system that endangers humanity as a whole. This pattern of vulnerability has been evident in various studies of infection and death rates resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a template for illustrating the inequitable distribution of benefits and burdens embedded in current arrangement of global governance.

A more emancipatory perspective presupposes thinking beyond the horizons of what seems politically feasible given global constraints, and imagining what is necessary if we are to overcome the dire deficiencies of existing world order. Essentially, this means a transformative shift in energies from the priorities of modernity—basically, national interests as measured by the efficiency and profitability of capital and the security, autonomy, and status of the territorial sovereign state. To close the gap between the feasible and the necessary depends upon enough people becoming guardians of nature and patriots of humanity rather than patriots of the state and promoters of corporate capitalism. More concretely this means creating mechanism that recognize that the whole is greater than the parts in the reorganization of life on the planet, establishing effective mechanisms for realizing global and human interests, respecting the carrying capacity of the earth. Admittedly such a vision of the future has a utopian quality, what I have earlier called to ‘a necessary utopia’ that can be attained by ‘a politics of impossibility.’ For this to happens, requires a massive movement from below, possibly nurtured by elite defectors, that appears to come from nowhere, a carrier of an ecological ethos of renouncing harmful and reckless policies and practices.

Will this happen? We should know from experience that the future unfolds in unpredictable ways. There are hints that there are active cultural tremors seeking transition to an ecologically oriented civilization. There are also contradictory signs that the human species has no collective will to survive beyond its own mortality. My response is that since the future is unknowable and has given rise throughout history to major unpredicted changes for better and worse, we have no excuse but to struggle as best we can for the future we prefer. We are living in an unprecedented time in human history signaled by geologists and others identifying this epoch as the Anthropocene in recognition of the fact that human activity has the capability to impact on the basic ecological balances of the earth. In this sense, the necessary utopia as seen from the perspective of the dysfunctional present is nothing other than ‘responsible anthropocentrism,’ entailing renegotiating our relations with nature, the future, and learning to live together on the planet in a spirit of coexistence and dialogue.

Daniel Falcone is a writer, activist, and teacher in New York City and studies in the PhD program in World History at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Busra Cicek is a Doctoral Fellow in the World History Department at St. John’s University in Queens, New York and researches the development of nationalist discourses and its relationship with statecraft in Turkey.

Biden’s Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons: A Dialogue

5 May

☰[PREFATORY NOTE: Previously published online in Counterpunch, May 4, 2021. Biden’s international bipartisan approach risks a renewed arms race in a political and economic atmosphere that makes it unaffordable as well as acutely dangerous. My conversation with David Krieger explores some of the ramifications.]

Biden’s Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons: a Dialogue

BY RICHARD FALK – DAVID KRIEGERFacebookTwitterRedditEmail

B61 nuclear warheads in storage. Photo: US DOE.

Ricard Falk: The humane and competently handled responses that the Biden presidency has pursued with respect to the COVID challenge, mitigating economic burdens on the poor, empathy for abuses of persons of color, and moves toward proposing a massive infrastructure program are uplifting changes in policy and leadership of the country, especially welcomed after enduring Trump for four years. Even the handling of the seasonal surge of asylum aspirants at the Mexican border, although disturbing, exhibits a presidential approach seeking to find ways to reconcile ethics with practicalities of governance. Yet if we turn from these impressive beginnings at home to the early indications of Biden’s foreign policy the picture seems bleaker, and this includes our primary focus on nuclear weaponry.

Of course, it makes perfect political sense for Biden to tackle these domestic challenges first, and avoid distractions that would arise if the government were to pursue international policies that agitated pro-military Republicans and even so-called moderate Democrats. To get his emergency programs past legislative obstacles in a robust form required mustering as much unity across the political spectrum as possible, yet even with this acknowledgement I feel uncomfortable about what Biden has so far done with respect to foreign policy.  I am worried by the Biden stress on restoring the alliance/deterrence approach to global security as if the Cold War never ended. In slightly veiled language that conveys a militarist spirit Biden expresses these sentiments in a cover letter to his March 2021 Interim National Security Strategy Guidance official document, advancing as “..a core strategic proposition: the United States must renew its enduring advantages so that we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength.”

Apparently without forethought Biden called Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, ‘a killer,’ and lacking ‘a soul,’ then followed up by rejecting Moscow’s temperate call for a diplomatic meeting between the leaders to address disagreements between the two countries. Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have followed suit with interactions in their Alaska meetings with Russian counterparts that were calculated to raise tensions. Such postures are all about projecting American strength and conveying to others a dangerous geopolitical disposition that refuses to back down in crisis situations that are certain to arise, and for these important public figures, it means encounters with China and Russia.

When it comes to the nuclear agenda, despite agreeing to renew the START Treaty for another five years, preliminary glimpses of Biden’s general outlook seem driven by viewing America’s global experience as one of confronting, deterring, and overcoming. More concretely, it seems to involve reconstructing the Cold War atmosphere of friends and enemies, which is accompanied by national self-love, American exceptionalism, and a strong tendency to blame others for whatever goes wrong in the world. We lecture others, while bitterly resent being criticized, especially along similar lines.

It is not that the shortcomings of Russia and China are unworthy of concern, but not less so than systematic racism, gun violence, and persisting poverty in the United States, national deficiencies that are well within our capabilities to correct. Foreign policy aims are cynically disclosed by whether human rights violations are obscured as with Saudi Arabia and India or stridently asserted as with Russia and China.

In such an atmosphere to have the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard proclaim that relations with these two adversaries of the U.S. is likely to produce a regional crisis in the months ahead is a signal that should not be ignored. Worse, Richard adds that given the stakes and force postures in the South China Seas, such a faceoff could quickly escalate to the point of provoking a nuclear war. The admiral is not inclined to suggest ways to reduce such risks of confrontation. Instead, he issues a solemn assertion that it is imperative for the U.S. to shift the focus of its security planning from the supposedly prevailing idea that the use of nuclear weapons is not possible to the view that such use “is a very real possibility.” [See Richard, “Forging 21st Century Strategic Deterrence,” Proceedings of United States Naval Institute, Feb. 2021.] The failure to repudiate or to tone down such a public statement might well be causing panic among strategic planners in Beijing and Moscow.

It seems Inexcusable to let matters move so quickly in such menacing and unacceptable directions. Not only is Admiral Richard’s language chilling, but it is being used to plead for increased spending devoted to the modernization of the U.S. already outsized nuclear arsenal. I think we at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation should be depicting an alternative denuclearizing future with all the energy and resources at our disposal. As serious as are the domestic challenges we must remain vigilant, doing our best to avoid the scenarios that Admiral Richard projects as probable, and even more so, the way he envisions nuclearizing responses to such geopolitical challenges should they arise. Such conjectures are made more menacing if account is taken of recent Pentagon simulations that suggest that China’s regional naval prowess is such that if war making erupts China is likely to prevail if the confrontation is confined to conventional weaponry.

Is it already too late to awaken Biden and his entourage to this heightened nuclear risk? Let’s hope we never find out? To be clear, I would argue that this overarching issue commands our immediate attention, but there are other pressing concerns and opportunities for those of us devoted to achieving a world without nuclear weapons as a necessary and attainable goal.

David Krieger: Biden embarked on the presidency with a full and pressing domestic agenda, starting with bringing the Covid-19 pandemic under control in the U.S., and dealing with an economy in serious trouble as a consequence of the pandemic. In addition, Biden has pushed forward legislation on rebuilding infrastructure in the country and in support of voting rights for all Americans.  He has been ambitious and determined in pursuing his domestic agenda, but has so far paid little attention to foreign policy.

Biden’s choices for Secretary of State and National Security Advisor have been from the foreign policy establishment, individuals who support, as does Biden, a strong U.S. nuclear posture based in Cold War thinking.  You raise some worrisome examples of expressions of nuclear arrogance toward Russia and China, which demonstrate more of a taunting attitude than the compassion and empathy that Biden has expressed toward victims of Covid, mass shootings, and poverty.

Biden should be commended for acting quickly upon assuming the presidency to extend the New START treaty with Moscow.  He has not, however, brought the U.S. back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018.  Nor has he pursued relations with North Korea concerning their nuclear weapons program.  On balance, it appears that Biden has not given much attention to foreign policy matters and that his default position is a Cold War stance based upon nuclear deterrence, and a world divided into alliance partners (friends) and adversaries (enemies). This is a dangerous posture because nuclear deterrence is not guaranteed to work and, in fact, cannot be proven to work because it is not possible to prove a negative (something does not happen because something happens).  Nuclear deterrence is based on threats of nuclear use, which could encourage one side to act first in launching nuclear weapons at an adversary before the adversary launches first.

I doubt that Biden or those around him have seriously considered the critique of nuclear deterrence and simply accept it at face value.  Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev concluded that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”  Biden seems comfortable basing U.S. security on a policy of nuclear strength.  But strength in the form of nuclear deterrence is extremely dangerous.  A nuclear war could begin by malice, mistake, miscalculation, or madness.  Of these, only malice is even possibly subject to nuclear deterrence. Mistake, miscalculation and madness are not influenced by nuclear deterrence posture (threat of nuclear retaliation).

I believe that Biden is a good and decent man who is guided in his life and leadership by compassion and empathy. Nonetheless, he has not shown up to now that he brings those traits to bear on U.S. nuclear policy.  He must be pressed to understand the global dangers of policy based upon U.S. nuclear dominance. Such a policy, although it has been U.S. policy since the end of World War II, could fail catastrophically, were nuclear deterrence to fail. It is as if we were playing a game of nuclear roulette with the gun pointed at the heart of humanity. This is the message that the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and other like-minded groups must convey to Biden. If we are to reduce the dangers of standing at the nuclear precipice, he must bring as much compassion and leadership to U.S. nuclear policy as he has shown he is capable of bringing to U.S. domestic policy.

What do you see as the specific policy initiatives that we should press for in the area of foreign and nuclear policy?

Falk: I don’t want to come across as someone who has only one arrow in his quiver, but I believe the danger of a confrontation with China in the South China Seas poses the highest risk of nuclear warfare since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I recall no prior occasion where top military officials were arguing in public that a regional confrontation with China was not only probable, but that the U.S. naval capabilities would not be able to avoid defeat in such combat if conducted with conventional weaponry. Since an American defeat at the hands of China would be an unacceptable option, preparation for the use of nuclear weaponry should be seen by American strategists as probable, imperative, and strategically necessary. All indications are that China regards this region off its coast as properly within its sphere of influence, and would be unlikely to back off if confronted either mistakenly or deliberately. We know further that both sides have engaged in provocative activity in the region to convey their commitment to defend strategic interests, which could easily have produced a military encounter due to bluff or miscalculation, if not by deliberate intention.

What is disturbing is Biden and Blinken’s failure, given these risks, to seek a de-escalation of tensions, but have acted in directly the opposite manner. I don’t share your sense that the Biden presidency has not accorded a significant amount of attention to foreign policy. Throughout his campaign and in comments since in the White House three connected ideas have been stressed: (1) making a great effort to restore a bipartisan consensus in foreign policy with a revived emphasis on alliance diplomacy of the sort that flourished during the Cold War; (2) treating China as a prime adversary because it challenges U.S. economic and technological primacy in the world, and adheres to an alien ideology that includes the oppression of the Uyghur minority; when U.S. foreign policy stresses human rights is wants to inflame tensions, when it wants to nurture allies it shuts up—for example, silence about the Modi discriminatory moves against Muslims in India or Sisi’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; (3) the combination of (1) + (2), points to rising geopolitical tensions and an alarming dependence on nuclear weapons to ensure a favorable balance; this is enough for me to reach the conclusion that a pre-crisis atmosphere exists between these two globally dominant states that must be exposed, and bold steps taken with no time to waste, seeking peaceful coexistence with China (and Russia) coupled with a tangible readiness to cooperate on meeting the challenges of climate change.

I do not want to evade your invitation with regard to specific steps that would have denuclearizing effects. I have long been supportive of seeking to engage nuclear weapons states in a joint pledge of No First Use, and if that were not forthcoming, then a bilateral pledge along such lines by the United States and Russia, the two countries with 90% of the nuclear warheads in existence. Such a step, accompanied by adjustments in doctrine, deployments, and strategic planning would considerably reduce the risks of stumbling into a nuclear war and would go part way to repudiate the unconscionable development of first use weaponry and missions, as well as the failure to take the immediate step of confining deterrence to a situation of ultimate self-defense, thereby partially conforming to the views of the International Court of Justice as expressed by the majority in the rendering of 1996 Advisory Opinion.

A second specific step would be to restore the JCPOA Nuclear Agreement with Iran as you suggest. Again, I think that rather than explain the failure of Biden to move constructively to undo the damage done by Trump’s withdrawal by inattentiveness, the hard bargaining stance taken by the U.S. is an attempt to be responsive to Israeli and Saudi pressures, as well as to avoid giving rise to distracting controversies at home.

Let me conclude by feeling less positive about Biden’s political profile. I do, like you, as I earlier indicated, commend his sensitive and energetic responses to the pandemic, the need for equity in government efforts to hasten an economic recovery, and thinking big on infrastructure. And yet I don’t see evidence in his past for an optimistic rendering of either his policies or character. He is the political variant of ‘a company man’ as near I can tell. Recall Kamala Harris’ acerbic takedown of Biden during an early campaign debate. He not only supported the Iraq War in 2003, he championed the public and Congressional mobilization for it as chair of the relevant Senate Committee; he was always a reliable proponent of large peacetime military budgets, a Cold Warrior in all respects, who was also compliant with Wall Street’s agenda, and certainly did not do himself proud during the Clarence Thomas hearings while presiding over the pillorying of Anita Hill. Let’s hope this past is not a prelude to his foreign policy future. Yet we should refrain from canceling his complicities in some of America’s worst past political moments. We can forgive, but we are foolhardy if we forget.

Krieger: I share your concern that a confrontation between China and the U.S. could escalate into a nuclear war, but the same holds true of a confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir or a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.  There are any number of ways in which a nuclear war could be initiated and, so long as nuclear arsenals exist, escalation of a conflict to nuclear war is always a possibility.  De-escalation of tensions in a nuclear-armed world is always called for, but even more important is recognizing the chronic danger of nuclear weapons in the world and taking actions to move away from the precipice of nuclear catastrophe by committing to and developing a plan for moving to nuclear zero.  I am most interested in what actions need to be taken now to achieve the goal of nuclear zero.  In other words, what actions must be taken to assure that the world is on the way to a place where fear of nuclear war is matched by steps leading to total nuclear disarmament. Thus far, Biden has shown no inclination to move in this direction. He has not opposed such steps, but neither has he proposed them, For the most part he has been silent on issues related to nuclear policy and his silence has been worrisome.

You mention that one step toward nuclear sanity would be a pledge of No First Use of nuclear weapons.  This is a controversial step in that it seems to give some legitimacy to second use (retaliatory use) of nuclear weapons. Still, though, it is the case that if no country used nuclear weapons first, there would be no use at all, except for the possibility of mistake or accident, which would remain a serious problem. A further critique of No First Use is its reliance on a pledge, which could be broken. The best way to deal with the danger of breaking the pledge would be to accompany the pledge with deployment strategies that make first use far more difficult, such as separating warheads from delivery vehicles, as I believe is still done by China.  Further, in the case of the U.S., it would be appropriate to dismantle and destroy all land-based nuclear-armed missiles, since, as fixed targets, they are “use them or lose them” weapons.

It was reported that Barack Obama wanted to make a pledge of No First Use near the end of his presidency, but this idea received considerable push-back from his national security team.  It would be interesting to know what position Biden took on the possibility of a U.S. No First Use pledge. Regardless, though, of where Biden stood on this issue then, it should be pressed on him now or, even better, he should be pressed to make a pledge of No Use of nuclear weapons.  This would be an even larger step toward nuclear abolition, demonstrating that the U.S. had no plans to use these omnicidal weapons and, in that way, demonstrating serious leadership toward the goal of nuclear zero.  The push-back for this step would be that it would likely cause the states under the U.S. nuclear umbrella to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

In addition to restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), there is much more restoring of agreements that should be done.  Trump pulled the U.S. out the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia, which eliminated a whole class of missiles.  Trump also pulled the U.S. out of the Open Skies Agreement, a confidence building agreement between the U.S., many European countries, and Russia, which allows for overflights of each other’s territories. Additionally, George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia.  These treaties were important means of restraint of nuclear arms races.  They should be restored and expanded.

There is much more that Biden could do if he had the inclination to protect U.S. security by moving toward eliminating the nuclear threat to the U.S. and the world.  He could, for example, make a pledge of No Launch on Warning, in order to protect against launching to a false warning. He could change U.S. policy so that the president no longer has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. He could stop plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and use the one trillion dollars saved to support his plans for replacing infrastructure and supporting social welfare programs.

Biden has given little indication as of now that the issues of nuclear catastrophe and nuclear policy are on his mind.  But, as I said previously, he has been focusing on eradicating the Covid pandemic and on his domestic agenda. You are right to say that we should not forget that Biden has made some unfortunate decisions, such as supporting the initiation of the Iraq War, during his long political career. Regardless, he is who we have as president, and he is certainly far more thoughtful and rational than his predecessor. He may not be ideal, but we have no choice but to try to influence his nuclear policies in the direction of nuclear sanity. I think the most important thing that we could do is to challenge the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. If we can successfully do this, it opens the door to moving the U.S. to play a leadership role in seeking the abolition of all nuclear weapons, as it is required to do under the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Falk: I agree with all that you propose in your last response, and agree that those who favor denuclearization and the abolition of nuclear weaponry should suspend final judgment on whether Biden, once that the domestic challenges have been addressed, would seem responsive to some of the points of emphasis that you encourage. My supposition is that he is so much a product of the Cold War mentality that he will not be willing to question the continuing reliance on a deterrence role for nuclear weapons beyond adapting its delimitation to the present realities of political rivalry. His imaginary featuring an American-led global alliance of democratic states also presupposes deterrence to reassure allies such as Japan, South Korea, and others that the U.S. security umbrella remains trustworthy enough so that other governments will not feel a need for obtaining their own national nuclear option. In other words, deterrence and non-proliferation are tied together in what could be described as ‘a suicidal knot.’

I would add two issues to those you have proposed. First of all, I think it would be opportune to argue for either the good faith implementation of the NPT as interpreted by the ICJ Advisory Opinion in 1996 at least at the level of the majority decision, which called unanimously for adherence to Article VI of the treaty. This would have the advantage of putting not only the question of nuclear disarmament diplomacy at the top of the political agenda, but would also look toward a more general international obligation to seek the demilitarization of International relations more generally. It often forgotten that Article VI mandates ‘general and complete disarmament’ as well as ‘nuclear disarmament.’

If Biden refuses such a course of action, then it would be appropriate for non-nuclear states to threaten to withdraw from the NPT if compliance with Article VI is not forthcoming within two years. The movement for nuclear zero should make clear that the record of the nuclear weapons states has been to treat these Article VI requirements as ‘useful fictions’ rather than as an integral element in the treaty bargain between the nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear states. It would also be analytically helpful to make clear that NPT has been supplemented by an American-led geopolitical regime of ‘enforcement’ that denies certain states their Article X right of withdrawal, and as applied is relied upon to justify sanctions against North Korea and Iran, which constitute unlawful threats and uses force in circumstances other than self-defense, violating the core prohibition of the UN Charter set forth in Article 2(4).

In other words, the NPT was drafted to reflect an acceptance of a denuclearization agenda, but it has been geopolitically interpreted over its more than half century of existence from an arms control perspective that seeks to lower some costs and risks of nuclearism but implicitly rejects the treaty premise of denuclearization. We at the NAPF can contribute to vital public education by making this understanding clear, and demystifying the behavior of nuclear weapons states that rhetorically affirm denuclearization while operationally pursuing security in a manner consistent with the logic of nuclearism, including the retention of deterrence as an indispensable element. At the very least, the next NPT review conference tentatively rescheduled for August 2021 should examine adherence to Article VI in a systematic and high-profile manner, and perhaps the diplomatic practice surrounding Article X as well.

Closely related, is the status of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), with 86 signatories, which entered into force earlier in 2021 after the receipt by the UN of the 50thratification. The five permanent members of the Security Council have removed any doubt about their posture toward nuclear weaponry by issuing a joint statement opposing the philosophy underlying TPNW, and essentially opting for the benefits of deterrence, which would be lost if the comprehensive prohibition of all aspects of nuclearism were to be implemented. The anti-nuclear movement throughout the world, despite its many differences, should seek unity through supporting ratification by all sovereign states of TPNW, and most of all the nuclear weapons states. I would hope that an argument to the effect could be made, possibly by a widely circulated statement endorsed by a range of moral authority figures, from William Perry and Jerry Brown to Dan Ellsberg and David Krieger. It would lead, I believe, to a necessary national debate that would alert the public to the dangers of the present structure of nuclearism and point to the existence of a preferred alternative peaceful path to enhanced global security at reduced cost.

My final point is to suggest that we are now at the early stages of a major geopolitical reconfiguration of global relations. It seems likely that the near future will bring either a new form of bipolarity pitting the West against China, and possibly Russia, or an acceptance of coexistence among major states as the basis for multilateral problem-solving with respect to such global challenges as climate change, biodiversity, industrial agriculture and fishing, worldwide migration, and transnational crime. This kind of global cooperative order will not materialize if a regional confrontation in the South China Seas occurs between the U.S. and China, and especially not if nuclear weapons are threatened or used to avoid a U.S. defeat. Such a scenario, even if its occurrence is conjectural, is an added reason to deescalate frictions with China as a foreign policy priority. Martin Sherwin in his fine book, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (2021) convincingly documents his central finding that it was dumb luck that saved the world from a nuclear war occurring in the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Let’s at least learn to be prudent before our luck as a nation and species runs out.

Krieger: You add two treaties, one relatively old and one relatively new, to the set of options available to Biden that could lead to progress on nuclear abolition.  The older of the two treaties is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with its Article VI obligations of good faith negotiations to end the nuclear arms race at an early date, for nuclear disarmament, and for general and complete disarmament. Article VI was the quid pro quo for on the part of the nuclear weapons states for nonproliferation on the part of the non-nuclear weapon states.  It was never intended, at least by the non-nuclear weapon states, for the NPT to be the justification for setting up a permanent structure of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots,” and Article VI was the means by which the playing field would be leveled in achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.  The problem with Article VI is that it has never been pursued in any serious or sustained fashion by the nuclear weapons states.

When the parties to the NPT met in 1995 for a review and extension conference, 25 years after the treaty entered into force, it was already clear that the nuclear weapons states, and their allies under their nuclear umbrella, were not acting in good faith on Article VI.  Nonetheless, the nuclear weapons states and their allies argued for and achieved an indefinite extension of the treaty rather than a series of shorter extensions contingent upon progress on the Article VI obligation of good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.  I strongly agree with you that the public needs to be educated on the actual bargain of the NPT, and the behavior of the nuclear weapons states toward their end of the bargain needs to be demystified and exposed to public scrutiny.  It may be that Biden is too much of a cold warrior to play a leadership role on this, but we need to try to influence both him and the public under any circumstances.  The longer the Article VI obligations remain unfulfilled, the more likely it becomes that a bad nuclear outcome will ensue, by accident or design.  As I have said before, the nuclear status quo is akin to playing nuclear roulette with the gun pointed at the heart of humanity.

The second treaty you refer to, the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), is a relatively new treaty.  It is a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons, and was achieved as a result of a civil society campaign led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which lobbied and worked with non-nuclear weapon states to create and support the treaty.  The treaty was adopted by the United Nations in 2017, and entered into force on January 22, 2021.  The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation was one of some 500 member organizations in ICAN, and shared along with the other member organizations the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

You are certainly right that the nuclear weapons states have put on a full-court press to oppose this nuclear ban treaty, and therefore we must do all we can to educate the public on the existence and importance of the treaty.  If we could spark a national debate on the treaty, it could take us a long way toward changing attitudes about nuclear weapons and the need to abolish them before they abolish us.

Upon considerable reflection, it still remains hard to understand why weapons that could destroy civilization and possibly the human species have been so small a part of our national discussion, and the leadership of the country seems so reliant upon this weaponry.  Nuclear deterrence is not a shield; nor is it a reasonable justification for threatening or committing mass murder. It is a strategy that puts a target on every man, woman and child in the nuclear weapons states, with ripple effects endangering all of humanity.  Until these weapons are abolished we are all at risk of nuclear annihilation.  The leaders of the nuclear weapons states seem to have learned very little about nuclear dangers or risks over the decades since they were first used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Our luck has held since then, but such luck is not guaranteed to continue. There have been many close calls, many near nuclear disasters.

Biden may be, as you say, most comfortable as a cold warrior, but his compassion could move him to explore alternatives to nuclear deterrence, which could result in new hope to end the scourge that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and other forms of life.  There is still time to bring about change, moving us back from the precipice of annihilation, and this must serve as a source of hope.  Biden could take the all-important step of convening the leaders of the nuclear weapons states in a nuclear abolition summit to chart a path to move from the Nuclear Age to nuclear zero, to change the course of our nuclear future.  This would be a valuable step in fulfilling the obligations of Article VI of the NPT and could open the door to the nuclear weapons states and their allies joining the rest of the world in becoming parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. While this may seem like an improbable step at this time, stranger things have happened and it does have the potential of combining hope with logic and vision.

. David Krieger is President Emeritus of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Israeli Apartheid and Palestine Grievances

3 May

Israeli Apartheid and Palestinian Grievances

[Prefatory Note: Correio Braziliense Interview Questions from Rodrigo Craveiro (IV/27/2021) in response to Report of Human Rights Watch on Israeli Apartheid; it is followed by myresponses to questions of Zahra Mirzafarjouyan on behalf of Mehr News Agency in Tehran, addressing some of the underlying causes of Palestinian grievances.]

1- In the 213-page report, HRW accuses the Israeli authorities of crimes against humanity of apartheid and of persecuting the Palestinians. What do you have to say about it?

For a mainstream and highly respected NGO such HRW to make such accusations, backed by extensive documentation, is a major development, almost unthinkable a few years ago. There will certainly be hostile reactions from Israeli sources and governments supporting in Israel but many consequences will follow adverse to Israel. It is notable that this HRW Report came just months after the principal Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem issued a similar bombshell report that also concluded that Israel was guilty of the crime of apartheid.

Although apartheid originated with the racist regime in South Africa the international crime of apartheid need not resemble those structures of white supremacy. It stands on its own.

It is also highly significant that the finding of apartheid pertains not just to occupied Palestine, but to Israel itself, or to the entirety of Palestine as it existed under the British mandate, that is, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This extended scope of criminality is explained not only by references to the similarity of discriminatory practices, but also by Israel annexationist moves against Jerusalem and the West Bank.

2- How do you see the use of the term “apartheid” for the situation in the Palestinian territories?

It is has been increasingly recognized by independent expert observers that the interplay of the Israeli state and the Palestinian people satisfies the core features of the crime of apartheid. The Israel Basic Law of 2018 made explicit the claim of Jewish supremacy by vesting the right of self-determination exclusively in the Jewish people.

It should be understood that the allegation of apartheid is based on the core feature of the crime, which is domination, systemic discrimination, and victimization so as to sustain Jewish supremacy over the Palestinians under their control. Apartheid is defined in the HRW Report by reference to comprehensive racial domination of Jews over Palestinians and in Article 7(j) of Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court as one type of Crime Against Humanity. The most authoritative definition of apartheid from the perspective of international law is to be found in Article II of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid, which is reprinted in full because of its importance:

Article II 

For the purpose of the present Convention, the term “the crime of apartheid”, which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them: 

(a) Denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person: 

(i) By murder of members of a racial group or groups; 

(ii) By the infliction upon the members of a racial group or groups of serious bodily or mental harm, by the infringement of their freedom or dignity, or by subjecting them to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; 

(iii) By arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group or groups; 

(b) Deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part; 

(c) Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognized trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association; 

d) Any measures including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups, the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof; 

(e) Exploitation of the labour of the members of a racial group or groups, in particular by submitting them to forced labour; 

(f) Persecution of organizations and persons, by depriving them of fundamental rights and freedoms, because they oppose apartheid. 

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It is clear that there is no legal requirement that Israeli apartheid resemble South African apartheid. The policies and practices may vary with national conditions, but it makes no difference so long as the core reliance on discriminatory practices to maintain racial or ethnic supremacy is present. 

The HRW Report specifies the kinds of systemic discrimination that has been undertaken by Israeli apartheid to maintain Jewish domination and to secure Palestinian subordination. Among the principal policies and practices constituting Israeli apartheid are as follows: confiscation of Palestinian land; discriminatory issuance of building permits; restrictions on movement; manipulation of residency rights; discriminatory budgeting of public services; closure of Gaza; 99.7% conviction rate in Israeli military courts prosecuting Palestinians living under occupation.

3- The report recommends the prosecution of the International Criminal Court to open an investigation against the State of Israel for crimes against humanity and apartheid. How do you analyze this?

It is a simple matter. The HRW Report found overwhelming evidence of discriminatory practices based on the dual identities of Jew and Palestinian that seemed to establish a strong case for alleging apartheid as a Crime against Humanity under the Rome Statute. Israel is not a Party of the Rome Statute, and hence crimes on its territory are not within the jurisdictional reach of the ICC. However, Palestine is a Party, and as a result the ICC has legal authority to inquiry into alleged crimes committed on occupied Palestinian territories since Palestine became a Party,, which covers the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. As it happens, the ICC decided earlier in 2021 that it possesses this authority to conduct criminal investigations of occupied Palestine with respect to Israeli crimes in violation of the law of war arising out of its military operations in Gaza back in 2014, its uses of excessive force in responding to Great March of Return in 2018, and its unlawful settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Whether this will actually happen is problematic. The United States not only backs Israel in the contention that the ICC lacks authority to proceed against non-Parties, but has its own complaint arising from an investigation of its crimes in Afghanistan and some secret black sites in Europe where torture is alleged to have occurred of Afghan detainees. The ICC is a fragile international institutional with severe funding challenges that partly reflect the geopolitical

pressure it has come under in recent years since it began challenging the impunity of Western states. Whether the UN follows the recommendation of HRW to set up a commission of inquiry is more uncertain. It could happen despite furious opposition by Israel and its supporters, but if as is likely the findings and recommendations were similar to those of the HRW, it seems almost certain that their implementation will be effectively blocked, This has been the fate of the several UN formal inquiries into Israeli wrongdoing, most prominently the Goldstone Commission investigating the violations of the law of war during the Israeli attack on 
Gaza in 2008-2009. All these reports confirmed Israeli wrongdoing, yet all were blocked when it came to carrying out the policy recommendations.

And yet this report, and the trend to acknowledge credibly on the basis of evidence and legal analysis that Israel is an apartheid state is of lasting importance. It will spread and intensify the solidarity efforts of pro-Palestinian groups throughout the world. It will make it hard to smear such efforts as anti-Semitism. It will strengthen the resolve of Palestinian resistance. In years to come we may look back on this day when HRW issued its report as the turning point in the struggle. It is time to declare Palestine as the victor in the Legitimacy War for the control of the legal and moral discourse, the symbolic battlefield where many of the prolonged struggles of the last 75 years have been won and lost. 

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Questions of Zahra Mirzafarjouyan, International Department, Mehr News Agency  (May 1, 2021) on failures of to protect the basic rights of the Palestinian people.]  

 
  1. Have international organizations been successful in addressing the human rights situation in Palestine? If so, why are Israel’s human rights abuses still continuing?

International organizations, particularly the United Nations, has a mixed record when it comes to dealing with human rights violations in Palestine. The UN, especially the Human Rights Council, has a generally good record in identifying violations and recommending remedies. Such delimitations of Israeli behavior are important in validating Palestinian grievances and justifying international solidarity efforts. Unfortunately, this symbolic verification of wrongdoing with respect to human rights is not substantively implemented. All efforts to enforce human rights are

blocked by geopolitics, and particularly the United States. This interference takes various forms, including shielding Israel from accountability by the use of the veto power entrusted to the five Permanent Members of the Security Council.

In addition, Israel has defied the findings and recommendations of international organizations that have found it responsible for serious violations of international human rights standards and the norms of international humanitarian law without suffering from adverse consequences. Israel defends itself not by substantive claims that it has been falsely accused, but by contending falsely that its critics are guilty of antisemitism.


2. Why are most UN Security Council resolutions against the Israeli regime vetoed by the United States?

The United States has interpreted its ‘special relationship’ as obliging it to shield Israel from criticism at the UN and to block the implementation of any moves to hold Israel accountable. Partly the US Government takes such a position because of its strategic interests in the region and partly as a reflection of well-organized pro-Israeli lobbying,

which has been very effective with the US Congress. The UK and France, and the EU generally, have also supported Israel at the international level, although not as strongly as the US.



3. Which governments do you think play the biggest role in violating Palestinian rights?

It seems obvious that the US and the EU countries are most responsible. This reflects in part the broader conflict patterns in the Middle East, which focus on Iran. It is generally believed in the West that Iran seeks the destruction of the Jewish state, and this partly accounts for the strong backing of Israel as the last European colonial venture. It is my understanding that Iran opposes the Zionist Project so far as it seeks to extend Jewish supremacy over the non-Jewish residents of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This supremacy has been recently determined to be an instance of the international crime of apartheid by the influential and politically independent human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, as well as by the leading human rights NGO in Israel, B’Tselem. 

4. What is the mission of world public opinion, especially Europe and the United States, in dealing with such inhuman behavior?

There is an encouraging increase is solidarity support in Europe and the US for the Palestinian struggle to achieve basic rights. The BDS campaign is exerting pressure from without and below upon Israel in a manner similar to anti-apartheid campaign waged successfully against South Africa more than 25 years ago. Israel is losing the Legitimacy War to the Palestinian movement, and the history of anti-colonial movements has demonstrated that what happens with respect to the control of the legitimacy discourse is generally more important over time than what happens on the battlefield in terms of the ultimate political outcome of political struggles in the period since World War II.

5. How do you assess the internal situation in Israel, given the growing economic pressures and identity challenges in this society?

I think the electoral impasse in Israel is a clear indication that all is not well. Israel has drifted politically steadily to the right as to the pursuit of a diplomatic solution of the conflict with Palestine, and feels no current security pressure to scale back the ambitions of the Zionist movement. At the same time there are internal identity challenges evident in the tensions between the secular character of the Israeli state and the increasing leverage of extreme Orthodox Judaism. Whether the economic effects of the boycott and divestment efforts supporting Palestinian goals is being offset by the normalization agreements concluded with Arab governments at the end of 2020 remains to be seen. 

6. Why have peace projects in the region, which are more in the interests of Israel, failed to move forward?

Israel relies on alleged security threats from Iran to keep its citizens mobilized and unified around this central challenge, although it is Israel that commits aggression against Iran and tries its best to prevent the revitalization of the JCPOA Nuclear Agreement, which will have the effect of eliminating US sanctions on Iran. There has been a shift in Israeli foreign policy priorities from the Palestinian/Arab threat, which has been neutralized at present, to the primacy of the Iranian threat. Iran is seen as threatening Israel’s nuclear weapons regional monopoly and as supporting groups throughout the region that are perceived as hostile to Israel’s interests, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis. Israel is aware that the regional balance could shift quickly against it by future political developments, as well as by the deployment and development of weaponry that could challenge its security at home and throughout the region. So long as the Islamic Republic Tehran exists, Israel will base its foreign policy on aggressive military actions toward Iran. Israel has always felt that its regional security depends on opposing the consolidation of any strong regional actor that is sympathetic with the Palestinian struggle, such as Iran, Turkey, and Syria.