Archive | March, 2022

Make Peace, Not War, in Ukraine 

31 Mar

[Prefatory Note: this post is a modified version of an opinion piece published in CounterPunch on March 30, 2022.]

Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine on February 24 flagrantly violating the most fundamental norm of international law—the prohibition of recourse to international force encroaching upon the territory of a sovereign state except in exercising the right of self-defense against a prior armed attack. Yes, there were a series of irresponsible provocations by NATO that aroused understandable security concerns in Moscow, including the relentless expansion of the Cold War NATO alliance after the Cold War was over, the threat from the Soviet Union had disappeared, and promises were made by Western leaders to Gorbachev of no further NATO expansion. Such geopolitical behavior amounted to imprudent statecraft by the West, especially given Russian historical anxieties about being surrounded and attacked by hostile forces. Such eminent public figures as George Kennan, Jack Matlock (respected former U.S. ambassador to Russia), and even Henry Kissinger issued warnings to this effect, but they went unheeded in Washington.

The Ukraine War is best understood and interpreted as a two-level war. In the active combat zones of Ukraine, it is a devastating traditional war between Russia and Ukraine producing an increasingly severe humanitarian crisis that includes massive civilian displacement taking the dual form of refugee flows over Ukraine’s borders and internal movements away from embattled cities and throughout the country.

This primary war phenomenon interacts with, and in some respects contradicts, an ongoing secondary proxy war pitting Russia against the United States, with Russia trying to impose its will on Ukraine and the U.S. pursuing several geopolitical objectives additional to the support of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. These include revitalizing and strengthening NATO and mobilizing unity in Europe by inflaming anti-Russian sentiments, which as during the Cold War rested on fear and loathing of Russia, then the Soviet Union. There is no military engagement at this point in the proxy war, although its ideological confrontations, while avoiding direct violence at present, run the risk of escalating dangerously in various directions, including putting inhibitions on nuclear threats and risks to their greatest test since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It should be appreciated that the fog of war is denser in the secret sessions of proxy war advisors and leaders than even what is hovering over the Ukrainian battlefields. Strategic objectives in this two-level war are confusing, being neither coherent nor consistent, and because there are no current images of death and destruction, the very real negative effects of the proxy war tend to be ignored, such as prolonging the killing, delaying a ceasefire.

In this proxy war, Russia is seeking to reestablish its traditional sphere of influence over the Russian ‘near abroad’ in Ukraine and the U.S. is determined to frustrate this Russian mission, although at a high cost to Ukrainians. The U.S., along with other NATO members, is doing this by sending weapons and other forms of assistance to help the Ukrainians resist more effectively. In addition, strong sanctions are being imposed on Russia with the announced intention of exerting enough economic and political pain on Moscow and Putin to make Russia reverse course. To augment coercive policies Biden, in particular has used language of incitement to attack Putin, climaxing with this outburst a few days ago while in Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power.” Previously, he had called Putin a war criminal, supportive of indictment of the Russian leader by the International Criminal Court, surely viewed by most of the world as hypocritical given the denunciation of the ICC for daring to investigate charges of war crimes against the U.S. in Afghanistan, reinforced by retaliatory personal sanctions imposed on the Prosecutor in the Hague and other officials of the Tribunal. 

I find both of these war strategies dysfunctional and dangerous. For Russia to impose its will on Ukraine by military force is both unlawful, and unlikely to succeed, while inflicting great harm on Ukraine and Ukrainians, as well as on itself as a result of the sanctions and diplomatic pushback. One symbolic result has been the activation of the International Criminal Court in pursuit of an indictment of Putin. Some critics are urging. the UN to establish the type of tribunal used to prosecute surviving Nazi leaders at Nuremberg after World War II. Although these gestures towards accountability for international crimes are plausibly associated with the Russian leader’s behavior, their wider credibility is gravely compromised as mentioned above by moral, legal, and political hypocrisy given past U.S. comparable behavior that was carefully spared similar scrutiny.

Looked at differently, for the U.S. to pursue a militarist strategy toward Russia in this manner is to choose a path leading toward frustration and danger, drawn out humanitarian suffering in Ukraine, disastrous economic spillover effects already leading to food insecurity throughout the Middle East and North Africa by way of spikes in  prices and shortages, renewed pressures to turn to nuclear power and fossil fuels in the vain search for energy independence, and the likelihood of inducing a severe global recession coupled with an escalation of geopolitical tensions of the West with Russia and possibly China. In other words, these antagonists on the geopolitical level of conflict are on a treacherous collision course, with only China so far acting prudently throughout the crisis, remaining on the sidelines, unwilling to give either Russia assistance or to endorse its flagrant violations of Ukrainian sovereignty while opposing sanctions and punitive action directed at Russia.

There is another, better way to proceed to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Russia should have learned from its earlier Afghanistan invasion that military superiority cannot overcome determined national resistance, particularly if externally supported. This is the unlearned lesson for the U.S. of the Vietnam War and all subsequent regime-changing wars of the Ukraine variant. The political outcomes of the Iraq War of 2003 and the costly failure of the prolonged effort to keep the Taliban from power in Afghanistan were reminders that military superiority had lost its historical agency in the post-colonial world. Such a recognition by Washington while long overdue, yet not forthcoming, which means the likelihood of future failures of a similar kind.

At the same time, the U.S. has been losing out globally, overplaying its geopolitical hand ever since the end of the Cold War. Instead of dissolving NATO when Moscow ended the Warsaw Pact, it sponsored anti-Russian political forces all along the Russian border as well as taking the lead in converting NATO into an expanding offensive alliance to be used anywhere in the world, defying its European founding mission as specified in the underlying treaty arrangement. Since the Soviet collapse the alliance was being illegitimately used by Washington as a global policy tool to provide a collective cover somewhat obscuring the unilateral lawlessness of controversial U.S. foreign policy undertakings that involve uses of military force. 

The U.S. would have much to gain by shifting the emphasis from a pro-active level 2 strategy to a level 1 diplomatic approach. By this is meant that instead of inflicting pain on Russia and demonizing Putin and Russia, the U.S. should be seeking to solve the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine by opting for diplomacy and political compromise, stopping the killing as the highest policy priority, and also moving to ease the nuclear dangers associated with escalation and prolonging the Ukrainian ordeal of this Level1 war. Such a behavioral abandonment by the U.S. of its Level 2 irresponsible geopolitical tactics of confrontation and incitement would also have the great national advantage of minimizing the adverse spillover effects outside of Ukraine on food, energy, trade, and political stability.

This seems an opportune moment to renounce the triumphalist unipolar pretensions that took over in Washington at the end of the Cold War. It is time to take account of the self-inflicted wounds of a disastrous record of U.S. over-investment in the military (currently more than the combined expenditures of the next eleven countries) and under-investment in humane state-building at home. Those who seek peace, justice, and economic stability in the political sphere should explore further the restorative potentialities of a UN/international law centered geopolitics of multipolarity.

At present, neither side seems ready to move in such constructive directions. Biden articulates the Level 2 strategy of the U.S. as based on bolstering Ukraine’s military capabilities to carry on a successful war of resistance, while seeking to pressure Russia to the point of acknowledging that their leader should be replaced and Moscow renounce all security claims justifying action beyond its borders. Backing Putin into such a corner is a recipe for geopolitical retaliation, likely giving rise to an escalation spiral that comes ever closer to the nuclear threshold, which as it unfolds would lead to a Western response that was more prone to engage in the active defense of the Ukraine. Escalation along these lines would heighten the nuclear danger, amounts to starting a menacing second cold war, and seems oblivious to the risks of World War III. In the interim, climate change challenges, despite their urgency are placed once more on the back burner of international attention where they were temporarily relocated during the COVID pandemic since 2020. Put simply the opposed geopolitical postures draw on competing visions of world order: the U.S. seeks to police a unipolar world without opposition, while Russia and China in different ways are insisting on establishing geopolitical norms of multipolarity, which include the restoration of geographically proximate spheres of influence for geopolitical actors.

I find it extremely disturbing that the venerable Economist articulates support for Biden’s geopolitical approach, framed as Western support for a Ukrainian victory in a form that inflicts a humiliating defeat upon Russia: “Unfortunately, Ukraine’s Western backers are dragging their feet–reluctant, it seems, to provoke Russia or bear the cost of sanctions. That is reprehensibly short-sighted. A decisive Ukrainian victory is more likely to lead to a stable peace. And by dealing what may be a terminal blow to three centuries of Russian imperialism, it could also transform the security of Europe.” [March 31, 2022] Such a logic is oblivious to Ukrainian suffering arising from a prolonged war, the severity of severe spillover costs to Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the world economy, as well as dangerously stressing geopolitics with high probabilities of escalation in the short-run including heightened risks of breaching nuclear red lines and in the longer run of stimulating a resurgent militarism experienced as a new cold war that diverts the world from climate change and other global challenges. Never has it seemed more beneficial ‘to give peace a chance’ not by such militarist thinking, but by a turn to imaginatively flexible diplomacy. If the The Economist editorial is a reflection of a consensus prevailing in Western political elite circles, we are all in for a dismal future.  


These concerns are aggravated by other factors in the broader international context. The UN has been sidelined, international law is flouted, and the killing goes on. Only transnational civil society in the form of public pressure from within the main geopolitical antagonists can bring these two governments to their senses and end this terrible two-level struggle. A few countries, among them Turkey, could offer to mediate peace negotiations to end the Level 1 Ukrainian War but the Level 2 antagonists seem stubbornly entrapped in their lose/lose war paradigm. As long as this is so, Ukrainians will continue to die and the peoples of the world suffer from the immediate and more deferred consequence of dysfunctional geopolitics.


Public Intellectual

29 Mar


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2022 GPI Book Award Richard Falk

2022 Global Policy Institute Book Award

Presented to Dr. Richard Falk, author of
Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim

Princeton University emeritus professor Richard A. Falk is the winner of the 2022 Global Policy Institute Book Award. Dr. Falk is a member of the Editorial Boards of The Nation and The Progressive, and Chair of the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is a former advisory board member of the World Federalist Institute and the American Movement for World Government. Dr. Falk acted as counsel to Ethiopia and Liberia in the famous South West Africa Cases (1965) that came before the International Court of Justice. During 1999–2000, Falk worked on the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. In that high-profile role, his critical findings on the repression and denial of human rights for Palestinians eventually led to him being banned from Israel.

Dr. Falk is now a Santa Barbara resident. After four decades at Princeton, he has served as Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has lectured widely around the world as one of America’s most recognizable and relentless crusaders for international justice.

The 2022 Global Policy Institute Best Book Award will be presented in a gala reception at the Del Rey Yacht Club.

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A Peacemaker for Ukraine: Turkey?

20 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This short post is my response to Michael Klare’s helpfully clarifying article that appeared in the March 17 The Nation:

I limit my response to the question as to whether Turkey, specifically its controversial Pressident, Recep Teyyip Erdogan, could perform effectively as a mediating third-party between Ukraine and Russia in negotiations for a long-term peace arrangement.]

A Response to Michael Klare: Choosing Diplomacy in Ukraine

I share Michael Klare’s typically lucid analysis of the situation in Ukraine condemning the Russian aggression, calling for prudent geopolitics from Washington, and according priority to stopping the killing as both a humanitarian priority and a necessary recognition of taking all possible steps to avoid escalation cycles that pose dire threats of a wider war, including a rising risk that nuclear weapons will be used. I appreciate Klare’s attempt to propose a concrete framework for implementing his approach by calling on Erdogan, Xi, and Bennett to mediate either singly or in combination. There is informed reason justifying the identification of these suggested three mediators rather than others, although the very plausibility of the proposal and the paucity of alternative calls attention to the woeful absence of constructive leadership at the global level.

On balance, I favor Erdogan over either Xi (whom I doubt would be acceptable to either the U.S. or Ukraine) or Bennett (who leads a state that has been

recently rather authoritatively declared by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to be guilty of the continuing crime of apartheid and, as well, bears responsibility for the prolonged plight of the Palestinian people, which resembles in many of its features the Ukrainian ordeal. To be sure Erdogan does not have clean hands, having regrettably pursued autocratic policies and practices, but not nearly as compromising as those relied upon by Israel or China. As a result, Erdogan seems best suited to play the essential role of presiding over a diplomacy that seeks an immediate ceasefire accompanied by efforts to achieve an agreed framework of political compromise on the underlying conflict. 

If such an approach is successful, the region and the world will relleasse a huge sigh of relief. If international negotiations led by Erdogan achieve an end to the Ukraine Crisis it will, along the way, greatly enhance the international prestige of Turkey, which would have an unavoidably demoralizing effect on the increasingly formidable democracy-oriented opposition within the country the strength of which will be tested in national elections next year. This seems a price worth paying if it is the best option for shifting the combat zone from lethal battlefields and devastated cities in Ukraine to a neutral international negotiating venue. Looking around the world there are no better alternative mediating leaders than the three individuals proposed by Michael. 

A further related peacemaking  approach would be to explore whether the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with its 57 members, could be induced to play a part in establishing a complementary process aiming at a more durable and comprehensive system of European security than currently exists, recognizing that the tragic ordeal faced by the Ukrainian people is in part a consequence of the inadequacies of U.S. led post-Cold War geopolitics, which sought to impose a unipolar security order orchestrated from Washington on the whole world rather than seize the initiative to encourage and enact a demilitarization of geopolitics, which might have been inspirationally begun by the disbanding NATO, or at the very least, declare that with the Cold War over, the sole purpose of NATO is keeping the peace.

In the end, the search is for a peacemaking and peacekeeping framework that is perceived as sensitive to the concerns of both Russia and Ukraine, and facilitates finding common ground on an impartial basis. Such an ideal framework should be contrasted to the failed Oslo ‘peace process’ in which the mediating party was the highly partisan United States. 

Ukraine War: Three Academic perspectives

17 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The following discussion resulted from three separate interviews conducted by Daniel Falcone, and published in Counterpunch on march 16, 2022. There was no interaction among the three of us. My contributions have been modified to some extent. I wonder whether this war is best described as below ‘Russo-ukrainian war’ or simply as ‘Ukrainian war’ or ‘Russo-U.s. Proxy war.’ It seems an amalgam of all three.]

The Politics of the Russo-Ukrainian War: International Scholars Weigh In



Ukrainian refugees taking shelter under a bridge in Kyiv. Photograph Source: – CC BY 4.0

As Russian forces inch toward the capital of Ukraine in a continued act of outright aggression, a fourth round of talks came to a “technical pause.” As the west tries to get firmly ahead of escalation, global planners and analysts look to anticipate this unfolding story, which looks increasingly difficult to follow socially, politically, and economically. In this interview, Middle East historian Lawrence Davidson, international law professor Richard Falk, and international relations scholar Stephen Zunes, break down the historical, cultural, geopolitical, and media implications of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Daniel Falcone: Given the history of the region, how likely was this conflict? Can you provide the historical formations that brought us to this point? 

Lawrence Davidson: Recent history made this war a very real last resort option for the Russians. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO with American urging, extended itself eastward. Based on Russia’s experience as the Soviet Union, there was only one way to interpret such action on NATO’s part—it was an act that threatened Russian national security.

One must ask why Washington and NATO should want to act so precipitously. Expansion was relatively easy at that moment because Russia was temporarily weak. The desire of the ex-Warsaw Pact states to protect themselves from a future resurgent Russia certainly came into play. Speculating a bit further, the expansion might have been seen as the first step in a long-term plan to achieve pro-Western regime change in Russia.

As suggested, the NATO Alliance’s expansion had an aggressive edge and the Russians certainly saw the advancing alliance as a hostile force. Adding salt to the wound, there were also Western attempts to impose regime change in countries directly bordering the Russian Republic. One of these was Ukraine. NATO and the U.S. encouraged Ukraine to turn toward the West and supported Ukrainian politicians who would follow this line. NATO went so far as to get informally involved with the Ukrainian military. It appeared that by 2016, Ukrainian leaders were receptive to these moves.

Once Moscow recovered from the disruption that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union, they found themselves confronted with a situation described above—one that accentuated their historical vulnerability to invasion from the west. The Russian leaders spent a lot of time and energy trying to explain their concerns to both Western leaders and the Western press. Their efforts fell on deaf ears. When Ukrainian leaders started to talk about joining NATO the Russians went into crisis mode. Their first steps were non-violent ones—they put forth a demand for an internationally recognized security treaty that would have halted NATO’s eastward expansion and halted Ukraine’s ambition to join the alliance. This was a sure sign that Russia had a red line which the proposed treaty was designed to protect.

Both Washington and the Europeans rejected this overture. It is very probable that they knew this rejection would force the Russians to act militarily against Ukraine if it too resisted Moscow’s red lines (which precluded Ukrainian membership in NATO). But the Ukrainian leadership clearly believed that NATO and Washington would stand with them, essentially risking war with Russia.

All of this set up the conditions for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And alas, for Ukraine there was to be no Western rescue.

Richard Falk: Perhaps, the ambiguity of the word ‘region’ in your question is deliberate. In any event, it raises the vital question of geographic context. Most discussions of the Ukraine Crisis and Russian attack assume the locus to be exclusively Ukraine, perhaps inclusive of Crimea. However, a broader conception of relevant region would encompass Russia and Europe, with a conceptual spin creating a more arresting focus on Russia and NATO. If geopolitics is considered, then reconstituted alignments of the West, led by the U.S., versus Russia, with a serious balancing role that China adopts as exemplified by its abstention vote on the UN General Assembly Resolution condemning the Russian attack of March 1. A comprehensive answer based on these overlapping interpretations of region is not feasible within this format. I will limit myself to some comments on the historical depth of the conflict.

About Ukraine itself, there are several crucial points bearing on the competition between Russia and an expansive NATO that seem important. First, when the Cold War ended it was followed by an immense gray zone of geopolitical uncertainty. The West was in a triumphalist mood, celebrating ‘the liberation’ of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic from the clutches of Soviet domination. Russia acted realistically in accepting this measure of a loss of influence in the proximity of its Western borders, which seemed also to reflect the overwhelming will of the relevant national populations who had resented the repressiveness and austerity that came with their subordinate status in the Soviet Bloc.

Geopolitical trouble started brewing when the further ambitions of NATO enlargers, specifically, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. Detaching these Slavic peoples from Russia by affiliation with the European Union, much less formal membership in NATO, was not only a threatening humiliation for Moscow but a direct challenge to its sphere of influence that had deep roots going back to Czarist times. Bill Clinton bears some responsibility by promoting an Enlargement Doctrine to expand the number of democratic states throughout the world, This liberal imperial conception weaponized by George W. Bush in presenting a partial rationalization of the Iraq War.[1] This foreign policy initiative was also seen as helpful to the expansion of the sphere of operations of neoliberal globalization and seen as a contribution to world peace due to the acceptance of ‘democratic peace theory’ according to which democratic states do not wage war against one another.

This challenge to Russia’s ‘near abroad’ was further confirmed and intensified by the perception that the U.S. backing of Poroshenko in the 2014 elections shifted the Ukrainian political identity Westward and was further inflamed by U.S. weapons shipments and the de-Russification policies of the new leadership in Kyiv leading to strife in the Dombas region of East Ukraine. Some attempt at avoiding a violent eruption was undertaken in the Minsk Agreements of 2014-15 establishing a ceasefire, promising self-government, and regulating relations between Kyiv and the Russian majority populations in the two Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s refusal to implement the Minsk Agreements aggravated relations with Russia, particularly with respect to the human rights of the Russian speaking minority.

Another aspect of the historical background that has not been analyzed in the media involved a clash between the U.S. and Russia as to the delineation of geopolitical space. It has been observed by certain so-called ‘Russia experts’ that Putin’s underlying strategic aspiration is to overcome Washington’s unipolar behavior since the Soviet collapse that manifested its identity as the global manager of hegemonic geopolitics, including denying and challenging traditional sphere of influence claims of Russia (and China) that are integral to a symmetrical geopolitics in a tripolar world. It is relevant to observe that the design of the UN embodies and the Cold War manifested bipolar symmetrical geopolitics, even if in a currently anachronistic form given the frozen realities of the UN. Conferring permanent membership and a right of veto to the five victors in World War II that turned out to be the five first states to acquire nuclear weapons, was an institutional judgement that has had a delegitimizing effect on the UN over time, but whether it can be called a mistake is questionable given the exclusion of a geopolitical status for major states by the League of Nations, which is viewed as responsible for its impotence as a war prevention institution.

In this sense, ‘the unipolar moment’ commencing in the 1990s has been under growing pressure, at least since the Iraq War of 2003. The unlawful Russian intervention in Ukraine can be viewed as part of a larger effort to restore the geopolitical dimension of Westphalian world order, an essential element of which is mutual respect for the spheres of influence physically adjacent to the Great Powers. This element of world order that can be traced back to the early stages of the formation of European state system in the middle of the 17th Century. The U.S. borrowed the idea, extending spheres of influence already in 1823 by proclaiming and implementing the Monroe Doctrine (opposing European colonization in the Western Hemisphere), further elaborated by the Roosevelt Corollary in 1905 (asserting a right of intervention to enforce debt obligations of hemispheric governments and to protect Americans in danger). Although repudiated as formal doctrines of foreign policy, the U.S. during and after the Cold War continued to implement a hegemonic policy of opposing the existence of Marxist or socialist governments by sanctions, destabilization moves, and intervention.[2] Nevertheless, the avoidance of World War III was partly due to respecting spheres of influence in Europe at least so far as uses of force was concerned. NATO and the U.S. condemned Soviet interventions in Eastern European countries, but never mounted opposition in the form of counter-intervention.

The European ‘region’ is likely to be most profoundly shaken by the events unfolding in Ukraine. It is the first major war in Europe since 1945, and it revives what had seemed past: the perception that Europe is once again as during the Cold War threatened by a rapacious Russian Bear, a combat setting that could become the occasion for catastrophic uses of nuclear weaponry. This united Western stand—a blend of self-righteous opposition to violations of the international law prohibition of aggressive uses of international force, fears of a bigger war, cultural, humanitarian, and racist affinities with the Ukrainian people—is the mirror opposite of what we know about Russia’s nationalist resolve, fortified by memories of devastating invasions of Russia costing millions of lives, and brought back to life by a variety of Western provocations in recent years, giving rise to hyper-belligerent rhetoric and reckless unlawful behavior by Putin.

Stephen Zunes: Two forces have come into play here: One is the triumphalism following the Cold War, the belittling of post-Soviet Russia, the eastward expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries and even the three former Soviet Baltic Republics, and the Western refusal to consider a neutral status for Ukraine. This contributed to the rise of the second force: Putin’s reactionary ultranationalism, militarism, and imperial designs towards Ukraine and elsewhere.

Both have fed on the other. Given Putin’s insistence that Ukraine has no right to exist as its own nation and that it is inherently part of Russia, it is quite possible that the latter would have emerged regardless, which is why I reject claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is therefore “NATO’s fault.” So, while there is little doubt that Western hubris has contributed to the tragedy, the responsibility rests solely on the Russian government. To assume that the United States somehow threatened Russia by developing military alliances with Russia’s near neighbors or sought to oust its government is as simplistic as assuming that Moscow’s efforts to establish security ties with Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua, or other near neighbors of the United States during the Cold War was part of a Russian “hit list” to eventually take over the United States, as Reagan claimed.

For decades, Washington couldn’t understand why so many in Latin America embraced Marxism and looked to the Soviet Union for protection from U.S. imperialism. The U.S. falsely assumed that Latin American nations were simply passive victims of Russian aggression/expansionism, and the U.S. was therefore forced to intervene in “self-defense.” We shouldn’t fall into this trap regarding the United States and Ukraine. As wrong as U.S. policy has been in Eastern Europe, we must understand why most people in those countries do not see Western imperialism as their main threat and have welcomed NATO as a protector. (I think that’s the wrong approach myself, but if I was an Eastern European, I would be in a distinct minority.) For centuries, it was primarily the Russian Empire, followed by the Soviet Union, that threatened their freedom, not the West. The United States has taken advantage of this anti-Russian sentiment for its own imperial designs, which we should vigorously challenge, but let’s not deny agency to the people of those countries who, rightly or wrongly, have looked to the West for protection.

Just as concerns about human rights abuses or other policies by the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan governments can never justify U.S. interventionism in those countries, neither can problematic policies by Zelensky and other Eastern European governments be used to excuse Russian interventionism. Similarly, the 2014 uprising against Yanukovych was not a “U.S. coup”—it was a popular, largely nonviolent, uprising mostly led by liberals, which would have succeeded anywaydespite the limited amount of U.S. funding provided some opposition activists and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s efforts to influence the makeup of the interim government following Yanukovych’s ouster. The general strike and mass protests which brought down the government utilized classic nonviolent resistance tactics, even though the government they were bringing down had been democratically elected and compromise agreement had just been reached. Yanukovych’s notorious corruption, increasing repression, and close ties to Putin had alienated most of the population by that point.[3]

The limited amount of aid[4] to some opposition groups from the United States, the EU, and various Western foundations were no more responsible for the 2014 uprising against Yanukovych as was the limited amount of Soviet aid to leftist rebels in Central America caused those revolutions take place. Zelensky was elected in 2019 with 74% of the vote as an ethnic Russian promising to clean up the corruption riddling both the pro-Russian bloc and the main pro-Western bloc. He has failed to do so thus far, but it seemed that in many ways Ukraine was stumbling towards a more functional government and economy that could eventually transform it into a modern EU state. Perhaps this is what Putin is upset about. Just as the United States could not tolerate what Noam Chomsky has called “the threat of a good example” in the form of successful socialist models in the Western hemisphere, Putin may similarly be troubled by the prospects of a successful liberal democratic alternative among a people with such close geographical, cultural, and historical ties.

Daniel Falcone: In the United States, from a political perspective there seems to be a left and a right on both sides; Ukrainian advocates/skeptics of the left and right, and Russian advocates/skeptics of the same. Can you guide us through some of these moving parts that make the ideological divides so random and hard to nail down?

Lawrence Davidson: This situation is confusing to me also. I know that on the liberal left, Russia is seen by many as an expansionist imperial power—a view which follows from Cold War tropes. On the right, which now appears to be mostly a “follow Trump” affair, the message is that Putin is some sort of admirable strong man. The U.S. government line is that Putin is insane. Only a few on the American Left (Bernie Sanders for instance) recognize that Russia has legitimate security needs and was threatened by NATO.

The bottom line is that most Americans are ignorant of the circumstances that led to the invasion. For many that ignorance is filled in with the propaganda that is offered by the government and media. So, for the majority you either don’t care one way or the other because the Ukraine is far away and certainly does not touch your life, or you’re an angry puppet whose mental strings are pulled by those who shape the national airwaves to the left or to the right.

Richard Falk: The reason for this seeming divergence of ideological perception and prescription is a consequence of the complexity of the fate of Ukraine as suggested by its multidimensional implications. President Biden in a strident March 1st State of the Union speech presented the Ukrainian Crisis as a normative confrontation between ‘democracy and tyranny.’ By stressing the worldwide scope of the encounter, Biden made support of Ukraine’s sovereignty a matter of vital significance to the liberal conception of world order favored by the West, and as such, a legitimate moment to flex the U.S. militarist and globalist muscles. Whether the claim of ideological solidarity should be treated as a genuine clash between two kinds of state-level governance rather that geopolitical propaganda is questionable.

At the meeting of the Biden’s Summit for Democracies in December 2021, such countries as India, Philippines, Israel, Malaysia, and Brazil with autocratic leaders and terrible human rights records were invited to participate. Looked at objectively, the summit was less about democracy than about geopolitical leadership.

The left has good reasons for skepticism about the intensity of the Western response. First, a high degree of hypocrisy is present, considering that the U.S. has done in many countries what Russia seems to be doing in Ukraine—regime-changing intervention, accompanied by ‘shock and awe’ tactics causing massive death, widespread devastation, and hugely cruel international and internal displacement of the civilian population. Added reasons for this critical stance relate to the internal role played by the U.S. in recent domestic Ukrainian political life via its covert role in the 2014 coup overthrow of the elected pro-Russian president, Yanukovych, and the emergence of a right-wing pro-Wester government headed by Poroshenko, giving Russian propaganda about Ukraine a slight edge of plausibility and the attack a defensive spin as anti-Russian, pro-Western Zilensky was elected by a wide margin in the first election held the coup. Russian propaganda on internal Ukrainian politics is at least as misleading and self-serving as what emanates from the West. It is further invalidated by recourse to aggressive war, bellicose rhetoric, and saber rattling rather than a more patient and concerted effort at finding a diplomatic solution.

The Russian outlook, as indicated in my prior response, can be seen as mainly one of defending a traditional sphere of influence from a hostile takeover on its European borders combined with a more general renewed Russian assertiveness on behalf of symmetrical geopolitics. It is relevant to observe that geopolitical norms of conduct are separate from, and with respect to the use of force as odds with international law. In the geopolitical sphere precedent enjoys legislative force, making what the U.S. and NATO has done earlier and repeatedly by way of regime-changing military intervention, which through this practice, which was tolerated in the past, had become a geopolitical norm. The denunciation of this behavior from the perspective of international law is thus virtually irrelevant and hypocritical propaganda as these geopolitical actors enjoy impunity both legally and existentially unless possibly if they experience defeat as Germany and Japan did after 1945.

This observation does not lessen the reprehensible moral quality of this Russian recourse to criminality while carrying out its foreign policy. Even defensive geopolitics—the revolt against U.S. unipolar hegemony—tends to be extremely harmful to third party sites of geopolitical rivalry turned violent, generating proxy warfare confrontations and military interventions on behalf of opposing sides in the internal struggle. In the Vietnam War the U.S. not only engaged in massive intervention on the anti-Communist side but it supported a coup that achieved regime-change to achieve more effective leadership on its side in the struggle.

It may clarify the ideological confrontations to call attention to the distinction between statism and geopolitics in the current world order. Russia’s attack is norm-shattering from a statist, international law standpoint, lacking any credible legal justification, whereas the Euro-American justification for denunciation rests on widely accepted norms of international law, territorial sovereignty, and nuclear taboo. Russia’s still obscure motivations for the attack upon Ukraine’s sovereignty accords with geopolitical norms as set primarily by the West, particularly the United States, and on that score cannot be geopolitically faulted at least absent the acknowledgement and repudiation of past similar instances regardless of the identity of the geopolitical actor.

The Western response is even more geopolitically norm-shattering to the extent it challenges Russia’s traditional sphere of influence along its Southern border, while in this morally deplorable sense Russia’s Ukraine attack is in accord with geopolitical norms. When the U.S. or NATO denounces Russia, it is best understood as hostile propaganda validating coercive diplomacy (sanctions), while when New Zealand or countries of the Global South make the same argument, it is an attempt to override the primacy of geopolitics in world politics, and in its place, affirm the legal, political, and moral authority of state-centric rules of order that accord with the UN Charter and the systemic applicability of international law.

Stephen Zunes: There is a broad spectrum of the political mainstream in support of Ukraine, as there should be. They are victims of aggression. Indeed, the outpouring of support and sympathy to the victims of Russian aggression is quite moving, though it certainly raises questions as to why there hasn’t been similar support and sympathy for nonwhite, non-Christian victims of aggression, such as Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Sahrawis, and others.

In terms of apologists for Russia, Putin’s rightwing nationalism, ties to ultraconservative elements of the Russian Orthodox Church, and his support for far-right parties in Europe and elsewhere are quite consistent with the views of the Trump wing of the Republican Party.

Support of Putin by some elements of the left is harder to understand. Perhaps there is a nostalgia for Soviet Russia, which—despite the serious problems with their system—tended to be on right side of many popular struggles in the Global South, so the Kremlin is therefore mistakenly still seen as “anti-imperialist.” Putin’s government is a far right, reactionary, homophobic, racist, imperialistic regime which—like the United States in Iraq—has engaged in an act of aggression in direct violation of the United Nations Charter. Like Israel and Morocco, Russia must withdraw from their occupied territories and renounced their irredentist claims. Opposing U.S. imperialism does not in itself make a regime progressive or worth defending.

Part of it may be the old “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Much of it could be about the understandable upset at the real, if somewhat exaggerated, provocations by the United States leading up to the crisis. There is also the fact that many people are still bitter at the way that so many in mainstream media and in Washington, including Joe Biden, made repeated demonstrably false claims about Iraq to justify the invasion of that oil-rich country, resulting in an assumption that the U.S. version of international events simply cannot be trusted under any circumstances.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on the media and how it’s structured around this war? Who do you consider to be the most effective on the ground reporters in this situation and why?

Lawrence Davidson: I think the U.S. media has simply revived the Cold War and proceeded as if this was 1950s. Those who control the news media outlets apparently only know one version of post-World War II history and the interim years following the fall of the Soviet Union has done nothing to alter that point of view.

Thus, as regards Russian behavior the media has deleted all the contextual background to the invasion. The whole thing has been reduced to an expansionist driven Russia led by Putin the madman. Speaking of reporters on the ground, this self-censoring storyline is very well represented by Trudy Rubin, the foreign policy person at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her present position of “we must do more for Ukraine” shows little concern that “more” might well mean “war” with Russia.[5]

Richard Falk: I found the U.S, mainstream media shocking in its patriotic excess, one-sided presentation of the issues as norm-shattering without mentioning that this pattern of behavior had been normalized geopolitically by U.S. practice over the last half-century. The media has created no opportunities for informed progressive public intellectuals to give their views even as compared to the radical right, which has put forward a variety of dissident views, mostly unsavory. For instance, Tucker Carlson speaks for some prominent Trumpists by arguing that insufficient national interests of the United States exist to justify a robust defense of Ukraine or confrontation with Russia. Looking back, it seems that the Trump presidency was threatening to the post-Cold War consensus as to hegemonic geopolitics, seeking a more economistic and transactional world order, less willing to pay the price of subsidizing NATO and state-building misadventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The online independent media gives more context and diverse views, generally condemning Russian aggression and tactics but also blaming the U.S. for setting regime-changing aggression precedents, especially, Iraq since 2003.

The display of global unity with respect to the condemnation of Russian aggression is welcome, as is the global disunity, especially evident in the Global South, with respect to the imposition of global sanctions on Russia given the similarity of Russian behavior to comparable U.S. interventions when no such sanctions were proposed much less enacted. These double standards partly exhibit the geopolitical realities of a unipolar world order, which includes the domination of public discourse bearing on the media treatment of antagonistic conflict narratives. A compliant media is an important policy tool of hegemonic geopolitics


Stephen Zunes: The media coverage has not been bad in my view in terms of reporting the facts on the ground. Sympathy for the Ukrainians is well-deserved in most cases, though it again raises questions about double-standards regarding coverage of victims of aggression by the United States and its allies.

What upsets me about the media coverage is that their analysis has been based largely on the assumption that Russia’s invasion is somehow a uniquely terrible violation of international legal norms, and the United States is somehow uniquely qualified to defend the international order. There is barely any mention of the fact that the Biden administration is the only government in the world to formally recognize Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and Morocco’s illegal annexation of the entire country of Western Sahara.

Instead, the media is simply repeating White House and State Department insistence that no country can change its borders unilaterally and that expending territory by force is illegal which—while certainly correct—has not been U.S. policy regarding the conduct of U.S. allies. Similarly, there has been little mention of the irony that Biden—a strident supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the specious grounds that Iraq was somehow a threat to U.S. national security—is criticizing Putin for similarly false claims justifying the invasion of Ukraine.

Daniel Falcone: There is no way to predict human affairs, but based on your expertise and the political and historical implications taking place, what do you envision as the likely outcomes or possibilities? 

Lawrence Davidson: I think Russia will continue its military operation until Ukraine concedes. If Ukraine does concede at a relatively early stage, maybe they can save some of their domestic independence while conceding control of foreign policy to Russia. If not, Russia will destroy Ukraine. They will reduce the Ukrainian cities to rubble and leave the people starving. Then a leader responsible to Moscow will be put in power and the Russians will supervise a slow redevelopment program.

Throughout this process the sanctions which seem to soothe the Western conscience over its culpability in this affair will only cause suffering on the ground, both in the East and the West. It will not change Russian strategy or tactics. Finally, I do not think there will be a coup in Moscow. I know this is a very negative and sad picture, but the Russians had told the Western leaders that they would never allow hostile forces on their borders. The Western leaders did not listen, and the Ukrainians pay the price.

Richard Falk: The configuration of circumstances caught up in the Ukraine Crisis are distinctive to the current phase of international relations. History offers little guidance, although it contains some experience that is relevant, especially with reference to crisis management and de-escalation. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is instructive in somewhat contradictory ways. The most definitive studies of the crisis suggest that the avoidance of catastrophe depended on such good luck to a substantial degree. It also depended on two leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, who wanted to avoid violent confrontation, and used their leadership skills to find a way out that didn’t humiliate the adversary. Whether Biden and Putin have either the skill or the motivation to find a peaceful means to end this ugly confrontation, which has become a grotesque example of lose/lose and imprudent geopolitics, as well as being an unspeakable humanitarian tragedy for the Ukrainian people.

Pugwash, a loose network of scientists dedicated to peace, founded in 1957 by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, has issued an eight-point plan on February 26, 2022, featuring an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces, ending of sanctions on Russia and Russians, permanent neutrality for Ukraine, implementation of autonomy arrangements for Eastern Ukraine in the Donbass region. Some such sensible compromise that recognizes the various issues at stake is rational, possible, yet in the present atmosphere elusive, improbable. It is difficult to find enough common ground give the polarization of opinion on both sides

More likely, and grimmer, is the persistence of confrontation and low-intensity warfare that could drag on for years, perhaps somewhat moderated by a partial ceasefire followed by an eventual Russian withdrawal of armed forces from Western Ukraine and a diplomatic understanding that the sovereign state of Ukraine can join the European Union, but never NATO, and must adopt a stance of geopolitical neutrality. There are economic as well as prudential incentives to calm the roiled geopolitical waters facilitating desperately needed attention and added resources to climate change, denuclearization, and post-COVID recovery.

Stephen Zunes: Russia could end up being bogged down in its advances on the ground due to lagging logistical support, poor morale of its troops, and tenacious resistance by the Ukrainians, yet they could still engage in the kind of devastating strikes on urban centers as Russian troops did in Grozny, the Israelis have done repeatedly in Gaza, the Saudis in Yemen, and the Syrians in their own cities.  It’s also possible that Russia might end up physically seizing much of Ukraine, but both the armed and unarmed resistance will likely make the country ungovernable. Just because you have tanks in the streets and collaborators in government buildings doesn’t mean you control the country if people do not recognize your authority.

Meanwhile, the sanctions will lead to growing opposition among elites and ordinary Russians to Putin’s impetuous actions, possibly forcing him to compromise and perhaps even removing him from power. I have little doubt that Ukraine will win. The questions are:  How long it will take and how many people will die until they do? And will Russia’s eventual defeat lead to increased U.S. militarism and imperial reach, or a stronger global stance against all forms of aggression, including that of the United States and its allies?


[1] See Anthony Lake,” From Containment to Enlargement,” Clinton Digital Library, Sept. 21, 1993; John Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of Liberal Hegemony,” Stimson Lecture, Yale University, Nov. 22, 2017

[2] e.g., Guatemala 1954; Chile 1973; Nicaragua 1980s

[3] Some fascists that staged a limited role late in the uprising and briefly held some minority positions in the interim government have received barely 4% of the vote in recent elections, though the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion has played a role in the fighting in the Donbas region.

[4] The $5 billion figure attributed to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was in reference to all U.S. foreign aid sent to Ukraine since its independence in 1991, which includes aid to pro-Western Ukrainian administrations (which the United States presumably would not have wanted to destabilize). Like most U.S. foreign aid, some of it went for good things and some for not so good things. There was also some funding through the National Endowment for Democracy and other organizations to some opposition groups that were involved in the recent insurrection, but this was in the millions of dollars, nothing remotely close to $5 billion.

[5] No ‘no-fly zone’? Then NATO must find another way to protect Ukraine’s skies.

Daniel Falcone is an activist, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He teaches humanities at the United Nations International School and resides in Queens.

The Ukraine War: A Geopolitical Perspective

12 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat modified version of a talk on March 9th, 2022 at a session of the Global Studies Colloquium, UCSB, convened by Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse. I regret not having a transcript as a series of challenging questions followed my remarks, including several participants in Europe. COVID has made transnational dialogue much more of a common and enriching feature of intellectual activity on university campuses.]

The Ukraine War: A Geopolitical Perspective

When we agreed on a theme for my presentation, we were in a pre-Ukraine world. In the interim developments in Ukraine, including the imprudent US-led provocations, Russian aggression against a sovereign state producing a severe humanitarian crisis in a country of over 44 million people, the confrontational Western response by way of sanctions and a surging Russophobia, producing a win/lose calculus rather than striving for partial win/win political outcomes, which I would identify as restoring respect for Ukrainian sovereign rights (ceasefire, Russian orderly w/drawal; reconstruction assistance; emergency humanitarian aid) coupled with a commitment by Ukraine to never join NATO or allow Western troops or weaponry to be deployed on its soil, as well as a commitment to allow self-government in Eastern Ukraine and the protection of human rights in Donbas region in accord with the reinvigoration of the Minsk Agreements of 2014-15. The West’s refusal to practice win/win diplomacy is suggestive of an absence of political and moral imagination at a time in world history when the resources and energies of the world need to be dedicated to global problem-solving as never before, and not be diverted by geopolitical dramas of the kind that has been tragically unfolding in Ukraine since February 24th.

Geopolitics is often invoked vaguely and abstractly, frequently given diverse meaning, and thus needs to be explained. Geopolitics is most usefully understood as referencing the behavior of dominant states, what used to be called Great Powers. There is a confusion embedded in IR, which generally refers to a state-centric world order based on juridical equality as exemplified by international law, and has been recently mystified in the political discourse of the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. This high official insists that U.S. foreign policy adheres to the restraints of a rule-governed international order, while that of its rivals, China and Russia, does not, and that for him makes all the difference. In actuality, the reality of geopolitics is most manifest in war/peace or international security contexts where all Great Powers throughout the world history of several centuries privilege their strategic priorities over adherence to rules or norms of general application.

At the end of World War II there were basically two geopolitical actors—US & USSR. Additionally, through the strength of Winston Churchill’s personality and the vitality of the trans-Atlantic alliance, UK was treated as a third geopolitical actor. France was later added as a courtesy urged by Churchill to avoid Britain enduring the loneliness of being the predominant colonial power. China as the most populous country and the sole representative of the Global South was the final state admitted to this exclusive club of geopolitical actors, who not only became the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, but were also the first five countries to develop and possess nuclear weapons.

Franklin Roosevelt exerted American influence, backed by Stalin, to ensure that the United Nations would be established in a manner that took account of the institutional failures of the League of Nations that had been brought into existence after World War I to keep the peace. FDR attributed the failure of the League as arising from its Westphalian state-centric framing of authority. Instead of juridical equality as the dominant organizing principle, Roosevelt favored the establishment of a hybrid institution: geopolitical primacy for the Security Council endowed with sole authority to reach and implement, if necessary by force, binding decisions; Westphalian statism was relied upon to legitimate claims of authority in the GA and rest of UN System, yet limited in its efforts to influence behavior to advisory and recommendatory authority that has turned out have had inconsequential impacts in relation to the most pressing items on the global policy agenda.

Additional support for hybridity came from the Soviet Union that sought not only Permanent Membership in the SC but structural assurances that it would not be victimized by a tyranny of the majority composed of anti-Communist Western-leaning countries. Soviet concerns were set forth as part of the justification for granting a right of veto to the permanent five. The central idea was to frame the peace and security priorities of the new UN in a manner that clearer ample space political space for the practice of geopolitics within the four walls of the Organization. It is not surprising that this accommodation of geopolitics produced an impasse at the UN, approaching political paralysis during the Cold War. It also perversely meant that the P-5 were constitutionally empowered to opt out of compliance with international law whenever their strategic interests so decreed by simply casting a veto blocking a SC decision.

It should be noted that a quite differerent approach was taken in the economic sphere of the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and IMF where Western primacy for market economies was achieved by weighted voting and leadership traditions proportionally based on capital contributions. Such a capitalist consensus did indeed lead to a rule-based international liberal order, which contrasted with the contested ideological combat zone of post-1945 geopolitics. [Ikenberry; WTO added later]

Roosevelt’s vision of the UN was vindicated to some extent by achieving and maintaining universality of membership throughout the entirety of the Cold War. Providing a comfort zone for geopolitics did overcome one of the principal procedural weaknesses of the state-centric League. The League suffered from non-participation (US), withdrawal (USSR), and expulsion (Germany), arguably the most important international actors between the two world wars.

The most hopeful part of FDR’s hopes to the UN proved irrelevant and naïve. Roosevelt was hopeful that the of countries with diverse ideologies that had cooperated so effectively in responding to the fascist challenge in the war would extend their alliance to peacetime. He believed, or maybe just hoped, that the victors in World War II would take on the less onerous challenges of peacetime. In retrospect, it seems clear that those who led the peace diplomacy after World War II underestimated the intensity of antagonistic geopolitical ambitions that had been temporarily subdued to address the common threat posed by fascism, and that the removal of that threat made possible the resumption of fierce geopolitical rivalry between the two military superpowers.

The Cold War, despite its periodic crises, proxy wars, and arms races managed to avoid a third world war by producing a relatively stable geopolitical balance of power based on two  principal elements: deterrence (mutual assured destruction) and respect for each other’s spheres of influence. The risks of war during this period arose over different perceptions of respective degrees of control over spheres of influence as in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the interplay of nationalisms and ideological affinities in the three divided countries of Korea and Vietnam that led to horribly destructive proxy wars and Germany that produced recurrent crises that endangered peace in scary ways. War prevention was more successful in Europe where respective spheres of influence accepted hostile interventions by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and more subtly by the U.S. in Western Europe

What might be called ‘the geopolitics of peace’ during the Cold War reflected patterns of assertion and restraint that reflected the prevailing geopolitical structure: the presence of nuclear weapons, and the collapse of European colonialism. The structural reality of the Cold War period was captured by a militarist understanding of geopolitics in the nuclear age, and by the imaginary of ‘bipolarity.’ Such abstractions unless elaborated obscures the role of geopolitical leadership, internal cohesion and governance, and perceptions of the adversary. Yet ‘bipolarity’ gives a more instructive view of geopolitics than does an emphasis on the P-5 in the UN setting, and has prevailed in the academic IR literature.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led what the right-wing neoconservatives in the U.S. heralded as the onset of ‘a unipolar moment,’ which meant that the logic of balance and deterrence no longer applied, especially in conflicts within the spheres of influence bordering on China and Russia. Balance was replaced by the logic of dominance and asymmetry. A triumphalist atmosphere emerged in the US during the 1990s conveyed by such phrases as ‘the end of history,’ ‘the second American century,’ ‘the doctrine of enlargement,’ and ‘democracy promotion.’ No longer was geopolitics conceived largely in regional terms, but rather as a global undertaking of a single political actor, the United States, the first truly ‘global state’ whose security zone encompassed the planet.

But there were problems with operationalizing a Monroe Doctrine for the world: the potency of nationalist resistance neutralizing over time the impact of military superiority enjoyed by the intervening geopolitical actor, a revision of the balance of forces as between intervenors and national sites of struggle recently evident in Iraq and Afghanistan; the fact that China’s challenge was not primarily military, and thus could not be ‘deterred’ by force alone; the growing Russian resentment at being hemmed in and threatened by the geopolitical acrobatics of unipolarity.

One further observation of a conceptual nature: world order is constituted by two normative logics: a geopolitical logic based on inequality of states and a juridical logic based on their equality. For relations based on equality, international law provides a framework; for those based on inequality, strategic priorities including war avoidance underpin action. Bipolarity proved to be relatively resilient, unipolarity turned out to be dysfunctional, producing massive human suffering, widespread devastation and human displacement while frustrating the pursuit and attainment of geopolitical goals.

Before the Ukraine crisis, there seemed to be forming a new geopolitical configuration based on somewhat different patterns of alignment: ‘containment’ was being resurrected in relation to China and focusing on the defense of South Asia, including the islands, with a less Euro-centric alliance on both sides. Instead of NATO v Warsaw Pact there is the relations of US, India, UK, and Australia. Russia seemed to be replacing East Europe as the principal ally or partner of China suggesting a new phase of bipolarity and the onset of a second cold war.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine drastically challenged that playbill, or so it now seems. He had previously pledged ‘the end of the unipolar world,’ and seemed to mean this primarily in relation to the Russian sphere of influence along its Western borders, starting with Ukraine. Such a geopolitical approach is running into some comparable obstacles to those encountered by the US with respect to unipolarity. China is placed in an awkward position of conflicting priorities, balancing U.S. encroachments and hegemonic geopolitics, yet uphold the sanctity of territorial sovereignty, the major premise of Westphalian world order.

One can conjecture that if a diplomatic solution is soon found for Ukraine, the Sino-Russian defensive geopolitics will revive. The Trump factor cannot be discounted in the near future, and with it a return to a geopolitical realignment scheme that was friendlier to Russia and more economistic in character, viewing China as the more troublesome rival of the U.S. from the perspective of trade, investment, and technological innovation.

What seems clear is that the 30-year aftermath of the Cold War is ending amid the ruins and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. What comes next depends on many factors, including the impingement of unmet global challenges not previously prominent on geopolitical agendas, yet posing dire threats to the future stability of planetary political, economic, and ecological arrangements if not treated as matters of urgency.

Toward a Second Arab Spring

4 Mar

[Prefatory Note: this opinion piece was previously published in the online weekly, Transcend Media Service in modified form on March 1, 2022; a much longer will be published under TRT auspices on a book dealing with the Arab World Ten Years After the Arab Spring, edited by Senar Akturk.]

Ten Years After the Arab Spring: Is It Time ‘to fail better’

Points of Departure

Looking back ten years on the apparent failure of the First Arab Spring, the situation of Arab societies in 2021 has dramatically regressed in at least two respects as compared to the conditions that prompted the unexpected uprisings a decade ago. First, the realities of poverty, gross inequality, corruption, and autocracy that motivated the populist movements have worsened in a variety of disturbing respects across the entire region, although to varying extents from country to country.

This assessment does not even take account of the violence and suffering flowing from negative side effects of counterrevolutionary actions devoted to restoring the prior order and punishing the insurrectionary opposition. Additionally political turbulence in several countries in the aftermath of the uprisings produced massive internal and international displacement of peoples that often resulted in a second experience of misery for those fleeing combat zones beset by civil strife and foreign intervention. The Arab Spring despite its initial inspirational display of unarmed protesters demanding freedom, human rights, and accountable democracy soon thereafter became the proximate cause of this tragic sequel in several countries. Ten years later there is very little of a positive character that remains of what seemed for a brief interlude to be a liberating moment for a series of societies enduring dysfunctional and repressive governance.

Secondly, although not the fault of the disappointing sequel to the Arab Spring, current regional and global conditions have given rise to a different apolitical set of challenges in the Middle East that make the earlier political quests for more humane and equitable state/society relations seem less capable of reigniting the spirit of 2011 in the near future. These new conditions include a growing awareness that the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. It has been further stressed in recent years by the effects on oil and gas pricing due to global undertakings to lessen dependence on fossil fuels as rapidly as possible by hastening societal shifts to renewable sources of energy. The urgent priority of lessening the adverse consequences of global warming is likely to become even more preoccupying for societies struggling to manage ecological agendas, while while diverting attention from the revolutionary agendas that animated the Arab Spring.

As well, nothing has been done in the Middle East or by geopolitical actors to reduce the dangers of war and instability associated with confronting Iran by recourse to coercive diplomacy, including threats, assassinations, and harsh sanctions. In fact, the Palestinian people have been thrown to the wolves while Israel is given the economic and political benefits of normalization with Arab governments without any fulfilling the international consensus of achieving a prior negotiated peace with the Palestinians.  

Accentuating these concerns are serious prospects of destabilizing shifts in regional and global alignments that may give rise to making the Middle East once again, as during the Cold War, a site of struggle between global rivals, in this instance the U.S. versus China and Russia. The diminishing role of the United States in the region coupled with the increasing relevance of China and Russia as well as the wider potential implications of Israel’s increasingly normalized  relations with Arab countries, which has included making Israel an acknowledged partner in Saudi-led anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish coalitions. Such collaboration with Israel without achieving a genuine peace agreement with the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, including those in foreign refugee camps or involuntary exile, was unthinkable a decade ago. The ‘normalization accords’ initiated in 2020 at the end of Trump presidency have also had the effect of widening the gaps between the pro-Palestinian views of Arab peoples and the elites that govern in the Middle East. Such shifts tend to validate the views of those in opposition that the political leadership of many Arab countries is illegitimate as well as incompetent, corrupt, and repressive. In effect, a legitimacy hangs over those governments that have tacitly or avowedly abandoned the Palestinian struggle for the sake of making common cause with the Israelis against Iran, as well as to benefit from trade, investment, and access to arms markets.

Despite these developments, If we look forward in time, there seems present a set of conditions that will in due course give rise to a revival of activist displays of radical political discontent in several Arab countries. Recent political challenges to the status quo mounted in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, and occupied Palestine have already foreshadowed such a future. Although the outcome of these challenges has been confused and unresolved, and far less dramatic than the Arab Spring, their occurrence reveals vitality in civil society as well as fissures at national sub-national levels of governance that amount to an early warning system of political volatility throughout the region.

There are also a variety of indications that the failures of the First Arab Spring have prompted adjustments in the outlook of democratizing activist thought and practice. It may also be relevant that the U.S. appears, at least temporarily, to have wearied of its engagement in regime-changing ‘democracy-promoting’ interventions in the Middle East being inhibited, at least temporarily, by its notable failures in Iraq, and more recently in Afghanistan.[i] Such wariness of military engagement on the part of the U.S. within the region takes some account of the fact that the most elaborate U.S./NATO attempts to alter the orientation and leadership in countries such as Iraq and Libya were costly and failed to produce the political results that were invoked to justify the interventions in the first place.[ii]

A major reaction to the removal of despotic leadership in several countries produced a collapse of national governmental capabilities to sustain order, producing a dispersal of power within the borders of states, notably Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. The weakening of governing capacity of the state bureaucracies led to persisting violent strife and chaos as well as death and devastation, and massive internal and cross-border displacement of populations. These chaotic circumstances on the ground have contributed to the acute economic and political misery of Arab populations, prompting rising opposition that is leading governments in the region to rely on ever more oppressive measures of political control that seem to be generating large-scale resentment and alienation throughout the MENA region, contributing to chronic chaos in several states.

The picture that emerges from looking back ten years combined with an attempt to sketch the present and near future of Arab political development is a bewilderingly contradictory configuration of great complexity, diversity of national circumstances, and radical uncertainty, especially pertaining to geopolitical intrusions in MENA. Going forward, the absence of any positive model in the region upon which to construct a visionary future seems to make unlikely large-scale recourse to oppositional action. 

The search goes on to develop a politics of action that combines fairness in the economic sphere with dignity and participation in the political sphere. This is likely to remain a haunting challenge for those social forces committed to drastic change. The experience of the Arab Spring suggests that even a popular movement strong and determined enough to remove long entrenched political leaders from the pinnacles of state power for alleged abuses of power, incompetence, and corruption may not have the knowhow, capabilities, and sustainable support to create a stable aftermath to the seizure of state power consistent with its revolutionary goals and expectations. More concretely, it has become questionable whether a freely elected national government can give rise to a resilient enough constitutional democracy to be hospitable to various forms of political, ethnic, and geographic pluralism that are characteristic features of many MENA states. 

Such a generalization applies whether emergent post-uprising leadership is of a secular or more Islamist variant. The dilemma of the aftermath becomes so daunting, and perhaps paralyzing, when it is realized that all of the available governance options in the Middle East have so far led to disappointing experiences if evaluated from the perspective of order (stability, national unity, territorial reach) and  justice (equitable representation, rule of law, human rights, social protection, ethical norms, public approval by free elections).