Archive | May, 2023

[Prefatory Note: The post below is the text of my contribution to the April 2023 Global Forum of the Great Transition Initiative GTI as developed under the guidance of Paul Raskin at the Tellus Institute in Cambridge, MA. The monthly theme was ‘Big History,’ attracting a range of notable authors whose short essays can be found at GTI Forum. For anyone interested in a transformed future I recommend following the wide range of views and themes addressed by GTI. To achieve positive forms of change at a time of multiple converging crises imperiling the human species and its natural habitat is. the ‘crisis of crises’ facing humanity at this time.]

27 May

Assessing Big History at a Time of Global Crisis

A Skeptical Premise

I find myself fascinated by the explorations and exposition of Big History, helpful for a deeper, more vibrant metanarrative of self-understanding. And yet I also find it fundamentally irrelevant, and even delusional, when it comes to addressing meaningfully what is agreed to be a historical condition of unprecedented global crisis threatening near-term civilizational and ecological viability, imperiling even the survival of living species, including the human. Putting my skepticism in its simplest form, “we do not have time” to make Big History work in favor of a livable future, and it serves as an indulgent distraction as so presented. That is not to say that Big History may not have immediate pedagogic benefits by enriching education, allowing students and readers of all ages to grasp better how the profound predicaments of the present came about and what might be done to reach a more elevated stage of human evolution. The mistake of Big History advocates is to suppose that transformational thinking by a few people even if situated on a geo-civilizational terrain will have a sufficient impact to exert an emergent influence on a policy level within time horizons relevant to meeting the fundamental concerns associated with climate change, weaponry of mass destruction, corporate plunder, destructive forms of inequality, political extremism, mass alienation, conspiratorial myth-making, and transnational crime.

David Christian attaches great historical weight to the reaction of the astronauts who conveyed back home the images of Planet Earth as seen from the moon, regarding as a Big History event in real time that imparted lasting meaning to how we act as humans on a shared planet, inspiring a sense of oneness that will facilitate a transition from conflict to cooperation as the dominant pattern of collective behavior. In Christian’s words, “Whatever form it takes, a more expansive and interdisciplinary perspective on today’s world can galvanize the Great Transition by reorienting the thinking, attitudes, and motivations of billions of people.” Perhaps it is doing so. It has been more than fifty years since Neil Armstrong sent his famous message from the moon: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Putting to one side the discrediting reliance on patriarchal language, the dysfunctional behavior patterns of earthlings has gotten worse since that hopeful view was articulated. The material structures of wealth and power, state-centric world order, annual military expenditures (including of heavy investments in the militarization of space) exceeding by multiples the devotion of resources to achieve a cooperative approach to global-scale problem-solving. Leadership in political and economic domains continues to be assessed by short-term performance seen as beneficial to distinct nations, while most corporate behavior continues to exhibit scant concern for the worsening threats directed at the future of humanity.

Transforming the War Mentality

Big History, by its focus on underlying patterns and deep structures of evolution, is turning away from the challenges of immediacy and overlooking the resilience of geopolitical ambitions that manifest themselves through conflictual behavior that continues to dominate the political imaginaries of those running the world, as well as supportive elites who benefit from existing circumstances and bureaucrats who manage the structures of governance at every level of social interaction. Big History esoterically marginalizes or renders as harmless geological, cosmic, or evolutionary abstraction the dismaying reality that the most impressive cooperative behavior on the planet are taken against rivals or enemies, often framed as an alliance, and preoccupied with the preparation for and conduct of warfare. It is only after the carnage produced by the world wars of the past century that cooperation for peace by way of international law and institutionalized multilateralism (UN) gained prominence on the policy agenda of world leaders.

It may seem irreverent to conclude that science fiction writers are more relevant explorers of human nature and plausible alternative ways of living together as a species, than are the leading lights of Big History. Sci-fi imaginatively explores the idea that the most effective way to gain planetary unity and the ultra-cooperative problem-solving capabilities that are needed, would be to invent a belligerent planetary neighbor in the galaxy allegedly gearing up for an aggressive war against Planet Earth. Putting in a good word for “conspiracy theorists,” even if such a scenario of a galactic neighbor intent on planetary aggression was entirely made up, if widely disseminated and believed by “the right people,” it could create a political atmosphere conducive to the emergence of a widespread willingness to cooperate against a common enemy perceived as a dire threat to the whole world. Such a fictitious account of reality draws on the competence and experience of the leading intelligence agencies in the world and the main media platforms to spread such a great white lie.

The Quest for Hope in a Dark Time

In the background of this speculation is the implicit recognition that the war template is so deeply embodied in the political and cultural psyche of humanity as itself to provide ironically the only ready-made exit from catastrophic future being generated by the unsustainable and abusive ways that humans were living on the earth. Unlike postwar escalations of cooperative behavior, looming ecological disasters may become irreversible tragedies long prior to their systemic damage.

In other words, even when we look at emergent signs of transformed modes of behavior that is indispensable if humanity is to act on behalf of Great Transition visions, the future looks bleak, but I would argue not as bleak as the future conceived from the perspective of Big History. These more entrenched, emergent liberating paths of behavior are more resonant with human experience, and can plausibly be converted into political projects with some traction if activist segments of civil society can be enlisted in this struggle for the material and spiritual future of humanity. Such action would still involve an epistemological humility about the future, allowing the realities of radical uncertainty to create space for what I have called “a politics of impossibility,” which rests on struggling for a cooperative and just future by confronting militarism and predatory economic behavior. Such a posture admits both that the prospect of achieving emancipatory goals cannot be discerned from the standpoint of the present, tempered by the awareness that the future is unknowable and hence uncertain, and yet there are instances throughout history where “impossible” goals were achieved. Recent examples include the struggle against South African apartheid that seemed hopeless until it wasn’t or the implosion of the Soviet Union that ended the Cold War. Both examples of essentially nonviolent struggles that created unexpected opportunities for a brighter future.

My purpose in this brief essay is in no way to question the illuminations of Big History as exemplified by the stimulating contributions to this themed discussion. What I doubt is the usefulness of such inquiries for what I understand to be the mission of the GTI, which is to be taken seriously at the level of policy as well as ideas. To do this effectively, constructive thought and scholarly endeavor have to engage directly with the urgencies currently in evidence, and do so in the spirit of the Anthropocene, which provides a grand occasion for human responsibility and opportunity.           

War Prevention Depends on Respecting Invisible Geopolitical Fault Lines

18 May

[Initiallly published In CounterPunch on April 26,2023, later substantially modified.]

If we look back on the major wars of the prior century and forward to the growing menace of a war fought with nuclear weaponry, there is one prominent gap in analysis and understanding. This gap is to my knowledge rarely acknowledged, or even discussed, by political leaders or addressed in the supposedly independent main media platforms in the West. Indeed, the gap seems to be explicitly denied, and given a hegemonic twist, by the Biden presidency, especially by Antony Blinken’s repeated insistence that American foreign policy, unlike that of its principal adversaries, is ‘rule-governed.’

At first glance ‘rule-governed’ seems to be nothing more than a concise synonym for adherence to international law. Blinken makes no such claim, and even a foreign policy hawk would have a hard time straining to rationalize American international behavior as ‘law-governed,’ but rather might say, or at least believe, following Thucydides, ‘that strong do as they will, while the weak do as they must.’ Some have speculated that ‘rule-governed’ as a phrase of choice these days in Washington is best associated with a rebirthing of ‘Pax Americana,’ or as I have previously suggested a dusting off of the Monroe Doctrine that guided U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America since 1823 to proclaim after the Soviet implosion in 1991 what is in effect a Monroe Doctrine for the world, or seen from a more Atlanticist perspective, the NATO-IZATION of the post-Cold War world.’

Such provocative labels seems descriptive of the NATO response to the Russian 2022 attack on Ukraine, which from day one was treated by the West as an flagrant instance of a Crime Against the Peace, more generally viewed as a war of aggression, and so declared by a large majority of countries by way of a UN General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1, 2 March, 2022, in a vote of 122-5, with 35 abstentions including China and India) although without comparable support at the UN for the follow up to denouncing the attack by way of imposing sanctions, supplying weapons, and diplomatic strong-arming looking toward a military victory rather than a political compromise achieved through a ceasefire followed by negotiations. The coercive diplomacy was left essentially to NATO members, varying according to their perceived security interests, but generally following Washington’s lead in failing to seek a ceasefire and a negotiated political compromise.

What seems to many, mostly in the West, obvious at first glance at the Ukraine War is far less clear if a closer look is taken. There is the matter of the pre-war context of Ukrainian and NATO provocations as well as the Russian right of veto entrenched in the UN Charter, amounting to a green light given to the winners in World War II to the use of international force at their discretion when it comes to peace and security issues, and in the process ignore Charter obligations to seek peaceful settlements of all international disputes.

The U.S./UK unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003 is indicative of this double standard manifested by the contrasting international response to the Russian attack, as were the NATO regime-changing intervention in Libya and Euro-American support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen and a host of other examples going back to the Vietnam War. In other words, ‘rule-governed’ as a practical matter seems to mean impunity whenever the U.S., its allies and friends, launch their ‘wars of choice,’ while reserving accountability in relation to international law for its adversaries, particularly its geopolitical rivals, who are denied the intended impunity benefits of their right of veto and held responsible for adherence to international law in the war/peace domain as it is presented in the UN Charter. In effect, international law is not a restraint on the U.S./NATO with respect to war-making, but it functions as a strategic policy and propaganda tool for use against adversaries. Such duplicity in deploying the authority of law is widely seen outside the West as a glaring example of moral hypocrisy and double standards that undermines more generally the aspiration of substituting the rule of law for force in relations between the Great Powers in the nuclear age.

These is more to this exhibition of double standards and moral hypocrisy as illustrated by another related Blinken elaboration of the kind of world order he affirms on behalf of the U.S. It is his ahistorical assertion that ‘spheres of influence’ should have been thrown into the dustbin of history after World War II, and therefore the fact that Ukraine (and Crimea) border on Russia, with long intertwined historical experience, ethnic ties, and territorial instabilities be treated as irrelevant. Surely, Cubans or Venezuelans, or earlier Chileans and certainly Central Americans, would be excused if they laughed out loud, given the forcible contemporaneous efforts of Washington to deny the populations of these countries respect for their sovereign rights, including even the inalienable right of self-determination. Spheres of influence are admittedly abusive with respect to bordering societies, whether maintained by Russia or the United States, and yet in an imperfectly governed world such spheres in certain regional settings play crucial war prevention roles. They can mitigate potential geopolitical confrontations in which deference by antagonists to previously well-delimited spheres of influence can be credited with providing a brake on escalation at times of crisis. East/West spheres of influence for preserving world peace during the most dangerous crises of the Cold War, most notably at the time of the Berlin Crises(1950s), Soviet Interventions in Eastern Europe (1956-1968), Cuban Missile Crisis (1961).

Rather than dispensing with spheres of influence the wartime leaders of the U.S., UK, and the USSR in World War II recognized even during their common cause against Naziism that an anticipated post-war rivalry between the winners to pursue their distinct national interests by extending their ideological, political, and economic influence, especially in Europe could turn dangerous. These leaders, although espousing hostile ideologies, sought agreements to avoid postwar confrontations in Europe at a series of conferences. The leaders of the U.S., USSR, and the UK reached agreements, most notably in 1945 at Yalta and Potsdam, that might have done more to prevent a slide into World War III than certainly the UN Charter and maybe even the much invoked doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (or MAD as denoting the pathology of genocidal peacemaking in the nuclear age).

These wartime agreements did not explicitly use the cynical language of spheres of influence but rather stressed the divisions relating to the occupation of European countries previously controlled by the defeated fascist states, with a particular attention given to Germany that was seen as the most culpable and dangerous actor among the Axis Powers. In this regard, alone among European states, Germany was divided into East  Germany and West Germany, and its capital city of Berlin was notoriously divided into West Berlin and East Berlin. For the rest of Europe, the Soviet Union was given responsibility for occupation and state building in East Europe while the victors assumed a comparable responsibility in Western Europe.

This language of division did not inhibit both ‘superpowers’ from engaged in propaganda wars with one another throughout the Cold War. Yet what it did do was to induce international prudence in a form that was respectful of these wartime assessments of control. This prudence was in stark contrast to the inflammatory response of the West to the 2023 Russian attack on Ukraine, accentuated by disdaining diplomacy, a political compromise, and openly seeking the Russian defeat so as to confirm post-Cold War unipolarity when it comes to peace and security issues. Undoubtedly, the wartime atmosphere in 1944-45 contributed to the importance of taking preventive measures to guard against the recurrence of a major war fought over the control and future of Europe. The Potsdam Conference took ended less than a week before an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Harry Truman informing Stalin that the U.S. possessed a super-weapon that would hasten the unconditional surrender of Japan, as indeed it did.

Although conducted prior to the use of the atomic bomb this wartime diplomacy was fearfully aware that a future war would be far more destructive than two earlier world wars. In this sense, these fault lines in Europe were established in an atmosphere of hope and fear, but also within limits set by state-centrism and geopolitical ambition, giving rise quickly to tensions that extinguished hopes of retaining postwar international harmony, thereby dimming hopes of transcending the high-risk Great Power rivalries of the past. This led to Cold War bipolarity with its complex ideological, military, territorial, and political dimensions of intense conflict. And yet World War III was avoided, despite some close calls, in the ensuing 45 years after the end of World War II.

The idea of ‘geopolitical fault lines’ and even ‘spheres of influence’ are not well established in the practice or theory of international relations, but their existence is profoundly necessary for the maintenance of peace and security among Great Powers, and for the world generally. This relevance of geopolitical fault lines is partly a result of the failure of international law to have the capability to enforce consistently limits on the coercive behavior of the reigning Great Powers, granting them de facto impunity for acting beyond the limits of the law. In this sense, geopolitical fault lines and related agreed territorial divisions offer an improvised substitute for international law by setting formally agreed mutual limits on behavior backed by the specific commitments of Great Powers, which it is known that when transgressed result severe tensions, and possibly catastrophic warfare, between the most heavily armed states in the world might result.

The overriding point is that the Biden/Blinken response to the Ukraine War and the rise of China are contemptuous of the geopolitical prudence and diplomatic techniques that helped save the world from a disastrous conflagration during the Cold War Era. Of course, costly warfare broke out in the divided countries of Korea and Vietnam, but in settings where there was no assent to the temporary division imposed from without and the strategic stakes of challenging these imposed supposedly temporary divisions were peripheral as contrasted with Germany where they were of the highest order. Despite this, in the Korean and Vietnam contexts, the stakes were still high enough for the U.S. to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to maintain the status quo, most menacingly in relation to Korea, and China acting on the basis of border security entered the conflict to prevent the forcible reunification of Korea.

It goes almost out saying that geopolitical fault lines and spheres of influence are second-order restraints whose indispensability reflects the weakness of international law and the UN. Remedying these weaknesses should be accorded the highest priority by governments and peace-minded civil society activists. In the interim, spheres of influence are a recognition of multipolarity, a prelude to a more cooperative world order, and a sign that the distinctive challenges to the global public good posed by climate change and nuclear weaponry do indeed require a ‘new world order’ reflecting imperatives for leading states to act cooperatively rather than in conflictual manner.

However unlikely it now seems, it is possible that the Ukraine War will yet be remembered for producing a transition in outlook and behavior of global rivals in the direction of nonviolent geopolitics, multipolarism, and. multilateral global problem-solving. Arguably, China is currently showcasing the benefits of an increasingly activist form of geopolitics that seems intent on facilitating conflict resolution and peaceful relations, seeking a multipolar structure of world order that is not averse to demilitarizing international relations.