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

28 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your analysis of the Vienna meeting?

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

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

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

Will the US lift sanctions?

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

Do you think the nuclear deal will be revived?

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

Is there a determination to keep the nuclear deal alive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q1: Who’s behind Natanz sabotage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Makes Ukraine Different than Serbia? Why Kosovo? Why not Dombas?

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The post below is adapted from responses to questions addressed me to Stasa Salacanin of New Arab on September 14, 2022. My responses here are somewhat modified and greatly expanded.] 

Defying Serbian Territorial Sovereignty in Kosovo, Upholding Ukrainian

Territorial Sovereignty in the Dombas Region

  1. Would you agree that the repeating incidents and crises speak to the great limitation of the EU and the West, which seem to have long lost their sense of direction for a solution, offering no incentives or tangible promises to any of the Western Balkan states, especially when it comes to exact dates and full membership in the EU?

My sense is that EU has never made Western Balkan stability, security, rights of self-determination,  and EU membership for its component peoples a high priority. The Western Balkan states have been approached in a transactional mode by the EU rather than in the spirit of regional and civilizational community.

The Kosovo Exception was motivated by other political considerations than the wellbeing and wishes of the Albanian majority Kosovars, the rationale for humanitarian intervention in 1999 that masked the pursuit of strategic interests of the intervening coalition of states. These interests include establishing the viability of NATO after the end of the Cold Wars and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the lingering liberal sense of guilt associated with the failure to react effectively to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 combined with concerns that it could be repeated in Kosovo. Such a prospect was felt to be a betrayal of the European ‘never again’ pledge made subsequent to the Holocaust, as well as expressive of a general hostility to Serbia and its leader.

At the time Noam Chomsky usefully called attention to the double standards characteristic of such Western undertakings by labeling the Kosovo War as an instance of ‘military humanism.’ After this post-Cold War revitalization of NATO, the liberal elites of the West sought a terminology to legitimize non-defensive uses of force that would conform superficially to the ethos of a post-colonial world. This ethos was particularly sensitive to ‘interventions’ claims overriding ‘territorial sovereignty.’

After Kosovo was ‘liberated’ from its captive status in Serbia, an elite search was underway to reconcile such uses of force with behavior that was neither defensive nor authorized by the UN Security Council. The most satisfactory normative solution turned to involve scrapping the language of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and substituting a less abrasive verbal alternative that would justify such action. The best formula was found in the 2001 report of the Canadian initiative, International Commission on State Sovereignty, which proposed the adoption of a norm mandating a ‘responsibility to protect,’ or R2P. In 2005 R2P was accepted as a framework for the exercise of international responsibility by the UN, and as necessary upholding humanitarian justifications for the use of force to protect basic rights. R2P was invoked by NATO members of the Security Council in 20ll in its call for the imposition of a No Fly Zone with the mission of protecting the civilian population of Benghazi from the alleged threat of approaching Libyan armed forces, Several countries (not only China and Russia, but India, Brazil, and Germany) were opposed to armed intervention, yet succumbed to the more modest sounding claim to establish a defensive No Fly Zone in relation to one city in Libya. resulting in a vote on SC Res. 1970, March 17, 2011. This resolution was supported by 10 states, opposed by none, with five abstentions. 

The implementation of the mission in 2011 was delegated to NATO, with the U.S. in Obama’s words, ‘leading from behind.’ The limits imposed by the SC in its authorization of the undertaking went unheeded. and the actual operation from its outset seemed clearly designed to achieve regime-change. At the very start of military operations the use of force, especially from the air, was greatly expanded beyond what the abstaining states thought they were authorizing by abstaining from the vote in the Security Council. In effect, R2P turned out to be a diplomatic device to give cover to military humanism, but this time clouded by an ambiguous stamp of approval by the UN. The result was to lower the level of trust among members of the Security Council, making further subsequent requests by Western members for UN authorizations of force more problematic as was illustrated by the standoffs during the Syrian Civil War of the prior decade.

The other facet of the Chomsky critique concerning double standards is also pertinent. In the Kosovo instance Chomsky illustrated his assessment by reference to the plight of the Kurdish minority, especially in Turkey. In relation to the Libyan intervention, there are many instances of geopolitical detachment, most notably the failure to authorize, or even propose, the implementation in relation to the Palestinian people, long denied their basic rights and periodically exposed to massive military operations by Israel, especially to the two million Palestinian civilians locked up in Gaza by an unrelenting military blockade that has existed since 2007.

It would be important to contextualize the Russian intervention in Ukraine in relation to the well-documented plight of the Russian-oriented minority in the Dombas region. Of course, this Ukraine Crisis is compounded by the complexity of the objectives sought by both sides. Russia seeking to establish its traditional spheres of influence lost at the time of the Soviet collapse and challenge what is perceived by Moscow (and elsewhere) as the American-led aftermath of the Cold War in the form of a Western-oriented hegemonic unipolarity. The United States, and a compliant Europe, regard the Russian aggression as a challenge to the global security arrangements it has presided over since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. wants to inflict defeat on Russia, claim some credit for defending Ukraine, signal China that challenging unipolarity is self-destructive.

  • Do you think that the so-called normalization process-advocated by the EU, and the US and which foresees the step-by-step establishment of a functional relationship between Belgrade and Pristina will eventually lead to mutual recognition of two states Kosovo and Serbia, will succeed in the current situation, (and given to similar challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also with conflict in Ukraine)?

Each conflict of this character, stressing the rights of aggrieved distinct peoples within the borders of an internationally recognized state, raises a general issue of the integrity and territorial rights of existing sovereign states versus the scope of rights of self-determination. The interpretation of policy options in each case is highly influenced by the overall strategic context and only secondarily by legal rights and moral principle. Overall, geopolitics plays a decisive role in high profile instances where strategic interests and ethnic identifications are at the core of the tensions. This is the only way to understand the contradictory Western presentations of Kosovo on the one side, and Donbas on the other side. In one instance, the claims of an existing state to the integrity of its borders is set aside due to the supposed primacy of humanitarian concerns, while in the other it is upheld, in both instances by NATO/US intervention in support of the national government and at the expense of the separatist claims and human rights of a captive minority. 

  • Is the situation in Kosovo comparable with the conflict in Ukraine (especially regarding Crimea and Donbas, where the West in one case supports the territorial integrity of the state and condemns the invasion of Ukrainea while in another case supports the secession/self-determination and while justifying the international (regional) intervention/aggresssion/occupation of Kosovo? Their arguments have not been convincing. Russia as well as China, Serbia have not missed a chance to remind the collective West about their double standards (and the fact that approximately half of UN members (as well as 5 EU members, still do not recognize Kosovo).

Comparability is a matter of interpreting the broader context of the conflict, and often is shaped by the eye of the beholder. There was a Euro-American readiness in the Kosovo case to take punitive action against Serbia given the background of its political and cultural affinities with Russia, while in the Ukraine the anti-Russian central government in Kyiv enjoys unconditional Western backing, including participation in the deliberately provocative conduct of the decade preceding the Russian attack . Double standards are pervasive and responsible for grave injustices to some captive peoples, and not only in Europe. The blind eye turned toward denials of the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people in what had been their own country of Palestine represents a flagrant example of international double standards. The Zionist Project to establish a Jewish state in Palestine was enacted over the course of more than a century. It resulted in the establishment of a settle colonial regime that maintains Jewish supremacy through the imposition of an apartheid regime of discriminatory and exploitative control. Palestine as a site of injustice is notable, although far from being the only such instance of prolonged denial of basic rights (Western Sahara, Kashmir). Palestine is, however, uniquely linked to the UN through its succession to the British Mandate. By the acceptance of responsibility by the UN in 1947 for finding a peaceful solution between contradictory claims of the Palestinian resident population and the Jewish post-Holocaust Zionist Movement this struggle more than any other since 1945 has dramatized the weakness of the UN in face of strong geopolitical resistance.

The situation in Ukraine resembles Kosovo in the sense that the UN cannot be mobilized by the West due to the right of veto enjoyed Russia and China. As a consequence, the UN Charter restrictions on the use of force are put aside to varying degrees by both Russian and the U.S. The struggle will be finally resolved by the costs and risks these two geopolitical actors are willing to incur over time. The people of Ukraine are being victimized by the apparent refusal of either side to end the killing and turn to diplomacy in the hope of finding a diplomatic compromise. Having drawn the geopolitical lines of battle so starkly, the devastating Ukraine War is likely to be prolonged at the expense of the Ukrainian people. The question of whether post-1989 unipolarity is confirmed or yields ground to the multipolar challengers is likely to determine the flow of history for at least the decade ahead. These high geopolitical stakes are bad news for the Ukrainian people, and seems not to be understood by their Kyiv leaders so that mitigating steps might be independently taken, and diplomacy initiated between Ukraine and Russia, hoping that Moscow might be willing to put aside its geopolitical ambitions and restore peace and security on its border.

Ukraine: War, Statecraft, and Geopolitical Conflict —the nuclear danger

14 Sep

[Prefatory NoteThe following interview was previously published in September by the online Global Governance Forum. My responses to the questions posed by Aslı Bâli have been somewhat updated to take account of intervening developments. Aslı was my last PhD student at Princeton, has emerged as a star of the UCLA School of Law in recent years, and just now has joined the faculty of Yale Law School. Although her brilliance as a Princeton student both stimulated and challenged me, it as a cherished friend that Aslı has most impacted my life.]

Ukraine: War, Statecraft, and Geopolitical Conflict — a focus on the return of the nuclear question

Introduction: The risk of nuclear escalation in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a subject of considerable debate in the United States among scholars, policy analysts and media commentators. These debates reveal a broad spectrum of views from those who dismiss Russian references to nuclear capabilities as mere saber rattling to those who worry that if Russian President Vladimir Putin finds his back to the wall in Ukraine, he may resort to tactical nuclear strikes. Whatever the assessment of the risks in Ukraine, it is clear that questions of nuclear deterrence are back on the table after nearly a generation in which most American analysts viewed non-proliferation as the sole U.S. foreign policy objective regarding nuclear arsenals. 

For those who have continued to press concerns about nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War, the return of the nuclear question may raise awareness among new audiences about the existential threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. Richard Falk has for decades been an outspoken authority calling for denuclearization. In this interview, Aslı Bâli invites Richard to reflect on whether the Ukraine conflict risks becoming a military confrontation that tips the world into further nuclear escalation or whether there remains an opportunity to move the world away from the nuclear precipice.

Richard Falk is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus at Princeton University and Chair of Global Law at Queen Mary University London, Faculty of Law. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books, and editor or co-editor of numerous others. A collection of his selected writings on nuclear disarmament was published in an edited volume from Cambridge University Press titled On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019). Aslı Bâli is Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law and Founding Faculty Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights. She interviewed Falk in May 2022.

Aslı Bâli: To begin our conversation, it would be useful to provide some context as to why nuclear disarmament was largely sidelined as an urgent international question in the post-Cold War period. How might we think about the last two decades in particular, during which the possibility of the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal was deemed so much more threatening than the existence of extensive nuclear arsenals in the hands of other states? 

Richard Falk: I think the last two decades since the Soviet collapse reflect a period in which the nuclear weapons states, particularly the US, have felt comfortable with the nuclear status quo. Their preference was to organize this arrangement—in which they maintain nuclear arsenals and other states forego that option—as a permanent regime anchored in the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) interpreted in such a way as to drop the disarmament requirements of that treaty. Article VI of the NPT contains the good faith nuclear disarmament obligation, which was supposedly the bargain offered to induce non-nuclear states to become parties to the treaty. The attempt by nuclear weapons states to drop this element from the treaty arrangement creates an interesting international law situation: There’s a breach of an essential provision of the NPT, yet this treaty regime is regarded by the US and NATO countries as a great achievement of international law in relation to nuclear threat reduction. The existential scope of the NPT is reduced to a hegemonic arrangement that imposes limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, while keeping the development and control of the weapons restricted to a small group of nuclear weapons states. This includes the discretion to develop and threaten their use, as well as determining how and whether they would be used, and to what extent, in crisis or combat situations. This is a regulatory framework that neither reflects the NPT as a negotiated text, nor is prudent and equitable, and it certainly violates the major premise of the rule of law—treating equals equally.

I participated in a Council on Foreign Relations webinar event a year or so ago about the future of national security, and one of the participants introduced the idea that Article VI of the NPT is best understood as ‘a useful fiction.’ That is, Article VI was included in the treaty as a way of satisfying non-nuclear countries that they were being offered an equitable bargaining framework by becoming parties to the NPT. Whereas in fact there was a tacit understanding from the beginning that disarmament, despite the treaty language of commitment, was not viewed by political elites of the nuclear weapons states as a realistic, or even a desirable goal, to be pursued by the nuclear weapons states, and most especially it was so viewed by the United States.

In considering the broader context that has, as you put it, sidelined the issues of nuclear disarmament, the other thing to be emphasized is that there had crept in a kind of complacency about this weaponry. There are thousands of nuclear weapons, preponderately in the US and Russia, and very little public understanding of existing constraints on their threat or use or under what circumstances these arsenals might be introduced into diplomacy or even combat situations. The U.S. in particular, and some other countries like Israel, have been developing combat roles for certain types nuclear weapons—styled as tactical nuclear arms or so-called “mini-nukes”—that strongly implied that such weapons might actually be introduced into local or regional conflicts. Given the array of bilateral conflicts that have the risk of nuclear escalation including in Ukraine, if confrontation escalates in relation to Taiwan, on the Korean peninsula, in India/Pakistan, perhaps if Israel’s security is under pressure in the Middle East. Despite these possibilities being widely feared, there has been so far no concerted or consistent international response exhibiting opposition or even anxiety. 

The risks of the overall situation are well-reflected for those who follow the nuclear issue by the fact that the Doomsday clock—maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and often relied upon as a reliable assessment of nuclear danger at a given time—has moved ever closer in this period to midnight. Prior to the Ukraine crisis I think it was already only one hundred seconds away from midnight. In the words of the editors, “the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.” The UN Secretary General has recently warned that the world is but ‘one miscalculation’ away from nuclear catastrophe.

There is another worrisome aspect of the manner in which the three NATO nuclear weapons states have assumed the authority to enforce the NPT regime as it applies to non-nuclear states. There is nothing about enforcement in the treaty, and Article X grants non-nuclear states a right of withdrawal if facing severe security threats. And yet the U.S. and Israel have made unlawful claims to use force if they believe Iran intends or achieves a nuclear weapons capability. This is hegemonic geopolitics, which not be confused with the implementation of international law.

The complacency toward this weaponry and the satisfaction with the NPT regime that has allowed powerful states to retain a hierarchical and hegemonic relationship to non-nuclear states are important dimensions of this doomsday risk. Thus, the situation prior to Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran require urgent action to avoid existential dangers, but global complacency and the diversionary priority given to containing proliferation threats posed by non-nuclear states rather than addressing the risks of existing arsenals has kept the nuclear agenda from any serious engagement with disarmament and war threats for many decades. This must stop or disaster is virtually assured.

Aslı Bâli: Your response raises one further question: why, in your view, have the non-nuclear states acquiesced in the violation of the core bargained-for agreement they had negotiated in the NPT?  

Richard Falk: I think the non-nuclear weapons states, too, have adapted to this complacent atmosphere when it comes to nuclear weapons, although this may be changing, and not primarily because of Ukraine. It may reflect a sense of a lack of leverage over global nuclear policy in a post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, there had been some willingness on the part of the Soviet Union and then China to engage in a disarmament process on negotiating arsenal reductions, and this seemed realistic to the rest of the world. But in the post-Cold War period, the U.S. shifted away from even the pretense of disarmament priorities and there has been an absence of powerful states pushing back against this trajectory. That said, I do think there is now emerging a critical outlook on the part of the Global South that may alter course back in manner more supportive of the views of disarmament advocates. This ‘new look’ of the Global South has been most clearly expressed in the negotiation and adoption a new treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), signed in 2017 and coming into force with over sixty ratifications in 2021. The treaty itself was originally supported by as many as 120 countries, though it has only garnered signatures from about two-thirds of that number and been ratified so far by half. 

Another indication of renewed Global South resistance to overlooking the nuclear weapons states disarmament obligations is evident in the twice delayed review conference called for by the NPT. Such a review conference is supposed to take place every five years and the pivotal Tenth Review Conference was scheduled for 2020. Originally postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was supposed to be rescheduled for 2021 and was postponed again to 2022 and finally took place in August 2022. But in addition to pandemic-related reasons, it is understood that the deferrals have been prompted by the concern among nuclear weapons states that there may encounter friction with the Global South over disarmament. Although the failure to produce a consensus outcome document was blamed on Russia, there were also present signs of resentment about the continuing refusal of the nuclear weapons states to implement their Article VI obligations.

In short, even prior to Ukraine and Taiwan there was reason to think that there is a new international mood at the intergovernmental level concerning the threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. I think the Ukraine and Taiwan encounters have now added momentum to this shift by a reawakening at the civil society level of palpable apprehensions over the threat or use of nuclear weapons, and in Ukraine the additional risk that nuclear power facilities will be accidentally, or even deliberately, attacked. I believe this is a time when I am hoping for a revival of pressure from below to put nuclear disarmament back on the global policy agenda, and this time with greatly increased participation of non-Western civil society and governments. 

Aslı Bâli: Some have characterized the Ukraine conflict as illustrating the degree to which global powers might stumble blindly into a nuclear confrontation. Is it your sense that there are opportunities to contain this risk today whether through intergovernmental diplomacy or global civil society mobilization?

Richard Falk: Well, I think at the civil society level there is a definite concern though it is not too well-focused at this point. There is sort of a free-floating anxiety about the possibility that nuclear weapons use might occur on the European continent and this may have a galvanizing effect that leads to forms of domestic pressure in some European states to take action to offset such a risk. I also think that some high officials in the Biden inner circle have changed their views of the Ukraine conflict as the potential nuclear dimensions of the conflict have come into clearer focus. At an earlier stage of the Ukraine war, it seemed as if the Biden administration didn’t consider very seriously the nuclear risk, though they were always present fortunately to some degree wider war dangers of escalation. This sensitivity was evident, for example, in Biden’s early resistance to calls, especially from Congress and right-wing think tanks, to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and in his original hesitancy to supply offensive weaponry to the Ukrainians. Similarly, the early posture of not interfering with Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky’s efforts at seeking some sort of negotiated compromise further confirmed that the Biden administration was wary of escalation, and willing to allow Ukraine to control its own future. But in a second phase of the conflict, when the Ukrainian resistance turned out to be more successful than anticipated, and strategic defeat or weakening of Russia seemed possible and strategically attractive, the Biden administration’s priorities visibly shifted and they manifestly treated the Ukraine war as an opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and at the same time, and perhaps of greater significance, to signal China that if they tried anything similar with Taiwan, they would face an even worse outcome. This latter point was provocatively underscored by Biden during his recent trip to Asia that featured a strong public statement committing the US to the defense of Taiwan, followed by an irresponsibly provocative visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi that violated the spirit of the One China Policy that represented the core of the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which has kept peace and stability for 50 years. 

With respect to the Ukraine conflict, I have drawn a distinction between two levels. First, there is the Russia-Ukraine confrontation over issues that pertain to their bilateral conflict. But secondly, there is the geopolitical level of interaction between the US and Russia, which entails a confrontation whose stakes exceed the question of Ukraine. Here, escalation was stimulated by what I view as the quite irresponsible rhetoric from the Biden administration that demonized Putin from the outset of the crisis in February 2022. To be sure, Putin is not an attractive political leader, but even during the Cold War American leaders sensibly refrained from demonizing Stalin or other Soviet leaders, and vice versa. Some public officials, congresspeople, did demonize Soviet officials and policies but leaders in the executive branch refrained from such behavior because it would create such an evident obstacle to keeping open necessary diplomatic channels between the US and the Soviets, and significantly the Soviets did the same even during such encroachments on sovereign rights as in the Vietnam War. 

Regrettably, in the second phase of the current conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. became a source of escalation. American influence was directed also at more or less discouraging President Zelensky from further seeking a negotiated ending of the war on the ground. Instead, the U.S. position seemed to harden around pursuit of strategic victory. This was made explicit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who commented on the opportunity to weaken Russia after a visit to Ukraine in which they pledged increased economic and military support. I think that now we have passed a third phase of the Ukraine conflict where there was some recognition in Washington and elsewhere that the Biden administration went too far in an escalatory direction from the perspective of prudence and with regard to the spillover harm from prolonged warfare. Now in a fourth phase where once more a Ukrainian victory together with a Russian/Putin defeat has changed Washington tactics once more, with such favorable results seemingly within reach at what are viewed as acceptable costs. The tragic result, already partly consummated, will be a prolonged war in Ukraine, with terrible adverse consequences for the world economy  and the wellbeing of poorer people in a series of countries in the Global South. It will hardest those countries most dependent on affordable access to food and energy, and this includes European countries. It is not only the continuation of Ukraine warfare and China tensions, but the unintended consequences of anti-Russian sanctions that will result in harmful impacts in many parts of the planet. 

Aslı Bâli: Given your analysis of the U.S. role in escalating the conflict in Ukraine, what in your view is the current risk of either nuclear confrontation or further erosions of the possibility of promoting U.S.-Russian arms control and nuclear disarmament?

Richard Falk: The discouraging thing about the third phase is that the Biden administration still hasn’t clearly opened wide the door to a diplomatic resolution or emphasized the importance of a cease fire that might stop the immediate killing and enable de-escalation, and now in the midst of the fourth stage it seems too late. What this suggests is that there will be either of two bad scenarios unfolding as the Ukraine Crisis continues: the first is that the risk and costs of a long war in Ukraine results in the U.S. further escalating in order to try to bring the war to a faster conclusion by making Moscow give in, or withdraw, or do something that allows Ukraine and the U.S. to claim victory. That approach really would put maximum pressure on Putin who, in turn, might determine that facing such a serious existential danger to Russian security justifies a robust response that includes the threat and possibly even the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a way, and maybe the only way, to avoid impression of strategic defeat to be the beginning of the end of his leadership. 

The second scenario is that the U.S. might be prepared to live with a prolonged war and hope that it at some point Moscow will tire of the experience, the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan and that the US did in Vietnam. But recent experience suggests just how destructive this course would be for Ukraine and the world. It took the U.S. twenty years to extricate itself from Afghanistan, leaving that country as receptive to the Taliban as was twenty years earlier before driven from power, millions permanently displaced and millions more wandering the world as refugees, while those who stay home face famine and extreme gender discrimination, and untold hundreds of thousands of Afghanis have been maimed or worse. Equally depressing, as others have pointed out, the likely outcome from the Ukrainian point of view will not change very much because of what happens on the bloody battlefields, whether the war is ended next week or ten years from now except that a longer war will result in more casualties, greater devastation, and enduring embitterment.

Aslı Bâli: Could you say more about what you would expect at the end of the Ukraine conflict whether it happens through early negotiations or at the end of a protracted war?

Richard Falk: Well, I expect that the most likely scenario for an end to the conflict will entail some concessions by Ukraine in relation to the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, together with a pledge of neutrality for the country as a whole, and non-membership in NATO. In exchange for such concessions, Russia would likely be expected to pledge in turn that it would heretofore respect the sovereign rights and political independence of the Ukraine. In all likelihood the question of Crimea will not be addressed in the course of ending the current conflict. The contours of such a negotiated end to the conflict had already emerged in talks between the Russian and Ukrainian sides in March of 2022 and there is little reason to think these parameters will change substantially, although if the Ukrainian battlefield successes in the fourth phase hold up, it may alter a future peace process. Yet the probability still remains that such a compromised political outcome could have been achieved earlier, certainly in the first phase of the conflict if not prior to the Russian attack, before early Ukrainian victories led to the second, and then, a fourth geopolitical phase of escalation. It has become clearer as the conflict has persisted that the U.S. is prepared to go to extreme lengths, if necessary to retain its post-Cold War status as sole manager of a unipolar configuration of power in the world.

Asli Bali: Given this assessment, what opportunities, if any, do you see for reviving calls for nuclear disarmament in response to the nuclear risks made evident by the Ukraine conflict?

Richard Falk: Of course, there is a very dark form of opportunity that might emerge if there is indeed a nuclear confrontation and the use of tactical or other nuclear weapons. Such a development would undoubtedly generate a widespread call for disarmament—one hopes that doesn’t occur, of course. Beyond this apocalyptic scenario, it is a little unpredictable whether there will emerge a recognition that the pursuit of permanent stability via the non-proliferation approach should be superseded by a new effort at nuclear disarmament. I think it would be very globally popular to explore that possibility, and I would imagine the Chinese at least would be quite open to that. 

In the background of such speculation is the question of whether the US is prepared to live in a multipolar world. Certainly, the post-Cold War period afforded the U.S. the opportunity to nurture illusions that the collapse of the Soviet Union might usher in a durable era in which it was the only global geopolitical actor. In a sense this is what Secretary Blinken presumably meant when he says in speeches that the idea of spheres of influence should have been discarded after World War II.[1] The thought is that after WWII, or at the very least following the Cold War, the U.S. prefers to preside over a system in which its own influence is confined by no sphere and extends in a truly global fashion. Of course, had the US adopted this posture in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as Secretary Blinken suggests, it would have amounted to a declaration of a third world war. This is because ruling out spheres of influence would have mean blocking Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, whether in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Moreover, what Blinken is suggesting today is not a world without spheres of influence but rather an adaptation of a Monroe Doctrine for the world in which the US regards the global order as its singular sphere of influence. And, of course, the Monroe Doctrine in its narrower hemispheric form is also alive and well as the US continues to assert its prerogative to dictate policies and interfere with internal politics in countries throughout Latin America from Cuba to Venezuela to Nicaragua and beyond. We can hardly imagine the bellicosity of the U.S. response if Russia had dared meddle in Mexico for a decade in the manner that Washington did in Ukraine.


Against this backdrop, it is worth noting that the ongoing US effort at global supremacy does put it at a massive asymmetric advantage over all other actors in exerting influence without geographic bounds. With some 800 foreign bases—and a context in which 97% of all foreign bases globally are American—and troops stationed in every continent the US has spread its influence globally, on land, in the air, on the sea, and is investing heavily to be sure it will control space. Meanwhile, of course, alongside this enormous investment in militarism is profound disinvestment in the infrastructure and social services needed to sustain its own population domestically. In short, the US effort to prevent a multipolar order from challenging its own claim to global supremacy is coming at an enormous cost at home and is currently faltering abroad. The risk is that this strategy is increasingly tied to an investment in ensuring strategic weakness for the Russians in Ukraine, which, in turn, raises temptations to engage in nuclear brinksmanship.

*************

Aslı Bâli: There is something distressing about the way in which the Ukraine conflict has reset the domestic debate, which at the end of the Trump years and in the 2020 presidential election had begun to converge around the idea of restraining American militarism and ending endless wars. Today, bipartisan consensus around an enhanced defense budget and massive military aid to Ukraine may be eclipsing those earlier commitments. Do you consider the Ukraine conflict as providing a new lease on life for the project of American primacy?

Richard Falk: I’m afraid that might be right. Biden was so committed to unifying the country as part of his presidential campaign—the image of projecting himself as someone who is able to “cross the aisle” and generate bipartisan consensus, profoundly believing that a unified America remains a country capable of doing unlimited good at home and internationally. In fact, however, this unity project failed miserably with the Republican side converging around Trump’s constituencies. The Ukraine war has somewhat reshuffled the deck and Biden seems keen to embrace this opportunity to forge bipartisan consensus around war, but with a belated recognition that currently seeking unity at home is not only a lost cause but exhibits his lost sense of the realities of the country. His popularity level remains surprisingly low, but the surge of Cold War bipartisanship in relation to appropriating billions of dollars for Ukraine is undeniable. From a global perspective, however, this great show of empathy for Ukrainian suffering and civilian damage and refugees, and so on, sets a stark contrast to the ways in which the US and the West responded to other humanitarian crises. Thus one price of this partial unity at home may be an increasingly divided world in which US standing declines further. The specific comparisons between the Western response to Ukraine and their indifference and callous disregard for the plight of Palestinians, the consequences of the Iraq War, and the displacement generated by the Syrian conflict is difficult to explain without taking into account an element of racism. This reality has hardly escaped the attention of governments and communities in the Global South.

Aslı Bâli: Returning to the nuclear question, you have suggested that the Ukraine war has awakened a new generation to the real risks of the nuclear arsenals retained by global powers. Do you believe that this awareness alongside concerns about the double standards attached to American hegemony might mobilize new global social movements calling for disarmament and a more equitable international order?

Richard Falk: I certainly hope that might be the case. I think it would be premature to expect the Ukraine conflict alone to rekindle a vibrant anti-nuclear movement at this point. But there may be further developments that do have such a galvanizing effect, something that unfortunately cannot be discounted as the Russians engage in nuclear drills to remind Western states of the risks of escalation in Ukraine. There are also other nuclear dangers that are looming in the world. I think the Israel-Iran relationship is very unstable and may produce some renewed awareness of nuclear risk; the same is also true of the conflicts in India-Pakistan, the Korean peninsula, and above all the looming conflict involving Taiwan. In the latter instance Pentagon war games have achieved results showing that unless the U.S. is prepared itself to abandon the nuclear taboo it loses in the event of a naval confrontation in the Taiwan Straights. So new generations may come to understand that the idea of achieving stability with nuclear weapons is a dangerous and unstable illusion. This brings me back to the cynical idea that I encountered at the Council on Foreign Relations about disarmament being a useful fiction to appease publics in the Global South. At the time, and there was no pushback against such an assertion at the meeting. The response of the audience was to simply acknowledge that this is how realist elites talks about national security. It is this kind of acquiescence and complacency that poses the greatest obstacle to global social organizing around disarmament and, thus, the greatest risk that we may stumble into crises where one side is prepared to risk nuclear war to avoid a strategic defeat. I hope that the threats that are now manifest in Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran, and beyond might spark new forms of awareness among the now more mobilized younger generations leading social movements for environmental and racial justice. Nuclear arsenals pose an existential threat to our planet alongside the reckless climate policies, massive wealth disparities, and the virulent structural racism that plague the global order. There is much work to do if we are to address all of these challenges, and there might be no better place to launch a new phase of transformative global politics by championing nuclear abolition.


[1]           

APPRAISING MIKHAIL GORBACHEV

6 Sep

[Prefatory Note; This post consists of my responses questions posed by Daniel Falcone, an independent journalist two days after Mikhail Gorbachev’s death.]

APPRAISING GORBACHEV

  1. Can you briefly comment on Gorbachev’s life? What do you suppose is his historical legacy, especially as it relates to the Cold War?

I think it is safe to say that Mikhail Gorbachev had the greatest historical impact of any public figure since the end of World War II. To be sure, it is a bitterly polarized legacy. One of unbounded admiration and historical achievement in the West and one of contempt and almost total disrepute in Russia, holding Gorbachev responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union as a Great Power and its loss of political relevance beyond its territorial borders. It has taken Vladimir Putin, a political figure reviled in the West, to undue Russian irrelevance by launching an aggressive war against Ukraine, but whether the cost is worth it even for Russia, only time will tell.

As far as the Cold War is concerned, it was not Gorbachev’s original intention to bring it to an end, but rather to reform the Soviet internal political and economic system so that it would deliver a better life to ordinary people. There is little doubt that Gorbachev was affected by his travels as a young Communist functionary to Europe where he was deeply affected by the vastly higher living standards enjoyed by the peoples of these countries with comparably developed economies to that of the Soviet Union. I remember being told in Moscow by one of his close associates that Gorbachev’s aim in the first years after he assumed national leadership was to do for socialism in the Soviet Union what FDR had achieved for capitalism in the United States, nothing more nothing less. His public tactics were to encourage glasnost (freedom of expression) and perestroika (structural reform). I remember a Soviet security specialist in Moscow in the late 1980s telling me somewhat cynically that “we have lots of glasnost, but no perestroika.” It was a widespread critical sentiment expressive of the view of impatient Soviet reforms that Gorbachev was all talk and no action. As he proceeded with this domestic agenda, Gorbachev himself came to realize the depth of corruption and dysfunction throughout the Soviet bureaucracy, making the system almost non-reformable and on the verge of financial and political bankruptcy, and once challenged by a reformist leader, unravelling in an uncontrollable manner that rendered Gorbachev himself helpless to slow down the spiral ending in collapse.

Gorbachev was also affected by the cruelties of the Stalin period, being personally touched by the arrest and prison abuse of both of his grandfathers as political dissidents. In this sense, it seems he was attracted to the values and practices of liberal democracies as a model for a reformed Soviet Union. Undoubtedly. feeling blocked at home he sought to wind down the tensions with the West and the costs of the arms race in well-publicized 1986 meeting with Ronald Reagan, the so-called, ‘Reykjavik Summit,’ which led to significant progress in reducing the stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons and gave public opinion the temporary illusion that nuclear disarmament might actually happen on his watch. These talks with Reagan in Iceland went so far in the direction of embracing disarmament that the American bipartisan nuclear establishment and compliant media showed its true colors, uniting to undermine Reagan’s diplomatic credibility when it came to global security, calling him ‘unprepared’ to conduct such delicate negotiations with a wily Soviet leader. This display of nuclearist bipartisanship with respect continues to haunt U.S. foreign policy more than 40 years later, persisting despite an atmosphere of extreme political divisiveness on all issues bearing on the daily lives of Americans.

It is also notable that Gorbachev remained a strong advocate of total nuclear disarmament after 1991 when he became a public intellectual active in Western civil society debates. His sophisticated approach to achieving a world without nuclear weapons was coupled with an insistence that in latter phases of nuclear disarmament it would be essential to also initiate a process of conventional disarmament with the goal being one of peace and security based on a demilitarized form of geopolitics. He correctly feared that getting rid of nuclear weapons without addressing the whole spectrum of weaponry would have the unintended effect of making the world ‘safe’ for major warfare, that is, ‘safe’ in this sense of removing apocalyptic fears but still enabling the repetition of ‘world wars’ of the sort that caused such devastation in the 20th Century, and were now enhanced by more powerful weaponry with greater precision and explosive potential, as well as various forms of cyber warfare.

As the Cold War was centered in Europe it was there that Gorbachev’s innovative  approach to international relations most clearly manifested itself. Perhaps, challenged by Reagan’s famous taunt in Berlin, “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev!”

Gorbached proceeded to loosen Moscow’s grip on the Warsaw Pact’s bloc of East European counties, respecting their sovereign rights to claim political independence, and making clear that under his leadership there would be no Soviet interventions of the sort that occurred in East Europe dating back to Hungary in 1956 and forward to the Czech Republic in 1968. This process did indeed culminate with the dramatic breaching of the infamous Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the unexpectedly rapid reunification of Germany, which epitomized the emerging realities of a post-Cold War Europe.

It was in Europe that Gorbachev advocated a hopeful end to the ordeal of a divided continent, proposing security for ‘our common European home.’ Had these ideas been acted upon by the West, it might have avoided the nightmarish aftermath of the Cold War now being experienced in Ukraine and threatened in relation to Taiwan, and early preceded by a predatory form of economic globalization that opened the floodgates to autocracy around the world. It may be that historians will someday come to acknowledge that if Gorbachev’s vision of future East-West engagement in Europe had prevailed rather than the neo-conservative thirst for American geopolitical expansionism, anchored in a revitalized NATO with a much more expansive and flexible mandate, recently highlighted by the inflammatory phrase ‘Global NATO.’ This may be the time to remember that NATO was brought into being in1949 as a strictly defensive alliance, supposedly the centerpiece of the containment policies so persuasively advocated at the time by George F. Kennan as a response to the threat of Soviet military expansionism in Europe. Given the failure to heed Gorbachev on Europe over the decades, despite ending the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev’s legacy is primarily being depicted as bringing the Cold War to an end in ways that allowed the West to pronounce itself ‘the winner,’ not so unlike the spoiled aftermath of World War II. It is obvious after the three big botched experiments in ‘peace diplomacy’ over the course of a little over 100 years that the liberal democracies of the capitalist West are better at waging war than making sustainable peace arrangements.

It should not be forgotten that unlike any leader of a Great Power in his time, Gorbachev made memorable speeches at the UN and elsewhere calling for a more robust internationalism and a geopolitical approach rooted in the values of the UN Charter. This advocacy of responsible internationalism and demilitarization endeared Gorbachev to peace activists the world over, but was dismissed as nothing more than diplomatic fluff by Beltway and Pentagon gurus who didn’t even take Gorbachev’s global and reform agendas seriously enough to bother refuting them. This life journey of Gorbachev carried him to the peak of power in the Kremlin, and then following his seven years as head of the Soviet state made him a world citizen in the best sense. His civilian life after the end of the Cold War was more in spirit and substance with progressive civil society tendencies than with the continuing necrophilia of the Great Powers.  



2. Over the course of your research and activism, can you describe your experiences or interactions with him? How did his life impact your studies and craft?

I did have the opportunity on two occasions to interact personally with Gorbachev in a rather extended manner that included time for social engagement. I felt it a great honor to do so as he was already a brave and sympathetic historic personage of great distinction, and although misleadingly lauded in the West partly because he paved the way for unipolarity and triumphalism, and possibly even Putin and Putinism, outcomes that he was neither responsible for nor wished to have happen. In an important sense Gorbachev’s international legacy of humane global governance is already all but forgotten by the mainstream. The West admired most his decisive role in loosening the Soviet grip on East Europe and unwittingly accelerating the process by which the Soviet internal empire of ‘captive’ nations was permanently shattered.. My two encounters with Gorbachev were after he ceased to be a leader, and devoted himself to sharing idea and activities with likeminded individuals

My first encounter was a day-long meeting in 1993 or 1994 at a men’s club in New York City of a contemplated foundation that he was to be co-Chaiir with James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s influential Secretary of State to support work toward a peaceful world undertaken by politically independent persons of the once antagonistic so-called ‘superpowers.’ To my astonishment, which has not lessened over the years, I was invited to serve as a member of the initial Board of Directors along with several more mainstream individuals. For undisclosed reasons, Baker was unable to attend the meeting, but Gorbachev, by way of an interpreter participated throughout the long day, including at a small luncheon. The meeting was devoted to what the Foundation might most usefully do, how it would operate, including its plans to establish a funding base. Gorbachev mainly listened, asked useful questions, and projected a demeanor of being one among equals. As it happened, nothing further took place, and the whole undertaking was discreetly abandoned. Nevertheless, it did give me a glimpse of this great man adjusting to his new role and status. Looking back, it was a time when Gorbachev continued to identify with the transnational ruling elites of Western countries but showed an intellectual interest in working with more independent individuals in global civil society. Above all, it demonstrated to me that as a private citizen Gorbachev was committed to a peaceful and human sequel to the tensions and antagonisms of the Cold War decades.

The second encounter was a couple of years later in Italy at a meeting on the future of Euurope under the auspices of Gorbachev’s own foundation, bearing his name. The 25 or so invited participants were mainly European intellectuals and government officials. It went on for two days, revisiting Gorbachev’s ideas of a common European home and collective security structure. The debate was lively and stimulating although the pan-European consensus never got much further than the walls of the conference center. I had the feeling that Gorbachev now felt himself an independent voice of civil society, widely honored in the West yet ignored in his own country. He had returned to living in Moscow, and reported that Putin had respectfully received him and made him feel at ease about resuming Russian residence despite his continuing unpopularity in the country of his birth and later political prominence.

In my own work, I have been conscious of course of Gorbachev’s role as a transformative agent of change that made ‘the impossible’ happen in the Soviet context, although not altogether responsive to his agency, much that happened is best understood beneath the rubric of ‘unintended consequences.’. Given my interest in ‘the politics of impossibility’ I often mentioned Mandela in South Africa and Gorbachev in the Soviet Union as having validated this counter-intuitive belief that seems the most realistic hinge of hope given the present world situation, strange as that may sound..

It is always of great interest to meet with historic figures of global stature. In Gorbachev I found none of the moral radiance and existential charisma that I associated with my meeting with Nelson Mandela. Rather in Gorbachev I found a sense of purpose, of decency, of intelligence, and a seriousness about doing what he could to make his country, region, and world better than they were at present.  

  • How do you suppose Russia will use the public memory of Gorbachev and his commemoration to suit their own political purposes? 

I would suppose that Putin does not regret the passing of the Communist Era, but will fault Gorbachev on nationalist, Czarist grounds as allowing the territorial extensions of the Soviet Union to shrink, leading to the temporary eclipse of Russian greatness. With minor variations the Russian media will follow this line, reporting on the demonization that Gorbachev deservedly experienced, especially in the decade after the Soviet collapse.

It may take several more political earthquakes for Russia and Russians to arrive at a balanced assessment of Gorbachev. But in fact, the West has not done much better, showering him with honors and awards, while keeping their near exclusive focus on his roles in ending the Cold War with the West and in taking on the Communist Party elite of bureaucrats (nomenklatura) that had presided since the early days of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death. The fact that this precipitated the Soviet collapse was an outcome that almost no one in the West lamented.

Gorbachev memory will last, most celebrated outside of Russia, and subject to subtle reappraisals from within, in relation to Europe, and with regard to world peace. I would feel more comfortable contemplating the future of humanity if Gorbachev was running the global show than any other political leader currently walking about on planet Earth!

Is it Time to Stop Bullying Iran? Washington Should Restore the Nuclear Program Agreement with Iran Now

4 Sep

[Prefatory Note: A somewhat modified text of an article published by COUNTERPUNCH on Sept. 2, 2022. I recommend CP highly for anyone seeking to follow the best quality progressive commentary on global issues; also, follow Transcend Media Service (TMS) for a more global, academic, and cultural orientation heavily influenced by the pioneering work of Johan Galtung in the area of peace studies broadly conceived).

In the post below I call particular attention to the fact that the relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons unregulated weapons capabilities and regional militarism has been totally overlooked in assessing the negotiations on whether the U.S. should rejoin the JCPOA, which Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018, reviving the agreement. Israel’s influence on the nature of the bargain reached for renewal and the side benefits that it will receive as ‘compensation’ for overriding its faux opposition to the agreement as articulated by its leading political figures. It illustrates the distortion of global policy debates whenever the domestic politics of the U.S. are entangled with the way an issue is resolved even sometimes, as here, at the cost of maximizing national interests.]To Renew or Not to Renew the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement, That is the Question

Photograph Source: United States Department of State – Public Domain

The Road Not Taken

After two weeks in Iran during latter part of January 1979, the height of the revolutionary movement against the dynastic, autocratic rule of Mohammed Reza Shah, I had the opportunity for an extended conversation with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his tent where he received foreign visitors and journalists during his final days in Paris. This was the individual who would serve as uncontested Iranian leader, officially the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran until his death in 1989.

I was accompanied at the meeting by Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General and major progressive personality at the time in the United States and Don Luce, a prominent and courageous anti-war religiously oriented activist who gained worldwide fame in 1970 by departing from a prescribed tour route to expose a visiting delegation of U.S. Congress members to the notorious ‘tiger cages’ in Con Son Prison in Saigon, a major facility in South Vietnam that had become a repeated focus of severe torture allegations. During our time together in Iran we met many religious leaders and secular supporters of the popular uprising, individuals who would soon be running the government. We witnessed extraordinary displays of mass popular excitement in the country and anxious sighs of disbelief that greeted the news that the Shah had abdicated the Peacock Throne, and as it turned out, leaving Iran never to return.

There are many aspects of this meeting that are worth recalling but one stands out for me as having current relevance more than 43 years later. Immediately after greetings were exchanged, Ayatollah Khomeini carefully posed a question to us that seemed uppermost in his mind, more so than any of the topics covered in the ensuing two hours or so of questions and answers, with the three of us raising most of the questions. But the Ayatollah’s question came first, and it turned out to be the one where our words of response earned the full attention of this religious leader: “Do we think that the U.S. Government will repeat its intervention of 1953 that overthrew a popularly elected government and restored the Shah as Iran’s dynastic leader?” Later Ayatollah Khomeini confided that he had “only entered politics because there was a river of blood between the ruler and the people of Iran.”

We each responded along these lines: “Of course, we could not know for sure how Washington will act, but we believed the U.S. had learned some lessons from the past, including the awkwardness of supporting coups that brought to power repressive leaders while professing to lead ‘the free world’ against Communism and Soviet expansionism. We also stressed the recent failure of intervention in Vietnam and the apparent strength and unity of the movement that overthrew the Shah, as well as our impressions of the Iranian military as beset by divided loyalties, as well as institutionally weakened by the Shah’s own distrust of the leadership of the armed forces.”

We also called to the attention of the Ayatollah, on the basis of our meeting a few days earlier in Tehran with the American Ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, who told us that he had forwarded repeated similar assessments to the White House, and a supposedly liberal president, Jimmy Carter, that the movement against the Shah’s government enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Iranian people and that even the leadership of the Iranian armed force was resigned to the acceptance of the political outcome. On this basis, Sullivan recommended an immediate and urgent  U.S. Government effort to reassure the leaders of the Iranian revolutionary movement that it sought normal and positive relations with whatever government emerged in Iran during the ensuing weeks.

Ayatollah Khomeini was a formidable presence, pondered our comments, and slowly responded in almost these exact words, “If what you are telling us is accurate, and comes to pass, then we have no objection to the Shah coming to the U.S. or elsewhere for medical treatment, and we can have normal relations with your country.” Of course, this road was not the path taken by either country, which has resulted in enormous adverse consequences for Iran and the Middle East as a whole, with distorting effects that have been playing out over the intervening decades, which are shamelessly generating skepticism and propaganda about the U.S. rejoining the JCPOA, thus setting the stage for another phase of dangerous outcomes whether the Iran Nuclear Agreement is restored or not in 2022.

There were already present some worrisome signs back in 1979 that made such an exploratory attempt to accept this dramatic internal display of the human rights of all peoples to self-determination unlikely to materialize without generating geopolitical friction. The U.S. National Security Advisor at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, strongly favored a commitment to once again restore the Shah to his throne, and had a strong influence on President Carter’s thinking, which was given priority over Sullivan’s strong advice based on his direct knowledge of the realities in Iran.

Meanwhile, in Iran there were some strong words being uttered by militants about the revolutionary intentions of Iran extending to the whole of the Islamic world, and especially the Gulf monarchies, which sent strategic chills down the backs of Western foreign policy elites extremely sensitive in those days to any further strategic threats to Gulf oil reserves. In the background was Israel aware of the pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist leadership emerging in Tehran, which set off loud alarms in reaction to some anti-Zionist rhetoric of the more militant leaders in the early period of the Islamic Republic. In any event, normalization between the two countries was not to be, however much sense it made with respect to peace, security, and self-determination back then and now.

Lines from a much quoted poem by Robert Frost are worth reflecting upon given this exchange of views more than 43 years ago.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Recontextualizing Nonproliferation for Some, Nuclearism for Others

Restoring JCPOA through Negotiations.

It needs to be emphasized that Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 JCPOA and reimposed punitive sanctions (‘maximum pressure’) on Iran that inflicted many hardships on the civilian population despite the fact that Iran had been in full compliance with the terms of the agreement up through 2018 as confirmed by IAEA periodic inspections. It appears that Trump was induced by his ardent Zionist son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and leaders in Israel, especially the Prime Minister at the time, Bibi Netanyahu. Trump seemed thus persuaded to denounce the agreement as a terrible deal from a security perspective, providing a justification for U.S. withdrawal, but seemed no more than a pragmatic rationalization to cover a calculated political move. Not irrelevant, although further in the background is the powerful Iranian expatriate presence in the United States that has not given up on restoring secular rule in Iran, and views any kind of normalizing of relations with Iran to be ‘appeasement.’ Consider the recent shrill declaration to this effect by the eldest son of the autocratic Shah:

  • “This shift to appeasement was never going to solve any of the world’s issues with the Islamic Republic. The regime’s problem with the West is the West’s very existence, which obstructs its path to a global caliphate.” Reza Pahlavi, eldest son of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2022.

In the drawn-out Vienna negotiations on restoring the agreement the U.S. has been under constant public pressure from Israel and the Gulf monarchies to extract concessions from Iran bearing on matters outside the scope of the nuclear agreement. It would seem more plausible for the U.S. Government to have been confronted by demands from Iran for reparations for the harm it experienced by restoring, and intensifying, the sanctions since 2018. This bad faith behavior of the U.S. sets a dreadful precedent for the reliability of non-treaty international commitments. The fact that Iran has been prepared to go along with such a one-sided negotiating format undoubtedly reflects their motivation to gain relief from sanctions, and may also reinforce the sincerity of Iran’s continuing declared intention never to acquire nuclear weapons. Building trust in international relations presupposes mutual good faith adherence to carefully negotiated arrangements. At the very least, Biden should have humbly apologized to Iran for the disruptive 2018 withdrawal, and despite his legal inability to bind future presidents, he might have regained some higher ground by pledging to respect the agreements for as long as he remains president, and more rapidly moved to end sanctions once the agreement was restored.

It is worth comparing the extravagant language of the August 14th Biden-Lapid Joint Jerusalem Declaration of Strategic Partnership in which Biden not only affirmed a long-term U.S. commitment, audaciously proclaiming it as ‘bipartisan’ even ‘sacrosanct.’ The following language deserves scrutiny in light of the Vienna impasse::

“Consistent with the longstanding security relationship between the United States and Israel and the unshakable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, and especially to the maintenance of its qualitative military edge, the United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself   by itself against any threat or combination of threats. The United States  further reiterates that these commitments are bipartisan and sacrosanct, and that they are not only moral commitments, but also strategic  commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.’

Confirming Israel’s Nuclear Hegemony in the Middle East.

It has been completely ignored by the Western media that Iran has made a huge concession when it entered the Obama promoted Nuclear Agreement in 2015 (JCPOA) without an insistence that Israel simultaneously commit to destroying  its arsenal of nuclear weapons. As the agreement was negotiated, at least in public, there were no assurances required of Israel, not even something as intangible as requiring Israel to issue a No First Use Declaration. It was to be expected that Israel and the United States would remain silent about solidifying Western control of the region, and especially the signature feature of the ‘strategic partnership,’ the. crux of which is retaining sole possession of the ultimate weapon of destructive violence. Yet Israel, in particular, seems empowered enough to insist on receiving firm assurances that the U.S. would prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons by all means necessary (again without drawing into question Israel’s retention of such weapons without any disclosure of its intentions with respect to threat or use). The language of commitment in the Jerusalem Declaration puts the U.S. in the position of committing itself to a use of force without any hint of or apparent need for a further legal authorization. Again the language of the Jerusalem Declaration is important:

“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”

Even this was apparently not enough for Israeli security hawks who wanted the pledge to pertain to any perceived steps toward acquisition.

Such an explicit bilateral strategic commitment as contained in the Jerusalem Declaration seems to overlook Iran’s completely valid legal and political option, if it wishes to rely upon it, to withdraw from the NPT, which it is entitled to do under Article X(1) of the treaty:

‘1. Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall    include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”

Given Israel’s threats, its nuclear capabilities, its strategic partnership with the U.S., withdrawal would seem an entirely reasonable course of action for Iran to take. If deterrence can serve as a security justification under the NPT, it would seem few states in the world could make as strong a case as Iran.

Taking Nonproliferation Seriously. 

There is a further consideration. If the United States were taking the ethos of nonproliferation seriously it would be concentrating on denuclearizing the Middle East as a region rather than acting to preserve Israel nuclear hegemony. The obvious way to achieve such a result would be to support the negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone together with a non-aggression security framework. All states except for Israel have supported such an initiative, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. It would be a breakthrough for peace and security, besides freeing billions for more constructive uses.

The NPT regime is not the best path to non-use of the weaponry in a state-centric world. The NPT, however, it may be best path if the true geopolitical objective is to retain oligopolistic control over nuclear weapons. Phased disarmament within a treaty framework is the only promising path if the overriding objective is to achieve a world free from this infernal weaponry.

A start in this benevolent direction has been made in the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) negotiated under UN auspices and coming into force in 2021. But to gain political traction sufficient to provide a post-nuclear security framework it require to receive the support of the current nine nuclear weapons states. None have so far become Parties to TPNW, and the three NATO nuclear weapons states, the U.S., France, and the UK, along with Russia have issued statements expressing their principled opposition and unconditional rejection of a disarmament approach, despite its promise of total nonproliferation.

A Concluding Remark

If we are destined to live with nuclear weapons, we may have to endure the nuclear hegemony of the P-5, but to use the NPT ethos to justify discriminatory treatment of a non-nuclear state such as Iran seem to be an extremely regressive geopolitical undertaking. For this reason alone, people of good will should hope for the unconditional renewal of the JCPOA. It is time for the morally attuned public to awake to the reality that a nuclear Israel has neither a security justification nor political grounds for its posture of continuing bullying of Iran. To complain about Iran’s political solidarity with some movements in the region as Israel does is gross hypocrisy. It pales in its gravity compared if fairly to the U.S. and Israel’s discretionary bombing, political assassinations, interventions, and violations of the basic sovereign rights of countries in the Middle East..

The Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA, 2015) Should be Renewed

25 Aug

[Prefatory Note: Richard Falk Responses to Questions posed by Mohamadreza Farahzadi, of the international desk of Farhikhtegan Daily pertaining to long process of rejoining this agreement limited Iran to the development of civilian nuclear power technology; the text of my responses and the title has been modified. It is one more example that undoing the human and diplomatic harm of Trump’s international legacy is a complex matter that not only exhibits the persisting influence of unrepentant Trumpists but the passivity of the Democratic Party leadership, particularly when it dares to disagree with Israel on a matter of foreign policy concern.]

1. According to the reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for monitoring Iran’s nuclear commitments, Tehran was fully fulfilling its obligations according to the JCPOA until the US withdrew from it. However, even after the withdrawal of the USA from the JCPOA, these approvals continued and were accepted by the existing members as well.

It seems that Iran, which started adjusting its nuclear commitments a year after the withdrawal of the USA from the JCPOA, has no problem with returning to its previous commitments. In the meantime, the only problem that is the main reason for the existence of JCPOA revival negotiations is the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement during the Trump era and its not returning during the Biden administration. Accordingly, Iran in general is only seeking guarantees so that it will not be deprived of the economic benefits of fulfilling its obligations. Why has the USA refused to return to the JCPOA?

Response: I share the view that the 2018 U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA was the sole explanation for the breakdown of the 2015 agreement, which as you suggest, was working well, with the IAEA confirming Iran’s compliance. This compliance was impressive insofar as Israel continuing to violate Iranian sovereignty by engaging unlawful and provocative ways involving further efforts to disrupt Iran’s legitimate nuclear program, including the assassination of nuclear scientists and acts of sabotage directed at nuclear facilities..

It is correct to point out that Biden would encounter political difficulties in providing a meaningful guaranty to Iran that a future president of the United States would not again withdraw as Trump would almost certainly do should he be reelected in 2024. Biden is also under pressure from Israel and from domestic politics with an mid-term election scheduled for November 2022, not to rejoin the JCPOA, at least not without additional constraints on Iran relating to non-nuclear armaments and regional political activity and a green light to Israel’s unilateral efforts to violate Iran’s sovereignty for purposes associated with alleged security concerns..

If fairness were to prevail, the. U.S. would repudiate Israeli efforts to shape U.S. foreign policy and rejoin JCPOA without any new preconditions, and accompanied by certain conciliatory acts that were in effect an apologetic acknowledgement of the harm endured by Iran and its people due to the wrongful withdrawal in 2018.

2. In recent weeks, the European Union has presented a final proposal package to Iran and the United States to revive the agreement. Iran quickly responded to the package of the European Union. Citing sources in Europe who had access to the text, some media have called Iran’s text “constructive”. However, the United States has so far refused to respond to the package proposed by Europe and maintains that it is still examining the package and Iran’s response to it. Does the fact that Iran’s speed in responding and its content which has been called “constructive” by European sources, have been faced by the delay of USA, imply Democrats’ unwillingness to revive JCPOA? The conjecture is intensified having in mind the notion that the mid-term elections of the Congress are near and returning to Iran nuclear deal can have negative results for the Democrats.

Response: I would suspect that the major explanation for the delay on the U.S, side is its search for a formula that will lessen Israeli and domestic public criticism for moving toward an acceptance of this latest proposal package table by the EU. Unlike the U.S., Iran does not need to consult with other governmental or political entities before fashioning its response. The European sources asserting that Iran’s proposals are ‘constructive’ undoubtedly is intended to influence Washington to respond in a similar favorable manner to that of Iran, and hence close to consummating a new deal.

This outlook reflects overwhelming sentiments that JCPOA is a positive framework for tension reduction and war avoidance in the Middle East that deserves widespread support to overcome these unfortunate pockets of continuing opposition to any agreement with Iran, and persisting demands to renew and even intensify the coercive approach to Iran by way of sanctions that lasted almost 25 years. Israel has attacked the proposed renewal of JCPOA on three unconvincing grounds: first,, that it will not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry, posing severe threats to the security of countries in the region; that sanctions relief will provide the Iranian government with $100 billion per year to fund ‘terrorist’ organizations’ (specifically, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jirhad); and by agreeing to such an arrangement the U.S. signals a lack of resolve to oppose Iranian expansionism .

3. Iran is strongly seeking to receive a guarantee from the United States that Washington will not withdraw from the nuclear agreement. However, the United States ignores Iran’s request on the pretext that it is not able to make such a promise based on the structures of the United States. Although Washington’s argument may seem correct at first glance, in any case, countries have international and bilateral obligations that all their administrations must respect.

On the other hand, as the Iranian authorities have announced, it seems that they want to increase the moral cost of the USA withdrawal, because in practice, if Washington or even another country wants to withdraw from the agreement, it is impossible to force it to stay. Having in mind the fact that the provision of such assurances only increases the moral constraints of the agreement and may not have any practical value, why is Washington resisting their provision? Does Washington want another unjustified exit?

Response: My assessment is that as weak an American president as Biden will be very reluctant to generate critical reactions contending that he is giving assurances to a hostile foreign government that exceed his constitutional authority, based on the doctrine separation of legislative and executive authority that is invoked as an integral part of the foundation of legitimate governance in the U.S. The normal path to a long-range irreversible national commitments takes the form of an international treaty requiring ratification by 2/3s of the U.S. Senate. This would not be unobtainable in relation to the JCPOA. given Israel’s and Republican right-wing’s opposition to concluding any agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. In any event, to follow treaty ratification procedures would require years of effort even if the political atmosphere made ratification a practical option.

It is also probably useful for Biden to have the freedom to assure Israel and critics of a diplomatic approach coupled with an assurance that if Iran behaves in a manner that is regarded as unacceptable, then a second withdrawal is an option that has not been foreclosed, even morally. The issue is on both sides one of appearances, For Iran the appearance that JCPOA is this time a durable arrangement not subject to changes in political leadership in signatory countries. For the U.S. the appearance of flexibility are assurances to opponents and critics that JCPOA does not constrain American leaders from once more withdrawing and opting once more for a totally coercive approach to relations with Iran.

As matters now stand, the U.S. has virtually admitted that it needs time to consult with the E3 countries (France, UK, Germany), and most of all Israel to make sure that the terms agreed upon for the renewal of the JCPOA take maximum account of their national security interests. Whether the text subject to these consultations ends up in a deal probably depends on whether Washington is willing to ignore opposition by Israel and to moderate criticism by promising a strong U.S. future military and diplomatic engagement in securing the region. If an agreement does result it may also include an expressed willingness to refrain from Israeli unilateral moves against Iran even uses of aggressive force in total disregard of international law and the UN Charter.

Movements to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons and to Establish Geopolitical Accountability

16 Aug

If concerned with these issues go to the links given here connecting you with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the NGO that has the longest record of commitment to the movement to establish a global security system without nuclear weapons and with geopolitical accountability: https://www.wagingpeace.org/two-new-essays-by-richard-falk-napfs-senior-vice-president/

And here:

Connecting the Dots 77 Years Later: Hiroshima and Nuremberg

14 Aug

[Prefatory Note: ‘Can ‘Victors’ Justice be Just?’ was the rhetorical question I asked myself as I first read the Nuremberg Judgment as a law student in the 1950s, and even more so as a young law teacher I stumbled across the later Tokyo Judgment a few years later, which contained the famous (in Japan) long dissent of the Indian judge, Radhabinod Pal. The back story intrigued me explaining why those who constructed the Japanese war crimes tribunal at least made the panel of judges appear less like a victors’ show trial than what took place in Germany, and yet outside of Japan evoked less interest because of Justice Pal’s heresy, fidelity to the integrity of the rule of law in the aftermath of a major war.]  

At first glance, it may seem perverse to link Hiroshima and Nuremberg, not as flowing from opposite impulses dominant among the victors in World War II, but as emerging from the same amoral cast of political sensibility. Yet after the passage of 77 years, it seems more relevant to insist that dropping atomic bombs on cities filled with ordinary people coupled with the moral hubris involved in granting impunity to such acts on the very days that these weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction were exploded offers insight into the way in which the weaponry has been almost ‘normalized’ for the winners and a few others ever since.

Would we be prudently trembling now if in 1945 the winners had displayed at least moral sensitivity to the irony of prosecuting the losers on the very days during which the winners perpetrated the worst and most consequential international crime of the entire war?

If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” so said Robert H. Jackson, Chief U.S. Prosecutor at Nuremberg. Such noble words have had no echo in the corridors of power, wearily recited for decades by those of us committed to the emergence of a world in which these weapons have been forever abolished. As it is, we have every reason to believe that those with the authority would repeat the double move of exempting themselves from accountability while self-righteously punishing those experiencing the unleashed fury of nuclearism. The marked differences between 1945 and 202? being the planetary magnitude of the harm done by the use of such weapons and the probable post-war inability to identify ‘a winner.’ The question left open is whether the losers in such a struggle would go on fighting to win the most pyric victory ever or might at last, even if too late, seek the survival of the human species treated as a collective unity. I describe below my own belated reckoning with this disturbing, unacknowledged linkage.

It was only recently that I realized that the 1945 signing of the London Agreement by the U.S., Soviet Union, France, and the UK arranging the  establishment of a tribunal in Nuremberg charged with prosecuting  major Nazi war criminals occurred on August 8, 1945, that is, wedged in between the days when the atomic bombs were dropped. A parallel tribunal in Tokyo was set up to try Japanese war crimes some months later. It has been often observed by independent commentators, especially in recent years, that these initiatives were so one-sided as to stretch the meaning of criminal law beyond recognition. The most telling sign of a legitimate legal process is the equal treatment of equals. Yet inequality pervaded the structure, procedures, and outcomes of these self-righteous tribunals, from the selection of the judges to impunity for those guilty of war crimes on the winning side. Despite such fundamental inequalities there are few who would doubt that the evidence presented at Nuremberg and Tokyo clearly documented despicable forms of criminality were carefully shown to be work of the indicted Germans and Japanese defendants. What became somewhat controversial about the trials at the time was the failure to inquire into the violations of international criminal law by the winning side, which is why these tribunals, however conscientious their work, have been derided over the years as glaring instances of ‘victors’ justice.’

My interest in the connections between Hiroshima and Nuremberg is somewhat different than mounting another critique. I find the insensitivity of such a high profile signing of this agreement on August 8th establishing the Nuremberg Tribunal is appalling. It occurred during the very days of the atomic bombings, arguably the worst crime of World War II at least on a par with the Holocaust. It is more than insensitivity, it is moral numbness of such depth as to prepare political actors, whether states, empire, leaders, or simply ‘realists’ to embrace past crimes and commit future crimes. It best explains such features of evolving world order as a geopolitical right of exception at the UN by way of the veto and impunity with respect to accountability procedures. In effect, the UN is designed quite literally to give assurances that the most dangerous states, as of 1945, are jurisprudentially protected forever from any adverse Security Council decision as to criminal acts, at least within the UN System.

What is this slightly disguised feature of legality and legitimacy conveying to a curious observer? That law and accountability are relevant for propaganda and punishment against Great Power adversaries, that the wrongs of victors in major wars are beyond scrutiny while the same level of wrongdoing by the losers will be punished harshly. In effect, the vanquished and weak are to be judged in what amounts to ‘show trials’ because of the core failure to treat equals equally, purging geopolitics from the annals of international criminal justice.

There is yet something else to reflect upon. If August 8th had been a different day of infamy because an English or American city had been targeted by a German atomic bomb and yet Germany still lost the war, the act and the weapon would have been criminalized at Nuremberg and by subsequent international actions. We might not be still living under the storm clouds cast by this weaponry if the perpetrators of those dreadful events of August 6th and 9th had been the losers in World War II, which makes the rightly celebrated defeat of fascism on balance a somewhat questionable long-term victory for humanity.

77 years later it seems worth pondering the costs of continuing to allow this long repressed relationship between Hiroshima and Nuremberg to color our understanding of good and evil in global settings. The recent irresponsible heightening of geopolitical tensions with Russia and China should alert us to the relevance of this still unacknowledged legacy of how the end of World War II was manipulated to assure that the most powerful states would go on preparing for ever more destructive wars

until the end of time, or more likely, the end of the human species.

[Prefatory Note: Every year since 1945 some account is taken of the legacies of the atomic attacks between August 6-9.. This year this legacy takes two quite different forms at the NPT Review Conference; First, the nuclear weapons states are confronted by their failure to comply with the Article Vi disarmament commitment in the form of a treaty initiative from the Global South that calls for the comprehensive prohibition of the weaponry. The second development is the geopolitical crisis brought to the surface of world politics by the Ukraine War. In both instances the situation inworld has come to a new phase Two Images of the 2 NPT Review Conference77 Years After Hiroshima and NagasakiPeace activists around the world often choose August 6th and 9th each year to grieve anew the human suffering and devastation caused by dropping atomic bombs on the virtually undefended Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which possessed scant military significance. Among other things these atomic attacks were ‘geopolitical crimes’ of ultimate terror, with flimsy combat justifications, seemingly mainly intended mainly as a warning to Soviet leaders not to defy the West in the Pacific dimensions of the peace diplomacy at the end of World War II. This mega-terror event was also justified, especially at the time, as ‘saving American lives’ that were presumed to be lost in the event that the U.S. had to bring the war to an end by invading the Japanese homeland. Historians still disagree about whether Japan would have surrendered if a diplomatic approach to ending the war had been attempted, but the fact that it wasn’t is itself an indictment of the atomic bomb attacks.These August dates marking the utter destruction of these two Japanese cities and the large residue of suffering that lasted for decades are treated by the world as events giving rise to what has become widely known as the nuclear age, perhaps by now superseded by what is called the digital age. This awful beginning of the nuclear age can, however, never be forgotten or redeemed, although ever since the explosions in 1945 the solemnity of these memorial occasions has been overshadowed outside of Japan by widespread fears that a nuclear war might occur at some point and a quiet rage continues to build around the world that the nuclear weapons states, above all the U.S., have stubbornly refused to take steps to fulfill pledges to choose a reliable path to nuclear disarmament in good faith.This pledge was initially a matter of prudent politics and elementary morality. The pledge became legally obligatory in Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970), a clearly depicted disarmament commitment affirmed unanimously in an Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996. It has become clear that for the security establishments of the ‘NATO Three’ (U.S. France, UK) disarmament was never more than ‘a useful fiction’ that conveyed the sense that the non-nuclear states were being given a fair exchange commensurate with their willingness to give up their conditional option to underpin at sone point national security by acquiring nuclear weapons (as Russia and China, as well as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have done over the decades for a variety of reasons in distinct security settings). The non-nuclear Parties to the NPT are not formally obliged to give up their option of acquiring nuclear weapons unconditionally.  Article 10 of the treaty confers on all Parties a right of withdrawal if “extraordinary events..have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” In practice, as Iran is finding out, this right of withdrawal gives way to the geopolitical priorities of an enforcement regime presided over by the United States, and it appears that the geopolitics of containing Iran takes precedence over its treaty right of withdrawal. The so-called The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership  Joint Declaration signed in July by U.S. and Israel leaders commits the U.S. to using whatever military force is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry. A completely unlawful undertaking that amounts to a threat to use non-defensive force, a violation of Article 51 of the UN Charter.NPT Review Conference at the UNCurrently the NPT Review Conference held every fifth year, this time postponed since 2020 because of COVID, is taking place at UN Headquarters in New York City. Two significant contradictory developments have dominated the scene. It was the first such meeting of NPT Parties since the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into force in early 2021. This treaty, largely a project of governments from the Global South in active coalition with Global Civil Society has drawn a bright line between the majority views of the peoples of the world and the security elites of these nine nuclear weapons states.Indeed, the NATO Three had the temerity to issue a joint statement expressing their total opposition to the approach taken by the so-called Ban Treaty (TPNW), declared it was their intention to continue to rely on nuclear weapons to meet their far-flung security needs broadly specified to include geopolitical deterrence, that is, not only is this weaponry not being limited to the defense of homelands but is extende vital strategic concerns that could potentially arise anywhere on the planet. At present, this commitment to nuclearism is illustrated by the U.S. posture in response to the Ukraine War and the future of the One China approach that has prevailed since China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations. These countries steadfastly oppose even a No First Use framework of restraint that would in theory prevent any reliance on threats or uses of nuclear weaponry. This impasse between the nuclear haves and have-nots amounts to an existential confirmation of ‘nuclear apartheid’ as the precarious and self-serving underpinning of global security unless and until the advocates of the TPNW approach muster enough strength and political energy to mount a real challenge to such a hegemonic and menacing concentration of unaccountable power and discretionary authority.New Patterns of Geopolitical Rivalry Increase Risks of Nuclear WarThe second notable development at the NPT Review Conference lent a sense of immediacy and urgency to what had become 77 years after Hiroshima a somewhat abstract concern is the Ukraine War. The geopolitical spillover effect of heightening the perceived risks of the use of nuclear weaponry generated the most widely felt fear of nuclear war of nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The U.S. decided it was worth the risks to challenge Russia’s attack on Ukraine sufficiently to preserve its strategic mastery of global security since the end of the Cold War incorporating the view that the world is better off if political space exists for only one extraterritorial state. Such a Global State would became the sole custodian of global governance when it comes to the international security agenda. Among other things, this unipolarity meant that Cold War Era mutual respect for territorial spheres of influence on the borders of Great Powers no longer served as pillars of stable geopolitical coexistence. After the Soviet collapse in 1992 the U.S. has acted as if were entitled and empowered to implement a Monroe Doctrine for the world. To make such a grandiose hegemonic political destiny credible the U.S. has willingly shouldered the immense economic and strategic burdens that accompany the role, paying the immense costs and uncertainties of maintaining hundreds of foreign military bases around the world and naval fleets in every ocean. NATO’s insistence early in the Ukraine War on making Russia pay for its invasion by being again reduced to the normalcies of territorial sovereignty was undoubtedly intended to be a master class for the benefit of Russia, and especially China, in the geopolitics of the post-Cold War world. It also provided an occasion to send China, currently the more formidable adversary of the West, a message written with the blood of Ukrainian lives, that any show of force to regain control over Taiwan will be met an even more punitive response, including thinly veiled threats that pointedly refuse to rule out uses of nuclear weapons. Pentagon war games some months ago ominously showed that China would prevail in any military encounter in the South China Seas unless the U.S. was prepared to cross the nuclear threshold. This assessment should confirms the renewed strategic dependence on nuclear weaponry if the U.S. is to continue to insist on managing global security for the world. In the short run, the Taiwan challenge has proven helpful in making the case for even larger military appropriations from Congress.American diplomacy toward China has aggravated an already inflammatory context by some inexplicably provocative behavior in recent months. First came a gratuitous public pronouncement by Biden last May while in Asia to provide whatever military assistance was deemed necessary to protect Taiwan if under attack by China. And secondly, came the provocative and destabilizing August visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi at a time of already high tensions. Such provocations violated the spirit of the Shanghai Communique that was issued by China and the U.S. in 1972. This document the outcome of a diplomatic breakthrough a half century ago has kept a reasonably stable status quo between these major geopolitical adversaries based on what Henry Kissinger praised as ‘strategic ambiguity,’ what others have referred to as the One China Policy. These Biden/Pelosi ploys seem yet another expression of American amateurism when it comes to foreign policy during the Biden presidency, or worse, are deliberate efforts to provoke Xi Jinping to take action justifying an American punitive response. This supposedly nationally ambitious autocrat is already being accused in China of being weak, negatively portrayed in his own country as backing down on the key policy goal of achieving the reunification of China and Taiwan. Despite these provocations by Washington, China has yet to depart from its oft repeated commitment to achieve Chinese reunification by peaceful means.Whether this crisis involving Taiwan reflect incompetence or malice is a matter of judgment. Either is unacceptably imprudent when it comes to nuclear dangers rising again to the surface, the very opposite of the responsible statecraft expected of a Great Power given the risks of the Nuclear Age. .In effect, remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2022 is overshadowed by this dual reality of ongoing ‘geopolitical wars.’ It is also a reminder that nuclear war was narrowly averted in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 by what Martin Sherwin, an authoritative interpreter of nuclear risk called, ‘dumb luck.’ [Gambling with Armageddon (2020); Also relevant Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine (2017)]. It may also be the moment when a nascent peace movement in the Global North wakes up and pushes for adoption of the TPNW approach as if a critical political goal of the Global South.PostBlockmarking to the  end of the post-Cold War period of minimally contested U.S, managed unipolarity.]

13 Aug

Two Images of the 2 NPT Review Conference

77 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Peace activists around the world often choose August 6th and 9th each year to grieve anew the human suffering and devastation caused by dropping atomic bombs on the virtually undefended Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which possessed scant military significance. Among other things these atomic attacks were ‘geopolitical crimes’ of ultimate terror, with flimsy combat justifications, seemingly mainly intended mainly as a warning to Soviet leaders not to defy the West in the Pacific dimensions of the peace diplomacy at the end of World War II. This mega-terror event was also justified, especially at the time, as ‘saving American lives’ that were presumed to be lost in the event that the U.S. had to bring the war to an end by invading the Japanese homeland. Historians still disagree about whether Japan would have surrendered if a diplomatic approach to ending the war had been attempted, but the fact that it wasn’t is itself an indictment of the atomic bomb attacks.

These August dates marking the utter destruction of these two Japanese cities and the large residue of suffering that lasted for decades are treated by the world as events giving rise to what has become widely known as the nuclear age, perhaps by now superseded by what is called the digital age. This awful beginning of the nuclear age can, however, never be forgotten or redeemed, although ever since the explosions in 1945 the solemnity of these memorial occasions has been overshadowed outside of Japan by widespread fears that a nuclear war might occur at some point and a quiet rage continues to build around the world that the nuclear weapons states, above all the U.S., have stubbornly refused to take steps to fulfill pledges to choose a reliable path to nuclear disarmament in good faith.

This pledge was initially a matter of prudent politics and elementary morality. The pledge became legally obligatory in Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970), a clearly depicted disarmament commitment affirmed unanimously in an Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996. It has become clear that for the security establishments of the ‘NATO Three’ (U.S. France, UK) disarmament was never more than ‘a useful fiction’ that conveyed the sense that the non-nuclear states were being given a fair exchange commensurate with their willingness to give up their conditional option to underpin at sone point national security by acquiring nuclear weapons (as Russia and China, as well as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have done over the decades for a variety of reasons in distinct security settings). The non-nuclear Parties to the NPT are not formally obliged to give up their option of acquiring nuclear weapons unconditionally.  Article 10 of the treaty confers on all Parties a right of withdrawal if “extraordinary events..have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” In practice, as Iran is finding out, this right of withdrawal gives way to the geopolitical priorities of an enforcement regime presided over by the United States, and it appears that the geopolitics of containing Iran takes precedence over its treaty right of withdrawal. The so-called The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership  Joint Declaration signed in July by U.S. and Israel leaders commits the U.S. to using whatever military force is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry. A completely unlawful undertaking that amounts to a threat to use non-defensive force, a violation of Article 51 of the UN Charter.

NPT Review Conference at the UN

Currently the NPT Review Conference held every fifth year, this time postponed since 2020 because of COVID, is taking place at UN Headquarters in New York City. Two significant contradictory developments have dominated the scene. It was the first such meeting of NPT Parties since the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into force in early 2021. This treaty, largely a project of governments from the Global South in active coalition with Global Civil Society has drawn a bright line between the majority views of the peoples of the world and the security elites of these nine nuclear weapons states.

Indeed, the NATO Three had the temerity to issue a joint statement expressing their total opposition to the approach taken by the so-called Ban Treaty (TPNW), declared it was their intention to continue to rely on nuclear weapons to meet their far-flung security needs broadly specified to include geopolitical deterrence, that is, not only is this weaponry not being limited to the defense of homelands but is extende vital strategic concerns that could potentially arise anywhere on the planet. At present, this commitment to nuclearism is illustrated by the U.S. posture in response to the Ukraine War and the future of the One China approach that has prevailed since China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations. These countries steadfastly oppose even a No First Use framework of restraint that would in theory prevent any reliance on threats or uses of nuclear weaponry. This impasse between the nuclear haves and have-nots amounts to an existential confirmation of ‘nuclear apartheid’ as the precarious and self-serving underpinning of global security unless and until the advocates of the TPNW approach muster enough strength and political energy to mount a real challenge to such a hegemonic and menacing concentration of unaccountable power and discretionary authority.

New Patterns of Geopolitical Rivalry Increase Risks of Nuclear War

The second notable development at the NPT Review Conference lent a sense of immediacy and urgency to what had become 77 years after Hiroshima a somewhat abstract concern is the Ukraine War. The geopolitical spillover effect of heightening the perceived risks of the use of nuclear weaponry generated the most widely felt fear of nuclear war of nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The U.S. decided it was worth the risks to challenge Russia’s attack on Ukraine sufficiently to preserve its strategic mastery of global security since the end of the Cold War incorporating the view that the world is better off if political space exists for only one extraterritorial state. Such a Global State would became the sole custodian of global governance when it comes to the international security agenda. Among other things, this unipolarity meant that Cold War Era mutual respect for territorial spheres of influence on the borders of Great Powers no longer served as pillars of stable geopolitical coexistence. After the Soviet collapse in 1992 the U.S. has acted as if were entitled and empowered to implement a Monroe Doctrine for the world. To make such a grandiose hegemonic political destiny credible the U.S. has willingly shouldered the immense economic and strategic burdens that accompany the role, paying the immense costs and uncertainties of maintaining hundreds of foreign military bases around the world and naval fleets in every ocean. 

NATO’s insistence early in the Ukraine War on making Russia pay for its invasion by being again reduced to the normalcies of territorial sovereignty was undoubtedly intended to be a master class for the benefit of Russia, and especially China, in the geopolitics of the post-Cold War world. It also provided an occasion to send China, currently the more formidable adversary of the West, a message written with the blood of Ukrainian lives, that any show of force to regain control over Taiwan will be met an even more punitive response, including thinly veiled threats that pointedly refuse to rule out uses of nuclear weapons. Pentagon war games some months ago ominously showed that China would prevail in any military encounter in the South China Seas unless the U.S. was prepared to cross the nuclear threshold. This assessment should confirms the renewed strategic dependence on nuclear weaponry if the U.S. is to continue to insist on managing global security for the world. In the short run, the Taiwan challenge has proven helpful in making the case for even larger military appropriations from Congress.

American diplomacy toward China has aggravated an already inflammatory context by some inexplicably provocative behavior in recent months. First came a gratuitous public pronouncement by Biden last May while in Asia to provide whatever military assistance was deemed necessary to protect Taiwan if under attack by China. And secondly, came the provocative and destabilizing August visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi at a time of already high tensions. Such provocations violated the spirit of the Shanghai Communique that was issued by China and the U.S. in 1972. This document the outcome of a diplomatic breakthrough a half century ago has kept a reasonably stable status quo between these major geopolitical adversaries based on what Henry Kissinger praised as ‘strategic ambiguity,’ what others have referred to as the One China Policy. These Biden/Pelosi ploys seem yet another expression of American amateurism when it comes to foreign policy during the Biden presidency, or worse, are deliberate efforts to provoke Xi Jinping to take action justifying an American punitive response. This supposedly nationally ambitious autocrat is already being accused in China of being weak, negatively portrayed in his own country as backing down on the key policy goal of achieving the reunification of China and Taiwan. Despite these provocations by Washington, China has yet to depart from its oft repeated commitment to achieve Chinese reunification by peaceful means.

Whether this crisis involving Taiwan reflect incompetence or malice is a matter of judgment. Either is unacceptably imprudent when it comes to nuclear dangers rising again to the surface, the very opposite of the responsible statecraft expected of a Great Power given the risks of the Nuclear Age. .

In effect, remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2022 is overshadowed by this dual reality of ongoing ‘geopolitical wars.’ It is also a reminder that nuclear war was narrowly averted in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 by what Martin Sherwin, an authoritative interpreter of nuclear risk called, ‘dumb luck.’ [Gambling with Armageddon (2020); Also relevant Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine (2017)]. It may also be the moment when a nascent peace movement in the Global North wakes up and pushes for adoption of the TPNW approach as if a critical political goal of the Global South.

Donation Politics: Worse than Hypocrisy

1 Aug

[PREFATORY NOTE: This post is a modified and revised version of an opinion piece publish under a different title by CounterPunch on July 29, 2022.]

Donation Politics: Biden’s Global Hypocrisy Starts at Home

Photograph Source: Palácio do Planalto – CC BY 2.0

Donation Politics: Worse than Hypocrisy

A few days ago, among the many solicitations for funds to support Democratic candidates around the country in the 2022 elections came one that caught my eye because of its obviously phony seductive line “I’d like to give you a call, Richard.” Reading the next line, none other than the U.S. President apparently with much time to waste, was supposedly eager to learn my views on what government might do better to meet my needs and uphold my values, purporting even to be on a first-name basis with me despite the utter absence of any prior contact. To dumb down the President for the sake of a hypocritical pitch struck me as distasteful, but also eroding of trust, already compromised, between the state and the citizenry upon which the viability of democracy crucially depends.

This manipulative hucksterism became even more personal a day or two later when the same lure line was attributed to Jill Biden, herself cast in the demeaning role of a political party team player. The First Lady went on to expatiate upon the cynical view that Democrats are so desperate for a chance to interact with the President that they would fall for any come on, however absurdly misleading. In her supposedly revealing words that struck me as utterly contrived: “Throughout the years, I’ve learned that there are at least three things that can make Joe smile from ear to ear: Our kids and grandkids, chocolate chip ice cream, and getting to talk one-on-one with Americans like you, Richard.” And she goes on, “Having the chance to hear your hopes and dreams grounds Joe and motivates him to keep fighting the hard battles. That’s why Joe would love nothing more than to give you a call soon.” 

Then come the unsurprising hooker, really what motivated the message and explains its atonality —nothing more or less than a crass appeal for money coupled with a delayed ‘admission’ that, after all, actually receiving a call from Biden was as unlikely as Donald Trump committing civil disobedience as a consequence of becoming an ardent anti-nuclear activist. I didn’t have to read much further for these suspicions to be crudely confirmed. The price of admission to Biden’s specious ‘inner circle’ of solicited political feedback dupes was disclosed. It turned out if I wanted to be among those who were now to be MERELY informed they MIGHT receive such a call, all I had to do was ‘to chip in’ as little as $7 to get on a list from which a fraction were selected to receive a call from the President. The only puzzle left to solve is whether the chosen one were picked at random or because they had donated the most or hailed from swing states. This more plausible interpretation of this offensively personalized  message no longer resembled in feeling and substance what was claimed on Biden’s behalf when he initially reached out to me, which had I been less jaded, I would have interpreted as expressing an unconditional wish by a conscientious leader who was, however foolishly, sincerely interested in learning my views on national policy issues, and was not just another snake oil salesman sending me an email in the form of a hook baited for donations.

Surely, if calls directly from Biden were up for sale, surely they would be priced much higher if indeed swallowing the donation bait was all that was required. Such a  bargain price sent an unmistakable signal that I would wait until at least the age of 90 before I could expect the phone to ring and be thrilled to discover Biden waiting on the other end impatient to begin ourconversation. If the price of admission had been pegged at $10,000 or more, I would have interpreted the appeal as a somewhat imaginative ploy to reach authentic  ‘good Democrats,’ that is, not the thinking kind but the contributing kind. In any event, for those remotely in the know, party politics had long been preoccupied with chasing ‘rich Democrats’ while relying on robocalls and mass digital mailings to gather donations from presumed sympathetic political loners like myself, not knowing or caring that I was almost as alienated by what the Democratic Party establishment had foisted upon the country than by the evil doings of the radical right. In my case some overworked party hack must have misread my political profile if he added me to the DNC rolodex for donor prospects.

When it became clear that this was just a somewhat different, and deceptive, way to plead for small donations, the mysterious prospect of actually receiving the phone call actually took a prominent place in a  zone of extreme improbability. This was a discrediting revelation being conveyed to prospective donkey donors like myself by not so subtly letting us know that only after receiving a donation would we became eligible to receive the phone call, and even then only fools would hold their breath in anticipation. I now understood that my donation would have resulted, at most, to adding me to what I assumed to be a lengthy list. Perhaps during a lull in Biden’s presidential activities, a few contributors would be chosen to fulfill the literal commitment of the solicitation. In effect, you were being asked to buy a million-to-one lottery ticket with a tiny fraction of a chance of being chosen, and even this might be fanciful as I doubt that even Biden would find himself so at loose ends as to risk receiving a harangue from someone like myself. This disarming personalized solicitation was always about money never about soliciting views. Given the dependence of many valuable civil society initiatives on public funding and private trust, the Democratic Party should be ashamed to be giving responsible appeals for support a bad name associated with deception, contempt for the intelligence of grassroots supporters, and an unscrupulous manipulative ethos.

To be honest about my own feelings, I would not have welcomed such a call if by some dark twist of fate I had received it, nor would Mr. Biden have liked what I had to say given this rare opportunity in the spirit of talking truth to power. It would lead me to express my deep forebodings for the future of America as a peace-oriented constitutional democracy reinforced by an extensive social protection available to all of its residents as part of a national commitment to human security. My skepticism about such an affirmative future for the country arises from the lethal passivity of the nominally pro-democracy political forces in the U.S. The anemic response to the growing strength of a pre-fascist violent movement on the extreme right is convincing evidence, activating memories of the fate of Weimar Republic, and the drift toward world war.

Of course, the cynical depths of appealing for political funds on the basis of an entirely contrived intimacy and a false claim of wishing to gain valuable feedback from representative ‘good Democrats’ is more than a cheap shot to empty the pockets of gullible folks many of whom have little cash to spare. This type of ‘donation politics’ offers us an apt metaphor for the overall debasement of electoral politics by shining its Madison Avenue spotlight on the essential source of societal corruption—namely money and profits. What is conveyed to a concerned citizen or permanent resident is that the quest for money even in miniscule amounts is the core reality of what politics has become. As a result it destroys the trust of those who truly wish for a more participatory process joining state and society. This would truly induce a presidential leader to make serious efforts to find effective ways to take account of the views of ordinary citizens, rather than expend their energies on doing the bidding of special interests who have earned the right to unlimited presidential access and responsiveness solely as a result of their sizable donations. For instance, the majority of Americans favor a more balanced approach to relations between Israelis and Palestinians instead of as agenda set by AIPAC, or less military spending and a host of other issues that Biden would certainly rather not hear about from disgruntled citizens. 

If he had the personal misfortune to receive this sort of angry response, rather than fulsome praise about how well he was doing, it would quickly replace Joe’s supposedly big smile with an angry smirk. Whether it is Wall Street or defense contractors, it is no secret that the citizenry wants less inequality and more social protection, but whether public preferences of this sort will be respected in coming years seems ever more in doubt. It is, at best, a perilous time to champion a politics of planetary liberation. Yet without such a politics, the country and the world will continue to experience dysfunctional global governance.  

Writing so shortly after Biden’s clumsily mismanaged mid-July visit to Israel and the Saudi Arabia makes this conjecture of dysfunction more than an abstract fear. Biden’s telling gesture of ingratiating himself to his Israeli hosts by proclaiming himself as a non-Jewish Zionist bonds him with the only prior such public affirmation of which I am aware, that of the white supremist, Richard Spencer [See Tony Greenstein’s extraordinary, scrupulously researched comprehensive critique of Zionism for confirmation: Zionism During the Holocaust: The Weaponization of the Holocaust (expected publication, 2022).] I am not intending to imply that Biden is at all sympathetic with white supremacist ideology, but that this pathetic attempt to ingratiate himself by identifying so ardently with legally, morally, politically and spiritually dubious claims to Jewish supremacy in Israel. In context, it was rightly perceived as even more extreme than such an affirmation, given Biden’s silence about Israeli apartheid so authoritatively documented during the last two years and considering the ordeal inflicted on the Palestinian people by the Zionist Project for over a century. 

If this is what being a ‘good Democrat’ in America has come to mean, then the Democratic party may be in worse shape than even I imagined. Of course, Biden would disavow such association with extremism, but his hyped identification with Israeli ethnocracy should be deeply disturbing to every American, regardless of party, who affirms the fundamental aspirational identity of the United States as a multiethnic democracy.  The only future with any hopes of national recovery from the horrors of January 6th and a Supreme Court that foists the regressive views of the voting radical right majority on the American people. There exists enough evidence of Biden’s vanity to be confident that he would have hung up the phone long before I got to my most severe political complaint of all: That by opening more widely the portals of political extremism and geopolitical confrontation Biden is being derelict in his presidential performance at a time of multiple planetary and species crises.

At least Nero made music while Rome burned. I prefer a leader who fiddles to the Biden hucksterism of the soft sell. We need to ask ourselves with a sense of urgency, ‘where is the outrage?’ and ‘why are the streets empty?’ Bob Dylan’s message of the sixties rings truer than ever: ‘The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.”

Biden’s Middle East Visit: An Orgy of Cynicism, Hypocrisy, and Erasures

21 Jul

[Prefatory Note: A stylistically modified version of this post was published a few days ago in COUNTERPUNCH. It criticizes the dual tracks of Biden’s ill-executed trip in mid-July to Israel and Saudi Arabia. It faults Biden for the extreme cynicism of pursuing a realpolitik approach in Riyadh and an approach in Israel that mixed silences about apartheid, Shireen Abu Akleh, and the Palestinian ordeal with fanciful claims about shared values and democratic affinities.]

Biden’s Middle East Visit: An Orgy of Cynicism, Hypocrisy, and Erasures–

Shared Values and Fist Pump Geopolitics

The U.S. Government at the highest level criticized Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, because she went to China on a mission to develop opportunities for cooperation with respect to the protection of human rights, which I found appalling at the time. The mission had been carefully several weeks earlier by UN staff that had visited China and negotiated the itinerary of the visit, which took occurred in May of this year. The whole experience seemed a win/win breakthrough as a major country opening itself up to a high degree of independent international scrutiny with respect to its human rights record, an exposure the U.S. has resisted and opposed. High officials in Washington let it be known in advance that they considered the trip ‘a mistake,’ and expressed consternation that its hyped allegations of ‘genocide’ associated with the treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang were not confirmed by Bachelet, although human rights violations in the province were duly noted by the High Commissioner in her report on the visit. 

Western policy-minded China experts pointed to the supposed ‘danger’ of legitimating China’s narrative by the visit and contributing “an important milestone in China’s normative power.” [see Patrizia Zoguo and Lukian Da Bono, “The Steep Cost of Bachelet’s Visit to China,” The Diplomat,June 13, 2022] Critics even observed that such a visit so effectively whitewashed China’s wrongdoing that rather than improve prospects for its compliance with human rights the mission would likely have the perverse effect of emboldening China to commit even grosser violations in the future, and this despite China having agreed to establish a variety of continuing interactions and periodic consultations with the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner, connections no other geopolitical actor has seen fit to negotiate, and yet the critics failed to draw any such comparisons such was there resolve to prove it wrong for any part of the UN System to cooperate with China.

I regard China’s effort to enhance its image as a legitimate state to be a positive development not deserving the hostile reaction that it received in many sectors of the West, but especially in those quarters that were intent on a new cold war to blunt the competitive edge that China was gaining, especially in the world economy and on many technological frontiers of special relevance in the digital age. To seize upon this Chinese initiative, even granting that it was partly motivated by quite nomal soft power ambitions of sovereign states, is to denigrate most attempts to develop an international culture of respect for human rights as an essential foundation for indispensable cooperation in a variety of functional areas, including trade, climate change, migration, and environmental protection. And we should not overlook American class-based arrogance in relation to human rights, given its refusal to accord economic and social rights the normative status they deserve, and of which China is proud, and justly so, given its remarkable record of poverty alleviation over the course of the last half century. This acute societal shortcoming in the United States is exhibited to the world and visible to all in the form of large-scale urban homelessness in the cities of the United States, and accented by less visible unavailability of affordable health care and nutritious food to millions of its own citizens; as well, constitutionally validated gross violations of the right to life arising from permissive rules governing access to assault weaponry for anyone with the money to make the purchase. A surge of civic violence, including mass school and mall shootings that keep blindsiding governing institutions at all levels of society who remain willing to pander to the interests of the munitions industry and the toxic populism of gun culture. Should not we, as Americans, have long ago interrogated our distinctive vulnerability to such a pattern of negative exceptionalism.

It is with these considerations in the background that we should assess the Biden mid-July visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. If the critical reaction to Bachelet’s mission reflected establishment resentment to this breach in the geopolitical wall of hostility that had been constructed during the last years of the Trump presidency to justify coercive diplomacy directed at China. In contrast, Biden’s visit to the Middle East dramatized the extent to which human rights are buried far underground when perceived to clash with strategic interests being pursued in foreign policy as abetted by the domestic incentives to treat certain flagrant violators of human rights as if they are upholding the highest standards of a model democracy. Of course, it is of relevance to note that overlooking Saudi Arabia dreadful record, which includes blood dripping from the hands of the de facto head of state, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS), did bring Biden and the normally compliant media visible discomfort and occasioned some retreat from Biden’s fist pump greeting in Saudi Arabia. 

Perhaps embarrassed, Biden made clear that it was only national security interests prevented him from fulfilling his 2020 campaign pledge to treat Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah’ state. Biden somewhat surprisingly affirmed, considering his good will diplomatic goals, that he still believed in the rightness of his pledge when it came to Saudi human rights. Even more provocatively, Biden rejected MBS’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi back in 2018. In view of his praise of Israel’s democratic credentials, Biden made himself vulnerable to MBS’s clever taunt—you seem to care much more about Jamal Khashoggi than Shireen Abu Akleh. Rather than implicate Israel, the U.S. official investigation of the murder of its own citizen, seems constructed to share the grief of Akleh’s surviving family instead of accepting the political costs of seeking accountability of the sort that might protect future journalists covering dangerous hotspots in Israel and elsewhere.

When it came to Israel, not only were human rights issues off the table, but Israel was     praised extravagantly and unreservedly as an ally with shared values whose behavior could not be judged negatively. Biden displayed his affection for Israel by unnecessarily declaring himself to be a non-Jewish Zionist as if race was not a factor in the implementation of the Zionist vision in Israel. On another level, such a flourish seemed to express Biden’s view that disregarding the plight of the Palestinians was not a sufficient demonstration that U.S. partisanship was underpinned by a ideological identity. Pro-Palestinians had anticipated this one-sidedness, [See statement of the Global Network on the Question of Palestine, “Biden’s Upcoming Visit to the Middle East: A Recipe for Violence not Peace, July 12, 2022] and predicted its refusal to take note of such developments as the condemnation of the most internationally respected human rights NGOs in Israel and Occupied Palestine were branded as ‘terrorist’ organizations months ago by the Israeli Secretary of Defense and currently aspiring prime minister, Benny Gantz. Even nine of the most important EU members (including France, Germany, Spain, and Italy) issued a joint statement on July 12th repudiating this cynical branding by the Israeli government evidently designed to inhibit international funding as well as destroy the domestic viability of these key civil society actors. In the same spirit, although much more serious from a human rights perspective, Biden and Western media kept completely silent about the glaring reality of Israel apartheid despite the strong mainstream human rights NGOs in the West and even in Israel concluding that Israel was guilty of committing the continuing international crime of apartheid.[See 2001 reports of B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and 2022 of Amnesty International, as well as 2017 UN report of the Economic and Social Council of West Asia).  Unlike the visit to Riyadh if Biden had raised these concerns even politely if would have undoubtedly produced a negative reaction among Jewish lobbying groups in the U.S., with repercussions for fundraising and the 2022 and 2024 elections. Despite Biden groveling at the feet of Yair Lapid, the Israeli caretaker prime minister, Trump remains the American leader of choice for the majority of Israelis according to recent public opinion polls. Trump doesn’t bother to pretend that he favors Palestinian statehood in a meaningful form, while Biden is apparently eager to retain membership in the liberal Zionist camp by way of rhetoric that falls short when it comes to policy.

The visit to Israel ended with the so-called The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration signed by the two leaders on July 14, 2022. The opening sentences of the Declaration set the tone, which unlike the national interests justifications for the diplomatic visit to Saudi Arabia, the prior Israel visit is affirmed as a virtual pilgrimage, far exceeding the proprieties of alliance statecraft or the pursuit of common national policy agendas. The extravagant language used is worth noticing, and especially as it implicit vindicated the marginalization of the Palestinian quest for justice and a shared war-mongering tone toward Iran:

“The United States and Israel reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our two countries and the enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. Our countries further reaffirm that the strategic U.S.-Israel partnership is based on a bedrock of shared values, shared interests, and true friendship. Furthermore, the United States and Israel affirm that among the values the countries share is an unwavering commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the calling of “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world.”

The Declaration went on to attack the UN and even the ICC as giving way to anti-Semitism, all because it was a venue for well-evidenced criticisms of Israel’s state practices and policies. This love fest even agreed to join forces to oppose the BDS Campaign and indeed any effort regarded as delegitimizing Israel as a state. There were, as well, imprudently phrased commitments in the Declaration especially with reference to Iran, the language of which is provocative:

“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome. The United States further affirms the commitment to work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”[emphasis in the original}

Of course, among the revealing and dangerous silences associated with the Biden visit was the failure to mention Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weaponry and resulting strategic hegemony throughout the region. From any kind of detached perspective dedicated to peace and stability a nuclear free zone for the Middle East would be the optimal way to promote the true interests of the United States in the region, including energy production increases. When in history has a dominant state enacted its own policies in ways that ran against its national interests in response to pressures from a small state that it heavily subsidizes, including with weapons?

To end on a constructive note, the White House might considering entrusting future international political travel plans to American Express rather than the State Department. Its time to shed Blinken’s blinkered ‘rule-governed’ geopolitical fairy tale if we want to live together with others on the planet in ways that work. If this bit of unsolicited advice is follower, it might lead to real foreign policy gain!