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The Worst is Yet to Come: When the Center Cannot Hold

15 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in slightly modified form in

COUNTERPUNCH on July 15, 2022. It attempts to connect my despair about developments

In America with wider global systemic tendencies. It is not hopeful about the future, yet 

Its central message is that we should continue to struggle for a future we can believe in given that we live at a time of radical uncertainty.]

The Worst is Yet to Come: When the Center Cannot Hold

No lines of poetry are more resonant with our time than the celebrated lines of

William Butler Yeats’ famous poem ‘The Second Coming’:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

  are full of passionate intensity.”

This is especially true here in the United States, as it was in post-World War I Germany’s

nurturing the rise of Naziism and its demonic voice, Adolph Hitler, the consummate outsider who managed to crawl up the mountain to ascend its peak. The core disabling affliction of the United States in the 21st Century is an energized and armed extreme right-wing and a listless, passive center, a development lamented by liberals who would sell their souls long before parting with their stocks and bonds, all for a non-voting seat at various illiberal tables of power. This lack of humane passion at the political center serves as a reinforcing complement to the violent forces of alienation waiting around the country for their marching orders, as the January 6th insurrectionary foray foretells. Together these contrasting modes of ‘citizenship’ signal the death of constitutional democracy as it has functioned, with ups and downs, flawed by slavery, genocide, and patriarchy at birth, indeed ever since the republic was established in 1787 as ‘a more perfect union.’ In 2022 a fascist alternative is assuming institutional, ideological, and populist prominence with active support of many American oligarchs who fund by night what they disavow when the sun shines (again recalling the behavior of German industrialists who thought of Hitler as their vehicle, whereas it turned out to be the other way around).

This contemporary political ordeal is globally systemic, and not only the sad tale of American moral, economic, and political decline, temporarily hidden from public awareness by an orgy of excess military spending that has gone on for decades, a corporatized, compliant media, diversionary exploits abroad, and a greedy private sector that grows bloated by arms sales and a regressive tax structure, Pentagon plunder, and its profit-driven regimen. What may be most negatively revealing is the failure to take account of geopolitical failure or sanctified domestic outrages (mass shootings in schools and elsewhere with legally acquired weapons suitable only for organized military combat). It is time to link the inability to mount any serious challenge to the tyranny of the Second Amendment as interpreted by the NRA in cahoots with Congress and the Supreme Court, cowing much of the public to the sullen sense of befuddled spectators. Even before these hallowed institutions acquired their Trumpist edge, they shied away from constructing rights as if they were aware of the violent societal and ecological fissures tearing up the roots of bipartisan civility. The moral rot and criminality that victimizes society as a whole is less the work of the sociopaths among us than the outcome of a two-party plutocratic dynamic that is controlled by infidels and their bureaucratic minions who either actually like the way things are working out or feel impotent to mount a challenge with any chance of producing benevolent changes.

These same patterns of stasis are evident among the centrist elites who have been educated at the most esteemed universities. Perhaps the brightest, but surely not the best. Refusing to learn from Vietnam where military dominance, widespread devastation of a distant country, much bloodshed, resulted in a political defeat that should have induced some learning about the limits of military agency in the face pf colonial collapse and a new landscape of resistance. Instead of learning from the failure brought about by a changing post-colonial political balance in the countries of the Global South, anointed foreign policy experts in Washington whined about the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ that allegedly hampered a pragmatic recourse to military instruments to advance U.S. national and strategic interests because the American citizenry feared a repetition of Vietnam. It was President George H.W. Bush who reveled in the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the desert war fought against Iraq in 1991, not primarily because it restored Kuwaiti sovereignty but because it supposedly restored societal confidence that the U.S. could win wars of choice at acceptable costs. In Bush’s prematurely triumphalist words, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” (March 1991) 

In plainer language, that American military power had efficiently vanquished its Iraqi enemy without enduring many casualties or expending much wealth, and hence the leadership of the country could feel free again to rely on military threats, weapons, and intervention as a decisive geopolitical policy tool to get its way throughout the world. But was this triumphalism vindicated? Better understood, this First Iraq War in 1991 was a strictly battlefield encounter between asymmetric military forces, and as in many earlier wars, so unlike Vietnam, the stronger side won this time quickly and without body bags alerting Americans to the sacrificial costs of a war meaningless to the security of the homeland. The lessons of Vietnam for the foreign policy establishment were to the extent possible substitute machines for troops, reinforced by professionalized armed forces replacing a military conscripted by government decree, as well as adopting tactics that shortened the military phase of political undertakings designed to nullify forms of self-determination that seemed to go against American post-Cold War resolve to run the world to serve the interests of its wealthiest 1%. 

These lessons decidedly were not what should have been learned from a decade of expensive failed blood-soaked efforts in Vietnam. The true primary lesson of the Vietnam War was that the political mobilization of a people in the Global South behind a struggle for national self-determination could now usually neutralize, and often eventually overcome, large margins of military superiority bv an outside intervening power, especially if it hails from the West. The stubborn refusal by politicians and the most trusted advisors by their side to heed this lesson led to regime-change and state-building disasters in the Iraq War of 2003, Afghanistan (2001-2021), Libya (2011), and others less pronounced and widely acknowledged failures. No matter how many drones search and destroy mission or how much ‘shock and awe’ is staged for its spectacular traumatizing effects on a vulnerable society, the end result resembles Vietnam more than Iraq after the 1991 war. Despite this accumulation of evidence, there is still no relevant learning evident, which would be most meaningfully signaled by massive downsizings of the military budget and more prudently and productively using public monies at home and abroad. The bipartisan foreign policy, again evident in response to the Ukraine War, is locking that country into an expensive and lengthy dynamic of failure and frustration, somewhat disguised by dangerous deceptions about the true nature of the strategic mission. Instead of intervention and regime change, the dominant insider Ukraine rationale for heightening tensions, prolonging warfare devastating a distant country and bringing tragic losses of life, limb, and home to many of its people, is scoring a geopolitical victory, namely, inflicting defeat and heavy costs on Russia while sternly warning China that if it dares challenge the status quo in its own region it can expect to be confronted by the same sort of destructive response that Russia is facing. Long ago patriots of humanity should have been worried about the ‘Militarist Syndrome’ and paid heeded the ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’ with a sense of gratitude. This could have led the U.S. to adopt a war prevention strategy rather than insisting on worldwide capabilities enabling a reactive military response to unwanted actions of others. Pre-2022 Ukraine diplomacy by the U.S. led NATO alliance rather than seeking a war prevention outcome in Ukraine seemed determined to provoke a war dangerously designed to extent life support to an unstable unipolar geopolitical order disliked by most of the Global South as well as China and Russia. 

Here at home with its embedded gun culture, massive urban homelessness, and cruelty to asylum seekers at the Mexican border, it is the underlying systemic malady that remains largely undiagnosed, and totally untreated—namely, a lame and unimaginative leadership that is alternatively passively toxic and overtly fascist in the domestic sphere, and geopolitically irresponsible and transactional when it ventures abroad for the sake of Special Relationships or insists that global security anywhere on the planet is of proper concerns only for Washington think tanks, lobbyists, and upper echelon foreign policy bureaucrats. It is not surprising that in such a quandary, those on the extreme right with energy, passion, and excitement on their side seem destined to control the future unless a surge of progressive energy erupts mysteriously, and enables a new social movement to emerge that is animated by strivings toward bio-ethical-ecological-political sanity.

This drift toward fascism is not the only plausible scenario for a highly uncertain American future. There is also Yeats’ assessment made long before the current world crisis emerged. We should not be surprised that poets see further ahead than foreign policy gurus, politicians, and mainstream academicians who remain fixated on electoral or other performance cycles even in autocracies:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

And then there is to be newly considered Barbara F. Walter’s carefully researched assessment that the United States is drifting toward a second civil war, and not a fascist sequel to republican democracy. [See Walter, How Civil Wars Start and how to stop them, 2022] It presents a somewhat more optimistic view of the future, although it fails to contextualize the political challenge in relation to the global systemic damage done by neoliberal economic globalization, an unsettling lingering COVID pandemic, and a general planetary condition of ecological entropy.

Nevertheless, I find this prospect of civil wars less disheartening than the related drift toward fascism or the torments of anarchy. Civil wars end and can often be prevented, and the winners have a stake in restoring normalcy, that is, assuming the more humane side prevails, which under current conditions may seem utopian. At present, only respect for international law, responsible geopolitics, a UN more empowered to realize its Principles and Purposes (Articles 1 & 2), and ethically/spiritually engaged transnational activism can hope to turn the tides now engulfing humanity toward peace, justice, species survival, and a more harmonious ecological coexistence. Miracles do happen! Now more than ever before, struggle rather than resignation seems the only imperative worth heeding.

Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age

24 May

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in a somewhat modified form in COUTERPUNCH, May 20, 2022. Its main theme is the contrasting normative logics derived from law (Westphalian logic)  on one side, and power politics (geopolitical logic) on the other side. The regulatory guidance of law derives from agreement and interpretation, and that of power politics, from what the Quincy Institute calls ‘responsible statecraft’ and I refer to as ‘responsible statecraft’ that under contemporary circumstances should involve voluntary compliance with international law, that is, in the nuclear age law and geopolitics often converge in their commitments to regulatory rationality.] 

Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age

The Ukraine War, its complexities and global spillover effects, have not been adequately

depicted by either political leaders or the more influential media. Most commonly, the Ukraine War has been narrowly and reductively depicted as a simple matter of defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. Sometimes this standard portrayal is somewhat enlarged by demonizing Putin as criminally committed to the grandiose project of restoring the full spectrum of Soviet boundaries of post-1994 Russia by force as necessary. What tends to be excluded from almost all presentations of the Ukrainian struggle is the rather distinct U.S. Government policy  agenda of inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia which purports to be related to the defense and in the interests of Ukraine yet is unfolding in a quite separate manner that seems to depart from the best interest of Ukraine and the wellbeing of its people. 

This geopolitical agenda replicates Cold War confrontations, and in the global setting, seeks to remind China as well as Russia, that only the United States possesses the will, authority, and capabilities to act as the guardian of global security with respect to the maintenance or modification of international boundaries of sovereign states anywhere on the planet. Illustratively, Israel has been given a tacit green light by Washington to annex the Golan Heights, an integral part of Syria until the 1967 War, while Russia remains sanctioned for its annexation of Crimea and its current claims to incorporate parts of the Dombas region of Ukraine have been met with harsh punitive sanctions and allegations of war crimes by the U.S. president, Joe Biden. Additionally, Biden has officially and publicly committed the United States to the military defense of Taiwan in the event of an attack by China.

The most influential Western media platforms, including CNN, BBC, NY Times, The Economist, with few exceptions, have largely supported one-dimensional governmental narrative accounts of the Ukraine War, which leaves the misleading impression that U.S./NATO involvement is strictly responsive to the Russian attack on Ukraine with no broader policy objective in play. The views of progressive and anti-war critics of the manner that American foreign policy has handled the Ukraine crisis are almost totally unrepresented. At the same time, some elements of the extremist right is castigated for daring to oppose the national consensus as if only the only dissenters are conspiracy inclined fascists or those motivated by treasonous sentiments. Almost no attention given by these powerful media outlets to understanding either the buildup of tensions relating to Ukraine in the years preceding the Russian attack or the wider security rationale that could partially explain (although not justify) Putin’s resolve to reassert its former authority in the Ukraine. Similarly, there was virtually no mainstream discussion of or support for ceasefire/diplomatic options, favored by many peace and religious groups, that sought to give priority to ending the killing, coupled with a search for possible reconciling formulas that combined Ukrainian sovereign entitlements with some adjustments taking account of Russian security concerns. 

The most trusted and influential media in the West functioned largely as a war-mongering propaganda machine that was only slightly more nuanced in its support for the official line of the government than what one would expect from unambiguously autocratic regimes. Coverage highlighted visual portrayals of the daily brutalities of the war coupled with a steady stream of condemnations of Russian behavior, detailed reportage on the devastation and civilian suffering endured by Ukrainians in the combat zone, and a tactical overview of how the fighting was proceeding in various parts of the country. These bellicose narratives were repeatedly reinforced by expert commentary from retired generals and intelligence officials, and never subjected to challenge from peace advocates, much less political dissenters and critics. I have yet to hear the voice or read texts on these mainstream media platforms from the most celebrated public intellectuals, Noam Chomsky or Daniel Ellsberg, or even from independent minded high-level former diplomats like Chas Freeman. Of course, these individuals are talking and writing but to learn their views you generally have

to navigate the internet in search of such online websites as COUNTERPUNCH and Common Dreams.

The fog of war has been replaced by a war fever while making the transition from helping Ukraine defend itself against aggression to pursuing a victory over Russia increasingly heedless of nuclear dangers and worldwide economic dislocations that threatened many millions with famine, acute insecurity, and destitution. The shrill assured voices of generals and think tank security gurus dominated commentary, while pleas for peace from the UN Secretary General, the Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis, if reported ed at all, were confined to the outer margins of public awareness.

This unfortunate absence of reasoned and responsible debate was further distorted by dangerously misleading statements made by the highest public official responsible for the formation and explanation of American foreign policy, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Whether out of ignorance or the convenience of the moment, Secretary Blinken has been widely quoted as explaining to the public here and abroad in prime time that the U.S. does not recognize ‘spheres of influence,’ an idea “that should have been retired after World War II.” Really! Without mutual respect for spheres of influence throughout the Cold War it is probable that World War III would have been ignited by Soviet interventions in East Europe, most notoriously in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Similar deference was exhibited by Moscow. U.S. interferences in Western Europe as well as the Soviet Bloc defection of Yugoslavia were tolerated by the Kremlin. Some of the most dangerous armed confrontations occurred during the Cold War Era were revealingly located  in the three divided country of Germany, Korea, and Vietnam where norms of self-determination exerted continuous pressures on boundaries artificially imposed on these countries for reasons of geopolitical convenience. 

Since the end of the Cold War, Blinken should be embarrassed about telling the peoples of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela that the idea of spheres of influence is no longer descriptive of how the U.S. shapes its policy in the Western Hemisphere. Decades age Octavio Paz, the Mexican author found vivid words to express the reality of such spheres: “The tragedy of Mexico is to be so far from God and so near to the United States.”  As has been observed, the Russian assertion of a traditional spheres of influence has more continuity with the past than does respect for territorial sovereignty of the countries that have regained statehood within such spheres after the Soviet collapse. This recognition is not meant to express approval of such spheres, serving only as a realization of geopolitical practice that has persisted through the whole of modernity and a further sense that mounting a challenge in light of this practice is almost certain to produce friction and heighten risks of major warfare., which in relations among states armed with nuclear weapons should induce extreme caution on the part of prudent actors. To pretend that spheres of influence are a thing of the past, as Blinken seems to be doing in relation to Ukraine, is doubly unfortunate—it is mindless about the relevance of geopolitical prudence in the nuclear age and it either ignorantly or maliciously condemns behavior of others while overlooking the analogous behavior of his own country, thereby adopting a U.S. posture of geopolitical hubris ill-suited to human survival in the nuclear age.

In the months before it became politically convenient to throw spheres of influence into the dustbin of history, Blinken was lecturing the Chinese about adhering to a ‘rule-governed’ international order that he contended was descriptive of U.S. behavior. Such an invidious comparison was a cover for confronting the quite different Chinese challenge to unipolarity being mounted as a result of China’s growing competitive edge in economic and diplomatic influence and technological breakthroughs. A puzzle for Washington arose because it could not complain that the Chinese ascent was due to posing a security threat due to its military capabilities and its aggressive uses of force (except, interestingly, within its traditional coastal and territorial spheres of influence). And so, the claim centered on the rather original allegation that China was not playing the game of power with respect to intellectual property rights by the ‘rules,’ but what are these rules and where does their authority derive from? Blinken was careful in his complaints about Chinese violations not to identify the rules with international law or decisions of the United Nations. Wherefrom then? Most probably Blinken has in mind a self-serving interpretation of the Breton Woods neoliberal framework associated with the operations of the World Bank and IMF, but refrained from saying so.

There is, to be sure, a subtle complexity about rules of order in international relations, especially on matters bearing on the use of force in international relations. A normative dividing line can be identified as 1928 when many leading governments, including the U.S., signed on to the Pact of Paris outlawing war as an instrument of national policy, [see Oona A. Hathaway & Scott Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (2017)]. This ambitious norm, was then turned into the formulation of a Crime Against Peace in the London Agreement of 1945 by the victorious powers in World War II that set forth the War Crimes Charter that provided the jurisprudential foundation for the Nuremberg and Tokyo criminal prosecutions of surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders. These legal innovations, although treated as major milestones in the development of international law, were never meant to constitute new rules of order and accountability that would bind sovereign states enjoying geopolitical stature as made plain in the UN Charter. Probably that should have been evident given the supreme irony of the London Agreement being formally signed by these governments on August 8, 1945, two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima and one day prior to the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Otherwise, how could one explain the conferral of a right of veto on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which can only be viewed as a geopolitical right of exception, at the very least within the UN context. Apologists for this seeming repudiation of a law-oriented approach when it came to the most dangerous states at the time point to the need to give the Soviet Union assurances that it would not be outvoted by the West, or otherwise it would be unwilling to participate in the UN, and the Organization would wither on the vine in the manner of the League of Nations. But if this was truly the dominant reason for the veto, a less obtrusive could have been chosen as the way of providing reassurance, such as requiring decisions of the Security Council opposed by the Soviet Union to be supported by all non-permanent members. There would be no comparable need to give the four other states the veto unless there was an overriding motive to entrench in the UN Charter the prerogatives of geopolitical leverage as measured by being on the winning side in World War II.

Such an observation makes us aware that there exists more than one source of normative authority in the sphere of international relations. and at least two. There is the fundamental idea deriving from the origins of the modern states system identified with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which accorded equality to sovereign states. And then there is a second source of largely unwritten and rarely spoken about normative authority that regulates those few states that are freed from the constraints of international law and enjoy impunity for their actions. These are the states given the veto power, and among these states are those that seek the added discretion of being non-accountable for their acts. This deference to power and national supremacy, undermines fidelity to law where it seems most needed, and has long been a fundamental deficiency of sustaining peace in a nuclear-armed world. Yet geopolitics, like international law itself, possesses a normative order that is designed to impose certain limits on these geopolitical actors that if responsibly applied serves the public good. The Quincy Institute recognizes this vital feature of international relations by its positive emphasis on ‘responsible statecraft,’ which is roughly equivalent to my call for ‘geopolitical prudence.’

A crucial geopolitical prescription along these lines was the appreciation of spheres of influence as delimiting extraterritorial zones of exclusive influence, which might include ‘unlawful’ interventions and exploitations of weaker states (e.g. ‘banana republics’). As abusive as the diplomacy of spheres has been for targeted societies it has also been a way of discouraging competitive interventions that might otherwise lead to intensive wars between the Great Powers, and as mentioned, plays an indispensable role in reducing the prospect of dangerous escalations in the nuclear age. How Blinken can be so myopic in addressing this essential feature of world order is stunning, and is paralleled by the failure of the media to expose such dangerous and self-serving nonsense.

To be sure international law is itself subject to geopolitical influence in the formation and interpretation of its rules and their unequal implementation, and is far from serving justice or even public order in many critical circumstances, including its validation of settler colonialism. [See Noura Erakat, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine(2019)] Yet when it comes to upholding the prohibition on non-defensive uses of force and accountability for war crimes, it has sought to uphold the norms unless violated by major geopolitical actors and their special friends. The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, established by the UN, did not distinguish between winners and losers in the manner of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals or for that matter the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (2005-06), which imposed a death sentence on Saddam Hussein while ignoring the U.S./UK crimes of aggression in the Iraq War of 2003.

In conclusion, it is important to recognize the interplay of international law and the geopolitical normative order. The former rests on agreement of juridically equal states as to norms and customary practice. International law also increasingly rests on voluntary compliance as illustrated by the World Court being confined in its law-declaring role to issuing ‘Advisory Opinion’ that states and international institution are permitted to disregard. Or more substantively, in relation to compliance with carbon emission pledges of parties to the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015.

The geopolitical normative order depends on prudence along the lines of the precautionary principle, its norms being self-interpreted, best guided by past experience, tradition, mutuality, and common sense. It should be understood that geopolitical status of the Permanent Members of the Security Council is not reflective of their de facto role in international relations. At present, only the United States, China, and Russia enjoy an existential geopolitical status; France and the UK do not, and perhaps, India, Nigeria/South Africa, Brazil possess some de facto geopolitical attributes, but lack a corresponding de jure recognition.

In the context of the Ukraine War Russia is to be faulted for its flagrant violation of the prohibition of aggressive war and its war crimes in Ukrainian combat zones, and for intimating

a willingness to have recourse to nuclear weapons if its vital interests are threatened. The United States is to be faulted for irresponsible statecraft or imprudent geopolitics by its replacement of a defensive role of support for Ukrainian resistance by more recently pushing for the defeat of Russia through the massive increases of aid, encouragement of enlarged Ukrainian goals, supplying offensive weaponry, continuation of demonizing Putin, absence of advocacy of ceasefire and peace diplomacy, inattentiveness to escalation risks especially in relation to nuclear dangers, and overall manipulation of Ukraine Crisis as part of its strategic commitment to the sort of unipolar geopolitics that has emerged during the aftermath of the Cold War. Unipolarity entails a repudiation of Chinese and Russian efforts to achieve a multipolar management of global governance. It is this latter tension that if not addressed points to a second Cold War more dangerous than its predecessor, feverish arms races, periodic crises, and the diversion of resources and energies from such urgent global challenges as climate change, food security, and humane migration policies.  

Complexities of the Ukraine War

15 Apr

[Prefatory Note: My responses to interview Questions on the Ukraine War from Zahra Mirzafarjouyan, Mehr News Agency, IV/11/2022. This two-level war can be further elaborated as a three-level war between Ukrainian nationalism in Western Ukraine and Russian-oriented separatism in Eastern Ukraine. Level One: Russia v. Ukraine; Level Two: U.S. v. Russia; Level Three: Ukrainian nationalism v. Russian-oriented separatism.]

1-What is the reason behind the west’s double standards towards the issue of refugees and bloodshed in different parts of the world. Why refugees from the Middle East are treated differently from the European ones?

The most immediate relevant answer is race, location, and control of the global humanitarian discourse. Europeans and North Americans more easily identify with white Christians than with dark-skinned Muslims which are generally perceived as a threat or burden. Ukraine is part of the West, indeed geographically part of Europe, and for this reason seems naturally to fall withing the existential parameters of ‘the European security community.’ It seems evident that print and TV media discursively reinforce these double standards by their selective practices of coverage that mirror the impact of race and location. The obsessive daily attention

given to the destruction attributable to Russian military action in Ukraine contrasts with the scant attention given such occurrences in such prior similar situations as in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Beyond these considerations, the war in Ukraine is also a crucial geopolitical battleground, pitting the U.S. against Russia, reviving the Cold War spirit of ideological confrontation although rephrased as ‘democracy’ versus ‘autocracy.’ Part of the political mix in this present setting is also China, and the evident motivation of the U.S. to warn China (by way of Russia) that if it attacks Taiwan it will face a unified national resistance reinforced by military and diplomatic support from the West that at minimum will impose punitive, damaging sanctions. As the war drags on it has become evident that the U.S. Government cannot make up its mind whether it should solicit China as a peacemaker to end the Ukraine War or treat China as a secondary adversary, lending indirect support to Russia, and this to be confronted and even sanctioned. U.S. uncertainty at this stage may reflect a split among foreign policy advisors in Washington who favor diplomacy to end the Ukraine War and those who give priority to humiliating Russia and Putin even at the cost of extending the war indefinitely.

2-And also it seems there are different kinds of occupation, good occupation, and bad occupation. Why occupation of Palestinian lands is treated totally differently from the occupation of European lands? 

Once more the different responses to foreign occupations reflects the tensions between the norms of international law that specify equal treatment for foreign occupations, and the practices of geopolitics that allow certain states to defy this norm without suffering adverse consequences. Israel is shielded from compliance with international law because it is freed from the burdens of accountability by the geopolitical protection it receives from the U.S., often reinforced by further support received from France and the UK. Other situations that manifest similar problems are Western Sahara and Kashmir. Geopolitics is based on inconsistency arising from varying patterns of inter-governmental alignment, whereas international law is in conception independent of alignment and relative capabilities, although in practice its applicability is often subject to being subordinated to logic of dominance, performing as a tool of geopolitical actors.

3-What is the main reason behind the war in Ukraine? Is it a geopolitical one? Isn’t it endangering world security? Won’t the west sanctions and pressures on Russia make Moscow’s behavior more aggressive?

The geopolitical stakes are high. It is a two-level war, consisting of direct combat on the ground and in the air between Russia and Ukraine and a second geopolitical war between Russia and the United States over the character of world order after the Cold War. Russia is seeking to reassert a traditional sphere of influence over its ‘near abroad,’ and by doing so, challenging the American claims to be responsible for global security throughout the planet, which the U.S. has been doing since the world political system became unipolar after the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Russia and China are trying to establish a more traditional type of geopolitical relations based on the premise of multipolarity as well as spheres of influence of the sort respected throughout the Cold War. Even during the provocative Soviet interventions in East European countries during the 1950s, the West refrained from counter-intervening, sensing that such an escalation could trigger World War III and the use of nuclear weaponry by both sides. The secondary objective of the U.S. in carrying forward the geopolitical war is to warn China not to challenge the existing situation in the South China Seas, especially bearing on future of Taiwan.

4-What will be the impact of this war the EU economy especially the economy of countries like Germany? 

It is difficult to assess the economic effects of the Ukraine War. It depends on a number of imponderables—the longer the war continues, the more severe the inflationary impact on prices of food and energy, as well as causing shortages of supply; the greater the effort made by Russia to impose costs on European countries that go along with anti-Russian sanctions, the greater will be the burdens borne, especially by Germany. The U.S. does not have a sufficient capability to offset this burden by becoming an increased source of food and energy at affordable prices. It is faced with its own critical internal problems, among them a huge over-investment in unusable military assets and an inflationary spiral that is already generating political instability.

5-What are the impact of this war on the US economy?

It is difficult to trace causal relations, but most economists agree that rising prices of food and energy, declining prospects of trade and investment, are having a generally harmful effect on U.S. economic conditions, especially in certain sectors, with the poor feeling most of the pain. To be sure, some private sector interests are benefitting: arms sales, gas and oil development, nuclear power, and looking to the future, construction industries and suppliers partaking

in likely massive post-conflict restorative activity in Ukraine, likely to be subsidized by generous funding from Europe, North America, and possibly Japan.

6-How will the result of this war affect world order? Can it also lead to changes in UN structure? After the Ukraine war will the US and western powers enjoy the same influence in the world order that they enjoyed before the war?

As indicated by earlier responses, it is difficult at this stage to speculate about the effects of these two interlinked wars as they are each at midstream and relate to each other in complicated inconsistent ways. If the Ukraine-Russian War is resolved quickly it is likely to bring the world closer to the pre-1992 Cold War Era, a new phase of geopolitical confrontation and containment with the focus this time on Asia as well as Europe. If this war lingers, the world order impacts will reflect the outcome. If the Russian occupation persists and troops remain in East Ukraine, then the post-Cold War Era will come to an end, and a new reality of bipolarity or tripolarity is likely to emerge to replace unipolarity. If Russia’s aggression is reversed, sanctions maintained, and Putin replaced as leader, then the U.S. governance of a unipolar world order will be confirmed for the present, although still somewhat vulnerable to Chinese economistic and regional challenges. There will be questions raised as to whether the U.S. can pay the costs of sustaining unipolarity, which require large military investments throughout the world and in space, even if Russia’s challenge is defeated and the Putinesque scenario to make Russia again a major geopolitical actor proves to be an occasion of national humiliation.

There is also a real, yet remote, possibility that Europe might free itself from U.S. hegemony on matters of geopolitics, and come to the unexpected conclusion that NATO no longer benefits European security, and that it would work out better for Europe to seek greater independence from the U.S., especially in relation to energy, economic relations, and alliance geopolitics. This would free Europe to establish win/win relations with Russia and China, as well as the U.S. If this were to happen the world might yet experience a new dawn.

In the background, are pressures to downplay confrontational geopolitics so as to achieve necessary levels of effective global problem-solving with respect to climate change, migration, food security. Such problem-solving will require not only unprecedented levels of cooperation, but also innovative arrangement that allocate financial burdens in an equitable manner, taking account of the stressed circumstances of the least developed states that are coping with the effects of global warming without either the means or a sense of national responsibility.

Relevant, also, will be the degree of enlightened, globally oriented leadership that emerges, which could lead to a stronger UN and greater respect for international law exhibited by geopolitical actors. These goals could either be achieved by reform or self-restraint on the part of the five veto powers in the Security Council, or possibly, through augmenting the authority of the General Assembly. For such constructive developments to occur there would have to be a surge of international activism reflecting a more coherent and visionary Global South. Crucial is whether the United States might reassess its global posturing and act more like a normal state, giving up both the pretensions of being the first global state, and yet avoiding the temptations of reviving its historic identity as ‘isolationist’ or detached from  dangerous geopolitical rivalries.

This Geopolitical War is a ‘Geopolitical Crime’

9 Apr

[Prefatory Note: This post was earlier published on April 9, 2022 in a somewhat modified form in CounterPunch with the title “Why Ukraine?” Please read the last paragraph to make sense of the title.]

There is no doubt that atrocities have been committed in Ukraine, seemingly yet not exclusively by Russian attacking forces, and in a perfect world those who so acted would be held responsible. But the world is highly imperfect when it comes to accountability for international crimes. When the International Criminal Court in 2020 found it had authority to investigate alleged crimes committed by Israel in Occupied Palestine after painstaking delays to make sure that their inquiry would meet the highest standard of legal professionalism, the decision was called ‘pure anti-Semitism’ by the Israeli prime minister, and defiantly rejected by Israeli leaders across the whole political spectrum. Similarly, when authorization was given by the ICC to investigate crimes by the United States in Afghanistan, the decision was denounced as void and unwarranted because the U.S. was not a party to the Rome Statute governing the operations of the ICC. The Trump presidency went so far as to express its outrage by imposing personal sanctions on the ICC prosecutor, presumably for daring to challenge the U.S. in such a manner even though her behavior was entirely respectful of her professional role and consistent with relevant canons of judicial practice.

Against such a background, there is a typical liberal quandary when faced with clear criminality on one side and pure geopolitical hypocrisy on the other side. Was it desirable after World War II to prosecute surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders at the ‘legal’ cost of overlooking the criminality of the victors because there was no disposition to investigate the dropping of atom bombs on Japanese cities or the strategic bombing of civilian habitats in Germany and Japan? I am far from sure about what is better from the perspective of either developing a global rule of law or inducing respect for the restraints of law. The essence of law is treating equals equally, but world order is not so constituted. As suggested, there is ‘victors’ justice’ imposing accountability on the defeated leadership in major wars but complete non-accountability for the crimes of the geopolitical winners. Beyond this, the UN Charter was drafted in ways that gave a constitutional status to geopolitical impunity by granting these victors in World War II an unconditional right of veto, and this of course includes Russia. In these respects, liberalism defers to geopolitical realism, and celebrate the one-sided imposition of legality, with the naïve hope things will be different in the future, and the next group of victors will themselves accept the same legal standards of accountability are imposed upon the losers. Yet the post-Nuremberg record shows that geopolitical actors go on treating restraints on recourse to war as a matter of discretion (what American liberals called ‘wars of choice’ in the course of the debate about embarking upon a regime-changing attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003) rather than an obligation. When it comes to accountability double standards are still operative, illustrated by the ironic execution of Saddam Hussein for war crimes in the wake of a war of aggression against Iraq.

Another lingering question is ‘why Ukraine’? There have been other horrific events in the period since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Palestine yet no comparable clamor in the West for criminal justice and punitive action. Certainly, a part of the explanation is that the Ukrainian victims of abuse are white, European, Christian, which made it easy for the West to mobilize the mainstream global media and by the related international prominence accorded to Volodimir Zelensky, the embattled, energetic Ukrainian leader given unprecedented access to the most influential venues on the global stages of world opinion. It is not that the empathy for Ukraine or support for Zelensky’s national resistance is misplaced, but that it has the appearance of being geopolitically orchestrated and manipulated in ways that other desperate national situations were not, and thus give rise to suspicions about other, darker motives.

This is worrisome because these magnified concerns have acted as a principal way that the NATO West has gone out of its way to make the Ukrainian War about more than Ukraine. The wider war is best understood as occurring on two levels: a traditional war between the invading forces of Russia and the resisting forces of Ukraine as intertwined with an encompassing geopolitical war between the U.S. and Russia. It is the prosecution of this latter war that presents the more profound danger to world peace, a danger that has been largely obscured or assessed as a mere extension of the Russia/Ukraine confrontation. Biden has consistently struck a militarist, demonizing, and confrontational note in the geopolitical war, deliberately antagonizing Putin while quite pointedly neglecting diplomacy as the obvious way to stop the killing, and atrocities, in effect, encouraging the war on the ground to be prolonged because its continuation is indispensable in relation to the implicitly higher stakes of grand strategy, which is the core preoccupation of a geopolitical war. When Biden repeatedly calls Putin a war criminal who should face prosecution, and even more so, when he proposes regime change in Russia, he is cheerleading for the Ukrainian War to continue as long as it takes to produce a victory, and not be content with a ceasefire.

If this two-level perception is correctly analyzed in its appreciation of the different actors with contradictory priorities, then it becomes crucial to understand that in the geopolitical war the U.S. is the aggressor as much as in the traditional war on the ground Russia is the aggressor. In these respects, despite his understandable anger and grief, one must wonder whether even Zelensky with Russo-phobic echoing of war crimes allegations and calls for the expulsion of Russian from the UN, has not had his arm twisted so as to support the geopolitical war despite its premises being contrary to the interests of the Ukrainian people.

Could the delivery of weapons and financial assistance to Ukraine come with a large price tag?

So far, the geopolitical war has been waged as a war of ideological aggression backed up by weapons supplies and enveloping sanctions designed to have a great a crippling effect on Russia. This tactic has led Putin to make counter-threats, including warnings about Russia’s willingness under certain conditions to have recourse to nuclear weapons. This normalizing of the nuclear danger is itself a menacing development in a context of an autocratic leader backed into a corner. The U.S. approach, while mindful of escalation dangers and taking steps so far to avoid direct military involvement on behalf of Ukraine, shows no rush to end the fighting, apparently believing that Russia is already suffering the consequences of greatly underestimating Ukrainian will and capability to resist, and will be forced to acknowledge a humiliating defeat if the war goes on, which would have the strategic benefit additional to other incentives, of discouraging China from aligning with Russia in the future.

Additionally, the Western architects of this geopolitical war with Russia seem to assess gains and losses through a militarist optic, being grossly insensitive to its disastrous economic spillover effects, especially pronounced in relation to food and energy security in the already extremely stress conditions of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, and even Europe. As Fred Bergsten argues, the overall stability of the world economy is also being put at great risk unless the U.S. and China overcome their own tense relationship, and come to understand that their cooperation is the only check on a deep, costly, and prolonged world economic collapse.

The geopolitical war also distracts attention from the urgent agenda of climate change, especially in light of recent indicators of global warning causing climate experts to be further alarmed. Other matter of global concern including migration, biodiversity, poverty, apartheid are being again relegated to the back burners of global policy challenge, while the sociopathic game of Armageddon Roulette is being played without taking species wellbeing and survival into account, continuing the lethal recklessness that began the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima more than 75 years ago.

In concluding, the question ‘why Ukraine?’ calls for answers. The standard answer of reverse racism, moral hypocrisy, and Western narrative control is not wrong but significantly incomplete if it does not include the geopolitical war that while not now directly responsible for Ukrainian suffering is from other perspective more dangerous and destructive than that awful traditional war. This geopolitical war of ‘poor’ choice is now being waged mainly by means of hostile propaganda, but also weapons and supplies while not killing directly outside of Ukraine. This second war, so rarely identified much less assessed, is irresponsibly menacing the wellbeing of tens of millions of civilians around the world while arms dealers, post-conflict construction companies, and civilian and uniformed militarists exult. To be provocative, I would it is time for the peace movement to make sure that US loses this geopolitical war! To win it, even persisting with it, would constitute a grave ‘geopolitical crime.’

Make Peace, Not War, in Ukraine 

31 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

 

The Ukraine War: A Geopolitical Perspective

12 Mar

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

The Ukraine War: A Geopolitical Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The UN after 75: What Next?

6 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of a text published in TMS (Transcend Media Service) on 5 October 2021. It assesses the record of the UN over the decades on the basis of its constitutional design, its operational experience, and the gap between UN capabilities and the global need for dramatically enhanced human solidarity mechanisms.]

Worthy, Worthless, and Harmful

I was recently a guest on a TV show that had as its theme “UN: Worthy or Worthless?” It struck me as a misleading question as the UN for its first 75 years was in different settings worthy and worthless, or actually worse than worthless. It was worthless, or almost so, if the appraisal if based either on the war prevention/prohibition of aggression master norm of the UN Charter or the stirring familiar words of commitment at the beginning of the Charter Preamble: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” Such a pledge could be called almost worthless, especially its apparent grant of agency to ‘peoples’ on such grave matters of state as recourse to war, as well as by purporting to have substituted a global rule of law for war as a social institution and to have displaced the primacy of geopolitics. The implication that the strong as well as the weak were to held accountable for a peaceful resolution of conflicts or for transgressions of fundamental legal norms was pure dream talk as became obvious even by only reading beyond the Preamble to the Charter text. Yet this pretense of reaching for the stars is far from the whole UN story.

To begin with, the UN didn’t ever seriously aim as high as the words of the Preamble would lead one to believe. The UN was primarily hoped to become a lasting presence on the global stage, and this it has accomplished. The Organization managed to induce nearly every country on the planet to join, and afterwards value its membership sufficiently to stay involved during the decades of Cold War high tension that produced deep splits in world politics. It is impossible to assess whether establishing and maintaining this arena providing many venues for diplomatic contact between adversaries had a significant moderating effect on conflict that helped save humanity from a catastrophic third world war that likely would have been fought with nuclear weapons. But unlike the League of Nations the fate of UN was not decided before it was even tested by aggression and war. The original champion of the League, the United States, refused to join. This stuck a heavy blow to the birthing process of the League, whose reputation was further seriously undermined by the subsequent withdrawals of such important member states as Germany and Japan, with many others following for a variety of reasons.

By contrast, the UN has achieved and maintained a universality of participation that confirms the beliefs prevailing even among the most cynical political leaderships among national governments that it is more advantageous to be active within the UN than to rely on going it alone. Understanding why this has become so, even among detractors of internationalism as is the case with virtually the entire political class of foreign policy advisors in P-5 states who continue see global issues through the anachronistic optic of ‘political realism.’ Such realists see the UN as a useful enough foreign policy tool to retain, so long as it does not encroach on the domain of vital national interests. The UN’s survival and usefulness is a partly a result of Members and high-level UN civil servants understanding and respecting the strong constaints on its effective authority.

Framing Faustian Bargains

This mild, but indispensable governmental backing of the UN probably occurred because the Organization was deliberately designed by its founders to entail an unconditional surrender to the machinations of geopolitics. First, and foremost, by constitutional design the UN gave the winners in World War II permanent membership and a right of veto in the Security Council the only organ of the UN with authority to reach obligatory decisions. In effect, this was an acknowledgement that the UN had neither the authority nor the intention of overriding the political will of these five permanent members, and would have to live with or without their discretionary adherence to Charter norms and procedures, especially in the domain of international peace and security, and behavioral patterns based on self-restraint and prudence. Such hopes of voluntary compliance were not entirely in vain, but often seemed so, particularly at times of geopolitical confrontation, perhaps most memorably during the Cuban Missile Crisis( 1962). Catastrophic adversity was avoided throughout the Cold War mostly by good luck, although some would give credit to doctrines of mutual deterrence and the related fear factor arising from rival arsenals of nuclear weapons poised to launch missiles if attacked. The UN was usually on the sidelines anxiously watching international crises unfold, reconciled to its role as a virtual spectator, or at most, a helpless commentator. [See definitive exploration of this assertion in Martin Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, (2021)] In other words, the UN by its constitutional framework and its operational reality defers to the most dangerous states in the world as signified by hard power capabilities. This affinity between hard power capabilities and P-5 status was reinforced by the fact that the five permanent members of the Security Council were also the first five countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

The second rationale for this hierarchy of membership in 1945 was to make a maximum effort to avoid a repetition of the League experience. From this perspective it was imperative to keep major states involved as active participants even if discontented with what the UN was doing in specific contexts. In practical effect, this meant mostly persuading the Soviet Union that it was in its interest to belong as in the early UN experience the Soviet Union was consistently outvoted on central peace and security issues. Franklin Roosevelt most notably was of the opinion that the UN would fare better than the League if geopolitical ambitions and rivalry were given recognition and free space within the Organization rather than being carried on by non-Members acting on their own in the unruly jungle of world politics. FDR also naively believed that the anti-fascist alliance that held firm throughout World War II would stay together to assure the peace.

The Soviet Union came to a dramatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining participation when its absence from the Security Council in 1950 due to a temporary protest against the refusal of the UN to recognize the Chinese Peoples Republic as representing China meant that it lost the opportunity to veto the Council decision to condemn North Korean aggression and give its blessing to the action by Western governments to join in the operations of collective self-defense on behalf of South Korea. The Soviets reacted by immediately reoccupying their seat in the Security Council and never again made such a tactical mistake. It is significant that what they didn’t do was to threaten or actually withdraw.

In a sense, this deference to geopolitics involved a pair of Faustian Bargains. In both instances, the UN refrained from its inception to make any serious attempt to impose its authority on geopolitical actors, which introduced a gaping right of exception into all Security Council proceedings. It is mostly the operational reality of this concession to hard power that leads many in the public and media to the perception that the UN is worthless as it is seen as playing no role in wars that involve the participation of P-5 members. This perception has been reinforced by patterns of unlawful behavior on the part of these five states, each of which has conducted military operations that flagrantly violated international law as well as the more specific normative architecture of the UN’s own Charter. We cannot know what would have ensued after 1945 if there had been no permanent membership and no veto in the Security Council, but we can make a good guess. The UN might have turned into a Western anti-Soviet alliance or would have completely lost its relevance as a result of political paralysis, debilitating withdrawals, and uses of force in manifest violation of the UN Charter. Another line of conjecture would seek to imagine the likely UN evolution if the FDR image of keeping the East/West alliance vibrant with a new priority assignment of keeping the peace in the dawn of the nuclear age.

Achievements of The UN System

When we turn to the case for worthiness, the argument is on one level obvious and on anther is somewhat subtle and elusive. The obvious part is that the resources and energies of the UN System are concerned with much more than the peace and security agenda, providing guidance and valuable assistance in such varied areas as development, human rights, economic and social policy, environment, health, culture, and education. Beyond these substantive domains the UN provides indispensable auspices for the management of complex interdependence for many mutually beneficial transnational undertakings. Among the most important UN contributions is host a variety of cooperative activities comprising multilateral diplomacy of global scope. The UN has a strong record of offering its facilities and backing for lawmaking treaties covering a diverse range of global concerns including the public order of the oceans, peaceful uses of outer space, protection of endangered animal species, world trade.

The subtler case regarding the UN as a worthy contributor to a better world is its role in the domain of symbolic politics, which can be understood by regarding the UN as ‘a soft power superpower.’ The UN Secretary General is almost alone as a globally respected voice of reason and empathy on the gravest issues facing humanity, but also on occasion as a gentle critic of geopolitical excess and as a trustworthy alarmist with respect to climate change and the COVID pandemic. The periodically elected administrative leader of the UN exert some influence on world public opinion through their statements of concern, but rarely challenge directly  geopolitical behavior.

More relevant is the capacity of the UN, primarily in the General Assembly, but throughout the UN System to shape perceptions of legitimacy and illegitimacy in ways that exert important influences throughout civil society. The reality of such a perception can be most easily captured by the degree to which states struggle to achieve UN approval and to avoid having the UN pass critical judgment on their behavior. The UN endorsement of the anti-apartheid campaign is one of the factors that both mobilized activism in civil society and eventually led the leadership of the South African apartheid regime to reverse course. The frantic pushback by Israel to UN-backed allegations of racism and criminality, and more recently, of apartheid is further confirmation that what the UN does symbolically matters, and sometimes deeply.

Although Currently Worthy, a Stronger UN is Possible and Necessary, although it seems Unlikely

The COVID experience exposed the essential weakness of the UN when it came to promote and protect human interests in a health crisis of global scope. The ethos that prevailed was both an exhibition of the non-accountability of the geopolitical actors, and more broadly, the prioritizing of national interests and shared civilizational values in a politically fragmented world order. The imperative of global solidarity was too weak to prevent the scandalous hoarding of vaccines, which made descriptive such pejorative labels as ‘vaccine apartheid’ or ‘vaccine diplomacy.’ This experience is disturbing beyond COVID as it offers a metaphor for the global persistence of statist world order, which is partially enacted by marginalizing the UN in the face of an acute crisis of global scale. The record of response is only slightly better when it comes to fashioning a collective response to the dire expert consensus on what needs to be done about climate change. [See Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021)]

We are left with the haunting question of whether pressures toward unity and global public goods can replace geopolitical rivalry and ambition in the years ahead, and translate such awakening into a movement capable of achieving a UN oriented and empowered to serve, at least selectively, the human interest rather than as in the past, the interplay of national interests or the prorities of geopolitics.      

A New Different Cold War, An Old Geopolitics

30 May

[ Prefatory Note: The text below is based on responses to questions posed by C.J. Polychroniou, a skilled interpreter of the global scene andnoted author and interviewer. His book of interviews with Noam  Chomsky was published in 2017 under the title Optimism over Despair.Great Power Competition Is Escalating to Dangerous Levels: An Interview with Richard Falk” was published online in slightly modified form in recent issues of Global Policy, Rosenzweig Quarterly, and Z-Net.]

C. J. Polychroniou: Richard, US foreign policy under the Biden administration is geared toward escalating the strategic competition with both China and Russia. Indeed, the Interim National Strategic Guidance, released in March 2021, makes it abundantly clear that the US intends to deter its adversaries from “inhibiting access to global commons, or dominating key regions” and that, moreover, this work cannot be done alone, as was the case under Trump, but will require the reinvigoration and modernization of the alliance system across the world. Does this read to you like a call for the start of a new New Cold War?

Richard Falk: Yes, I would say it is more  ‘a call’ for a New Cold War, but it a start of a process that may soon indeed be a new Cold  War or as you aptly put it, a new, new Cold War. The focus is presently much more China than Russia, because China is seen by Washington as posing the primary threat, and besides, it regards Russia as a traditional rival while China poses novel and more fundamental challenges. Russia, while behaving in an unsavory manner, dramatized by the crude handling of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny, is perceived as manageable by standard geopolitical reliance on refurbished versions of ‘containment’ and ‘deterrence’ approaches, and without much of an ideological dimension. Euro-American strategy is to stiffen resistance to Russian pressure being exerted along some of its borders

China is another matter entirely. The most serious perceived threats are mainly associated with non-military sectors of Western, and particularly, U.S., primacy, its dominance over a dynamic productive economy, especially with respect to frontier technologies. The remarkable developmental dynamism of the Chinese economy has far outstripped anything ever achieved in the West. The United States Government under Biden appears stubbornly blindsided, seemingly determined to address these Chinese threats as if they could be effectively addressed by a combination of ideological confrontation and as with Soviet Union, containment and deterrence. This Biden response is fundamentally mistaken in its approach, which is to view China as a similar adversary than was the Soviet Union. This Chinese challenge cannot be successfully met frontally, that is, by geopolitical pushback resting on military credibility. It can only be met by a diagnosis of the relative decline of the West by way of self-scrutiny, selective emulation, and the effective encouragement of creative adaptive energies. Crafting such a response needs to be accompanied by a reformist agenda of socio-economic equity, massive infrastructure investment, the adoption of fairer wealth and income tax structures, and a commitment to a style of global leadership that identified the national interest to a greater extent with global public goods. Instead of focusing on holding China in check, the United States would do much better by learning from its successes, and adapting them to the distinctiveness of U.S. national circumstances.

It is to be regretted that the present mode of response to China is dangerous and anachronistic for four principal reasons. First, the mischaracterization of the Chinese challenge betrays a lack of self-confidence and understanding by the American Biden/Blinken foreign policy leadership.

Secondly, the chosen path of confrontation risks a fateful clash in South China Seas, an area that according to the precepts of traditional geopolitics falls within the Chinese sphere of influence, and a context within which Chinese firmness is perceived as ‘defensive’ by Beijing while the U.S. military presence is regarded as intrusive, if not ‘hegemonic.’ These perceptions are aggravated by the U.S. effort to augment its role as upholding alliance commitments in South Asia, recently reaffirmed by the clear anti-Chinese animus of the QUAD (Australia, Japan, India, and the U.S.), formally named Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which despite the euphemism of its name intends to signify enhanced regional military cooperation and shared security concerns.

Thirdly, the longtime U.S. military superiority in the Pacific region may not reflect the current regional balance of forces in the East and South China Seas. Pentagon public assertions have recently issued worrird warnings, expressing the opinion that in the event of a military confrontation, China would likely come out on top unless the U.S. resorts to nuclear weapons. According to an article written by Admiral Charles Richard, who currently heads National Strategic Command, this assessment has been confirmed by recent Pentagon war games and conflict simulations.

Taking account of this view, Admiral Richard advises that U.S. preparations for such an armed encounter be changed from the possibility of recourse to nuclear weaponry to its probability. The implicit assumption, which is scary, is that U.S. must do whatever it takes to avoid an unacceptable political outcome even if it requires crossing the nuclear threshold. We might usefully recall the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when Soviet moves to deploy defensive missile systems in Cuba in response to renewed U.S. intervention to impose regime change. Let us remember that Cuba was accepted as independent sovereign state entitled under international law to uphold its national security as it sees fit, that is, in accord with the Blinken prescription of acceptable behavior because it accords with the general understanding of a ‘rules-governed’ world. In contrast,d Taiwan has been consistently accepted internationally as falling within the historical limits of Chinese territorial sovereignty. The credibility of the Chinese claim was given political weight in the Shanghai Communiqué that re-established U.S./China diplomatic relations in 1972. Kissinger recalled that in the negotiations leading to a renewal of bilateral relations the greatly admired Chinese Foreign Minister, Chou En-Lai, was flexible on every issue except Taiwan. That is, China has a strong legal and historical basis for reclaiming Taiwan as an integral part of its sovereign territory considering its armed severance from China occurred as a result of Japanese imperialism. China governed the area now known as Taiwan from 1683-1895. In 1895 it was conquered and ruled by Japan until 1945 when it was reabsorbed and became a part of the Republic of China. After 1949 when the Chinese Communists took over control of China, Taiwan was renamed Republic of China on Taiwan, and its security dependent on the U.S. Navy. From Chinese perspective, this historical past supports their basic contention that Taiwan is part of China and not entitled to be treated as a separate state. There is little doubt that if the United States had not committed itself strategically to the defense of Taiwan, the island state would have been reabsorbed into a resurgent China.

Fourthly, and maybe decisively, the international claims on the energies and resources of the United States are quite different than they were during the Cold War of the last century. There was no impending catastrophe resulting from climate change to worry about, decaying infrastructure within the United States desperately needing expensive repair, and under-investment in social protection by government in the area of health, housing, and education. The over-investment in military capabilities and a global geopolitical posture, which involves paying for the upkeep of 800 military bases worldwide and navies in every ocean, is contributing more to national decline rather than it is to maintaining a global security system managed from Washington .

C. J. Polychroniou: Isn’t it possible that the approach of the Biden administration to the future environment of great power competition could lead to the formation of a Russia-China military alliance, especially since  alliance formation constitutes a key element of state interaction? Indeed, Vladimir Putin has already said that the prospect of such partnership  is “theoretically… quite possible,”  so the question is this: What would be the implications for global order if a Sino-Russian military alliance were to be formed?

Richard Falk: I think we are in a period of renewed alliance diplomacy recalling the feverish attempts of the United States to surround the Soviet Union with deployed military forces, which was a way of communicating to Moscow that the Soviet Union could not expand their borders territorially without anticipating a military encounter with the United States. At first glance, alliances conceived in these traditional terms make little sense in the present global setting. Except in Taiwan it is unlikely that China would seek to enlarge its territorial domain by the threat or use of force. In this sense, the ad hoc diplomacy of alliance formation, typified by the QUAD seems anachronistic, and could lead to warfare as one among several unintended and unwanted consequences.

However, realignment as distinct from alliance frameworks does make sense in an international atmosphere in which the United States is trying to confront its international adversaries with sanctions and a variety of measures of coercive diplomacy that are intended to constrain the policy options of its opponents on the world stage. Many states are dependent on international supply chains for energy and food, as well as reliable trade and investment relations. Reverting to the Cold War the Soviet Union was relatively autonomous. This is much less true under present conditions in which the higher densities of interdependence are linked to acute security vulnerability to cyber attacks by way of state-sponsored, criminal, and non-state hacking.

Additionally, access to drone technologies and computer knowhow make non-state actors, extremist political movements, and criminal syndicates an increasingly troublesome part of the global political landscape. In such an emergent global setting, traditional reliance on deterrence, defense capabilities, and retaliatory action is often ineffectual, and frequently even counter-productive. The purpose of contemporary patterns of realignment is less to augment defenses against intervention and aggression than to broaden policy options for countries that need to reach beyond their borders to achieve economic viability. Another motivation is to deflect geopolitical bullying tactics intended to isolate adversaries. As China and Russia are being portrayed as the enemies of the West, their alignment with one another makes pragmatic sense if thought of as a reciprocally beneficial ‘security community.’ Compared to past configurations of conflictual relations, current geopolitical maneuvers such as realignment are less concerned with weaponry and war and more with attaining developmental stability, intelligence sharing, and reduced  vulnerability to the distinctive threats and parameters of the Digital Age.

The logic of realignment gives China and Russia opportunities to increase their geopolitical footprint without relying on ideological affinities or coercion. Such a change in the nature of world politics is more broadly evident. For instance, important countries such as Iran and Turkey use realignment as a diplomatic tool to offset pressures and security encroachments by U.S. and Israel. In Iran’s case despite radical differences in ideology and governing style it is turning to China and Russia so as to protect its national sovereignty from a range of unlawful destabilizing measures adopted by its adversaries. Whereas Turkey, while being devalued as an alliance partner in the NATO context, may in the future better satisfy its overall needs by turning to China and Russia than by sticking to its traditional role of a junior participant in the most potent of Western alliance structures.

C. J. Polychroniou: Certain mainstream foreign policy analysts are rehashing old arguments about the US-China competition, in particular, by claiming that this is really an ideological battle between democracy and authoritarianism. What’s your own take on this matter?

Richard Falk: I think even more so than in the Cold War the ideological battleground is a smokescreen behind which lurk fears and perceived threats to the Western dominance of the world economy, which presupposes military dominance, achieved by its control of innovative military technologies. In the last half century China has already staked a strong claim to have demonstrated a superior development model (‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’) to that produced in the capitalist United States. This Chinese achievement is quite clearly explained and documented by the outstanding Indian liberal economist, Deepak Nayyar, in his important study, Asian Resurgence: Diversity in Development (2019). Great emphasis is placed by Nayyer on a high rate of savings enabling China to finance and strategically manage targeted investment of public funds. Nayyer downplays the role of ideology and stresses these economistic factors, as he analyzes the comparative development achievements of 14 countries in Asia.

The reality of the Chinese rise makes a mockery of the triumphalist claims of Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and The Last Man (1992), and even more so in their echo in George W. Bush’s covering letter to the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States in which he claims that the 20th century ended with “a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” How dated, vain, and misplaced such language seems twenty years later!  

If China now additionally manages to challenge successfully the U.S. in such vital areas of technological innovation as artificial intelligence and robotics it will undoubtedly reinforce this image of Chinese ascendancy on the 21st century world stage. It is this prospect of being relegated to the technological shadowland that has made bipartisan elites in the United States so nervous and hostile of late. In fact, even Republican stalwarts are willing to put aside their polarizing tactics to join with Democrats in mounting a diplomatic offensive against China that could quickly become a war-mongering interaction if Beijing responds in kind.

Graham Allison has reminded us that historical instances where a previously ascendent power is threatened by a rising one has often resulted in disastrous warfare. Such belligerence is usually initiated by the political actor that feels it is being displaced by the changing hierarchy of influence, wealth, and status in world order, yielding to pressure to engage the challenger while it still possesses sufficient military capabilities to prevail in a war. [See Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap (2017)]

C. J. Polychroniou: Nuclear weapons and climate change represent by far humanity’s two greatest existential crises. Can we really be hopeful that these threats can be managed tamed within the existing international system? If not, what changes are required in current interstate relations?

Richard Falk: Of course, at this time we have become acutely aware of such global existential threats by experiencing the ordeal of the COVID pandemic, which has revealed the conflictual state-centric manner of dealing with a situation that could have been more effectively addressed for all countries if the response had been primarily by way of global solidarity. As the pandemic now appears to be subsiding in most parts of the world, we cannot be encouraged by the weakness of cooperative impulses of these two stressful years despite the obvious self-interested benefits for all if a global commons approach had been adopted with respect to testing, treatment, and distribution of medical equipment, protective gear, and vaccines. This negative background suggests that it is probably a misleading fiction to suppose that the threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change can be successfully managed over time by current forms of response. Each of these mega-threats disclose different features of an essentially dysfunctional and inequitable system of world order. World history has now entered a bio-political phase where civilizational achievements are at risk and even the survival of the human species is in doubt. Analogous dysfunctions of a different nature are evident in the internal political and economic life of many, if not most, sovereign states.

The relationship to nuclear weapons has been problematic from the beginning, including the momentous decision to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities in 1945 as the war was nearing its end. The horrifying civilian consequences seared the collective human conscience almost to the extent of the Holocaust. The two realities exemplifying the atrocities of World War II are Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It is illuminating that in the first instance the behavior of the loser in the war was criminalized in the Genocide Convention while that of the winner in the second instance was politically legitimated although left under a dark legal cloud that lingers imprudently until now. The reality is that nuclear weapons are retained for possible use by nine states, including the most militarily powerful countries. The fact that the great majority of non-nuclear governments and the sentiments of most people in the world unconditionally oppose such weaponry has hardly mattered. The UN recently sponsored the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that entered into force in January 2021; however, neither law nor morality can challenge the resolve of the nuclear weapons states to retain their freedom to possess, deploy, develop, and even threaten or use such weaponry of mass destruction. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the first states to develop nuclear weapons, have issued a formal statement expressing their belief in the non-proliferation regime and deterrence as a preferred model of nuclear war prevention to that associated with reliance on a universal norm of unconditional prohibition reinforced by phased, monitored, and verified disarmament treaty process.

Martin Sherwin in his definitive study, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Rouletter from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (2020), convincingly shows that the avoidance of nuclear war has been a consequence of dumb luck, not rational oversight or the inhibitions on use resulting from deterrence. The point being that despite the magnitude of the threats posed by the existence of nuclear weapons the structures of Westphalian statism has prevailed over considerations of law, morality, common sense, rationality, and the precautionary princple. What is absent with regard to these existential global threats is a sufficient political will to transform the underlying structural features by which authority, power, and identity has been managed by dominant states on a global level for last several centuries. The absence of trust among countries is given precedence, and is further reinforced by the weakness of global solidarity mechanisms, resulting on leaving this ultimate weapon in potentially irresponsible hands, which becomes the fate of the earth in Jonathan Schell’s book bearing that title, published in 1982.

Climate change has dramatized a different facet of this statist structure of world order. The need for the cooperative and urgent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions has been validated by a strong consensus of scientific opinion. The effects of inaction or insufficient action are being concretely experienced in the form of global warming, sea levels rising, extreme weather events, glacial melting, and migrations caused droughts and floods. Yet effective responsive action is blocked by inequalities of circumstances, perceptions that generate disagreements about  allocations of responsibility, and by short-termism that makes private and public sector decision makers reluctant to depress performance statistics by expensive adjustments that cut immediate profits and slow increases in GNP. There is a widespread recognition of the need for drastic action, but the best that the collective will of governments have been able to do is to produce the Paris Agreement in 2015, which falls short of what the scientific consensus recommends and leaves it up to the good will and responsible voluntary behavior of governments to reduce emissions, wobbly foundations on which to stake the future of humanity.

The UN as now constituted cannot provide platforms for addressing global existential threats in an effective and equitable manner. The responses to the COVID pandemic offer a template for such a negative assessment. It was obvious that short-term national economic and diplomatic interests prevailed at the expense of minimizing the health hazards of virus COVID-19. Once these interests were satisfied the richer countries claimed to be virtuous by resorting to feel good philanthropy, which was masked as empathy for poorer countries and their populations.

A revealing extreme instance of the pattern was embodied in the Israeli approach, labeled ‘medical apartheid’ by critics. The Israel vaccine was made available within Israel and to Jewish settlers, while withholding the vaccine from the approximately five million Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This discriminatory pattern ignores, indeed violates, Israel’s explicit obligation under Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to accord protection to an occupied people in the event of contagious disease or an epidemic. What is disclosed beyond reasonable doubt is the structural dominance of statist and market forces combined with the weakness of existing mechanisms of global solidarity, which are preconditions for upholding global public goods. An analogous dynamic occurs within states, reflecting the class, gender, and race interests and the disproportionate burdens borne by the poor, women, and marginalized minorities.   

Do We Really Want a Second Cold War?

31 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified version of Policy Paper #4 RESPONDING TO CHINESE VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS, published previously on the website of the Committee for a Sane China Policy. It reflects my view that the protection of human rights is being geopolitically manipulate to mobilize public support for an anti-Chinese foreign policy in the West that risks generating a dangerous geopolitical confrontation. Such a confrontation is costly, amounts to war-mongering, and diverts U.S. attention from self-scrutiny and global peacebuilding. Whether a second cold war is already underway is a matter of interpretation, but even those reluctant to reach such a depressing assessment would have to acknowledge that unless there are strong efforts made to support what I would call ‘inclusive global multipolarity,’ the drift toward such a dismal near-term future will become inevitable. The need to sound the alarm has reached a level of urgency.]    

Introduction: 

There is no doubt that Chinese government encroachments on the fundamental human rights of its population have become more pervasive and serious in several respects during the leadership of President Xi Jinping. This unfortunate development has been increasingly highlighted, often with inflammatory intent, by Western leaders and media outlets – apattern that is contributing to increasing tensions between China and the West, especially the United States. This emphasis on Chinese violations of human rights is reinforced by complaints that China acted irresponsibly and oppressively in its early responses to the COVID-19 challenge, is defying international law in the South China Sea, and has not participated in the world economy in a fair and proper manner, hence justifying such American responses as blocking exports of high-technology items to China, persuading European governments to avoid tying their internet network to Chinese 5G technology, placing burdens on Chinese investment in the United States, and above all in mounting a global propaganda offensive against China. 

President Biden in his speech to the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021 highlighted what he called ‘competition’ with China as well as with Russia, blaming each for bad behavior, while saying that the U.S. seeks to avoid a new cold war and looks forward to cooperation with China in areas of shared concern, most notably in relation to health and climate change.[1]  At the same time the, central thesis of the Munich speech was disturbing, a confusing call for solidarity among democratic countries, highlighting NATO’s mission in ‘prevailing’ over the challenges mounted by the rise of autocratic nationalism all over the world. For those able to recall the bellicose rhetoric of prior decades, this call is highly resonant with Cold War slogans about the ‘free world’ resisting the totalitarian Soviet bloc. It was also confusing by combining alliance solidarity with Biden’s call for the formation of a united front of democratic states, forgetting that many U.S. allies are far from achieving democratic credentials – consider the Philippines, India, Brazil, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia.  

There are also unacknowledged worries in the West about competitiveness arising not from Chinese improper behavior towards its own people, but from its growing technological creativity and regional military muscle. The so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ has historically prompted nervous dominant states seek to turn back a challenge to their preeminence by initiating a war while still enjoying military superiority, which is feared will soon be overtaken.[2] The dangers of confrontation with China are especially great given the flashpoints in the South and East China Seas, and especially in relation to Taiwan. China seems intent on establishing its regional supremacy while the United States seeks to reassert its long-dominant regional role by displaying its formidable naval presence as a sign of readiness to meet political threats with shows of force, a recipe for dangerous forms of unintended escalation. There are additional concerns arising from the anticipated further military buildup in the Indo-Pacific regions, based on $27 billion additional budget requests over the next five years. In the background of intensifying militarization is the related public expression by high-ranking Pentagon officials that in view of China’s regional buildup of forces, the U.S. would be under great pressure to use nuclear weapons. A top admiral urged strategic planners to grasp this reality by understanding that the use of nuclear weapons in a forthcoming crisis would not be possible but probable, and should be prepared. Such a conclusion was reinforced by recent war game simulations showing that China would prevail at conventional levels of interaction. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis has there been a situation in which ‘rational’ security analysts acknowledged a dependence on nuclear weapons to meet strategic goals, and not just as serving in a deterrent role.

It is against this background of mixed messages that U.S. policy toward human rights in China should be shaped, especially if the goal is to avoid war and establish an overall atmosphere that encourages cooperative engagements. This critical goal would best be served by reducing tensions that could give rise to hazardous and hostile confrontations, and even outright conflict. This paper seeks to thread the needle so as to separate genuine concerns about human rights from the overriding priority of not stumbling into a cold war – let alone a hot war – with China. In that spirit it sets forth a profile of China’s human rights record, including taking account of its considerable positive sides, and expresses a skeptical view as to whether overt hostile criticisms, policies, or actions are justified or effective, adopting the view that such a pushback is certain to be resented by Chinese leaders and dismissed as hostile propaganda. It is certain to be ineffective in changing China’s controversial domestic policies.  

Declaring this, however, does not dispose of the problem. As with the Cold War and regime-changing interventions, the denunciation of human rights violations by an adversary of the United States, usually in exaggerated form, has proven extremely useful in mobilizing Congressional, media, and citizen support for coercive diplomacy, taking a variety of forms, including military buildups, sanctions, interventions, threats, and covert destabilizing operations. When John Bolton, a relentless right-wing geopolitical hawk when it comes to opposing Muslim political aspirations in the Middle East and elsewhere, expressed fury over Donald Trump’s unwillingness to do anything substantial about the plight of the approximately 12 million Turkic speaking Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs living in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, we should realize that his concern is not about human rights or the plight of the Uyghurs, but is about seizing the opportunity to use human rights concerns to bludgeon the Chinese and arouse anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States already inflamed by Trump’s frequent allusions to the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘China virus.’. 

Some Perspective on China’s Human Rights Record  

It is difficult to disentangle Western anti-Chinese propaganda from an objective appraisal of China’s record on human rights. This difficulty is compounded by certain Asian values and traditions that help explain government behavior, which when given a special Chinese twist, diverge in approach from Western liberal approaches that give priority to individual freedoms.   

There is no doubt that China’s policy toward Tibetan, Eastern Mongolian, and Uyghur minorities raise serious human rights issues that have been reliably reported by respected human rights organizations. The allegations include involuntary detention and abusive treatment in so-called ‘reeducation camps,’ forced sterilization, denials of freedoms of expression, religion, and cultural identity, family separation, and discrimination in paid work.[3]  

Yet the underlying issues are complex, and can be interpreted from contradictory perspectives. Concerns about human rights, especially when associated with discontented ethnic and religious minorities, are inevitably interrelated with questions about the interplay of territorial sovereignty and specifying the acceptable nature of national identity. This includes grappling with the indistinct relationship between duties to uphold the internationally protected human rights of minorities and responses to social movements based on claims of autonomy and separation. In such cases, human rights issues need to be balanced against measures undertaken to maintain the unity of the state. There are legal ambiguities and factual complexities about who has the authority to strike a balance between collective human rights and governmental responsibility to uphold the unity of the state. What constitutes a reasonable balance? Who decides? There are no firm answers. 

International law has long wrestled with this complexity. On the one side exists a strong affirmation of the right of self-determination that inheres in every ‘people’ and it set forth in Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. On the other side is the common understanding in international law, as confirmed by an influential 1970 UN resolution, as prohibiting claims of self-determination that seek to fragment or threaten the unity of existing sovereign states. The language of the preamble to the UN resolution is clear and uncontested: “…any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of a State or country or at its political independence is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the [UN] Charter.[4] This conceptual confusion is accentuated to the extent that international law confers the right of self-determination on a ‘people’ while endowing ‘states’ with ‘sovereignty,’ which often encompasses more than one people. Governments are legally empowered to exercise virtually unrestricted authority within recognized territorial boundaries to curb movements that exhibit separatist tendencies. 

Yet when national policy is being challenged by ethno-political movements seeking greater degrees of cultural and political autonomy, including language rights and questions bearing on the freedom of religion, issues of human rights and sovereign authority are inevitably intertwined. In these contexts, independence demands, nationalist claims, and secessionism tendencies are often disguised beneath assertions of human rights grievances, partly to arouse a sympathetic international response. Not only is a careful balancing of facts, law, and rights called for, but account must be taken of how and why some human claims are ignored while others are strongly confirmed. International alignments often explain these glaring differences of response. The human rights wrongdoing of geopolitical adversaries is exaggerated, while comparable wrongs of friends are overlooked or handled discreetly. Perhaps, this unequal response is to some extent understandable given the way the world is politically organized, but when, as here, there is present a dangerous tendency to use human rights issues to stoke the fires of geopolitical contestation, caution and prudence are called for. We observe a toxic correlation of recommended toughness in relating to China in the context of trade and the South China Sea disputeswith inflammatory complaints about Chinese violations of human rights. Such behavior threatens confrontation, serious crises, even war, and so has very different implications than justifiable efforts to counteract abusive exercises of state power by the recent military takeover of the government in Myanmar. 

Some of China’s policies toward the Uyghurs seem to be clearly in violation of international human rights standards. Such behavior is unacceptable, but even here the facts are not as clear in its character as China’s most fervent critics contend. China has long adopted controversial measures to curb population growth and was widely criticized for its one-family policies, but also widely praised for avoiding demographic pressures that might have intensifies expansionist policies, causing conflict. 

There is doubt that China also exhibits intolerance toward political dissent and opposition politics that would be viewed in many national settings as violating civil and political rights. More than elsewhere, China has established intrusive surveillance mechanisms to monitor the behavior of its citizenry that encroach upon the privacy of its citizens. But China is hardly the only country in the world where this is occurring. In general, the drift throughout the world is toward authoritarianism with respect to state/society relations, and however regrettable, this trend often discloses the political will of the nation as expressed through periodic elections, and although noted with concern by Washington, is not allowed to influence U.S. foreign policy, especially if authoritarianism prevails in an ally or friendly country. As a result, this focus on China’s authoritarian policies and practices seems less concerned with the rights of the Chinese people and better understood as a means of ramping up geopolitical pressures. 

Again, police brutality in response to public demonstrations in Hong Kong seem unacceptable from the perspective of a truly free society; note, however, that the Chinese government response is far less harsh than the far bloodier Egyptian response to peaceful demonstrations in recent years, and yet no media or State Department scrutiny has been forthcoming in that case. In contrast, the Hong Kong confrontational demonstrations are given intensive, one-sided, and totally sympathetic media coverage. 

Fairly considered, the human rights picture in China looks quite different if economic and social rights are taken into account. China, perhaps more rapidly and impressively than any country throughout all of history, has overcome the extreme poverty of as many as 300 million of its citizens, providing for health, education, housing, food security, and infrastructure development in ways that many affluent countries of the West fail to do, despite centuries of effort. China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ the largest public works project ever undertaken – while controversial in some respects – has produced many beneficial outcomes in Asia and Africa that have enabled developing countries to better meet the needs of their peoples, and indirectly contribute to the realization of economic and social rights. 

China’s Human Rights Record and U.S. Foreign Policy

When attempting to devise an appropriate U.S. foreign policy response to China’s human rights record, there are several issues that need to be distinguished: 

·       What is the overall Chinese record on human rights if fairly appraised, given some uncertainties as to evidence and behavior reflective of cultural divergencies? 

·       Should U.S. foreign policy highlight Chinese violations of human rights? 

·       Would highlighting be effective in improving the protection of human rights in China? 

·       Would such highlighting increase the likelihood of heightened geopolitical tensions, reduced global cooperation, and greater conflict in the South China Seas?

Assessing the Record 

China’s record on human rights is definitely mixed. If judged by Western liberal standards it can be faulted for serious violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If appraised by non-Western and Global South standards, its achievements with respect to economic and social rights stand out, and compares favorably with many Western countries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains many provisions confirming economic and social rights, and is considered expressive of customary international law, despite being originally set forth as ‘declaratory’ and ‘non-binding.’ In the public discourse about China, even the most respected Western human rights NGOs accord China zero credit for this amazing record of poverty alleviation, and thus its overall reputation is denied a proper appraisal.  

The most serious internationally actionable allegations with respect to China involve the treatment of the Uyghur minority. As mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that allegations involving serious human rights violations by China in Xinjiang involving the Uyghurs seem based on extensive evidence. In the words of the Human Rights Watch World Report for 2020, China’s “‘Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Extremism’ has entailed mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and destruction of the region’s cultural and religious heritage.”[5] But whether pressure from outside China will help or hurt the Uyghurs is problematic. It should be kept in mind that many some of these charges against China are difficult to evaluate, and rest on rationalizations relied on by many governments under the heading of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism. As such, they are subject to controversy and much of the evidence relied upon is clouded by partisan political interpretations relating to legally ambiguous issues such as the discretion of the territorial sovereign with respect to the treatment of minority nationalities that exhibit violent separatist tendencies.[6]  

The most serious charges of ‘genocide’ seem certainly exaggerated and unfounded by reference to international standards, which impose exacting standard of intentionality.[7] In this instance, to allege genocide, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did on the basis of discredited assessments by Andrew Zenz, seems outrageous considering verified population increases among Uyghurs in recent years.[8] Such extreme charges are politically motivated, highly provocative, legally unsupportable, and hence, diplomatically irresponsible. 

Would Highlighting be Effective in Improving China’s Human Rights Record? 

Overall, when dealing with major countries, including the United States, improving compliance with human rights comes about as a result of developments from within territorial borders. Criticism from outside, even from the UN or other international institutions, tends to be ignored or discounted as hostile propaganda. Such a pattern not only reflects the statist nature of world order, but is also a reaction to the cynical use of human rights discourse to justify hostile attitudes toward foreign adversaries or geopolitical rivals. Such patterns of behavior were very characteristic of the selective emphasis on human rights throughout the Cold War: a country with a left or Marxist outlook was condemned for human rights violations while countries that were aligned with the West were not criticized, much less sanctioned, no matter how serious their violations of fundamental human rights. 

Against this background it would be a mistake for the U.S. Government to emphasize allegations of Chinese human rights violations when seeking to work out relations with China that accord with the national, regional, and global priorities that should serve as the foundation of American foreign policy, including cooperation on climate change and monetary stabilization. It would seem that mainstream human rights NGOs in the West should be sensitive to similar cross-cutting considerations bearing on current policy priorities in international relations, although to a lesser extent than the U.S. government, as their undertaking is to report on human rights as objectively, reliably, and persuasively as possible. At the same time, civil society actors should be cautious about accepting insufficiently evidenced allegations of human rights violations that seem to intrude upon China’s territorial sovereignty, especially given the inflammatory character of the present diplomatic setting in which those advocating an aggressive approach toward China seek to play the human rights card.  

The most effective way to engage China on human rights would be to rely on discreet methods of communication through private and peace-oriented channels that do not seek to exert public pressures and are diplomatically linked to an underlying commitment to encourage global cooperation with respect to shared issues such as climate change and conflict resolution. A genuine concern with human rights in China must acknowledge that any improvement in the situationdepends on internal Chinese developments that cannot be exploited to generate hostile propaganda and are not funded or encouraged by covert destabilizing operations. 

Foreign Policy Imperatives in the Present Era 

Unlike the Cold War in which the focus was placed on the containment of Soviet military expansion, especially in Europe, and on contesting the ideological embrace of Marxist ideas of political economy within the Global South, the challenges posed by the rise of China are entirely different, and call for different types of response. For one thing, China poses no threat to core U.S. security interests, especially in this post-Trump period when the United States seeks to revive a Eurocentric alliance in the course of reviving its global leadership role. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has largely pursued its geopolitical ambitions by non-military, economic means, except in maritime areas close to its shores and in border disputes with neighboring countries. This difference in geopolitical profile strengthens the incentives to avoid tensions that could lead to risky military confrontations in the South and East China Seas; from this perspectiveavoiding excessive criticism of China’s violations of human rights would seem helpful from a war prevention perspective. There is no reason to laud China’s domestic political environment, but high-profile complaints about Xinjiang and Hong Kong will be met with counter-allegations about American shortcomings with respect to human rights and would likely intensify the confrontational atmosphere. 

Also different is the nature of the global agenda. Although it would have been a welcome contribution to world peace if the United States and the Soviet Union had more vigorously cooperated to produce a monitored and comprehensivenuclear disarmament treaty, the need for cooperation in responding to climate change is unprecedented. If the dangers posed by global warming are not addressed cooperatively it will produce a worldwide disaster, and China – as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions – is an indispensable partner in managing a positive response.  

It is worth remembering that if overcoming the threats posed by Hitler’s Germany had not involved cooperation with the ideologically alien Soviet Union during World War II, which included suspension of most Western criticisms of the excesses of Stalinism, the outcome of war might not have resulted in victory for the Western democracies. The Soviet Union posed no economic threat to American global economic primacy. China does pose such a threat, and so could lead the United States to make irrational responses that would weaken the global role of the dollar as reserve currency and produce a downward spiral of trade and investment that would hurt all countries, and quite possibly inducing a new world depression of even greater gravity than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Here, as with climate change, the interests of the West favor a geopolitics of accommodation, compromise, and a search for win/win outcomes. In this regard, accentuating the human rights failures of China is imprudent, ineffective, and dangerous under present conditions. 

Copyright 2021 Richard Falk

ENDNOTES: 

1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/19/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-2021-virtual-munich-security-conference/

2. Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, Sept. 24, 20154, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/

3. See, for example, Austin Ramzy, “China’s Oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang, Explained,” New York Times, Jan. 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/world/asia/china-genocide-uighurs-explained.html. 

4. Declaration of Principles concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States, Commentary on Principle (e), UN General Assembly Res. 2625, Oct. 24, 1970, https://www.un.org/rule of law/files/3dda1f104.pdf

5. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Human Rights Watch World Report, 2020 (HRW, 2020), p. 1. 

6.. See, for example, James Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2014). 

7. On the high legal bar with respect to genocide, see: Judgment, Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, ICJ Reports, 1996). 

8. On Pompeo’s claims, see Edward Wong and Chris Buckley, “U.S. Says China’s Repression of Uighurs Is ‘Genocide,’” New York Times, Jan. 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/19/us/politics/trump-china-xinjiang.html. For a well-reasoned and documented rebuttal of the data relied upon in making those allegations, see Gareth Porter and Michael Blumenthal, “U.S. State Department accusation of ‘genocide’ relied on data and baseless claims by far-right ideologues,” The Greyzone, Feb. 18, 2021, https://mronline.org/2021/03/01/u-s-state-department-accusation-of-china-genocide-relied-on-data-abuse-and-baseless-claims-by-far-right-ideologue/

On Zbigniew Brzezinski: Geopolitical Mastermind, Realist Practitioner

3 Jun

Personal Prelude

 

I never knew Zbigniew Brzezinski well, and was certainly not a friend, hardly an acquaintance, but we interacted on several occasions, directly and indirectly. We were both members of the Editorial Board of Foreign Policy magazine founded in 1970 during its early years, which featured lively meetings every few months at the home of the founding co-Chair, a liberal banker named Warren Damien Manshel (the other founding co-Chair was his Harvard friend from graduate school, Samuel Huntington). I was a kind of outlier at these meetings, which featured several editors who made no secret of their ambition to be soon chosen by political leaders to serve at the highest levels of government. Other than Zbig the editor who flaunted his ambition most unabashedly was Richard Holbrook; Joseph Nye should be included among the Washington aspirants, although he was far more discreet about displaying such goals.

 

In these years, Zbig was a Cold War hawk. I came to a lecture he gave at Princeton, and to my surprise while sitting quietly near the front of the lecture hall, Zbig started his talk by saying words to the effect, “I notice that Professor Falk is in the audience, and know that he regards me as a war criminal.” This was a gratuitous remark as I had never made such an accusation, although I also never hid my disagreements with Brzezinski’s anti-Soviet militancy that seemed unduly confrontational and dangerous. Indicative of this outlook, I recall a joke told by Zbig at the time: a general in Poland was asked by the political leader when the country came under attack from both Germany in the East and the Soviet Union in the West, which front he preferred to be assigned. He responded “Germany—duty before pleasure.”

 

In these years Zbig rose to prominence as the intellectual architect and Executive Director who together with David Rockefeller established The Trilateral Commission in 1973. The Trilateral Commission (North America, Western Europe, and Japan) was best understood as a global capitalist response to the Third World challenge being mounted in the early 1970s with the principal goal of establishing a new international economic order. Brzezinski promoted the idea that it was important to aggregate the capitalist democracies in Europe along with Japan in a trilateral arrangement that could develop a common front on questions of political economy. On the Commission was an obscure Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, who seemed handpicked by this elite constellation of forces to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1976. It was natural for Brzezinski to be a foreign policy advisor to Carter during his campaign and then to be chosen as National Security Advisor (1977-1981) by President Carter.

 

My most significant contact with Brzezinski related to Iran Revolution during its last phases. In January of 1979 I accompanied Ramsey Clark and Philip Luce on what can best be described as a fact-finding visit in the last phases of the revolutionary ferment in the country. Toward the end of our time in Iran we paid a visit to the American Embassy to meet with Ambassador William Sullivan who understood that revolution was on the cusp of success and the Shah’s government was on the verge of collapse. What he told us was that the White House rejected his efforts to convey this unfolding reality, blaming Brzezinski for being stubbornly committed to saving the Shah’s regime, suggesting that Brzezinski’s friendship with the influential Iranian ambassador in Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi, apparently blinded him to the realities unfolding in Iran. It should be noted that Sullivan was no shrinking violent. Sullivan had a deserved reputation as an unrepentant counterinsurgency diplomat, who General Westmoreland once characterized as more of a field marshal than a diplomat, given his belligerent use of the American embassy in Laos to carry out bombing attacks in the so-called ‘secret war.’

 

Less than a year later I was asked to accompany Andrew Young to Iran with the hope of securing the release of the Americans being held hostage in the embassy in Tehran. The mission was planned in response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s hint that he would favor negotiating the release of the hostages if the U.S. Government sent an African American to conduct the negotiations. Young, former ambassador to the UN, was the natural choice for such an assignment, but was only willing to go if the White House gave a green light, which was never given, and the mission cancelled. At the time, the head of the Iran desk in the State Department told me privately that “Brzezinski would rather see the hostages held forever than see Andy Young get credit for their release.” Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this was a fair statement or not, although this career bureaucrat spoke of his frustrating relationship with Brzezinski. Of course, there was never an assurance that if such a mission had been allowed to go forward, it would have been successful, but even in retrospect it seemed to warrant a try, and might have led to an entirely different U.S./Iran relationship than what has ensued over the past 38 years.

 

While attending a conference on human rights at the Carter Center a decade later, I had the good fortune to sit next to President Carter at dinner, and seized the opportunity to ask him about his Iran policy, and specifically why he accepted the resignation of Cyrus Vance who sought a more moderate response to Iran than was favored by Brzezinski. Carter responded by explaining that “Zbig was loyal, while Vance was not,” which evaded the question as to which approach might have proved more effective and in the end beneficial. It should be remembered, as was very much known in Tehran, that Brzezinski was instrumental in persuading Carter to call the Shah to congratulate him on his show of toughness when Iranian forces shot and killed unarmed demonstrators in Jaleh Square in an atrocity labeled ‘bloody Friday,” and seen by many in Iran as epitomizing the Shah’s approach to security and the Iranian citizenry.

 

Brzezinski versus Kissinger

 

It is against this background that I take note of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s death at the age of 89 by finding myself much more favorable to his role as foreign policy and world order commentator in recent years than to my earlier experiences during the Cold War and Iranian Revolution. It is natural to compare Brzezinski with Henry Kissinger, the other foreign-born academic who rose to the top of the foreign policy pyramid in the United States by way of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American establishment. Kissinger was less eager than Brzezinski to defeat the Soviet Union than to create a stable balance, and even went so far as to anger the precursors of the alt-right by supporting détente and arms control during the Nixon years. Somehow, Kissinger managed to transcend all the ideological confusion in the United States to be still in 2017 to be courted and lionized by Democrats, including Hilary Clinton, and Republicans, including Trump. Despite being frequently wrong on key foreign policy issues Kissinger is treated as an iconic figure who was astonishingly able to impart nonpartisan wisdom on the American role in the world despite the highly polarized national scene. Brzezinski never attained this status, and maybe never tried. Despite this unique position of eminence, Kissinger’s extensive writings on global trends in recent years never managed to grasp the emerging complexity and originality of world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His line of vision was confined to what could be observed by looking through a neo-Westphalian prism. From this perspective Kissinger has been obsessed with China’s rise and how to reach a geopolitical accommodation with this new superpower so that a new statist balance of power with a global scope takes hold.

 

Post-Cold War Geopolitics: A Eurasian Scenario 

In my view, late Brzezinski developed a more sophisticated and illuminating understanding of the post-Cold War world than did Kissinger. While being sensitive to the importance of incorporating China in ways that were mutually beneficial, Brzezinski was also centrally focused on the non-geopolitical features of world affairs in the 21st century, as well as on the non-statist dimensions of geopolitics. In this regard, Brzezinski was convinced that the future world order would be determined by the outcome of competition among states for the control Eurasia, and that it was crucial for American political efforts to be calibrated to sustain its leadership role in this central arena of great power rivalry.

 

Brzezinski also appreciated that economic globalization was giving market forces a heightened significance that could not be adequately represented by continuing to rely on a state-centric frame of reference in crafting foreign policy. Brzezinski also recognized that a new political consciousness had arisen in the world that he associated with a global awakening that followed the collapse of European colonialism, and made the projection of hard power by the West much more problematic than in the past. This meant that the West must accept the need for consensual relations with the non-West, greater attentiveness to the interests of humanity, and an abandonment of hegemonic patterns of interaction, especially associated with military intervention. He also recognized the importance of emerging challenges of global scope, including climate change and global poverty, which could only be addressed by cooperative arrangements and collective action.

 

Late Brzezinski Foreign Policy Positions

 

What impressed me the most about the late Brzezinski was his clarity about three central issues of American foreign policy. I will mention them only briefly as a serious discussion would extend this essay well beyond a normal reader’s patience. (1) Perhaps, most importantly, Brzezinski’s refusal to embrace the war paradigm adopted by George W. Bush after 9/11 terrorism, regarding ‘the war on terror’ as a dysfunctional over-reaction; in this regard he weighted more highly the geopolitical dimensions of grand strategy, and refused to regard ‘terrorism’ as a strategic threat to American security. He summed up his dissenting view in a conversation on March 17, 2017 with Rachel Maddow as follows, “Yes, ISIS is a threat. It’s more than a nuisance. It’s also in many respects criminal violence. But it isn’t in my view, a central strategic issue facing humanity.” Elsewhere, he make clear that the American over-reaction to 9/11 handed Osama Bin Laden a major tactical victory, and diverted U.S. attention from other more pressing security and political challenges and opportunities.

 

(2) Brzezinski was perceptively opposed to the Iraq attack of 2003, defying the Beltway consensus at the time. He along with Brent Scowcroft, and a few others, were deemed ‘courageous’ for their stand at the time, although to many of us of outside of Washington it seemed common sense not to repeat the counterinsurgency and state building failures oaf Vietnam in Iraq. I have long felt that this kind of assertion gives a strange and unfortunate meaning to the idea of courage, making it seem as if one is taking a dangerous risk in the Washington policy community if espousing a view that goes against the consensus of the moment. The implication is that it takes courage to stand up for beliefs and values, a sorry conclusion for a democracy, and indicative of the pressure on those with government ambitions to suppress dissident views.

 

(3) Unlike so many foreign policy wonks, Brzezinski pressed for a balanced solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, acknowledging, what so many advocates of the special relationship deny, that the continuation of the conflict is harmful to American wider interests in the region and is a major, perhaps a decisive, source of instability in the Middle East. In his words, “This conflict poisons the atmosphere of the Middle East, contributes to Muslim extremism, and is directly damaging to American interests.” [Strategic Vision, 124] As Jeremy Hammond and Rashid Khalidi, among others, have demonstrated is that the U.S. Government has actually facilitated the Israeli reluctance to achieve a sustainable peace, and at the same time denied linkage between the persistence of the conflict and American national interests.[See analysis of Nathan Thrall (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/16/the-real-reason-the-israel-palestine-peace-process-always-fails)].

 

 

I had not been very familiar with Brzezinski later views as expounded in several books: The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Geopolitical Imperatives (1997, reprinted with epilogue, 2012); (with Brent Scowcroft, America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy (2009); Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012).

 

When it comes to Brzezinski’s legacy, I believe it to be mixed. He was a brilliant practitioner, always able to present his views lucidly, forcefully, and with a catchy quality of coherence. In my view, his Cold War outlook was driven toward unacceptable extremes by his anti-Soviet preoccupations. I believe he served President Carter poorly when it came to Iran, especially in fashioning a response to the anti-Shah revolutionary movement. After the Cold War he seemed more prudent and sensible, especially in the last twenty years, when his perceptions of world order were far more illuminating than those of Kissinger, his geopolitical other.