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War Prevention Depends on Respecting Invisible Geopolitical Fault Lines

18 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


NAPF: To Rid the World of Nuclear Weapons

24 Jan


[Prefatory Note: The statement below was drafted and endorsed by participants in a symposium held in Santa Barbara, CA in October 2017 under the auspices of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. It brought together for two days of discussion some leading peace thinkers and activists, many of whom are listed in the note at the end of the text. I have long been associated with NAPF, and took part in the symposium. The discussions started from several premises: that the dangers of nuclear weapons are real, and increasing; that the public in this country, and around the world is oblivious to these dangers; that it is feasible to achieve total nuclear disarmament by way of negotiated treaty that proceeds by stages with reliable mechanisms for assessing compliance and with provision for responses in the event of non-compliance; that nuclear weapons states, especially the United States, have obstructed all efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament; that the International Court of Justice issued an Advisory Opinion in 1996 that unanimously concluded that nuclear weapons states had a good faith treaty obligation to seek disarmament with a sense of urgency.


[Significantly, since the symposium was held the President of China, Xi Jinping, speaking on January 18th at Davos during the World Economic Forum, indicated in the course of his remarks that “nuclear weapons should be completely prohibited and destroyed over time to make the world free of nuclear weapons.” If this assertion is followed up by credible efforts it could create new opportunities to move forward toward the goal of nuclear zero. Barack Obama early in his presidency made a widely acclaimed speech in Prague endorsing the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but during his presidency he was unable to convert his visionary rhetoric into a meaningful political project. It may take a movement of people around the world to overcome the inertia, complacency, and entrenched interests that have for decades insulated nuclear arsenals from all efforts to rid the world of the menace of nuclear war.]




Committed to a world free of nuclear weapons


Humanity and the planet face two existential threats: environmental catastrophe and nuclear annihilation. While climate change is the subject of increasing public awareness and concern, the same cannot be said about growing nuclear dangers arising from worsening international circumstances. It’s time again to sound the alarm and mobilize public opinion on a massive scale. Our lives may depend on it.


More than a quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War, some 14,900 nuclear weapons, most an order of magnitude more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, 93% held by the U.S. and Russia, continue to pose an intolerable and increasing threat to humanity and the biosphere. Recent studies by atmospheric scientists show that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan involving 100 Hiroshima‐size atomic bombs dropped on cities could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. A drop in average surface temperatures, depletion of the ozone layer, and shortened agricultural growing seasons would lead to massive famine and starvation resulting in as many as two billion deaths over the following decade. A full‐scale nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would result in a “Nuclear Winter,” triggering a new Ice Age and ending most complex life on the planet.


The danger of wars among nuclear‐armed states is growing. There is hope that such wars can be avoided, but that hope, while the essential basis of action, is not sufficient to end the nuclear threat facing humanity and complex life on this planet. Hope must give rise to action.


The United States is poised to spend one trillion dollars over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear bombs and warheads, the submarines, missiles and bombers to deliver them, and the infrastructure to sustain the nuclear enterprise indefinitely. The other nuclear‐armed countries – Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – are modernizing their nuclear arsenals as well.





Tensions between the United States/NATO and Russia have risen to levels not seen since the Cold War, with the two nuclear giants confronting each other in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and Syria, and an accelerated tempo of military exercises and war games, both conventional and nuclear, on both sides.


The U.S., the only nation with nuclear weapons deployed on foreign soil, is estimated to have 180 nuclear weapons stationed at six NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. In June 2016, the largest NATO war games in decades were conducted in Poland. The exercises came weeks after activating a U.S. missile defense system in Romania and ground breaking for another missile defense system in Poland. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that there would be “action in response to guarantee our security.” In October 2016, Russia moved nuclear‐capable Iskander missiles into the Kaliningrad territory bordering Poland and Lithuania, signaling its response to NATO, while claiming it was a routine exercise. Russian officials have previously described the role that the 500 km‐range Iskander system would play in targeting U.S. missile defense installations in Poland. In mid-December 2016, the Obama administration announced plans to deploy troops in Poland, the Baltic states and Romania. According to the U.S. Commander, this would send “the very powerful signal” that “the United States, along with the rest of NATO, is committed to deterrence.” In Syria, with perhaps the most complex war in history raging, the U.S., Russia and France are bombing side-by side and sometimes on opposing sides.


Adding to the conflicts among nuclear-armed states, the U.S., with its “pivot” to the Pacific, is facing off against China in seas where other Asian nations are contesting Chinese territorial claims. India and Pakistan remain locked in a nuclear arms race amid mounting diplomatic tensions, border clashes and rising military budgets. And North Korea, refusing to heed strong international condemnation, continues to conduct nuclear weapons tests. It has even announced an intention to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.


These potential nuclear flashpoints are ripe for escalation. An accidental or intentional military incident could send the world spiraling into a disastrous nuclear confrontation. A great danger is that the rulers of one nuclear-armed state will miscalculate the interests and fears of another, pushing some geopolitical gambit to the point where economic pressures, covert actions, low-intensity warfare and displays of high-tech force escalate into regional or general war. This vulnerability to unintended consequences is reminiscent of the circumstances that led to World War I, but made more dangerous by U.S. and Russian policies of nuclear firstuse, keeping nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and launch-on-warning.






During the Presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s nuclear weapons rhetoric was cavalier, suggesting deepignorance. No one knows what he’ll do in office, but U.S. national security policy has been remarkably consistent in the post-World War II and post-Cold War eras, despite dramatically changed geopolitical conditions and very different presidential styles. The threatened use of nuclear weapons as the “cornerstone” of U.S. national security policy has been reaffirmed by every President, Republican or Democrat, since 1945, when President Harry Truman, a Democrat, oversaw the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to the Trump transition website: “Mr. Trump will ensure our strategic nuclear triad is modernized to ensure it continues to be an effective deterrent….” This is essentially a continuation of the Obama administration’s policy. Trump’s ominous December 22, 2016 tweet – “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes”– seemed to indicate an intention to increase the level of reliance on the nuclear threat. While Trump’s conciliatory tone towards Russia offers a glimmer of hope for lowering tensions between the two nuclear-armed giants, the firestorm raging around U.S. government assertions that Russia manipulated the U.S. election to help Trump win have immeasurably compounded the difficulties in predicting what will happen next. Trump’s stated aim to tear up the Iran nuclear deal reveals his deficient understanding of international relations, indicating a lack of awareness that this is a multilateral agreement involving all five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and that Russia and Iran are engaged in cooperative military operations, including against ISIS. Trump’s belligerent attitude toward China, a strategic ally of Russia, and his threat to upend the decades-long U.S. “one China” policy, is another cause for serious concern. In his farewell address to the nation in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” An earlier version of his warning referred to the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”


We now face the likelihood of a far more military-industrial Presidential cabinet. The specter of a Trump presidency with a right-wing Republican House and Senate, as well as a compliant Supreme Court, is chilling to an unprecedented degree. Trump’s appointments and nominations of reactionary, hardliner ex-generals, billionaire heads of corporations, and climate-change deniers are cause for grave concern in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas.


The Cold War concept of “strategic stability” among great powers, although itself never an adequate basis for genuine international security, is foundering. The Cold War and post-Cold War managerial approach to arms control must be challenged. Addressing nuclear dangers must take place in a much broader framework, takinginto account the interface between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons and militarism in general, the humanitarian and long-term environmental consequences of nuclear war, and the fundamental incompatibility of nuclear weapons with democracy, the rule of law, and human well-being.





In 2009, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned, “Military superiority would be an insurmountable obstacle to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Unless we discuss demilitarization of international politics, the reduction of military budgets, preventing militarization of outer space, talking about a nuclear-free world will be just rhetorical.” Nuclear arms control has ground to a halt and the world is backsliding. The growing crises among nuclear armed states must be defused and disarmament efforts put back on track. Nothing is more important now than to counter the notion that collaborative security with Russia is to be regarded as treasonous or somehow more dangerous than confrontational geopolitics. Peace is an imperative of the Nuclear Age. Starting with the U.S. and Russia, the nuclear-armed states must sit down at the negotiating table and begin to address Gorbachev’s agenda.


It is essential at this time to assert the credibility and the necessity of a transformational approach to nuclear disarmament. We should do our utmost to marshal public discourse to counter the militarization of governments’ imaginations. The use of military force should always be the last option, not just in rhetoric, but in diplomatic practice. There has never been a greater need for imaginative diplomacy. The cycle of provocation and response must be halted. Nuclear threats must cease. Nuclear weapons modernization programs must be terminated. Military exercises and war games must be curtailed and conducted with great sensitivity to geopolitical conditions. The U.S. should withdraw its nuclear weapons from NATO bases and, at a minimum, stop NATO expansion and provocative deployments. Policies of nuclear first-use, hair-trigger alert, and launch-on-warning must be ended. In the longer term, military alliances should be dismantled and replaced by a new collective security paradigm. All nations, first and foremost the U.S., by far the largest weapons exporter, should stop the sale and supply of arms to conflict regions.




Changing the discourse involves both language and processes. We need to take seriously our human role as stewards of the earth and talk about nuclear dangers in terms of potential omnicide. Nuclear weapons are incompatible with democracy. They place vast unaccountable power in a few leaders’ hands, unchecked by the millions of voices that true democracy depends on. We must reject notions of U.S. exceptionalism that exempt this country from respect for the rule of law and the authority of the United Nations. Further, we must revitalize the U.S. Constitution by reintroducing checks and balances into decision‐making about war and peace. Indeed, much of the world does seem to be coming to its senses regarding nuclear weapons. Deeply frustrated by the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, in December 2016 the United Nations General Assembly voted by a large majority to hold negotiations in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination. The vote represents an historic global repudiation of the nuclear weapons status quo among the vast majority of non‐nuclear weapons states. None of the nine nuclear‐armed nations supported the resolution, and it is unlikely that any nuclear‐armed states will participate in the negotiations.


To realize the full value of a “ban” treaty, we must demand that the nuclear‐armed states recognize the existing illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons under international law protecting civilians and the environment from the effects of warfare. The governments of these states must finally act to meet their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Non‐Proliferation Treaty and customary international law, and participate in good faith in the negotiations as unanimously mandated by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion. The media have narrowed the boundaries of debate, and the public has virtually no feasible means to engage decision‐makers on disarmament imperatives. Yet the need for such discourse has never been more urgent. We reject the apocalyptic narrative and summon the imaginations of people everywhere to envision a vastly different future. There is no inevitability to the course of history, and a mobilized citizenry can redirect it toward a positive future.







There exists an ethical imperative to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The survival of the human species and other forms of complex life requires acting upon this imperative. We will need to successfully reach out to constituencies and organizations outside the peace and disarmament sphere to inspire and engage millions, if not tens of millions, of people. Education and engagement of both media and youth will be

critical for success. Hope must be joined with action if we are to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolishus. The alarm is sounding.





*This document reflects the discussions at the symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse,” held in Santa Barbara, California, on October 24‐25, 2016, and also takes into account the changed political landscape in the U.S. following the election of Donald Trump, which occurred two weeks after the symposium.


Endorsers of this statement include: Rich Appelbaum, Jackie Cabasso, Paul K. Chappell, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Richard Falk, Mark Hamilton, Kimiaki Kawai, David Krieger, Peter Kuznick, Robert Laney, Judith Lipton, Elaine Scarry, Jennifer Simons, Daniel U. Smith, Steven Starr, and Rick Wayman. The symposium was sponsored and organized by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.


A full list of symposium participants, along with videos, audio and transcripts of presentations, are available at‐fierce‐urgency.

January 20, 2017

The Sky Above Turkey

23 Aug


[Prefatory Note: An earlier version was published by Middle East Eye on August 10, 2016. It seems so important at this time for the sake of the future of Turkey that the West look at the country and its political circumstances in a far more balanced way than how the situation has been portrayed since the coup. How to explain this imbalance is another matterthat should be explored at some point, but for now is largely put aside.]





Much uncertainty remains in Turkey, but there is enough evidence of positive tendencies to raise a tentative banner of hope. Being a witness to the political atmosphere in Turkey that has emerged after the failed coup of July 15th puts me at odds with the secular consensus in the West, which looks up at the sky and sees only dark, ominous clouds of human rights abuse and autocratic leadership. What I have experienced and observed so far is quite different, a sky with much blue in it.


There are two opposed, although overlapping, tendencies present that seemed to be responsive to the political priorities that top the post-coup government agenda: sustaining the anti-coup unity by shifting political gears within the AKP leadership circles in the direction of “inclusive democracy” and pragmatism, and with it, a retreat from the polarizing claims of “majoritarian democracy” that greatly intensified after the 2011 national elections and were particularly evident in the clumsy, unacceptable way the Turkish government handled the Gezi Park demonstrations two years later.

The most important concrete embodiment of this post-15 July move toward inclusiveness has been a series of initatives intended to create a common front between the three leading political parties in the country, including the CHP (secular mainstream) and MHP (nationalist rightest) opposition parties. This has been reinforced by several other developments, including a pragmatic approach to foreign policy and a decision by Recip Tayyip Erdoğan to drop the many law suits under a Turkish law that makes it a civil wrong to insult the president.


The Ataturk effect

 There is also a reinforcement of these developments with clear evidence of an AKP appreciation of Kemal Ataturk as heroic founder of the country and defender of its political independence and unity, which had been notably absent from the AKP political profile ever since it initially took power in 2002.


It was notable that Erdoğan at his dramatic press conference at the Istanbul Airport on the night of the attempted coup spoke below a giant portrait of Ataturk. This gesture was reinforced by the dominance of huge poster pictures of Erdoğan and Ataturk, and no one else, behind the speaker stage at the immense  August 7th Democracy Watch rally, and even more so by a long Ataturk quotation in the course of Erdoğan’s speech, the highlight of the event. This emphasis on Ataturk’s guidance has also been notable in the CHP effort to interpret the defeat of the coup as a great victory of Turkish democracy, as well as a historic moment of national unity and patriotic fervor. It needs to be understood that invoking the image and thought of Ataturk are ways of expressing two realities: most significantly, a reaffirmation of the secularist orientation of the Turkish state accompanied by recognition that Turkey was experiencing a supreme “patriotic moment” that took precedence over all the pre-coup political divisions that had created such toxic polarization prior to July 15th.


Learning from mistakes

 Also notable, and a return to an earlier style, has been the generally calm tone and restrained substance of Erdogan’s leadership. In the domestic pro-AKP media, there have been references back to Erdoğan’s then controversial advice to the Egyptian people to insist on a secular foundation for the governing process following the Tahrir uprising that overthrew Mubarak, a position at the time deeply resented by the Muslim Brotherhood as an intrusion on Egyptian internal politics and distrusted or ignored by the secular opposition to Erdoğan in Turkey and abroad.


Looking back, Egypt would almost certainly have benefitted greatly if it had followed Erdoğan’s advice, with the ĸimplication that Turkey’s present crisis was brought about by allowing the religiously oriented movement of Fetullah Gülen to penetrate so deeply into the sinews of government.


Of course, anti-AKP voices insist, with reason, that Erdoğan failed to adhere to his own guidelines, both by insinuating political Islam into the appointment and policy process of the Turkish state in recent years and also by striking an opportunistic bargain with Gülen forces that years earlier paved the way for this exercise of pernicious religious influence within the Turkish state. Perhaps it is possible to learn from this past while admitting past mistakes (as Erdoğan has done by his extraordinary apology to the nation for past collaboration with and trust in the Gülen movement).


‘As many friends as possible’

 Another facet of the present understanding of July 15th is the widespread agreement across the Turkish political spectrum that the US was involved to some degree in relation to the coup. To what degree is a matter of wildly divergent beliefs ranging from active complicity to passive and indirect support. There is even the opinion present in Turkey that the timing of the coup reflected US government nervousness about Ankara’s seeming turn toward Mosow, and at minimum, if the coup had succeeded, Washington it seems would have shed few tears (just as it did after the democratically elected government was overthrown by a coup in 2013).


What lends some credibility to such suspicions is that a major foreign policy reset was underway and in motion prior to the coup attempt. It was centered upon diplomatic initiatives seeking to restore positive diplomatic and economic relations with Russia and Israel, and possibly even with Syria, Iran, and Egypt. Prospects for normalisation with Egypt took a turn for the worse as a result of Cairo’s seeming sympathy with the coup attempt, including possible receptivity to an asylum request from Fettulah Gülen.


Yet what seems in many respects to be a second coming of Turkey’s pre-Arab Spring approach of “zero problems with neighbours” has been reformulated by the current prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, in a similar formula: “as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.”

This apparent move away from the sort of ideological foreign policy that Turkey has pursued since 2011 may not be pleasing to hardliners in the US and Europe, but it certainly makes sense from the perspective of Turkish national interests, given current national and regional realities.


Atmosphere of fear

 Having pointed to some positive responses by the Turkish government to the crisis following the coup attempt, let me mention a few disturbing negative features of the present atmosphere. Erdoğan mobilized mass street support on the night of the failed coup, an initiative that even most of his critics here in Turkey treat as a stroke of political genius that probably turned the tide of battle on the fateful evening of July 15th. Yet some fear that the nightly continuation of populist demonstration that continued for three weeks were leading the country back in the direction of majoritarian democracy and reawakened polarization, and something even worse, if the temporary consensus with the opposition starts to fray.


Also extremely worrisome are mass detentions, arrests, dismissals, and suspensions involving many thousands of people, many of whom are viewed as innocent of any incriminating involvement. There are also reliable reports of torture and abuse involving some of those being held, creating a widespread atmosphere of fear and intimidation, making some people even scared to voice their views.


Given the fresh memories of the coup attempt, its brutal violence, and the realistic worry that pro-coup elements remain strategically situated in the governing structures of society, great pressure to strengthen internal security exists and should be interpreted with a measure of sympathy, or at least understanding. There is some reason to be guardedly hopeful as many individuals have been cleared and released, and the leadership has repeatedly promised to proceed in accord with the rule of law, including making diligent efforts not to confuse Gülen conspirators with anti-AKP critics. 


Populist pressure


There is also reason to be concerned about Erdogan’s demagogic appeals that seem designed to mobilize populist pressures on Parliament to restore capital punishment for the intended purpose of prosecuting and punishing Fetullah Gülen. It should be better appreciated in Turkey that any attempted application of capital punishment to Gulen would be unacceptably retroactive, and a violation of the rule of law as universally understood.


Among other effects, such a prospect would give the United States a credible legal pretext to deny the pending extradition request, which in turn would create a storm of anti-American resentment in Turkey. It is helpful to do a thought experiment that captures the Turkish political mood. The overwhelming majority of Turks feel what Americans would have felt if after the 9/11 attacks a supposedly friendly government had given safe haven to Osama Bin Laden.


The most shortsighted aspect of the current approach is the evident decision by Erdoğan to stop short of including the pro-Kurdish political party, HDP or People’s Democratic Party, in the national unity approach, and the absence of any show of a willingness to renew a peace process with the Kurdish national movement, including representatives of the PKK. The government contends that this is not possible to do so long as the PKK engages in armed struggle, which proceeds on a daily basis.


Given ongoing concerns with the Islamic State (IS) group and spillovers from the Syrian war, the future of Turkey will seem far brighter if the Kurdish dimension can be constructively addressed.



Concluding Observation

 What remains after this look at present pros and cons is a core reality of uncertainty, yet I believe there is presently enough evidence of positive tendencies, to raise a tentative banner of hope about the Turkish future. Such a banner is also justified as a counter to the banner of despair and rage being waved so vigorously by anti- Erdoğan zealots around the world with much support given by mainstream media and not a few governments in the West who withheld support of the Turkish government in its hour of need and have been reluctant to accept the allegations that the coup was the work of the movement headed by Fetullah Gülen from his informal headquarters in Pennsylvania. It is hardly surprising that Ankara should be looking elsewhere for friends, and even contemplating turning its back on Europe, and conceivably even NATO. It could be that a major geopolitical realignment is underway, or maybe not. If it occurs it will be the most significant change in the geopolitical landscape since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of

the Cold War.




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