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Ukraine and the Risk of Geopolitical Conflict 

11 Jun

[Prefatory Note: The post below is an interview/conversation with my brilliant former student, Asli Bali, current star UCLA law professor, and cherished friend. It was previously published by the Global Governance Forum on June 8th, 2022, an excellent source of scholarly reflections on global issues.]

Ukraine and the Risk of Geopolitical Conflict — A Reawakening to Nuclear Dangers?

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

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

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

Introduction: The Folly of Ignoring Disarmament

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

Richard Falk: I think the last two decades reflect a period in which the nuclear weapons states, particularly the US, have felt comfortable with the nuclear status quo. Their preference was to organize this arrangement—in which they maintain nuclear arsenals and other states forego that option—as a permanent regime anchored in the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) interpreted in such a way as to drop the disarmament requirements of that treaty. Article VI of the NPT contains the good faith nuclear disarmament obligation, which was supposedly the bargain that induced the non-nuclear states to become parties to the treaty. The attempt by nuclear weapons states to drop this element from the treaty arrangement creates an interesting international law situation: There’s a breach of an essential provision of the NPT, yet this is treated by the US and NATO countries as a sort of a great achievement of international law. The NPT is reduced to an arrangement that at least put certain limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and kept the control of them and the discretion to develop and threaten to use them, and to determine how they would be used in crisis situations, purely under the national sovereign control of states already in possession of such arsenals. 

For example, I participated in a Council on Foreign Relations event about the future of national security, and one of the participants there introduced the idea that Article VI is best understood as ‘a useful fiction.’ That is, Article VI was included in the treaty as a way of satisfying non-nuclear countries that they entered into some sort of equitable bargaining situation. Whereas in fact there was a tacit understanding from the beginning that disarmament was not a realistic, or even a desirable goal, to be pursued by the nuclear weapons states, at least not by the United States.

In considering the broader context that has, as you put it, sidelined the issues of nuclear disarmament, the other thing to be emphasized is that there had crept in a kind of complacency about this weaponry. There are thousands of nuclear weapons, especially in the US and Russia, and very little idea of existing constraints on their threat or use or under what circumstances these arsenals might be introduced into diplomacy or even combat situations. The U.S. in particular, and some other countries like Israel, have been developing combat roles for certain types nuclear weapons—styled as tactical nuclear arms or so-called “mini-nukes”—that suggested they might actually be introduced into regional conflicts. Given the array of bilateral conflicts that have the risk of nuclear escalation including on the Korean peninsula, in India/Pakistan and perhaps Israel’s posture in the Middle East, this possibility has been an increasingly uncomfortable one to which there has been no concerted or consistent international response. 

The risks of the overall situation are well-reflected for those who follow the nuclear issue by the fact that the Doomsday clock—maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and often relied upon as an accurate assessment of nuclear danger at a given time—has moved ever closer in this period to midnight. Prior to the Ukraine crisis I think it was already only one hundred second away from midnight. In the words of the editors, “the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.” The complacency toward this weaponry and the satisfaction with the NPT regime that has allowed powerful states to retain a hierarchical relationship to the non-nuclear states are important dimensions of this doomsday risk. Thus, the situation prior to Ukraine required urgent action to avoid existential dangers, but global complacency and the diversionary focus on containing proliferation threats posed by non-nuclear states rather than addressing the risks of existing arsenals has kept the nuclear agenda from any serious engagement with disarmament as a priority.

Global Acquiescence in Great Power Nuclearism

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

Richard Falk: I think the non-nuclear weapons states, too, have adapted to this complacent atmosphere when it comes to nuclear weapons. This may reflect their sense that they lack leverage over global nuclear policy in a post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, there had been some willingness on the part of the Soviet Union and then China to engage in a disarmament process and the non-nuclear states had followed their lead on negotiating arsenal reductions. But in the post-Cold War period, the U.S. shifted away from even the pretense of disarmament priorities and there has been an absence of powerful states pushing back against this trajectory. That said, I do think there is now emerging a critical outlook on the part of the Global South that may alter course back in manner more favorable to the views of disarmament advocates. This has been most clearly expressed in a new treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was signed in 2017 and came into force with over sixty ratifications in 2021. The treaty itself was originally supported by as many as 120 countries, though it has only garnered signatures from about two thirds of that number and been ratified by a little more than half. 

Another indication of renewed Global South resistance to demoting the nuclear weapons states disarmament obligations is evident in the twice delayed review conference called for by the NPT. Such a review conference is supposed to take place every five years and the pivotal Tenth Review Conference was scheduled for 2020. Originally postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was supposed to be rescheduled for 2021 and was postponed again to 2022 and may now take place in August of this year. But in addition to pandemic-related reasons, it is understood that the deferrals have been prompted by the concern among nuclear weapons states that there may encounter friction with the Global South over disarmament.

In short, even prior to Ukraine there was reason to think that there is a new international mood at the intergovernmental level concerning the threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. I think the Ukraine events have now added momentum to this shift by reawakening at the civil society level palpable concern over the threat or use of nuclear weapons. So this is a time when I think there may be a revival of pressure from below to put nuclear disarmament back on the global policy agenda. 

The Risks of Escalation in Ukraine

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

Richard Falk: Well, I think at the civil society level there is a definite concern though it is not too well-focused at this point. There is sort of a free-floating anxiety about the possibility that nuclear weapons use might occur on the European continent and this may have a galvanizing effect that leads to forms of domestic pressure in some European states to take action to offset such a risk. I also think that some in the Biden administration have changed their views of the Ukraine conflict as the potential nuclear dimensions of the conflict have come into clearer focus. At an earlier stage of the Ukraine war, it seemed as if Biden officials didn’t consider very seriously the nuclear risk, though they were always in some sense sensitive to the wider war dangers of escalation. This sensitivity was evident, for example, in Biden’s resistance to calls, especially from Congress and right-wing think tanks, to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and originally in his hesitance to supply offensive weaponry to the Ukrainians. Similarly, the early posture of not interfering with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts at seeking some sort of negotiated compromise indicated that the Biden administration was wary of escalation, and willing to allow Ukraine to control its own future. 

But in a second phase of the conflict, when the Ukrainian resistance tur

[Prefatory Note: The post below is an interview/conversation with my brilliant former student, Asli Bali, current star UCLA law professor, and cherished friend. It was previously published by the Global Governance Forum on June 8th, 2022, an excellent source of scholarly reflections on global issues.]

Ukraine and the Risk of Geopolitical Conflict — Richard Falk on the return of the nuclear question

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

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

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

Introduction: The Folly of Ignoring Disarmament

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

Richard Falk: I think the last two decades reflect a period in which the nuclear weapons states, particularly the US, have felt comfortable with the nuclear status quo. Their preference was to organize this arrangement—in which they maintain nuclear arsenals and other states forego that option—as a permanent regime anchored in the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) interpreted in such a way as to drop the disarmament requirements of that treaty. Article VI of the NPT contains the good faith nuclear disarmament obligation, which was supposedly the bargain that induced the non-nuclear states to become parties to the treaty. The attempt by nuclear weapons states to drop this element from the treaty arrangement creates an interesting international law situation: There’s a breach of an essential provision of the NPT, yet this is treated by the US and NATO countries as a sort of a great achievement of international law. The NPT is reduced to an arrangement that at least put certain limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and kept the control of them and the discretion to develop and threaten to use them, and to determine how they would be used in crisis situations, purely under the national sovereign control of states already in possession of such arsenals. 

For example, I participated in a Council on Foreign Relations event about the future of national security, and one of the participants there introduced the idea that Article VI is best understood as ‘a useful fiction.’ That is, Article VI was included in the treaty as a way of satisfying non-nuclear countries that they entered into some sort of equitable bargaining situation. Whereas in fact there was a tacit understanding from the beginning that disarmament was not a realistic, or even a desirable goal, to be pursued by the nuclear weapons states, at least not by the United States.

In considering the broader context that has, as you put it, sidelined the issues of nuclear disarmament, the other thing to be emphasized is that there had crept in a kind of complacency about this weaponry. There are thousands of nuclear weapons, especially in the US and Russia, and very little idea of existing constraints on their threat or use or under what circumstances these arsenals might be introduced into diplomacy or even combat situations. The U.S. in particular, and some other countries like Israel, have been developing combat roles for certain types nuclear weapons—styled as tactical nuclear arms or so-called “mini-nukes”—that suggested they might actually be introduced into regional conflicts. Given the array of bilateral conflicts that have the risk of nuclear escalation including on the Korean peninsula, in India/Pakistan and perhaps Israel’s posture in the Middle East, this possibility has been an increasingly uncomfortable one to which there has been no concerted or consistent international response. 

The risks of the overall situation are well-reflected for those who follow the nuclear issue by the fact that the Doomsday clock—maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and often relied upon as an accurate assessment of nuclear danger at a given time—has moved ever closer in this period to midnight. Prior to the Ukraine crisis I think it was already only one hundred second away from midnight. In the words of the editors, “the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.” The complacency toward this weaponry and the satisfaction with the NPT regime that has allowed powerful states to retain a hierarchical relationship to the non-nuclear states are important dimensions of this doomsday risk. Thus, the situation prior to Ukraine required urgent action to avoid existential dangers, but global complacency and the diversionary focus on containing proliferation threats posed by non-nuclear states rather than addressing the risks of existing arsenals has kept the nuclear agenda from any serious engagement with disarmament as a priority.

Global Acquiescence in Great Power Nuclearism

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

Richard Falk: I think the non-nuclear weapons states, too, have adapted to this complacent atmosphere when it comes to nuclear weapons. This may reflect their sense that they lack leverage over global nuclear policy in a post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, there had been some willingness on the part of the Soviet Union and then China to engage in a disarmament process and the non-nuclear states had followed their lead on negotiating arsenal reductions. But in the post-Cold War period, the U.S. shifted away from even the pretense of disarmament priorities and there has been an absence of powerful states pushing back against this trajectory. That said, I do think there is now emerging a critical outlook on the part of the Global South that may alter course back in manner more favorable to the views of disarmament advocates. This has been most clearly expressed in a new treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was signed in 2017 and came into force with over sixty ratifications in 2021. The treaty itself was originally supported by as many as 120 countries, though it has only garnered signatures from about two thirds of that number and been ratified by a little more than half. 

Another indication of renewed Global South resistance to demoting the nuclear weapons states disarmament obligations is evident in the twice delayed review conference called for by the NPT. Such a review conference is supposed to take place every five years and the pivotal Tenth Review Conference was scheduled for 2020. Originally postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was supposed to be rescheduled for 2021 and was postponed again to 2022 and may now take place in August of this year. But in addition to pandemic-related reasons, it is understood that the deferrals have been prompted by the concern among nuclear weapons states that there may encounter friction with the Global South over disarmament.

In short, even prior to Ukraine there was reason to think that there is a new international mood at the intergovernmental level concerning the threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. I think the Ukraine events have now added momentum to this shift by reawakening at the civil society level palpable concern over the threat or use of nuclear weapons. So this is a time when I think there may be a revival of pressure from below to put nuclear disarmament back on the global policy agenda. 

The Risks of Escalation in Ukraine

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

Richard Falk: Well, I think at the civil society level there is a definite concern though it is not too well-focused at this point. There is sort of a free-floating anxiety about the possibility that nuclear weapons use might occur on the European continent and this may have a galvanizing effect that leads to forms of domestic pressure in some European states to take action to offset such a risk. I also think that some in the Biden administration have changed their views of the Ukraine conflict as the potential nuclear dimensions of the conflict have come into clearer focus. At an earlier stage of the Ukraine war, it seemed as if Biden officials didn’t consider very seriously the nuclear risk, though they were always in some sense sensitive to the wider war dangers of escalation. This sensitivity was evident, for example, in Biden’s resistance to calls, especially from Congress and right-wing think tanks, to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and originally in his hesitance to supply offensive weaponry to the Ukrainians. Similarly, the early posture of not interfering with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts at seeking some sort of negotiated compromise indicated that the Biden administration was wary of escalation, and willing to allow Ukraine to control its own future. 

But in a second phase of the conflict, when the Ukrainian resistance turned out to be more successful than anticipated, and strategic defeat or weakening of Russia seemed possible and strategically attractive, the Biden administration’s priorities visibly shifted and they manifestly treated the Ukraine war as an opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and to signal China that if they tried anything similar with Taiwan, they would face an even worse outcome. This latter point was provocatively underscored by Biden during his recent trip to Asia that featured a strong public statement committing the US to the defense of Taiwan. 

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

Regrettably, in the second phase of the current conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. became a source of escalation. American influence was directed also at more or less discouraging President Zelensky from further seeking a negotiated ending of the war on the ground. Instead, the U.S. position seemed to harden around pursuit of strategic victory. This was made explicit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who commented on the opportunity to weaken Russia. I think that now we are entering a third phase of the Ukraine conflict where there is some recognition in Washington and elsewhere that the Biden administration went too far in an escalatory direction. But the worry is that those earlier actions have created a momentum that will be difficult to reverse, and the tragic result will be a prolonged war in Ukraine, with terrible adverse consequences, for the world economy, and especially the countries dependent on affordable access to food and energy, widely imperiled by the impact of the war on Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia. 

Stumbling into Nuclear Conflict?

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

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

The second scenario is that the U.S. might be prepared to live with a prolonged war and hope that  at some point Moscow will tire of the experience, the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan and that the US did in Vietnam. But recent experience suggests just how destructive this course would be for Ukraine and the world. It took the U.S. twenty years to extricate itself from Afghanistan, leaving that country in ruins, millions permanently displaced, facing famine, and untold hundreds of thousands of Afghanis maimed or worse. Equally depressing, as others have pointed out, the likely outcome from the Ukrainian point of view will be the same, whether the war is ended next week or ten years from now except that a longer war will result in more casualties and greater devastation.

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

Richard Falk: Well, I expect that the most likely scenario for an end to the conflict will entail some concessions by Ukraine in relation to the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, together with a pledge of neutrality for the country as a whole, and non-membership in NATO. In exchange for such concessions, Russia would likely be expected to pledge in turn that it would  respect the sovereign rights and political independence of the Ukraine. In all likelihood the question of Crimea will not be addressed in the course of ending the current conflict. The contours of such a negotiated end to the conflict had already emerged in talks between the Russian and Ukrainian sides in March and there is little reason to think these parameters will change substantially. In other words, this outcome could have been achieved earlier, certainly in the first phase of the conflict if not prior to the Russian attack, before early Ukrainian victories led to the second geopolitical phase of escalation.

Multipolarity Among Nuclear Powers

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

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

In the background of such speculation is the question of whether the US is prepared to live in a multipolar world. Certainly, the post-Cold War period afforded the U.S. the opportunity to nurture illusions that the collapse of the Soviet Union might usher in a durable era in which it was the only global geopolitical actor. In a sense this is what Secretary Blinken presumably meant when he says in speeches that the idea of spheres of influence should have been relegated to the dustbin of history. The thought is that after WWII, or at the very least following the Cold War, the U.S. prefers to preside over a system in which its own influence is confined by no sphere and extends in truly global fashion. Of course, had the US adopted this posture in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as Secretary Blinken suggests, it would have amounted to a declaration of a third world war. This is because ruling out spheres of influence would have mean blocking Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, whether in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Moreover, what Blinken is suggesting today is not a world without spheres of influence but rather a kind of Monroe doctrine for the world in which the US regards the global order as its sphere of influence alone. And, of course, the Monroe doctrine in the narrower conventional sense is also alive and well as the US continues to assert its prerogative to dictate policies to countries in this hemisphere from Cuba to Venezuela to Nicaragua and beyond.

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

Ukraine and the Deepening Global Divide

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

Richard Falk: I’m afraid that might be right. Biden was so committed to unifying the country as part of his presidential campaign—the image of himself as someone who is able to “cross the aisle” and generate bipartisan consensus. In fact, however, that project failed miserably with the Republican side converging around Trump’s constituencies. The Ukraine war has somewhat reshuffled the deck and Biden seems keen to embrace this opportunity to forge bipartisan consensus around war. His popularity level remains surprisingly low, but the surge of Cold War bipartisanship in relation to appropriating billions of dollars for Ukraine is undeniable. From a global perspective, however, this great show of empathy for Ukrainian suffering and civilian damage and refugees, and so on, sets a stark contrast to the ways in which the US and the West responded to other humanitarian crises. Thus one price of unity at home may be an increasingly divided world in which US standing declines further. The specific comparisons between the Western response to Ukraine and their indifference and callous disregard for the plight of Palestinians, the consequences of the Iraq War, and the displacement generated by the Syrian conflict is difficult to explain without conceding an element of racism. This reality has hardly escaped the attention of governments and communities in the Global South.

Stepping Back from the Nuclear Precipice?

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

Richard Falk: I certainly hope that might be the case. I think it would be premature to expect the Ukraine conflict alone to rekindle a vibrant anti-nuclear movement at this point. But there may be further developments that do have such a galvanizing effect, something that unfortunately cannot be discounted as the Russians engage in nuclear drills to remind Western states of the risks of escalation in Ukraine. There are also other nuclear dangers that are looming in the world. I think the Israel-Iran relationship is very unstable and may produce some renewed awareness of nuclear risk; the same is also true of the conflicts in India-Pakistan and the Korean peninsula. So new generations may come to understand that the idea of achieving stability with nuclear weapons is a kind of false utopia. This brings me back to the cynical idea that I encountered at the Council on Foreign Relations about disarmament being a useful fiction to appease publics in the Global South. At the time, and there was no real pushback against that assertion. The response of the audience was to simply acknowledge that this is how realist elites talks about national security. It is this kind of acquiescence and complacency that poses the greatest obstacle to global social organizing around disarmament and, thus, the greatest risk that we may stumble into an existential crisis. I hope that the threats that are now manifest in Ukraine and beyond might spark new forms of awareness amongst the now mobilized younger generations leading social movements for environmental and racial justice. Nuclear arsenals pose an existential threat to our planet alongside the reckless climate policies, massive wealth disparities and the virulent structural racism that plague the global order. There is much work to do to address all of these challenges, but we would well begin by recognizing nuclear abolition as an urgent priority.

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.  

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.

 

A Peacemaker for Ukraine: Turkey?

20 Mar

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

https://www.thenation.com/article/world/ceasefire-peace-negotiations-ukraine/

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

A Response to Michael Klare: Choosing Diplomacy in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 New World Order?

10 Apr

[a revised version of a previous post and AlJazeera article with a stress on the relationship between the Russian annexation of Crimea and a world order based on adherence to international law and the quest for global justice]

 

            There is no more reliable guardian of entrenched conventional wisdom than The Economist. And so when its cover proclaims ‘the new world order,’ and removes any ambiguity from its intentions, by its portrayal of Putin as a shirtless tank commander with menacing features. No such iconography accompanied the last notable invocation of the phrase by George H. W. Bush in mobilizing support at home and abroad for a forcible response to the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, the dirty work of Saddam Hussein. Here the elder Bush was suggesting that with the Cold War winding down that finally the UN Security Council could act, as originally intended, and meet Iraqi aggression with a collective response from the international community. For the first time since 1945 the UN would then be acting as it was intended to in response to aggression committed against a sovereign state. With only slight hesitation, the Security Council mandated the use of force to repel Iraq, and in the ensuring military operation fully restored Kuwaiti sovereignty.

 

            In this central respect, there was some merit in treating Russia’s move to annex the Crimea as a distinctive 21st century challenge to international stability. In the Cold War period, it is unlikely that Baghdad would have dared to annex Kuwait without a prior green light from Moscow, and it is even more unlikely that the Kremlin would have allowed its junior ally to embark on such a predictably provocative adventure. In the highly improbable event that Iraq would have acted on its own or could have won approval from Moscow, the resulting crisis would have been of a purely geopolitical character with no claim to initiate ‘the new world order.’ It would have meant confrontation, escalation, and likely produced a frightening showdown similar to that which almost led to a nuclear World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

 

            As it unfolded, this so-called First Gulf War of 1991 resulted in a relatively successful launch of this earlier edition of the new world order. The Security Council mandate was quickly fulfilled in a one-sided desert war, Saddam Hussein surrendered, agreeing to abide by the most punitive peace imposed upon a defeated country since the burdens accepted by Germany in the Versailles Treaty after World War I. We should recall that the Versailles approach was discredited. It came to be regarded as an international arrangement often given a large share of the blame for tipping the internal German political balance in extremist directions that ended up with Hitler coming to power. Bush claimed victory over Iraq in 1991, making what I found at the time a chilling geopolitically boast: ‘finally, we kicked the ‘Vietnam Syndrome.’ He meant by this that America could again believe that it had the tactics and technology to win wars quickly and at an acceptable cost in lives and treasure. Some ventured to suggest that this renewed confidence in militarism was the real new world order.

 

            There were questions raised at the time about whether this use of UN authority to wage war really was compatible with the Charter of the Organization. Was the ‘shock and awe’ attack on Iraq really, as required by international law and the UN Charter, an instance of a defensive war undertaken as a last resort? Were all peaceful options truly exhausted? The argument of critics (and I was among them) was that the sanctions agreed upon after Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait some months early were working and deserved a longer time to achieve results without war. There were also credible reports that Saddam Hussein was ready to withdraw prior to being attacked if assured that an attack on his country would not occur in any event. The United States and its coalition partners never gave Baghdad such an assurance, but on the contrary, only sent the UN Secretary General on a constrained diplomatic mission to deliver an ultimatum to withdraw, which disallowed any response to Saddam Hussein’s inquiry about whether there would be an attack even if there was a full withdrawal from Kuwait.

 

            Also, serious questions were raised about the failure of the American led military campaign to give the Security Council a supervisory role in relation to the scope and nature of the military undertaking during its operational phases. Questions were raised as to whether the United States command had used excessive force well beyond the limits of ‘military necessity,’ an allegation given weight by a respected UN report concluding that the industrial infrastructure of Iraq had been destroyed and the country bombed back ‘to the stone age.’ And then there were further questions raised repeatedly about maintaining for 12 years harsh comprehensive sanctions on a defeated country with a badly damaged water treatment systems. In the decade following the war as many as 700,000 Iraqi civilians died due to these vindictive post-war sanctions, which was quite widely condemned as an undeclared form of indiscriminate warfare that was not consistent with international customary law or international morality, and turned their back on the lessons of Versailles.

 

            As well, the idealistic side of the new world order was quickly put back ‘on the shelf’ in the words of Thomas Pickering a prominent diplomat who represented the United States in the Security Council during the leadup to the 1991 Iraq War. In effect, Pickering insisted the United States was not prepared to repel aggression in the future in cooperation with the UN unless the exercise of collective security was consistent with national and strategic interests. The country was certainly not willing to allow the UNSC to make the call as to when international force should be used, or to play a role as the responsible leader in making the UN structure the foundation of a new post-Cold War framework for peace and security guided by international law.

 

            In effect, it was a return to business as usual! in relation to peace and security, and in this fundamental sense, a reaffirmation of the old world order. James Baker visiting Princeton for an off the record meeting on foreign policy not more than a year after this war in the Middle East, gave invited faculty the chance to ask questions. When my turn came, I asked,”What ever happened to ‘the new world order’?” His response was interesting: “We made a mistake. We should not have associated the new world order with the UN, but with the fact that the whole world would like to have an open economy and constitutional democracy like ours.” For Baker what was worth defending was a neoliberal globalizing world economy, not a law-oriented system of collective security. In effect, for Baker, Bush Sr’s able Secretary of State, the ‘new’ world order was not much different than the fashionable idea being disseminated by Francis Fukuyama on the theme of ‘the end of history,’ that is, the universal triumph of the liberal ideas of governance best embodied in the United States, but the now revealed as the purpose of the long historical journey into the present. Baker was invoking this vision of an integrated global capitalist economy in the context of waging a successful war, although he perceptively viewed the real calling of the United States was to ensure the stability of the world economy.

 

            Of course, invoking ‘the new world order’ also had some uglier earlier resonances, especially, its association with the extravagant claims made on behalf of the Nazi version of fascism during its triumphant phases in Europe up through the early phases of World War II.

 

            So what shall we make of this invocation of ‘new world order’ as descriptive of Putin vision in the aftermath of the Ukrainian intervention, followed by the Crimean annexation carried out by the combination of pre-deployed Russian ragtag military units and local pro-Russian militias that played a role in blocking Ukrainian military installations in Crimea. There is no doubt that from a statist perspective, Russia violated international law by non-defensively using force to acquire territory belonging to another sovereign state, international legal wrongs accentuated by breaking a treaty signed by Russia with Ukraine in 1994 to respect existing borders. This agreement was also regarded as notable because it included the commitment by Ukraine to transfer their stockpile of nuclear weapons to Russia for safekeeping following the breakup of the Soviet Union. If thinking as a Ukrainian nationalist, I would wonder at this point whether the Ukrainian borders might have been more respected had the Kiev government retained this weaponry. Thus what Putin might have unwittingly done is to rekindle an interest in nuclear weaponry as a security deterrent beneficial to secondary states. Thinking back to the Iraq War of 2003, it seems rather unlikely that Iraq would have been attacked if it had nuclear weapons, an assessment strengthened by the cautious response to North Korea’s acquisition.

 

            By and large the Economist berates the vision thrust upon the world by Putin as a dangerous repudiation of international agreements upon which international law rests, and a kind of ‘revanchism’ in which hard power is relied upon to challenge the territorial integrity and political independence of a neighboring country. It is alleged that Russia’s argument for intervention could be used in many national setting throughout the world to rescue unhappy minorities that find themselves subject to a national governance structure that is not to their liking. In The Economist’s call for firm leadership by Obama that takes the form of imposing heavy costs on Russia the stated purpose of the editorial writer is to salvage for people spread around the planet “the kind of world order they want to live under.” The magazine expresses its understanding of the central issues at stake in the following passage: “Would they [the attitudes of people toward world order] prefer one in which states by and large respect international agreements and borders? Or one in which words are bent, agreements are borders ignored and agreements broken at will?” [March 22, 2014, 9] This choice is put rhetorically, and avoids the observational outlook that seems to suggest that a widespread public interest exists in having Russia obedient to the discipline of international law while keeping the options of the West open and unconstrained.

 

            There are two clusters of issues raised—conceptual choices and policy options. On conceptual matters, there is the matter of coherence. Should Russia be expected to abide by agreements when the West seeks to challenge the internal dynamics of self-determination in an important country on its border? The Economist makes no mention of a variety of covert efforts to destabilize the admittedly corrupt Ukrainian government headed by Yukanovych and entice the Ukraine to accept Western credit arrangements and a European alignment. In turn, such a move is a reinforcement of the incorporation of East Europe into the European Union and NATO via ‘enlargement’ and to deploy defensive missile systems in countries surrounding Russia. To have a world order based on international law that The Economist and the West abstractly favors in this context would seem to imply that these advocates are prepared to live by a similar set of rules and agreements, but there is no indication of such reciprocity. Putin referred to the Kosovo precedent as a quasi-legal justification for acting in Crimea, and this has some plausibility, although there was a strong argument that Serbia had over a period of years forfeited its sovereign rights in Kosovo by the commission of crimes against humanity in the course of resisting the breakup of former Yugoslavia.

 

            The better precedent to test what the West really wants in relation to world order is undoubtedly the invasion and occupation of Iraq after being rebuffed by the UN Security Council in 2003. Here was an instance of blatant aggression justified by fabricated evidence and trumped up false premises, an intrusive regime-changing occupation, and the deliberate subsequent manipulation of religious and ethnic tensions by the occupying power so as to create the kind of neoliberal Iraq that it wanted to emerge. Is this the world that The Economist, and those of similar inclinations, have in mind, which resembles James Baker’s proposed new world order? When done by Putin behavior is seen as disruptive, but when done by the United States, uses of force are benignly described as “the aggressive pursuit of American values.” Such a pattern it seems to me set a worse precedent than the Putin worldview as exhibited so far in relation to Ukraine. When it comes to the Iraq War, the editorial writer for The Economist doesn’t ignore it, but air brushes the precedent by dismissing it as a momentary diversion, an ill-advised move “puffed up by the hubris of George Bush” in “’the unilateral world’” that followed upon the Soviet collapse, a venture that “choked in the dust of Iraq.” But is Iraq such a deviation from American approaches to the use of force ever since the Vietnam War? And don’t overlook the oppressive and bloody consequences of earlier covert interventions in a host of countries, including Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973)? And what about the unleashing of lethal drone warfare in such countries as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia? In the end, then, we have to ask the question as to what kind of world order has the United States pursued over the course of recent decades, and is it the same one that The Economist seems to be promoting. In light of such a reconstruction can it be claimed that pre-Putin, the dominant states in the West had displayed a consistent respect for international law. The Economist would have been more persuasive had it given a lecture to Washington as well as to Moscow

 

            Of course, international law is habitually invoked as a matter of diplomatic convenience whenever it seems to support foreign policy, and avoided like the plague when it doesn’t. The United States is adept at mounting both kinds of arguments. The real test of adherence to international law, however, is the behavior of a leading government when international law poses an obstacle to its preferred course of action. To insist that the adversary adhere, while claiming discretion to act on interest, is a hegemonic form of world order that accepts as a prime norm, the inequality of states, and thus goes against the major premise of international law as presupposing the equality of states when it comes to applying codes of behavior. It is the leading state or states that sets the rules of the game in a statist structure, which either establishes a law-oriented world order or subverts it. The United States, and to a lesser extent Europe, have since 1945, and especially since 1991, wanted it both ways: freedom of action for themselves, rule of law for their adversaries. The Ukraine illustrates both sides of the argument, as well as its pitfalls.

 

            In the current setting, ‘American exceptionalism’ has been unashamed of mounting a patently hypocritical argument. Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, explains the G-7 banishment of Russia from economic summit events for “as long as Russia is flagrantly violating international law.” Until Russia is willing to reverse its policy on Ukraine it is, according to Mr. Rhodes, “outside the rules of the road.” [International New York Times, March 25, 2014] This is highly misleading. Russia is within the rules of the road so far as the geopolitical game is concerned, but if it were the case that international law sets the rules, then Russia is acting outside the rules, but so are those who now object to its behavior, and purport to act as impartial enforcers. Nothing is more corrosive of respect for international law over time than reliance on double standards, which is the hallmark of geopolitics, but also of hypocrisy in relation to the application of international law in relation to peace and security.

 

            What remains to be considered is the policy response to the Putin moves. Here the facts and complications make any firm set of conclusions an expression of dogma rather than a nuanced interpretation of context. In truth, there are no guidelines, or rules of the road, when external actors destabilize and silently intervene on one side, and the other side reacts more overtly. The people are caught in between. As the African proverb puts it: “When two elephants fight the grass is destroyed.”

 

            I believe that the sort of posturing that has been generated by the Ukraine crisis works against responding to the question put by The EconomistWhat kind of world order have we had, and what kind do we want and need? A more humane future could result from adopting an international law approach to peace and justice. but only if compliance is consistent and reciprocal. As matters now stand, the foreign policy of major states continues to be principally dictated by perceptions of vital national interests, and not by the obligation to obey the rules of the road as set by international law, and administered by the United Nations. The geopolitical logic at play is not only hypocritical, but tends toward producing escalating conflict spirals. In the current setting we hear loose talk about organizing the West to embark upon a second cold war, with all the embedded dangers, including the potential horror that nuclear weapons might be threatened and used in some future conflict. It seems strange that our most heralded realist gurus do not dare even explore whether nuclear disarmament offers a process that could greatly contribute to the avoidance of a catastrophic future, and erect a firm safety barrier for the containment of future wars.

 

            All things considered, rather than view the recent events involving the Ukraine as a sign of ‘the new world order’ it would be more appropriate to regard these developments as depressing evidence of the persistence of ‘the old world order.’ And it is this continuity that we should be deploring. It is not only provocative behavior in violation of basic rules of international order, but it is a system of sovereign states preoccupied with the pursuit of national interests that encourages violence and predatory behavior, lacking a moral, spiritual, and vital institutional center capable of protecting globlal human interests whether the concern is territorial integrity of weaker states or the protection of the planet against the growing menace of climate change.

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Obsolescence of Ideology: Debating Syria and Ukraine

23 Mar

 

            I have been struck by the unhelpfulness of ideology to my own efforts to think through the complexities of recommended or preferred policy in relation to Syria, and more recently, the Ukraine. There is no obvious posture to be struck by referencing a ‘left’ or ‘right’ identity. A convincing policy proposal depends on sensitivity to context and the particulars of the conflict.

 

            To insist that the left/right distinction obscures more than it reveals is not the end of the story. To contend that ideology is unhelpful as a guide for action is not the same as saying that it is irrelevant to the public debate. In the American context, to be on the left generally implies an anti-interventionist stance, while being on the right is usually associated with being pro-interventionist. Yet, these first approximations can be misleading, even ideologically. Liberals, who are deliberately and consigned to the left by the mainstream media, often favor intervention if the rationale for military force is primarily humanitarian.

 

            Likewise, the neocon right is often opposed to intervention if it is not persuasively justified on the basis of strategic interests, which could include promoting ideological affinities. The neocon leitmotif is global leadership via military strength, force projection, friends and enemies, and the assertion and enforcement of red lines. When Obama failed to bomb Syria in 2013 after earlier declaring that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was for him a red line this supposedly undermined the credibility of American power.  My point is that ideology remains a helpful predictor of how people line up with respect to controversial uses of force, although relying on ideology is a lazy way to think if the purpose is to decide on the best course of action to take, which requires a sensitivity to the concrete realities of a particular situation. Such an analysis depends on context, and may include acknowledging the difficulties of intervention, and the moral unacceptability of nonintervention.  

 

            On a high level of abstraction, it is true that the hard right tends to find a justification for military action as the preferred solvent for any challenge to American foreign policy and the hard left is equally disposed to dismiss all calls for humanitarian intervention as sly anti-imperialist maneuvers, recalling Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Kosovo War in 1999 as ‘miltary humanism.’ In this sense it seems easier to proceed by dogma than to engage seriously with the existential complexities and uncertainties of the specifics pertaining to a conflict setting, and thus be willing to conclude either that ‘the situation is horrible, and something must be done’ and yet still believe that ‘the situation is horrible, but military intervention will only make it worse.’ This is the kind of conundrum that has perplexed and troubled me ever since the Syrian uprising in 2011 turned violent, unleashing the criminal fury of the Damascus regime, and attracting a variety of predatory outside forces on both sides. Often those on one side or the other of the debate fail to recognize the consequences of either a failed intervention or a refusal to intervene.

 

            There are at least two problems that bedevil interpretation in these setting. To assess particularities of context requires a genuine familiarity with the specifics and changing dynamics of a conflict if persuasive policy recommendations are to be grounded in relevant knowledge rather than on knee jerk reactions. And secondly, no matter how expert, core uncertainties will persist, and the difficulties of making choices that involve killing and dying of others is a huge weight of responsibility if the policy risks and alternatives are carefully weighed.

 

            I would add a third caveat—in the last fifty years military intervention has rarely worked out well for the target society or for the intervener; that is, historical experience would seem to call for what lawyers call ‘a presumption against intervention.’ This presumption is not intended as an absolute prohibition, but it does impose a burden of persuasion on the advocates of intervention. Often, also, the evidence pro and con intervention is doctored and manipulated one way or another to reflect the views of the government or of special interests.  This was spectacularly illustrated by the lead up to the U.S. led attack on Iraq in 2003 where governmental efforts to strengthen the public case for intervention produced notorious fabrications. Rwanda in 1994, did present an exceptionally strong humanitarian case supportive of a limited military intervention with operational responsibility entrusted to the United Nations, but the bad experience of the Clinton presidency with the Somalia intervention during the prior year led the United States to oppose effectively a UN effort to prevent, or at least mitigate, a genocidal onslaught.

 

            It would seem against such a background that the best solution in such situations might be procedural, that is, leaving the final policy decision in each instance up to a determination by the UN Security Council. If the Bush Administration had accepted the outcome of the Security Council vote that withheld approval for intervening in Iraq it would have been spared a humiliating strategic defeat that damaged America’s status as world leader. Allowing the Security Council to decide whether or not international force is required and justified also is consistent with the presumption against intervention due to the possibility that any of the five permanent members casting a negative vote counts as a veto.

 

            The Obama approach has not fared much better than that of Bush. It induced members of the Security Council opposed to military intervention to accept the plea of NATO countries in 2011 to engage in a humanitarian operation to save the besieged civilian population of the Libyan city of Benghazi by way of establishing a No Fly Zone. Once the operation got underway, it completely ignored these UN guidelines, and used its air dominance to widen the scope of violence and carry out an unauthorized mission of regime-change. The aftermath in Libya casts further doubt on the overall wisdom of authorizing intervention in such a circumstance of internal strife. As well, the spillover from the refusal of the interveners to adhere to the limited UN mandate has been to undermine trust in such a way as to weaken any prospect for the UN to play a more robust role in resolving the Syrian conflict where the case for interference has become stronger than it ever was in Libya.

 

            Beyond this issue of trust are questions of geopolitical alignment, especially encounters that align the U.S. and NATO on one side and Russia and/or China on the other. As yet, fortunately, there is no second cold war, although the neocons, and some in Europe, are beating the war drums in relation to the Ukraine in such a way as to point in that most unwelcome and totally unjustified direction.  Russia’s sensitivity to hostile developments on its borders, previously expressed a few years ago in the 2008 crisis over Georgia, is now more potently evident in relation to the Ukraine and  breakaway Crimea, which contains a strategic Russian naval base at Sevastopol that is the only Russian warm water port, as well as home to their Black Sea naval fleet.

 

            American exceptionalism, or put differently, the geopolitical asymmetry that generates one set of rules for the United States and another for secondary geopolitical actors such as Russia, pushes the United States to claim a license to act against Russian borderland encroachments that would never be tolerated in reverse, if say a radical anti-American takeover took place in Mexico, and Russia was audacious enough to object to American extra-territorial interference, dire consequences would follow. Recall the American readiness to risk World War III to prevent the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba back in 1962. The problems of both Syria and Ukraine are intensified by geopolitical antagonism that restricts the UN role to the margins and prevents a diplomatic consensus from allowing international cooperation to bring pressure to bear that will move parties away from violence and toward a political settlement.

 

            It is true that geopolitical antagonism is not an absolute political obstacle to intervention. The Kosovo War was undertaken despite the perceived inability to gain authorization from the Security Council due to anticipated Russian and Chinese opposition. The interveners relied on the combined legitimating weight of ‘a coalition of the willing’ and a regional consensus that favored intervention to protect the endangered Albanian majority population. A further legitimating factor in Kosovo was the plausibility of undertaking a military operation that could probably succeed quickly, and not produce many casualties on the intervening side. An important additional justification for intervention was the credible prospect of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces of the sort that had actually taken place in Srebrenica a few years earlier in the midst of Bosnian strife. Finally, in light of this Serbian prior criminal behavior, the aspirations of the Kosovars for an independent political community seemed reasonable. A further post hoc vindication of intervention resulted from the large-scale return to Kosovo of most Albanian refugees after the Serbian control ended, reinforcing the interventionist rationale after the fact by showing its consistency with the dynamics of self-determination.

 

            Nevertheless, a questionable precedent was set in Kosovo by bypassing the Security Council. In effect, the Kosovo intervention involved recourse to non-defensive force without a mandate from the UN, and thus amounted to a deliberate violation of the core articles of the UN Charter and international law that unconditionally prohibits non-defensive threats or uses of force. An effort was made in the Kosovo context by the interveners to stress emergency conditions: the harsh memories associated with inaction in relation to Srebrenica and Rwanda were strong inducements to act beyond the law, and a quasi-legal reliance on a NATO consensus were argued as sufficient to prevent the formation of an unfortunate precedent. When a few years later, the United States, with only the United Kingdom as a credible ally, invaded and occupied Iraq, some negative implications of the Kosovo circumvention of international law became evident, and led the anti-interventionists to reassert their skepticism.

 

            Putting ideology to one side, the question of what is to be done is daunting in the very different challenges poses by Syria and Ukraine. Syria is above all a horrifying humanitarian catastrophe that is also destroying some of the country’s ancient and most cherished cities. It is a situation in which the opposition to the regime is disunited and itself guilty of atrocities, and in which both the governing authorities and insurgency are supported by external actors that treat the civil strife as primarily a proxy war engaging regional interests, and these external forces seem unlikely to yield significantly to their adversary regardless of the humanitarian ordeal being inflicted on the Syrian people. In this respect Syria illustrates regional and global geopolitics in its most cynical and destructive form. One revealing aspect of the disheartening complexity has led the anti-Assad governments to exclude Iran from the Geneva diplomacy that is supposed to be dedicated to finding a war-ending transition to a terrain of political competition. Iran’s exclusion seems irresponsibly submissive to the views of America’s regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and works against surmounting the admittedly difficult set of diplomatic obstacles in the quest for peace and political compromise relating to Syria.

 

             The geopolitical realities of the Ukraine are totally different, raising risks of a new cold war, or at least renewed great power rivalry, and is threatening to produce an uneven military encounter between Russia and the Ukraine over moves by Moscow to annex Crimea on the basis of a hastily arranged referendum that went, as expected Russia’s way by an overwhelming (95%) of the vote. Even if the lopsided outcome partly reflected pro-Russian intimidation there is little doubt that the people of Crimea strongly prefer being part of Russia than remaining an autonomous province in the Ukraine. The Western media gives little attention to the strong historical and cultural affinities between Russia and Crimea. It should be remembered that the Crimea had long been part of Russia, its population mostly Russian speaking, and its shift to the Ukraine accomplished by a capricious Kremlin decree in 1954 issued under the authority of Nikita Khrushchev who himself was part Ukrainian. From an international law standpoint the applicability of self-determination is ambiguous in light of this background. From a Ukrainian point of view, the transfer of Crimean sovereignty was a valid legal act 60 years ago, and the population of Crimea do not seem to qualify as ‘a people’ entitled to claim a right of self-determination. Besides, self-determination is not applicable if its exercise fragments an existing state, in this case Ukraine. But as we have seen, when self-determination is asserted successfully, as in former Yugoslavia, the resulting political entities, although fragmenting an existing state, which was a member of the United Nations, the political outcome will be generally accepted, although maybe not formalized immediately.

 

            Putting aside the geopolitical dimension, there are other problems with action (granting the unacceptability of inaction) in the Syria setting. First of all, the regime is not isolated from popular support, although the breadth and depth of the support is controversial, and probably belongs in the domain of the unknowable. Secondly, because the regime is well armed, it would require a major undertaking to have any assurance that intervention would produce regime change, security, and political transition rather than escalation. As recent history has demonstrated over and over again, in the post-colonial era a Western intervention is likely to provoke prolonged, and in the end, effective national territorial resistance, with highly unpredictable political consequences. In Syria, with minimal strategic interests of the United States at stake, the difficulties of achieving regime change by intervention seem too great, especially, as is the case, tactics would be relied upon that cut the casualties on the intervening side to an absolute minimum.  

 

            We are left, then, with the other part of the challenge: the unacceptability of doing nothing in relation to Syria, and a debate about what could be done to promote a more sustainable and satisfactory outcome in Ukraine.  It has been proposed for some time to undertake a series of humanitarian initiatives on behalf of the Syrian people, including a No Fly Zone to protect a humanitarian corridor that would be capable of delivering food and medicine to beleaguered communities in Syria. Such a course of action is beset with problems stemming from a lack of trust giving rise to suspicions about the authenticity of the humanitarian motivations. Concerns also exist as to the control of the scope and magnitude of the forcible action once undertaken, as well as about the genuine difficulties of making such a zone secure without expanding the scale and scope of the use of force.

 

            In the Ukraine, there seems to be no constructive role for the West to play at this stage. Granting that anti-Russian sentiments prevail in the Ukrainian speaking, Catholic, portions of Ukraine, it seems that the upheaval that led the Viktor Yanukovych government to collapse can be viewed as consistent with the internal sovereignty of the country, although not without some inappropriate Western encouragement of destabilizing political opposition. Even granting this kind of interference, it does not create an occasion justifying Russian intervention, and this is so, regardless of the degree to which the new leadership includes a strong fascist component. Fortunately, there is no current prospect of a Russian intervention designed to break up Ukraine, but the impact of Western anger, expressed by the imposition of sanctions personally directed at Putin and some of his close associates seems designed to hurt Russian investment and trade. Such hostile moves could easily trigger Russian retaliation, and give rise to an unpredictable and dangerous escalation of tensions. Given the way the world is organized on the basis of statist logic, reinforced by geopolitical zones of influence, it would be a major move in the direction of global hegemony if the West were to mount a provocative challenge to Russia’s relationship to what was previously known as their ‘near abroad,’ and from any point of view threatened vital Russian security interests.

 

            In relation to both Syria and Ukraine there are internationalist frustrations because of the inability to protect vulnerable people in severe distress. At stake are opposing principles of respect for sovereignty and  human rights, as well as the hostile interplay of dangerous geopolitical rivalries. The effort to uphold the collective rights of weaker countries and their peoples is opportunistically pursued, making current frustrations mainly a reflection of the dysfunctional operations of a structure of hard power world order that accords primacy to state sovereignty, the pursuit of national interests, and the hegemonic claims and conflicts of geopolitical actors having varying ambitions, claims under international law, and diplomatic and military capabilities.

 

            Further in the background is the presence of weapons arsenals filled with nuclear weapons that makes hardly any political or moral goal worth the risk of major inter-governmental military encounters. Until the political cultures of the main countries in the world are prepared to reorient their priorities around concerns with a species sense of identity and solidarity we are stuck with this territorially delimited structure that was initially established in 17th century Europe and then over time exported to the rest of the world. Such a world order is being challenged by functional considerations of sustainability, climate change, and weaponry of mass destruction, as well as by normative considerations associated with human rights, equity, and species survival. The breakdowns of such an order in Syria and Ukraine are emblematic failures of this system, but also in many respects, human tragedies entailing massive suffering and trauma.