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Call on the Future of Humanity

20 Oct

A poster for a webinar seeking to build a global community of endorsers to work for a better future for all of us living together on this lonely endangered planet

Protesting Mahsa Amini’s Tragic Death in Iran

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The following post consists of questions put by Daniel Falcone and responses by Richard Falk, published on October 7, 2022 in CounterPunch

Protest in Iran: Historical and International Contexts: Q&A with Richard Falk

By Daniel Falcone

Mahsa Amini’s tragic experience produced a spontaneous reaction concentrated among women, youth, and the urban poor who had been suffering for decades from the lethal mixture of abuses of state power and external pressures undermining their security and wellbeing.

In this interview international relations scholar Richard Falk addresses the events surrounding Mahsa Amini’s September 13th detention and reported death three days llater as well as the meaning of her Kurdish identity. Falk reminds the reader of the 2010 arrest of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia to highlight how the actions of the “morality police” can create massive reactions after they target largely unknown individuals. Falk remarks that the political significance and staying power of the protests in Iran are essentially impossible to assess at this stage, but based on historical analysis, some patterns and historical parallels have emerged thus far. Context is often decisive in such interactions between an enraged opposition and the political leadership and orientation that finds itself under fire from its own public, Falk argues. There are also many other contextual factors that may prove relevant in Iran, including the organizational skill of the protesters, their access to funds and even weapons, and the firefighting skill and ingenuity of the government.  

Daniel Falcone: Could you briefly contextualize the protests in Iran that have been taking place since September 16, 2022, as well as the Iranian response?

Richard Falk: I am immediately reminded by these protests in Iran following Mahsa Amini’s arrest, detention, and death by the Iranian ‘morality police’ of the uprisings in Tunisia back in late 2010 that started after police abuses leading to the suicide of a vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in a remote Tunisian city. The circumstances in these two instances, and nature of the abuse and the character of the regime were vastly different, but what unites these two events distant from one another in time and place is that single incidents involving a previously obscure individual sparked a massive reaction in the streets of the two countries. 

This suggests to me that both incidents exploded politically because a preexisting revolutionary mood existed in the country that was receptive to being activated. In the Tunisian case the anti-government momentum proved strong enough to topple an authoritarian and corrupt regime led by the dictatorial Zine  Ben Ali, long in control of the country, and what is more stimulated parallel anti-government events throughout the Arab world. Yet as these seemingly transformative events unfolded, they give rise to a counter-revolutionary backlash that proved strong enough to restore either repressive governance to these Arab countries or to induce prolonged strife and chaos. This countercurrent has taken longer to unfold in Tunisia, than in, say, Egypt, but occurred throughout the region. Making the Arab Spring celebrations of a decade ago now seem occasions of disappointment that led to even more pronounced disempowerment of the citizenry.

The political weight and durability of these protests in Iran is impossible to assess at this stage. They could be nothing more than an interlude in the long experience of repression or represent an historic turning point toward more liberal theocratic rule or, on the contrary, result in a more draconian version of the violent repression unleashed by the government response to the protests that followed Amini’s tragic death. Iran has experienced periodic protests in the last decade, and earlier, suggesting both a restive public and an inflexible governing process unwilling to make compromises or reforms yet resilient enough to weather such political storms. 

The Arab Spring initially targeted governments friendly to the West, content with the Israeli status quo, and accepting of the economic hardships imposed on their impoverished masses in exchange for making national elites wealthy by facilitating the predatory tendencies of neoliberal globalization. In contrast, the Iranian protests are directed at a government long and deeply at odds with the United States and Israel since overthrowing the Shah’s dynastic rule in 1979 after mobilizing a nonviolent mass movement that overcame violent oppressive tactics of the regime, tactics publicly endorsed at the time by the presidency of Jimmy Carter to the lasting embitterment of anti-Shah Iranians. 

Also, highly relevant for the new leadership in Iran were memories of 1953 when a CIA-backed coup drove the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh into exile, restoring the autocracy of the Pahlavi Dynasty to power.  It was clear that these earlier pivotal events were primarily motivated by Mossadegh’s provocative form of economic nationalism during the Cold War, especially his bold decision to nationalize the Iranian oil industry that at the time was largely dominated by British companies. Although the U.S. denied culpability for these events, the allegations were widely believed to be accurate by Iranians and later confirmed conclusively by Western investigative journalists. This background remained very much in the minds of those who led the Iranian popular movement in 1978-79. It is notable that the earlier Western intervention was directed at a radical nationalist government in Iran while the post-1979 encounters are partly in reaction to the Islamic character of the regime, but better understood as reflecting antagonistic regional geopolitics involving Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

It is too early to evaluate with any precision how this historically relevant international context conditions both protest activity and government reactions in Iran. Even at this stage we observe that the Iranian protests are uniformly treated favorably in the West, reported as outbursts led by women against the harshness of Islamic theocratic rule, which policies clash directly with central ideas of secularism and gender equality in the West. In this setting, the uprisings are fully compatible with preexisting regional and global geopolitics, which has long imposed sanctions on Iran, as well as rather openly sponsored destabilizing acts of sabotage and assassinations within Iran. Also relevant was the fact that Iran and Israel/U.S. were aligned on opposite sides in such notable regional conflict situations as ongoing in Occupied Palestine (especially Gaza), Yemen, Syria, and Libya.[1]

Beyond this, many educated Iranians with middle class roots chose exile decades ago rather than living in a theocratically governed Iran, which has meant the presence of an anti-regime middle- and upper-class diaspora that exerts considerable influence in the capitals of the West. Not surprisingly, Iranian expatriates have been cheerleading the protests following Amini’s seeming murder while under official detention and hoping to encourage these episodic protests to be an anti-regime movement with a secularizing agenda. The extreme gender bias of the Iranian theocracy provides international opponents with ‘a wedge issue’ but their real agenda is not reformist, but a return to secular governance. This means monarchy for Iranian conservatives, and social democracy for progressives among Iranian exiles. This does not mean that diaspora Iranians favored coercive intervention in Iran, which was generally opposed except by pro-Shah forces dedicated to a second restoration of Pahlavi rule. 

At the same time the Islamic Republic of Iran has demonstrated its durability as compared to popular movements in the Arab World, which posed democratizing threats to the powerful Gulf monarchies and Israel from their outset. With memories of 1953 still fresh in the mind of Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders of the revolution, the need to safeguard the political gains against internal and external enemies led both to understandable vigilance and regrettable, perhaps paranoid and vindictive repression of dissent and diversity by the new rulers.

A final contextual observation. Enthusiasts for political change often exaggerate the strength and durability of protests and count on the provocative reliance by the established order on excessive force and a generally unimaginative pattern of governmental response. I was in Turkey during the 2013 Gezi Park protests that seemed for a brief time to be sweeping the country and exhibiting the worst tendencies toward violence of an autocratic state, leading to police killing of unarmed demonstrators. 

Secular Turks believed, and fervently hoped, this was the beginning of the end of Erdogan era of governance. Perhaps, learning from the experience in the Arab world, Erdogan essentially gave into the basic demands of the protests to leave Gezi Park free from ‘urban renewal’ plans, met with protest leaders and listened to their grievances. These government moves went virtually unreported in Europe and North America. Theu had the effect of quietly ending the anti-government protests. Naturally, this disappointed the secular opposition long sidelined in Turkish politics, but rather than learn from the experience, the opposition resumed its identity as the legitimate guardian of secularism and modernity, that is, upholding the near sacred legacy of Kemal Ataturk, offering the Turkish people a strong dose of nootallgia

rather than an alternative democratizing vision of Turkey’s future. 


Daniel Falcone: What is the social and political significance of Amini’s identity (Kurdish Iranian) in the region? 

Richard Falk: The fact that Mahsa Amini was Kurdish has been stressed in some Western media accounts of the protests from the beginning. Her Kurdish identity may help explain why unlike previous protests this one spread so quickly from its Tehran origins, and relevantly, particularly in regions where the Kurdish minority was strong. It probably also explains why the repressive response of the government was so intense and violent in cities and towns with majority Turkish populuations.

At the same time, it is my impression that the protesters themselves emphasize gender and political freedom issues, making scant reference to questions of ethnic identity. Unlike other countries in the region, such as Turkey and Iraq, there have not been comparable strife between the majority Iranian ethnic identity and Kurdish discontent, although allegations of anti-Kurdish discrimination are certainly present in Iran and have a long lineage that stretches back before the present system of government took over control of the country almost 45 years ago.

Daniel Falcone: Recently, Anthropologist Janet Amighi and Historian Lawrence Davidsoncommented on the increasingly isolated Iranian protestors and the difficulty to follow the story after Amini’s arrest by Morality Police for dress code violations (hair). Amighi argues that the Asia Times includes some of the better coverage overall on the matter, as the western press continues to reduce itself to a series of competing propaganda outlets. Some western outlets are indicating that more than half of Iran’s 31 provinces have erupted in mass protest. Can you give insight on what is happening on the ground in Iran in terms of resistance?

Richard Falk: I think this is an exaggeration, or if you prefer, an outburst of ‘wishful thinking’ on the part of ‘secular commentators.’ The more careful accounts of the protests suggest relatively small numbers, and a prevalence of women and young people. Of course, this could prefigure a more robust political phenomenon in the weeks ahead. Some commentators in Iran and elsewhere believe that the protests are at least the beginning of a durable ‘women’s movement’ in Iran that is guided by its inspirational slogan: “women, life, freedom.” The emphasis of the most militant activists has so far been on women and human rights, and not on a political agenda demanding systemic change as much as many on the outside and an incalculable number on the inside may be hoping for, supposing that they are witnessing the dawn of a new revolutionary movement in Iran.

The most obvious question of the moment is whether the Iranian regime is flexible enough to give ground on the narrow agenda of gender equality and freedom, and whether that will bring to a temporary end the current phase of protest activism. Or more depressingly, the hardline Raisi government will succeed in the reimposition of theocratic discipline that is harsh and effective enough to quell the unrest.[2]

Daniel Falcone: As usual, the US media treatment of the uprisings deserves scrutiny. Are there any salient features to focus on within agenda setting coverage?

Richard Falk: What I find most disturbing about the main media approach in the West is its total failure to discuss the protests within their historical and international context. It is to be expected that a government that has been denied normalcy from day one of its existence would view protest activity as glorified by Western media and possibly funded or at least given encouragement by Iran’s external adversaries as threatening its internal security. Already the protests have had the effect of delaying, and quite possibly ending, prospects for the renewal of the 2015 Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program (JCPOA). After Trump’s 2018 withdrawal in the face of Iran’s compliance shattered what little trust underpinned Iran’s relations with the West strengthening the hard-line factions in Tehran. In this sense, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which vigorously opposed renewing JCPOA have their own reasons to feel grateful for the protests, while once again the U.S. is lured deeper into the darkest of caves, that of nuclear danger. 

Daniel Falcone: What do Americans need to know about the protests? How does social class and economic precariousness factor as root causes to the demonstrations? 

Richard Falk: These are difficult issues to interpret under any circumstances. Sustained hardship and a tightening of theocratic discipline in Iran likely hit the urban middle classes most directly.[3] There is every reason to think that the reaction to Mahsa Amini’s tragic experience produced a spontaneous reaction concentrated among women, youth, and the urban poor who had been suffering for decades from the lethal mixture of encroachments on personal freedom of state power and external pressures undermining their security and wellbeing.

We do not know on balance whether the successful defense of national security in the face of constant external destabilizing challenges earned the government a measure of loyalty from more established sectors of Iranian society. There are so far no visible signs that this latest wave of protests is a ‘front’ for a return of the Pahlavi dynasty, and yet there seems present a more generalized democratizing set of goals at play than the narrow agenda of gender freedom suggests. It may be possible that a secularizing movement with a liberal/progressive social agenda will spiral out of this protest activity with its seemingly narrow focus on women, the hijab, and theocratic harshness.


[1] Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press. President Andrzej Duda of Poland — on Ukraine’s doorstep — stressed in his speech that “we mustn’t show any ‘war fatigue’” regarding the conflict. But he also noted that a recent trip to Africa left him pondering how the West has treated other conflicts. “Were we equally resolute during the tragedies of Syria, Libya, Yemen?” he asked himself, and the assembly. And didn’t the West return to “business as usual” after wars in Congo and the Horn of Africa? 

[2] Amighi has indicated that Iran’s leadership and authoritative technique is to clamp down hard on protesters then negotiate with them. 

[3] Most of the protestors have demonstrated in and near Tehran. 

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

14 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]           

Movements to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons and to Establish Geopolitical Accountability

16 Aug

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

And here:

Al-Aqsa Violence during Ramadan

21 Apr

[Prefatory Note: Responses to Questions of Javad Arabshirazi on upsurge of violence during Ramadan within the al-Aqsa Mosque Compound and throughout Occupied Palestine, April 19, 2022. Israel’s reliance on excessive force, collective punishment, and violent provocations is far from new, but its occurrence in the presence context suggests another pattern—an escalation of tensions prior to a large-scale military operation, most likely directed at two million entrapped civilian inhabitants of Gaza. Once more Israel strikes hard against Palestinian rights when the world has its attention fixed elsewhere, with a mainstream media posture of indifference and inattention compounding the problem . The pro-Palestinian solidarity movement is being seriously challenged not to let this happen.]

RQ#1: Israel has escalated its crackdown on Palestinians since the beginning of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, arresting a number of Palestinians in occupied East al-Quds, and desecrating al-Aqsa mosque. What is your take on this?

RAF Response: There is a toxic interaction taking place in Israeli/Palestinian relations in this period that involves the stabbings of a few Israelis followed by a typical punitive over-reaction on Israel’s part that amounts to the collective punishment of all Palestinians living under this regime of prolonged unlawful occupation. Al-Aqsa during Ramadan represents a flashpoint for both sides, and this year with the holy calendar of Jews, Muslims, and Christians overlapping, tensions were especially high, and further deliberately heightened by an outsized Israeli military presence within and surrounding the al-Aqsa mosque compound that was intended to intimidate worshipers, making clear once more the abusive hierarchy of relations that has long existed between Israelis and Palestinians. The wounding of more than 150 al-Aqsa worshippers in responding to Palestinian protestors and the arrest of several hundred others at the compound and throughout Palestinian territories should be seen for what it was, a provocative crackdown. Reliance on excessive force and violence against Palestinians by Israel in violation of its obligations under international law as the Occupying Power that requires Israel to uphold the freedom of religion and respect the human rights of Palestinians living under their administration is neither new nor acceptable.    

Q#2: Why do you think the international community has failed to condemn this? Where are “human rights defenders”?

RAF Response: Israel is partly taking advantage of the distraction on the part of many governments and the world media resulting from a preoccupation with the Ukraine War and its spillover effects. Also, unseemly Israeli ‘normalization’ diplomacy has been successful in blunting criticism of its actions and creating new positive relations with countries in the region and beyond. Israel has also effectively subdued criticism emanating from the UN as exhibited in its recent election to membership in ECOSOC. Israel has made clear that it is not interested in a political compromise with the Palestinians or any sort of diplomatic process that contains any expectations that a Palestinian state could emerge. As for ‘human rights defenders,’ their weakness to contest Israeli security policies has long been an operative part of the tragic Palestinian reality ever since 1967, although we should pause long enough to salute the bravery of those few who take life-threatening risks to protest Israel’s abusive behavior. It is notable that several months ago Benny Gantz, Israel’s Minister of Defense, issued a declaration stigmatizing the most respected and professionally rigorous human rights NGOs in Israel and the West Bank as ‘terrorist organizations.’ It was beyond disappointing that supposedly liberal governments of Europe and North American greeted this development with stony silence. 

Q#3: Tel Aviv has also imposed new restrictions on the Palestinian people’s entry into the mosque, and ordered the demolition of Palestinian homes and agricultural facilities. Isn’t it against international law?

RAF Response: Israel has consistently violated international law with no adverse consequences, and its conduct at al-Aqsa and elsewhere is all part of a deeply ingrained pattern of official behavior that reflects the fundamental character of Israel as an apartheid state. House demolitions and destruction of Palestinian farms and olive groves has been Israeli official policy for decades, making claims of being the only democracy in the Middle East a travesty. This assessment of apartheid has been supported during the last five years by a series of well-evidenced and carefully analyze reports prepared by mainstream NGOs in the West including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Even this development, which should have sent shock waves at the UN and supporters of Israel resulted in no discernable impacts at the UN or among governments. Even the international discourse on the Palestinian/Israel interaction makes scant effort to notice, much less take action in response to Israel’s flagrant and repeated violations of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people. The fate of the Palestinian people continues to rest where it has always been—on the stubborn resistance of the Palestinian people and the mobilization of global solidarity campaigns and civil society activism. The UN and most government may want to forget the Palestinian struggle or treat it as a lost cause, but the Palestinian people have shown over and over again that they will not cease their resistance nor should people of conscience the world over turn away from the persisting challenge to unite once more against apartheid, whose dismantling is an unconditional precondition for producing peace between these two embattled peoples.  

Public Intellectual

29 Mar

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2022 GPI Book Award Richard Falk

2022 Global Policy Institute Book Award

Presented to Dr. Richard Falk, author of
Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim

Princeton University emeritus professor Richard A. Falk is the winner of the 2022 Global Policy Institute Book Award. Dr. Falk is a member of the Editorial Boards of The Nation and The Progressive, and Chair of the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is a former advisory board member of the World Federalist Institute and the American Movement for World Government. Dr. Falk acted as counsel to Ethiopia and Liberia in the famous South West Africa Cases (1965) that came before the International Court of Justice. During 1999–2000, Falk worked on the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. In that high-profile role, his critical findings on the repression and denial of human rights for Palestinians eventually led to him being banned from Israel.

Dr. Falk is now a Santa Barbara resident. After four decades at Princeton, he has served as Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has lectured widely around the world as one of America’s most recognizable and relentless crusaders for international justice.

The 2022 Global Policy Institute Best Book Award will be presented in a gala reception at the Del Rey Yacht Club.

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Ukraine War: Three Academic perspectives

17 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The following discussion resulted from three separate interviews conducted by Daniel Falcone, and published in Counterpunch on march 16, 2022. There was no interaction among the three of us. My contributions have been modified to some extent. I wonder whether this war is best described as below ‘Russo-ukrainian war’ or simply as ‘Ukrainian war’ or ‘Russo-U.s. Proxy war.’ It seems an amalgam of all three.]

The Politics of the Russo-Ukrainian War: International Scholars Weigh In

BY DANIEL FALCONE

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Ukrainian refugees taking shelter under a bridge in Kyiv. Photograph Source: Mvs.gov.ua – CC BY 4.0

As Russian forces inch toward the capital of Ukraine in a continued act of outright aggression, a fourth round of talks came to a “technical pause.” As the west tries to get firmly ahead of escalation, global planners and analysts look to anticipate this unfolding story, which looks increasingly difficult to follow socially, politically, and economically. In this interview, Middle East historian Lawrence Davidson, international law professor Richard Falk, and international relations scholar Stephen Zunes, break down the historical, cultural, geopolitical, and media implications of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Daniel Falcone: Given the history of the region, how likely was this conflict? Can you provide the historical formations that brought us to this point? 

Lawrence Davidson: Recent history made this war a very real last resort option for the Russians. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO with American urging, extended itself eastward. Based on Russia’s experience as the Soviet Union, there was only one way to interpret such action on NATO’s part—it was an act that threatened Russian national security.

One must ask why Washington and NATO should want to act so precipitously. Expansion was relatively easy at that moment because Russia was temporarily weak. The desire of the ex-Warsaw Pact states to protect themselves from a future resurgent Russia certainly came into play. Speculating a bit further, the expansion might have been seen as the first step in a long-term plan to achieve pro-Western regime change in Russia.

As suggested, the NATO Alliance’s expansion had an aggressive edge and the Russians certainly saw the advancing alliance as a hostile force. Adding salt to the wound, there were also Western attempts to impose regime change in countries directly bordering the Russian Republic. One of these was Ukraine. NATO and the U.S. encouraged Ukraine to turn toward the West and supported Ukrainian politicians who would follow this line. NATO went so far as to get informally involved with the Ukrainian military. It appeared that by 2016, Ukrainian leaders were receptive to these moves.

Once Moscow recovered from the disruption that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union, they found themselves confronted with a situation described above—one that accentuated their historical vulnerability to invasion from the west. The Russian leaders spent a lot of time and energy trying to explain their concerns to both Western leaders and the Western press. Their efforts fell on deaf ears. When Ukrainian leaders started to talk about joining NATO the Russians went into crisis mode. Their first steps were non-violent ones—they put forth a demand for an internationally recognized security treaty that would have halted NATO’s eastward expansion and halted Ukraine’s ambition to join the alliance. This was a sure sign that Russia had a red line which the proposed treaty was designed to protect.

Both Washington and the Europeans rejected this overture. It is very probable that they knew this rejection would force the Russians to act militarily against Ukraine if it too resisted Moscow’s red lines (which precluded Ukrainian membership in NATO). But the Ukrainian leadership clearly believed that NATO and Washington would stand with them, essentially risking war with Russia.

All of this set up the conditions for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And alas, for Ukraine there was to be no Western rescue.

Richard Falk: Perhaps, the ambiguity of the word ‘region’ in your question is deliberate. In any event, it raises the vital question of geographic context. Most discussions of the Ukraine Crisis and Russian attack assume the locus to be exclusively Ukraine, perhaps inclusive of Crimea. However, a broader conception of relevant region would encompass Russia and Europe, with a conceptual spin creating a more arresting focus on Russia and NATO. If geopolitics is considered, then reconstituted alignments of the West, led by the U.S., versus Russia, with a serious balancing role that China adopts as exemplified by its abstention vote on the UN General Assembly Resolution condemning the Russian attack of March 1. A comprehensive answer based on these overlapping interpretations of region is not feasible within this format. I will limit myself to some comments on the historical depth of the conflict.

About Ukraine itself, there are several crucial points bearing on the competition between Russia and an expansive NATO that seem important. First, when the Cold War ended it was followed by an immense gray zone of geopolitical uncertainty. The West was in a triumphalist mood, celebrating ‘the liberation’ of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic from the clutches of Soviet domination. Russia acted realistically in accepting this measure of a loss of influence in the proximity of its Western borders, which seemed also to reflect the overwhelming will of the relevant national populations who had resented the repressiveness and austerity that came with their subordinate status in the Soviet Bloc.

Geopolitical trouble started brewing when the further ambitions of NATO enlargers, specifically, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. Detaching these Slavic peoples from Russia by affiliation with the European Union, much less formal membership in NATO, was not only a threatening humiliation for Moscow but a direct challenge to its sphere of influence that had deep roots going back to Czarist times. Bill Clinton bears some responsibility by promoting an Enlargement Doctrine to expand the number of democratic states throughout the world, This liberal imperial conception weaponized by George W. Bush in presenting a partial rationalization of the Iraq War.[1] This foreign policy initiative was also seen as helpful to the expansion of the sphere of operations of neoliberal globalization and seen as a contribution to world peace due to the acceptance of ‘democratic peace theory’ according to which democratic states do not wage war against one another.

This challenge to Russia’s ‘near abroad’ was further confirmed and intensified by the perception that the U.S. backing of Poroshenko in the 2014 elections shifted the Ukrainian political identity Westward and was further inflamed by U.S. weapons shipments and the de-Russification policies of the new leadership in Kyiv leading to strife in the Dombas region of East Ukraine. Some attempt at avoiding a violent eruption was undertaken in the Minsk Agreements of 2014-15 establishing a ceasefire, promising self-government, and regulating relations between Kyiv and the Russian majority populations in the two Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s refusal to implement the Minsk Agreements aggravated relations with Russia, particularly with respect to the human rights of the Russian speaking minority.

Another aspect of the historical background that has not been analyzed in the media involved a clash between the U.S. and Russia as to the delineation of geopolitical space. It has been observed by certain so-called ‘Russia experts’ that Putin’s underlying strategic aspiration is to overcome Washington’s unipolar behavior since the Soviet collapse that manifested its identity as the global manager of hegemonic geopolitics, including denying and challenging traditional sphere of influence claims of Russia (and China) that are integral to a symmetrical geopolitics in a tripolar world. It is relevant to observe that the design of the UN embodies and the Cold War manifested bipolar symmetrical geopolitics, even if in a currently anachronistic form given the frozen realities of the UN. Conferring permanent membership and a right of veto to the five victors in World War II that turned out to be the five first states to acquire nuclear weapons, was an institutional judgement that has had a delegitimizing effect on the UN over time, but whether it can be called a mistake is questionable given the exclusion of a geopolitical status for major states by the League of Nations, which is viewed as responsible for its impotence as a war prevention institution.

In this sense, ‘the unipolar moment’ commencing in the 1990s has been under growing pressure, at least since the Iraq War of 2003. The unlawful Russian intervention in Ukraine can be viewed as part of a larger effort to restore the geopolitical dimension of Westphalian world order, an essential element of which is mutual respect for the spheres of influence physically adjacent to the Great Powers. This element of world order that can be traced back to the early stages of the formation of European state system in the middle of the 17th Century. The U.S. borrowed the idea, extending spheres of influence already in 1823 by proclaiming and implementing the Monroe Doctrine (opposing European colonization in the Western Hemisphere), further elaborated by the Roosevelt Corollary in 1905 (asserting a right of intervention to enforce debt obligations of hemispheric governments and to protect Americans in danger). Although repudiated as formal doctrines of foreign policy, the U.S. during and after the Cold War continued to implement a hegemonic policy of opposing the existence of Marxist or socialist governments by sanctions, destabilization moves, and intervention.[2] Nevertheless, the avoidance of World War III was partly due to respecting spheres of influence in Europe at least so far as uses of force was concerned. NATO and the U.S. condemned Soviet interventions in Eastern European countries, but never mounted opposition in the form of counter-intervention.

The European ‘region’ is likely to be most profoundly shaken by the events unfolding in Ukraine. It is the first major war in Europe since 1945, and it revives what had seemed past: the perception that Europe is once again as during the Cold War threatened by a rapacious Russian Bear, a combat setting that could become the occasion for catastrophic uses of nuclear weaponry. This united Western stand—a blend of self-righteous opposition to violations of the international law prohibition of aggressive uses of international force, fears of a bigger war, cultural, humanitarian, and racist affinities with the Ukrainian people—is the mirror opposite of what we know about Russia’s nationalist resolve, fortified by memories of devastating invasions of Russia costing millions of lives, and brought back to life by a variety of Western provocations in recent years, giving rise to hyper-belligerent rhetoric and reckless unlawful behavior by Putin.

Stephen Zunes: Two forces have come into play here: One is the triumphalism following the Cold War, the belittling of post-Soviet Russia, the eastward expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries and even the three former Soviet Baltic Republics, and the Western refusal to consider a neutral status for Ukraine. This contributed to the rise of the second force: Putin’s reactionary ultranationalism, militarism, and imperial designs towards Ukraine and elsewhere.

Both have fed on the other. Given Putin’s insistence that Ukraine has no right to exist as its own nation and that it is inherently part of Russia, it is quite possible that the latter would have emerged regardless, which is why I reject claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is therefore “NATO’s fault.” So, while there is little doubt that Western hubris has contributed to the tragedy, the responsibility rests solely on the Russian government. To assume that the United States somehow threatened Russia by developing military alliances with Russia’s near neighbors or sought to oust its government is as simplistic as assuming that Moscow’s efforts to establish security ties with Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua, or other near neighbors of the United States during the Cold War was part of a Russian “hit list” to eventually take over the United States, as Reagan claimed.

For decades, Washington couldn’t understand why so many in Latin America embraced Marxism and looked to the Soviet Union for protection from U.S. imperialism. The U.S. falsely assumed that Latin American nations were simply passive victims of Russian aggression/expansionism, and the U.S. was therefore forced to intervene in “self-defense.” We shouldn’t fall into this trap regarding the United States and Ukraine. As wrong as U.S. policy has been in Eastern Europe, we must understand why most people in those countries do not see Western imperialism as their main threat and have welcomed NATO as a protector. (I think that’s the wrong approach myself, but if I was an Eastern European, I would be in a distinct minority.) For centuries, it was primarily the Russian Empire, followed by the Soviet Union, that threatened their freedom, not the West. The United States has taken advantage of this anti-Russian sentiment for its own imperial designs, which we should vigorously challenge, but let’s not deny agency to the people of those countries who, rightly or wrongly, have looked to the West for protection.

Just as concerns about human rights abuses or other policies by the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan governments can never justify U.S. interventionism in those countries, neither can problematic policies by Zelensky and other Eastern European governments be used to excuse Russian interventionism. Similarly, the 2014 uprising against Yanukovych was not a “U.S. coup”—it was a popular, largely nonviolent, uprising mostly led by liberals, which would have succeeded anywaydespite the limited amount of U.S. funding provided some opposition activists and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s efforts to influence the makeup of the interim government following Yanukovych’s ouster. The general strike and mass protests which brought down the government utilized classic nonviolent resistance tactics, even though the government they were bringing down had been democratically elected and compromise agreement had just been reached. Yanukovych’s notorious corruption, increasing repression, and close ties to Putin had alienated most of the population by that point.[3]

The limited amount of aid[4] to some opposition groups from the United States, the EU, and various Western foundations were no more responsible for the 2014 uprising against Yanukovych as was the limited amount of Soviet aid to leftist rebels in Central America caused those revolutions take place. Zelensky was elected in 2019 with 74% of the vote as an ethnic Russian promising to clean up the corruption riddling both the pro-Russian bloc and the main pro-Western bloc. He has failed to do so thus far, but it seemed that in many ways Ukraine was stumbling towards a more functional government and economy that could eventually transform it into a modern EU state. Perhaps this is what Putin is upset about. Just as the United States could not tolerate what Noam Chomsky has called “the threat of a good example” in the form of successful socialist models in the Western hemisphere, Putin may similarly be troubled by the prospects of a successful liberal democratic alternative among a people with such close geographical, cultural, and historical ties.

Daniel Falcone: In the United States, from a political perspective there seems to be a left and a right on both sides; Ukrainian advocates/skeptics of the left and right, and Russian advocates/skeptics of the same. Can you guide us through some of these moving parts that make the ideological divides so random and hard to nail down?

Lawrence Davidson: This situation is confusing to me also. I know that on the liberal left, Russia is seen by many as an expansionist imperial power—a view which follows from Cold War tropes. On the right, which now appears to be mostly a “follow Trump” affair, the message is that Putin is some sort of admirable strong man. The U.S. government line is that Putin is insane. Only a few on the American Left (Bernie Sanders for instance) recognize that Russia has legitimate security needs and was threatened by NATO.

The bottom line is that most Americans are ignorant of the circumstances that led to the invasion. For many that ignorance is filled in with the propaganda that is offered by the government and media. So, for the majority you either don’t care one way or the other because the Ukraine is far away and certainly does not touch your life, or you’re an angry puppet whose mental strings are pulled by those who shape the national airwaves to the left or to the right.

Richard Falk: The reason for this seeming divergence of ideological perception and prescription is a consequence of the complexity of the fate of Ukraine as suggested by its multidimensional implications. President Biden in a strident March 1st State of the Union speech presented the Ukrainian Crisis as a normative confrontation between ‘democracy and tyranny.’ By stressing the worldwide scope of the encounter, Biden made support of Ukraine’s sovereignty a matter of vital significance to the liberal conception of world order favored by the West, and as such, a legitimate moment to flex the U.S. militarist and globalist muscles. Whether the claim of ideological solidarity should be treated as a genuine clash between two kinds of state-level governance rather that geopolitical propaganda is questionable.

At the meeting of the Biden’s Summit for Democracies in December 2021, such countries as India, Philippines, Israel, Malaysia, and Brazil with autocratic leaders and terrible human rights records were invited to participate. Looked at objectively, the summit was less about democracy than about geopolitical leadership.

The left has good reasons for skepticism about the intensity of the Western response. First, a high degree of hypocrisy is present, considering that the U.S. has done in many countries what Russia seems to be doing in Ukraine—regime-changing intervention, accompanied by ‘shock and awe’ tactics causing massive death, widespread devastation, and hugely cruel international and internal displacement of the civilian population. Added reasons for this critical stance relate to the internal role played by the U.S. in recent domestic Ukrainian political life via its covert role in the 2014 coup overthrow of the elected pro-Russian president, Yanukovych, and the emergence of a right-wing pro-Wester government headed by Poroshenko, giving Russian propaganda about Ukraine a slight edge of plausibility and the attack a defensive spin as anti-Russian, pro-Western Zilensky was elected by a wide margin in the first election held the coup. Russian propaganda on internal Ukrainian politics is at least as misleading and self-serving as what emanates from the West. It is further invalidated by recourse to aggressive war, bellicose rhetoric, and saber rattling rather than a more patient and concerted effort at finding a diplomatic solution.

The Russian outlook, as indicated in my prior response, can be seen as mainly one of defending a traditional sphere of influence from a hostile takeover on its European borders combined with a more general renewed Russian assertiveness on behalf of symmetrical geopolitics. It is relevant to observe that geopolitical norms of conduct are separate from, and with respect to the use of force as odds with international law. In the geopolitical sphere precedent enjoys legislative force, making what the U.S. and NATO has done earlier and repeatedly by way of regime-changing military intervention, which through this practice, which was tolerated in the past, had become a geopolitical norm. The denunciation of this behavior from the perspective of international law is thus virtually irrelevant and hypocritical propaganda as these geopolitical actors enjoy impunity both legally and existentially unless possibly if they experience defeat as Germany and Japan did after 1945.

This observation does not lessen the reprehensible moral quality of this Russian recourse to criminality while carrying out its foreign policy. Even defensive geopolitics—the revolt against U.S. unipolar hegemony—tends to be extremely harmful to third party sites of geopolitical rivalry turned violent, generating proxy warfare confrontations and military interventions on behalf of opposing sides in the internal struggle. In the Vietnam War the U.S. not only engaged in massive intervention on the anti-Communist side but it supported a coup that achieved regime-change to achieve more effective leadership on its side in the struggle.

It may clarify the ideological confrontations to call attention to the distinction between statism and geopolitics in the current world order. Russia’s attack is norm-shattering from a statist, international law standpoint, lacking any credible legal justification, whereas the Euro-American justification for denunciation rests on widely accepted norms of international law, territorial sovereignty, and nuclear taboo. Russia’s still obscure motivations for the attack upon Ukraine’s sovereignty accords with geopolitical norms as set primarily by the West, particularly the United States, and on that score cannot be geopolitically faulted at least absent the acknowledgement and repudiation of past similar instances regardless of the identity of the geopolitical actor.

The Western response is even more geopolitically norm-shattering to the extent it challenges Russia’s traditional sphere of influence along its Southern border, while in this morally deplorable sense Russia’s Ukraine attack is in accord with geopolitical norms. When the U.S. or NATO denounces Russia, it is best understood as hostile propaganda validating coercive diplomacy (sanctions), while when New Zealand or countries of the Global South make the same argument, it is an attempt to override the primacy of geopolitics in world politics, and in its place, affirm the legal, political, and moral authority of state-centric rules of order that accord with the UN Charter and the systemic applicability of international law.

Stephen Zunes: There is a broad spectrum of the political mainstream in support of Ukraine, as there should be. They are victims of aggression. Indeed, the outpouring of support and sympathy to the victims of Russian aggression is quite moving, though it certainly raises questions as to why there hasn’t been similar support and sympathy for nonwhite, non-Christian victims of aggression, such as Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Sahrawis, and others.

In terms of apologists for Russia, Putin’s rightwing nationalism, ties to ultraconservative elements of the Russian Orthodox Church, and his support for far-right parties in Europe and elsewhere are quite consistent with the views of the Trump wing of the Republican Party.

Support of Putin by some elements of the left is harder to understand. Perhaps there is a nostalgia for Soviet Russia, which—despite the serious problems with their system—tended to be on right side of many popular struggles in the Global South, so the Kremlin is therefore mistakenly still seen as “anti-imperialist.” Putin’s government is a far right, reactionary, homophobic, racist, imperialistic regime which—like the United States in Iraq—has engaged in an act of aggression in direct violation of the United Nations Charter. Like Israel and Morocco, Russia must withdraw from their occupied territories and renounced their irredentist claims. Opposing U.S. imperialism does not in itself make a regime progressive or worth defending.

Part of it may be the old “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Much of it could be about the understandable upset at the real, if somewhat exaggerated, provocations by the United States leading up to the crisis. There is also the fact that many people are still bitter at the way that so many in mainstream media and in Washington, including Joe Biden, made repeated demonstrably false claims about Iraq to justify the invasion of that oil-rich country, resulting in an assumption that the U.S. version of international events simply cannot be trusted under any circumstances.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on the media and how it’s structured around this war? Who do you consider to be the most effective on the ground reporters in this situation and why?

Lawrence Davidson: I think the U.S. media has simply revived the Cold War and proceeded as if this was 1950s. Those who control the news media outlets apparently only know one version of post-World War II history and the interim years following the fall of the Soviet Union has done nothing to alter that point of view.

Thus, as regards Russian behavior the media has deleted all the contextual background to the invasion. The whole thing has been reduced to an expansionist driven Russia led by Putin the madman. Speaking of reporters on the ground, this self-censoring storyline is very well represented by Trudy Rubin, the foreign policy person at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her present position of “we must do more for Ukraine” shows little concern that “more” might well mean “war” with Russia.[5]

Richard Falk: I found the U.S, mainstream media shocking in its patriotic excess, one-sided presentation of the issues as norm-shattering without mentioning that this pattern of behavior had been normalized geopolitically by U.S. practice over the last half-century. The media has created no opportunities for informed progressive public intellectuals to give their views even as compared to the radical right, which has put forward a variety of dissident views, mostly unsavory. For instance, Tucker Carlson speaks for some prominent Trumpists by arguing that insufficient national interests of the United States exist to justify a robust defense of Ukraine or confrontation with Russia. Looking back, it seems that the Trump presidency was threatening to the post-Cold War consensus as to hegemonic geopolitics, seeking a more economistic and transactional world order, less willing to pay the price of subsidizing NATO and state-building misadventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The online independent media gives more context and diverse views, generally condemning Russian aggression and tactics but also blaming the U.S. for setting regime-changing aggression precedents, especially, Iraq since 2003.

The display of global unity with respect to the condemnation of Russian aggression is welcome, as is the global disunity, especially evident in the Global South, with respect to the imposition of global sanctions on Russia given the similarity of Russian behavior to comparable U.S. interventions when no such sanctions were proposed much less enacted. These double standards partly exhibit the geopolitical realities of a unipolar world order, which includes the domination of public discourse bearing on the media treatment of antagonistic conflict narratives. A compliant media is an important policy tool of hegemonic geopolitics

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Stephen Zunes: The media coverage has not been bad in my view in terms of reporting the facts on the ground. Sympathy for the Ukrainians is well-deserved in most cases, though it again raises questions about double-standards regarding coverage of victims of aggression by the United States and its allies.

What upsets me about the media coverage is that their analysis has been based largely on the assumption that Russia’s invasion is somehow a uniquely terrible violation of international legal norms, and the United States is somehow uniquely qualified to defend the international order. There is barely any mention of the fact that the Biden administration is the only government in the world to formally recognize Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and Morocco’s illegal annexation of the entire country of Western Sahara.

Instead, the media is simply repeating White House and State Department insistence that no country can change its borders unilaterally and that expending territory by force is illegal which—while certainly correct—has not been U.S. policy regarding the conduct of U.S. allies. Similarly, there has been little mention of the irony that Biden—a strident supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the specious grounds that Iraq was somehow a threat to U.S. national security—is criticizing Putin for similarly false claims justifying the invasion of Ukraine.

Daniel Falcone: There is no way to predict human affairs, but based on your expertise and the political and historical implications taking place, what do you envision as the likely outcomes or possibilities? 

Lawrence Davidson: I think Russia will continue its military operation until Ukraine concedes. If Ukraine does concede at a relatively early stage, maybe they can save some of their domestic independence while conceding control of foreign policy to Russia. If not, Russia will destroy Ukraine. They will reduce the Ukrainian cities to rubble and leave the people starving. Then a leader responsible to Moscow will be put in power and the Russians will supervise a slow redevelopment program.

Throughout this process the sanctions which seem to soothe the Western conscience over its culpability in this affair will only cause suffering on the ground, both in the East and the West. It will not change Russian strategy or tactics. Finally, I do not think there will be a coup in Moscow. I know this is a very negative and sad picture, but the Russians had told the Western leaders that they would never allow hostile forces on their borders. The Western leaders did not listen, and the Ukrainians pay the price.

Richard Falk: The configuration of circumstances caught up in the Ukraine Crisis are distinctive to the current phase of international relations. History offers little guidance, although it contains some experience that is relevant, especially with reference to crisis management and de-escalation. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is instructive in somewhat contradictory ways. The most definitive studies of the crisis suggest that the avoidance of catastrophe depended on such good luck to a substantial degree. It also depended on two leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, who wanted to avoid violent confrontation, and used their leadership skills to find a way out that didn’t humiliate the adversary. Whether Biden and Putin have either the skill or the motivation to find a peaceful means to end this ugly confrontation, which has become a grotesque example of lose/lose and imprudent geopolitics, as well as being an unspeakable humanitarian tragedy for the Ukrainian people.

Pugwash, a loose network of scientists dedicated to peace, founded in 1957 by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, has issued an eight-point plan on February 26, 2022, featuring an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces, ending of sanctions on Russia and Russians, permanent neutrality for Ukraine, implementation of autonomy arrangements for Eastern Ukraine in the Donbass region. Some such sensible compromise that recognizes the various issues at stake is rational, possible, yet in the present atmosphere elusive, improbable. It is difficult to find enough common ground give the polarization of opinion on both sides

More likely, and grimmer, is the persistence of confrontation and low-intensity warfare that could drag on for years, perhaps somewhat moderated by a partial ceasefire followed by an eventual Russian withdrawal of armed forces from Western Ukraine and a diplomatic understanding that the sovereign state of Ukraine can join the European Union, but never NATO, and must adopt a stance of geopolitical neutrality. There are economic as well as prudential incentives to calm the roiled geopolitical waters facilitating desperately needed attention and added resources to climate change, denuclearization, and post-COVID recovery.

Stephen Zunes: Russia could end up being bogged down in its advances on the ground due to lagging logistical support, poor morale of its troops, and tenacious resistance by the Ukrainians, yet they could still engage in the kind of devastating strikes on urban centers as Russian troops did in Grozny, the Israelis have done repeatedly in Gaza, the Saudis in Yemen, and the Syrians in their own cities.  It’s also possible that Russia might end up physically seizing much of Ukraine, but both the armed and unarmed resistance will likely make the country ungovernable. Just because you have tanks in the streets and collaborators in government buildings doesn’t mean you control the country if people do not recognize your authority.

Meanwhile, the sanctions will lead to growing opposition among elites and ordinary Russians to Putin’s impetuous actions, possibly forcing him to compromise and perhaps even removing him from power. I have little doubt that Ukraine will win. The questions are:  How long it will take and how many people will die until they do? And will Russia’s eventual defeat lead to increased U.S. militarism and imperial reach, or a stronger global stance against all forms of aggression, including that of the United States and its allies?

Notes

[1] See Anthony Lake,” From Containment to Enlargement,” Clinton Digital Library, Sept. 21, 1993; John Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of Liberal Hegemony,” Stimson Lecture, Yale University, Nov. 22, 2017

[2] e.g., Guatemala 1954; Chile 1973; Nicaragua 1980s

[3] Some fascists that staged a limited role late in the uprising and briefly held some minority positions in the interim government have received barely 4% of the vote in recent elections, though the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion has played a role in the fighting in the Donbas region.

[4] The $5 billion figure attributed to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was in reference to all U.S. foreign aid sent to Ukraine since its independence in 1991, which includes aid to pro-Western Ukrainian administrations (which the United States presumably would not have wanted to destabilize). Like most U.S. foreign aid, some of it went for good things and some for not so good things. There was also some funding through the National Endowment for Democracy and other organizations to some opposition groups that were involved in the recent insurrection, but this was in the millions of dollars, nothing remotely close to $5 billion.

[5] No ‘no-fly zone’? Then NATO must find another way to protect Ukraine’s skies.

Daniel Falcone is an activist, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He teaches humanities at the United Nations International School and resides in Queens.

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.

Toward a Second Arab Spring

4 Mar

[Prefatory Note: this opinion piece was previously published in the online weekly, Transcend Media Service in modified form on March 1, 2022; a much longer will be published under TRT auspices on a book dealing with the Arab World Ten Years After the Arab Spring, edited by Senar Akturk.]

Ten Years After the Arab Spring: Is It Time ‘to fail better’

Points of Departure

Looking back ten years on the apparent failure of the First Arab Spring, the situation of Arab societies in 2021 has dramatically regressed in at least two respects as compared to the conditions that prompted the unexpected uprisings a decade ago. First, the realities of poverty, gross inequality, corruption, and autocracy that motivated the populist movements have worsened in a variety of disturbing respects across the entire region, although to varying extents from country to country.

This assessment does not even take account of the violence and suffering flowing from negative side effects of counterrevolutionary actions devoted to restoring the prior order and punishing the insurrectionary opposition. Additionally political turbulence in several countries in the aftermath of the uprisings produced massive internal and international displacement of peoples that often resulted in a second experience of misery for those fleeing combat zones beset by civil strife and foreign intervention. The Arab Spring despite its initial inspirational display of unarmed protesters demanding freedom, human rights, and accountable democracy soon thereafter became the proximate cause of this tragic sequel in several countries. Ten years later there is very little of a positive character that remains of what seemed for a brief interlude to be a liberating moment for a series of societies enduring dysfunctional and repressive governance.

Secondly, although not the fault of the disappointing sequel to the Arab Spring, current regional and global conditions have given rise to a different apolitical set of challenges in the Middle East that make the earlier political quests for more humane and equitable state/society relations seem less capable of reigniting the spirit of 2011 in the near future. These new conditions include a growing awareness that the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. It has been further stressed in recent years by the effects on oil and gas pricing due to global undertakings to lessen dependence on fossil fuels as rapidly as possible by hastening societal shifts to renewable sources of energy. The urgent priority of lessening the adverse consequences of global warming is likely to become even more preoccupying for societies struggling to manage ecological agendas, while while diverting attention from the revolutionary agendas that animated the Arab Spring.

As well, nothing has been done in the Middle East or by geopolitical actors to reduce the dangers of war and instability associated with confronting Iran by recourse to coercive diplomacy, including threats, assassinations, and harsh sanctions. In fact, the Palestinian people have been thrown to the wolves while Israel is given the economic and political benefits of normalization with Arab governments without any fulfilling the international consensus of achieving a prior negotiated peace with the Palestinians.  

Accentuating these concerns are serious prospects of destabilizing shifts in regional and global alignments that may give rise to making the Middle East once again, as during the Cold War, a site of struggle between global rivals, in this instance the U.S. versus China and Russia. The diminishing role of the United States in the region coupled with the increasing relevance of China and Russia as well as the wider potential implications of Israel’s increasingly normalized  relations with Arab countries, which has included making Israel an acknowledged partner in Saudi-led anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish coalitions. Such collaboration with Israel without achieving a genuine peace agreement with the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, including those in foreign refugee camps or involuntary exile, was unthinkable a decade ago. The ‘normalization accords’ initiated in 2020 at the end of Trump presidency have also had the effect of widening the gaps between the pro-Palestinian views of Arab peoples and the elites that govern in the Middle East. Such shifts tend to validate the views of those in opposition that the political leadership of many Arab countries is illegitimate as well as incompetent, corrupt, and repressive. In effect, a legitimacy hangs over those governments that have tacitly or avowedly abandoned the Palestinian struggle for the sake of making common cause with the Israelis against Iran, as well as to benefit from trade, investment, and access to arms markets.

Despite these developments, If we look forward in time, there seems present a set of conditions that will in due course give rise to a revival of activist displays of radical political discontent in several Arab countries. Recent political challenges to the status quo mounted in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, and occupied Palestine have already foreshadowed such a future. Although the outcome of these challenges has been confused and unresolved, and far less dramatic than the Arab Spring, their occurrence reveals vitality in civil society as well as fissures at national sub-national levels of governance that amount to an early warning system of political volatility throughout the region.

There are also a variety of indications that the failures of the First Arab Spring have prompted adjustments in the outlook of democratizing activist thought and practice. It may also be relevant that the U.S. appears, at least temporarily, to have wearied of its engagement in regime-changing ‘democracy-promoting’ interventions in the Middle East being inhibited, at least temporarily, by its notable failures in Iraq, and more recently in Afghanistan.[i] Such wariness of military engagement on the part of the U.S. within the region takes some account of the fact that the most elaborate U.S./NATO attempts to alter the orientation and leadership in countries such as Iraq and Libya were costly and failed to produce the political results that were invoked to justify the interventions in the first place.[ii]

A major reaction to the removal of despotic leadership in several countries produced a collapse of national governmental capabilities to sustain order, producing a dispersal of power within the borders of states, notably Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. The weakening of governing capacity of the state bureaucracies led to persisting violent strife and chaos as well as death and devastation, and massive internal and cross-border displacement of populations. These chaotic circumstances on the ground have contributed to the acute economic and political misery of Arab populations, prompting rising opposition that is leading governments in the region to rely on ever more oppressive measures of political control that seem to be generating large-scale resentment and alienation throughout the MENA region, contributing to chronic chaos in several states.

The picture that emerges from looking back ten years combined with an attempt to sketch the present and near future of Arab political development is a bewilderingly contradictory configuration of great complexity, diversity of national circumstances, and radical uncertainty, especially pertaining to geopolitical intrusions in MENA. Going forward, the absence of any positive model in the region upon which to construct a visionary future seems to make unlikely large-scale recourse to oppositional action. 

The search goes on to develop a politics of action that combines fairness in the economic sphere with dignity and participation in the political sphere. This is likely to remain a haunting challenge for those social forces committed to drastic change. The experience of the Arab Spring suggests that even a popular movement strong and determined enough to remove long entrenched political leaders from the pinnacles of state power for alleged abuses of power, incompetence, and corruption may not have the knowhow, capabilities, and sustainable support to create a stable aftermath to the seizure of state power consistent with its revolutionary goals and expectations. More concretely, it has become questionable whether a freely elected national government can give rise to a resilient enough constitutional democracy to be hospitable to various forms of political, ethnic, and geographic pluralism that are characteristic features of many MENA states. 

Such a generalization applies whether emergent post-uprising leadership is of a secular or more Islamist variant. The dilemma of the aftermath becomes so daunting, and perhaps paralyzing, when it is realized that all of the available governance options in the Middle East have so far led to disappointing experiences if evaluated from the perspective of order (stability, national unity, territorial reach) and  justice (equitable representation, rule of law, human rights, social protection, ethical norms, public approval by free elections).


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Private Prescriptions for a Better Life in 2022

1 Jan

[Prefatory Note: a thoughtful Indian friend in Paris sent this listas her prescription for a better life in 2022. I adopted her list and added to it. I invite readers of this blog to propose their own additions and subtractions.]

2022

More sleep

More music

More tea

More books

More creating

More long walks

More Laughter

More Dreaming

More Love                  

RAF Additions

+more peace

+more justice

+ more tennis

+more poems

+more chess