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

.

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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Putting Climate Change on the Back Burner

27 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a conversation between the journalist and author, CJ Polychroiou, and myself. This text has previously been published in various online sites in mid-Februrary. Nothing is changed except the title. My concerns have been intensified by geopolitical encounter resulting from the Ukraine Crisis.]]

Putting Climate Change on the Back Burner

Q1. The climate crisis is the greatest challenge of our time, but, so far, we seem to be losing the battle in the effort to avoid driving the planet to dangerous “tipping points.” Indeed, a climate apocalypse appears to be a rather distinct possibility given the current levels of climate (in)action. Having said that, it is quite obvious that the climate crisis has more than one dimension. It is surely about the environment, but it is also about science, ethics, politics, and economics. Let’s start with the relationship between science and the environment. Does science bear responsibility for global warming and the ensuing environmental breakdown given the role that technologies have played in the modern age?

I think science bears some responsibility for adopting the outlook that freedom of scientific inquiry takes precedence over not considering the real world consequences of scientific knowledge. The exemplary case being the process by which science and scientists contributing to the making of the nuclear bomb, and in this instance, some of the most ethically inclined scientists and knowledge workers, above all, Albert Einstein, were contributors who later regretted their role. And, of course, the continuous post-Hiroshima development of weaponry of mass destruction have enlisted leading biologists, chemists, and physicists in their professional roles to produce ever more deadly weaponry, and there has been little scientific pushback.

With respect to the environmental breakdown that is highlighted by your question, the situation is more obscure. There were scientific warnings about a variety of potential catastrophic threats to ecological balance that go back to the early 1970s. These warnings were contested by reputable scientists until the end of the 20th century, but if the precautionary principle included in the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (1972) would have been implemented, then certainly scientists bore some responsibility for continuing to work toward more capital efficient means of finding technological applications for oil, gas, and coal. As with adverse health effects post-Enlightenment beliefs that human progress depended on scientific knowledge inhibited regulation for the benefit of the public good. Only when civil society began to sound the alarm were certain adjustments made, although often insufficient in substance, deferring to private interests in profitability and public interests in the enhancement of military capabilities and governmental control.

Overall, despite the Climate Change crisis, there remains a reluctance to hamper scientific ‘progress’ by an insistence on respecting the carrying capacity of the earth. Also science and scientists have yet to relate the search for knowledge to the avoidance of ecological dangerous technological applications, and even more so in relation to political and cultural activities. There is also the representational issue involving the selection of environmental guardians and their discretionary authority if a more prudential approach were to be adopted.

Q2.  Th climate crisis also raises important ethical questions, although it is not clear from current efforts to tame global warming that the world takes them seriously. Be that as it may, how should ethics inform the debate about global warming and environmental breakdown?

The most obvious ethical issues arise when deciding how to spread the economic burdens of regulating greenhouse gas emissions in ways that ensure an equitable distribution of costs within and among countries. The relevance of ‘climate justice’ to relations among social classes and between rich and poor countries is contested and controversial. As the world continues to be organized along state-centric axes of authority and responsibility, ethical metrics are so delimited. Given the global nature of the challenges associated with global warming this way of calculating climate justice and ethical accountability in political space is significantly dysfunctional.

Similar observations are relevant with respect to time. Although idea of ‘responsibility to future generations’ received some recognition at the UN nothing tangible by way of implementation was done. Political elites, without exception, were fixed on short-term performance criteria, whether satisfying corporate shareholders or the voting public. The tyranny of the present in policy domains worked against implementing the laudatory ethical recognition of the claims of the unborn to a healthy and materially sufficient future.

Taking account of the relevance of the past seems an ethical imperative that is neglected because it is seen as unfairly burdening the present for past injustices. For instance, reparations claims on behalf of victimized people, whether descendants of slavery or otherwise exploited peoples, rarely are satisfied, however ethically meritorious. There is one revealing exception, reparations imposed by the victorious powers in a war.

In the environmental domain, the past is very important to the allocation of responsibility for the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gas emissions. Western countries that benefitted from many decades of industrialization seem more responsible for global warming than the late developers. Yet in some instances, particularly Africa and the Middle East, this gross difference is further aggravated by the dual facts of minimal responsibility for global warming yet maximal vulnerability to its harmful effects.

These various ethical concerns are being forced onto the agendas of global conferences. This was evident at the 2021 COP-26 Glasgow Climate Summit under UN auspices. The inter-governmental response was disappointing, and reflected capitalist and geopolitical disregard of the ethical dimensions of the climate change challenge.

Q3. Politics, unfortunately, also figures most prominently in the climate crisis, with questions even being raised as to whether our current system of government, both at the national and international level, is adequate to meet the greatest challenge of our time. What are your thoughts on this matter?

As suggested, addressing the global challenge of Climate Change with the tools developed for problem-solving in a state-centric world possessing weak institutional mechanisms for the effective promotion of the global public good is the organizational root of the problem. The UN was established with the ahistorical hope that the Great Powers of international relations would cooperate for peace as successfully as they cooperated for war between 1939 to 1945. Despite lofty rhetoric the UN was designed to be a weak global mechanism. Why else disempower the UN by giving the victors World War II a right of veto, which in effect was a recognition of the primacy of geopolitics.

Besides geopolitics, there were other obstacles to global oriented problem-solving as a result of the persistence and expansion of statism after the collapse of European colonialism. This dominance of statism was reinforced by rigid ideological adherence to nationalism on the part of political leaders, shaping relations with other countries even if disguised somewhat by alliance diplomacy, ‘special relationshops’ (Israel), and neoliberal patterns of globalization.

The core political issue is upholding the indispensable need for unprecedented degrees of globally-oriented cooperation to address effectively Climate Change challenges that were being stymied by the continuing dominance of statist and geopolitical tendencies in international relations. These tendencies favor the part over the whole in multilateral forms of problem-solving. This structural reality has been recently been accentuated by the rise of autocratic hyper-nationalist leaders in many important states and by recent preoccupations with overcoming the COVID pandemic and containing its negative economic spillovers.

Until a robust mechanism for the promotion of global public goods is established the political potential of present structures of world order do not seem capable of fashioning prudent and effective policies to cope with Climate Change. For such a mechanism to be established will require the shock effect of future climate catastrophes or a powerful, widely supported, militant transnational civil society movement dedicated to the protection of the earth.

Q4. The climate crisis also reflects the failure of economics, with the  argument being made that capitalism is actually the cause of the problem and climate change merely a symptom. Given where we are, and with the window of opportunity rapidly closing, should the fight against global warming be also a fight against capitalism?

David Whyte ends his book on ecocide with these stark words: “We must kill the corporation before it kills us.” The guiding idea of contemporary capitalism is to maximize short-term profitability, a posture that contradicts the kind of approach that would protect the natural habitat against the ravages wrought by contemporary capitalism.

However, the issue may be broader than capitalism. Socialist governments, exercising greater state control over the economy, have exhibited no better record when it comes to environmental protection or taking responsible account of longer term threats to the natural habitat. State-dominated economies may be less concerned about profitability, but their preoccupation with maximizing economic growth and susceptibility to corruption is as dangerous and destructive.

Until economic and political policies are grounded upon a new kind of citizenship featuring patriotism to humanity gains political traction it seems highly improbable that ecological threats will be addressed responsibly.

Q5. From your own perspective, how do we move forward in the fight against global warming? Indeed, what might be possible approaches to overcome climate inaction on the part of the status quo?

You saved the most difficult question for last! I do think education in the broad sense is key, including rethinking citizenship and activist civic participation. It is also essential that efforts be made to enable the UN to act more independently of geopolitical and nationalist manipulations, which have prevented the UN from playing an influential role throughout the COVID pandemic. This regressive interaction with states was highlighted by the hostility of Trump’s presidency to any kind of meta-nationalist approach to the control of the virus, including his disgraceful decision to defund and disengage from the WHO.

A more credible UN requires independent and increased funding by way of an international tax as well as curtailing of the right of veto by the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. Such global reforms will not happen without substantial pressure from civil society mobilizations coupled with the emergence of more enlightened leadership in important countries.

As suggested above, a reconstituted world order responsive to the magnitude and character of climate change challenge would seem to require the radical transformation of economic activity. This seems as though it could happen only through a revolutionary process, either as something that took the unprecedented shape of a transnational movement or spread from state to state as did the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, but without sparking a counterrevolutionary backlash.

Because there is no currently visible transition strategy to move from where we are to where we need to be, indulging the utopian imagination is a political act, envisioning futures attuned to the Climate Change agenda.

I believe that our escape from present entrapment depends on ‘a politics of impossibility.’ Our leaders and general consensus is that politics should be conceived as ‘the art of the possible,’ which assessess the play of forces to discover what it feasible. My argument has been that what is understood by the political class as feasible is insufficient to produce satisfactory policies and practices with regard to climate menaces. That is, the politics we know lacks the capacity to generate a solution.

It is evident that the impossible happens. This was manifested in recent international experience by the victories of national resistance movements in several major 20th century anti-colonial wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. In each instances, before the impossible happened, experts deemed the outcome utopian or impossible, not worthy of the attention of serious, sane persons. What seems clear is that the impossible happens only when the mobilization of people is great enough to produce outcomes that defy the perceptions of those forces committed to the permanence of the status quo.

This leads me to view the future as uncertain and unknowable. For this reason, whatever future we believe necessary and desirable can unfold, defying current expectations. This makes it rational and justifiable for patriots of humanity to engage on behalf of this better future. There are many signs that a green vision of the future is gaining support throughout the planet, especially among youth who have most to lose, and hence to gain. Youth may be the vanguard among those demanding ecologically responsible patterns of humane governance for the planet.

On Israel as an Apartheid State: an Interview with Richard Falk

19 Feb

[Prefatory Note: An interview David Falcone originally published in COUNTERPUNCH prompted by the Amnesty Report but extending beyond it.]

FEBRUARY 11, 2022

On Israel as an Apartheid State: an Interview with Richard Falk

BY DANIEL FALCONE

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Photograph Source: Chris Yunker – CC BY 2.0

Daniel Falcone: Could you give the context of the framework that brought us to Amnesty International’s findings regarding Israel and Palestine? What has changed regarding the organization to make this happen?

Richard Falk: I have no insight into the inner workings of Amnesty International, but it seems obvious from the length and detailed coverage in their 278-page report that this undertaking was begun years earlier. There were undoubtedly several elements in the background that prompted AI to undertake an inquiry that was bound to be controversial, and from experience to result in an insulting backlash with likely adverse impacts on funding. It has, perhaps, become a bit awkward for AI to dodge the issue of apartheid any longer given the 2001 reports of the two of the most prominent civil society human rights NGOs, Israel’s B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, which detailed their reasons for concluding that the allegations of apartheid were well grounded in factual evidence and legal analysis.

I would also add that the UN Social and Economic Council for West Asia (ESCWA) academic report co-authored by Virginia Tilley and myself, released in March 2017 had reached similar conclusions, producing acrimonious reactions by Israel and the United States. This pushback reached a climax in a Security Council session, when the American representative, Nikki Haley arrogantly threatened the UN with a punitive response unless this report was repudiated. The recently elected Sec. General, dutifully ordered the report removed from the ESCWA website, which led the director of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, to resign rather than carry out, a task left to her more compliant successor. So far as I know our report, although removed from the ESCWA website, was never repudiated.

Daniel Falcone: Yair Lapid called the report “false” and “antisemitic.” Do you suppose he believes this to be the case? It seems to be a talking point that is losing its effectiveness. 

Richard Falk: I have now carefully read the AI Report and have concluded that it maintains the highest professional standards of research and analysis throughout. Of course, any legal argument made in the context of a complex fact situation of this sort is subject to logically plausible divergent interpretations. Lawyers earn their livings by learning how to mount arguments defending their respective clients, and I am sure Israel and its supporter abroad have many qualified jurists who can interpret the evidence along lines consistent with Israeli claims of constitutional democracy with human rights equally protected whether the objecting party is a Jew or Palestinian.

Yet for Yair Lapid and others to attack the AI Report as ‘a despicable lie’ that is full of falsehoods, as well as being the work of anti-Semites is nothing other than a shaming tactic designed to redirect the conversation away from the substance of the apartheid allegations to an inquiry into the dubious motivations of AI. This is in an inflammatory and disgracefully irresponsible way of responding in view of AI’s long, distinguished identity as among the most trusted and professional human rights organizations in the world. It is reminiscent of the manner Israel has chosen to respond to all criticisms over the course of the last decade, especially during the period when Netanyahu was prime minister. A similar diatribe was launched against the International Criminal Court a year ago when it formally authorized an investigation of Israeli criminality in response to well-evidenced allegations of a series of distinct crimes by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Incidentally, the PA did not list ‘apartheid’ among its legal grievances.

Daniel Falcone: Lawrence Davidson just wrote a piece called the “Israeli Pogrom,” citing a Zionist group’s attack on Palestinians. Do you see this type of extreme violence as cause for leading up to the report?

Richard Falk: The Davidson essay is devoted to a critique of Israeli settler violence directed at Palestinian civilians living in the West Bank. It shows significantly the double standards manifested by Israeli indulgence of Palestinian abuse by Israeli settlers, while displaying a contrasting vigilance with respect to protecting Jews from Palestinian violence whether in Occupied Palestine or Israel. This certainly manifests racial discrimination carried out with the complicity of the Israeli State. However, it is not evidence of the ideology or even the existence of an apartheid system of control, which either explicitly or implicitly premises governance on racial inequality as between a dominant and subordinate race and adopts specific policies to ensure the persistence of structures of inequality. In Israel’s case it denies complicity and rejects racism as part of its governance plan.

Whether such Israel’s persistent disregard of the obligations of an Occupying Poweras set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention played any role in leading AI to investigate the apartheid allegation remains unknowable as the organization has made no such reference. It is more plausible to suppose that the earlier reports on the apartheid claim played a principal role in leading AI to join the chorus although this is also a matter of conjecture.

Daniel Falcone: According to Haaretz, the US seems ready to dismiss the Amnesty International findings, can you comment on the state of the bipartisan consensus?

Richard Falk: I never for a minute expected the U.S. Government, including Congress, to accept an accusation of apartheid directed at Israel, no matter how impeccable the source and how persuasive the evidence and analysis. For one thing, it would break the special relationship causing a serious disruptive backlash domestically as well as gravely weaken the anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East. We should by not be surprised by the primacy of geopolitics when it collides with the requirement of international law and human rights standards, as well supposedly affirmed national values such as here, anti-racism.

For another, Biden like most of his presidential predecessors unabashedly follows unwaveringly a pro-Israel path in relation to grievances of the Palestinian people, although less crudely than Trump. This predisposition led Biden even to accept several of Trump’s more extreme shows of support for Israeli defiance of the UN consensus, including moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the normalization agreements with Arab neighbors, and the annexation of the Golan Heights. In effect, Biden has lowered his voice while maintained continuity most of Trump’s policies. The apparent discontinuities in the form of reviving support for a two-state solution or objection to further settlement expansion are gestures at best, widely known to be policy non-starters having a long record of zero behavioral impact. Above all, because the Oslo-type diplomacy has become superseded by Israeli disinterest in negotiating with the Palestinians, as equals with a shared acceptance of the principal goal being the establishment of an independent sovereign Palestine.

As a result, there is a wide gap in perceptions and attitude between the U.S. Government and the human rights civil society consensus on this crucial question of how to evaluate the apartheid charges. As the AI Report clearly argues, the evidence points to apartheid, and this engages international responsibility to take positive steps to suppress and punish the crime. On this basis AI recommends imposing an international arms embargo on Israel and urges the ICC to investigate the question of Israeli criminality and its legal consequences that is raised by the evidence of Israeli apartheid.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how the Palestinian question is evolving in mainstream US circles? It seems that both individuals and institutions have become more robust to deal with the potential consequences of this political engagement. Can the movement maintain its intensity and enter liberal pragmatic spaces at the same time in your estimation?

Richard Falk: Despite notable developments, Israel continues to hold most of the cards as to the approach taken to the Palestinian question in the U.S. Although the bipartisan consensus and the Zionist civil society infrastructure has somewhat frayed due to the excesses of illiberal Trumpism and because of the increasing normalization of the apartheid critique, Israel still has the upper hand with respect to Congress, White House, and Beltway think tanks.

At the same time, the symbolic victories achieved by the Palestinians over the course of the last two years are significant from a Legitimacy War perspective. Admittedly, to an uncertain extent these developments have been offset by the successes of Trump’s normalization diplomacy (‘The Abraham Accords’), especially as endorsed and extended during the first year of the Biden presidency. It seems premature to reinterpret the symbolic balance between Israel and Palestine as it plays out in the U.S., The picture should become clearer during the next two years.

Because the apartheid line of critique indicts Israel for systemic criminality, which can only be overcome by renouncing the fundamental Zionist claim to secure a fully sovereign Jewish state, it will likely run into a stone wall of resistance in the United States, including in liberal Zionist circles. This resistance may take the form, as it has in NYT/CNNresponse to AI Report, which has been to maintain a stony silence. It is my impression that, not only in the U.S. but throughout the West, liberal opinion with respect to Palestinian grievances is evasive, if not entirely silent. Neither the alternative of implementing the AI recommendations nor the alternative of endorsing the official Israel pushback by way of attacking the reports as full of falsehoods and the work of anti-Semites is acceptable. Under these conditions silence and evasion seem like preferred options.

Yet such a course of action amounts to a validation of critiques of double standards. To weep about excess police force in responding to Hong Kong protest demonstrations or the treatment of the Uyghurs but avert eyes when it comes to the reality of prolonged Palestinian suffering and suppression of basic rights may be a contradiction is morally unacceptable, especially given the history of Western involvement in the political evolution of the Israeli state. At some point, the contradiction may become too blatant to accept even if it currently seems to remain an attractive pragmatic solution in relation to the apartheid critique.

Daniel Falcone: Is there any possibility that mainstream groups labeling the situation as “Apartheid” are making an oversimplification? Aren’t some parts of the region “better” than conditions were in South Africa, and some “worse,” as Chomsky points out. Also, is there a fear that the Palestinian cause is being reduced to a type of US middle class classical rights movements discourse, largely focused on symbolic political rights without constructing a path to wholesale economic policy and transformative justice?

Richard Falk: You raise an important set of overlooked issues. In retrospect, many progressives in South Africa feel that it was a severe mistake to settle for political rights and forego any challenge to white economic and social privilege. And it is also true that when Nelson Mandela was hailed for achieving the breakthrough agreement bringing the apartheid regime to an end, little attention was given to the widespread poverty of the black majority or the gross inequalities in health care, housing, educational opportunity that have hardly changed in the more than 30 years sincepolitical apartheid was dismantled.

At the same time, if Mandela had pressed demands for a more comprehensive approach to societal injustice no agreement at all would have been forthcoming. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s comparison between the American Revolution and the French and Russian Revolutions. She argues that the American Revolution was a humanitarian and political success because it didn’t seek to challenge economic and social structures, whereas the French and Russian Revolutions fell a bloody victim to their own laudable ambitions. Arguably the popular movement in Egypt that overthrew an autocratic leader settled for too little, making itself vulnerable to counterrevolutionary reversal, which occurred two years later. I think we are left with an insoluble problem that must be addressed in terms of the particularities of the situation.

Applying these considerations to the Palestinian situation, I would argue that it is preferable to accept limited goals in a manner like what ended apartheid in South Africa. This is ambition enough given the Palestinian circumstances and might make apartheid-ending diplomacy eventually negotiable. As in post-apartheid South Africa, I believe it best to leave the admittedly important economic and social agenda to post-apartheid Israel/Palestine, although realizing that these formidable justice issues remain unresolved.

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.

Is The Amnesty International Report an Israeli ‘Sharpeville Moment?’

10 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The following interview contains some probing questions put to me by C. J. Polychroniou. The interview was published in Truthout  on February 9th, following the release on February 1st, of the explosive Amnesty International Report finding Israel to be guilty of committing the continuing crime of apartheid. How much longer can governments, the UN, and liberal Zionist close their eye in face of the mounting consensus in the international human community on the question of Israeli apartheid?]

Is The Amnesty International Report an Israeli ‘Sharpeville Moment?’

Q1. Amnesty International’s new report exposes Israeli abuses against Palestinians. The report shows that Israel imposes a form of domination and oppression against Palestinians under its control that qualifies as a system of apartheid under international law. In this context, it affirms the 2017 United Nations report that you had helped produce and for which you were personally attacked by Nikki Haley at the Security Council. Yet, the report is full of lies, according to Israel, and some of its strongest allies (US, UK, and Germany) reject the description of Israel as an apartheid state. Let’s start with the most basic question of all: Is there anything in the report that is not true? If not, why has it caused such a bipartisanship fury in the US?

I think it is important to assess the AI report in the wider context of the perception of Israeli apartheid over the course of the last five years since the issuance of ESCWA Report in 2017 [Richard Falk & Virginia Tilley, “Report on Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” UN ESCWA Report, March 15, 2017]. In 2001 two comprehensive reports by widely respected human rights organizations added weight to the apartheid allegations. The first one by the most established and internationally trusted Israeli NGO devoted to the protection of human rights, B’Tselem. It has developed an outstanding reputation for professionalism over the years. [“A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid,” B’Tselem, Jan. 12, 2021.] The second report was issued by Human Rights Watch, the flagship human rights civil society organization in the United States with offices around the world. [“A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” Human Rights Watch, April 27, 2001, 312 pp.] The AI Report should be seen as the culmination of a trend validating allegations of Israeli apartheid, at least within international civil society. [“Israel’s Apartheid Against the Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity, Amnesty International, Feb. 1, 278 pp.]

To dismiss and denigrate these reports adhering to the highest human right research standards, as Israeli and American leaders and spokespersons have attempted to do, calling the AI Report full of ‘lies’ and the work of ‘anti-Semites’ is a shameless slander. Such inflammatory language is designed to shift the conversation from the message to the messenger. This interpretation of the tactics of those rejecting the AI Report is strengthened by the absence of any serious effort to refute the substantive charges. So far there has been a bipartisan angry rejection of the AI Report in Congress, and virtual silence in the mainstream TV and print media. How different would be the U.S. reaction to an Amnesty Report summarizing the breakup of Hong Kong demonstrations or damning the Chinese denial of human rights to the Uyghur minority. The inevitable  conclusion reached is that international law and human rights function for the U.S. Government as geopolitical tools rather than normative principles. 

Another element of context seems highly relevant. This pushback against the AI should be understood in light of a recent Israeli campaign to demonize the protection of human rights in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories. The most dramatic move of this character was the Executive Order issued on October 19, 2021 by the Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, declaring six of the most respected civil society organizations in the West Bank to be ‘terrorist organizations’ on the basis of secret and undisclosed evidence deemed ‘legally dubious’ even in liberal Israeli media venues such a Haaretz. A large sector of public opinion in North America and Europe, including in liberal Zionist circles, was shocked by Gantz’s crude move, which was followed up by Major General Yehuda Fuchs, the military commander in the West Bank by a milder declaration that five of the six organization listed by Gantz were ‘unlawful associations’ under his authority to issue Emergency Regulations. (one organization exempted from the list because it had previously been earlier so designated). At least, General Fuchs refrained from repeating the more severe condemnation of Gantz, but the intention was the same, to inhibit donors and to neutralize the efforts of civil society to cope with the hardships of prolonged Israeli occupation of the West Bank and attendant violations of international humanitarian law.

A final issue of context results from the Israel’s Knesset in the form of the 2018 Basic Law proclaiming Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people, who alone have the right of self-determination within Israel’s still unspecified borders, although the settler communities on the West Bank were clearly intended to be incorporated as part of Israel. The importance here is the extraordinary claim of Jewish exclusivity in what had been for centuries the homeland of a majority Palestinian population. When the colonialist Balfour Declaration was declared in 1917 the Jewish minority in Palestine was less than 10% of the total population of Palestine despite feverish efforts of twenty years of the Zionist Movement to settle Palestine with as many Jews as possible.

These issues of context are of help when assessing both the AI Report and the criticisms directed at it. Responding directly to your inquiry about whether there is reason to accord credibility to the Israeli response. In long reports of this nature there are sure to be contradictory ways of interpreting the evidence. The legal profession depends upon the plausibility of such diverse readings of the evidence. Yet. having collaboratively written one report and carefully read the others, I can assure you that there is no ‘lie’ or even irresponsible allegation in any of the four reports. Because of the sensitivity surrounding accusations of apartheid directed at Israel as well as the realistic apprehension that Israel and its most ardent supporters habitually resort to dirty tactics to discredit critics, the AI authors and researchers leaned over backwards to avoid making suspect allegation. They were scrupulous throughout in compiling and interpreting the evidence. I believe any objective reading of the reports would agree that the highest standards of competence and canons of responsible investigation were upheld. Unlike the apartheid leaders of South Africa, Israel’s leaders deny the charges of apartheid altogether while defending their belief in the appropriateness of the practices and policies used to uphold security given the nature of Israel as a state of the Jewish people. Yet rather than substantively defending reliance on apartheid Israeli apologists are irresponsibly attacking the integrity of the report and the supposedly despicable motivations of its authors and sponsoring organization..  

You also understandably also ask ‘why the fury?’ if the reports themselves are not mendacious, but serious objective assessments of allegations, then why would Israel not respond in kind with contrary interpretations of the evidence or by a show of evidence that the Israeli system of controlling Palestinians is consistent with a reasonable construction of Israeli security imperatives. After all, Israel has plenty of skilled jurists who always seem ready to go along with the prevailing Israeli policies based on Jewish supremacy. For instance, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the legality of 2018 Basic Law, and its chief judge even had the temerity to assert that the law didn’t alter the democratic character of the Israeli state.

 I suppose that at some point an attempt will be made to put forward an argument in defense of Israel’s racial policies, although differing in nature from South Africa’ overt legal, moral, and political defense of apartheid. I believe Israel will never admit to the apartheid allegations but would defend its laws, policies, and practices as reasonable given security threats facing the country. This approach by way of legalism would be quite a stretch given the essentially uncontested evidence that Israel’s policies and practices do satisfy the accepted international definition of apartheid relied upon in international law circles, which rests on systemic racial domination together with the demonstration of a specific intent to impose and maintain system by all necessary means.

I would contend that from time of the 1948 War during which more than 700,000 were uprooted from their homeland mostly becoming refugees in neighboring Arab countries generations ago Israel was administering race relations according to an apartheid ethos. The destruction of several hundred Palestinian villages was an incriminating complement to the wartime coercive departure of Palestinians. Israeli intentions became even clearer by an official blanket denial to Palestinian refugees of thei4 international law right of return. These features accompanying the establishment of Israel lends credence to the view apartheid was integral to Israel’s state-building project from its origins until the present day.

Israel is understandably distressed by this growing civil society consensus that its treatment of the Palestinians amounts to apartheid. To begin with, apartheid is listed as one of the crimes against humanity in Article 7 of the Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court. As the AI Report contends, if apartheid exists then there is present an international responsibility to take steps to bring it to an end. Although Israel has refused to govern its behavior by international law standards in relation of other issues, it nevertheless deeply resents being so charged. It is especially reactive to critics and organizations that have positive and generally apolitical reputations, which includes AI, HRW, and B’Tselem.

There is still the puzzle posed by Israel’s long record of defying international law without suffering adverse consequences, a position made possible by the unconditional geopolitical support provided by the United States, which is also often reinforced by its European allies. It is notable that despite the civil society consensus, few governments other that post-apartheid South Africa have been prepared to go along with the apartheid allegation in inter-governmental contexts, presumably fearing a backlash. This reluctance of governments and international institutions to implement the conclusions and recommendations of AI exposes the political weakness of  a normative consensus opposed by strong geopolitical forces.

Yet it is admittedly not foolish for Israeli officials and think tank policy experts to be worried. Even though Israel will not waver in its rejection of the apartheid allegation at this time or alter its policies of domination and victimization, it has suffered a serious setback. Symbolic politics have an underappreciated relevance to the long-term resolution of internal and international conflicts ever since 1945. This relevance runs counter to the lingering, anachronistic belief of political realists that the flow of world history reflects relative military capabilities. It should be illuminating to realize that the anti-colonial wars were eventually won by the nationalist side that prevailed on the symbolic battlefields of Legitimacy Wars rather than by prevailing by its military prowess in the combat zones. The U.S. experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan illuminate various facets of this shift in the post-World War II balances of power that derive from the resolute pursuit of legitimate grievances, and the weakening of capabilities that arise from losing the Legitimacy War.

Beyond this, Israel has learned from the South African experience that anti-racism and anti-colonialism have strong mobilizing appeals in contemporary world society that can give rise to powerful global solidarity campaigns that encourages national resistance, and eventually influences the calculations of political leaders. Such concerns help explain Israel’s excessively punitive tactics adopted in reaction to the nonviolent BDS international campaign. South Africa criminalized internal forms of opposition to apartheid, but it never tried to pressure other government to take similar action against supporters of BDS, including in the U.S.       

Q2.  Let’s talk about the concept of apartheid. There is clearly severe discrimination inside Israel against Palestinians, but one could argue that there are many analogues elsewhere, including in the US. What are the similarities between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel in terms of the latter’s treatment of Palestinians living inside Israel?

The criminal internationalization of the South African regime of racial supremacy gradually occurred during the period after World War II. This process featured an increasing role of the United Nations in a global campaign of delegitimation of South Africa’s form of racism. The campaign initially concentrated on the former German colony that became under the control of Pretoria after World War I, becoming known as South West Africa and only years later challenging apartheid orientation of the Afrikaner leadership in South Africa itself. This latter development was the most direct encroachment on territorial sovereignty of a UN member in the early experience of the Organization. The campaign succeeded in having apartheid formally declared to be an international crime, initially in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Apartheid, and more recently enumerated in Article 7 of the Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court.

It is important to understand that although the origins of apartheid as an international crime are entirely bound up with the experience of South Africa its internationalization from the outset was intended to reach any system of overt domination and victimization based on race, without any requirement that the racist regime so accused resemble the racist regime that governed South Africa until the mid-1990s.

The most widely accepted definition of apartheid is contained in Article 2 of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Apartheid. Racism, understood as discrimination based on ideas of ethnic superiority and inferiority, does not necessarily imply apartheid. For instance, the Nazi genocidal approach was unconcerned with using the state and its administrative apparatus to keep the races apart as its genocidal intention centered on erasing or exterminating inferior races, especially Jews and Roma.   Separation and racial discriminatory policies and practices are crucial components of apartheid forms of control, but by themsleves, lacks the element of specific intent as evidenced and sustained by cruel acts a system of domination with the purpose of keeping the subjugated race under the explicit control of the dominant race. In Israel and Occupied Palestine this has meant domination by Jews as implemented by an array of administrative decrees and nationality laws restricting immigration of non-Jews, and denying Palestinian refugees right of return, which is an international legal entitlement.

Even the sort of systemic racism that exists in the United States is embedded in the socio-economic-culture of the society rather than existing as an expression of the overt ideology and practices of the state. To be sure sub-national political entities are complicit to varying degrees in carrying out racist policies, which is often exhibited by allowing racist civil society sentiments to shape the behavior of public institutions. The United States with impacts from its notorious past that included the implemention of a genocidal approach to Native American indigenous communities and a labor system in agriculture based on generations of slavery. This dubious legacy is illustrated by the continuing disposition in the American South of trial juries to convict whites accused of murdering blacks, while rushing to guilty verdicts however scant the evidence if the case involves the prosecution of a black defendant accused of murdering a white woman. Also, double standards in policing expose the deep roots of anti-black racism in the U.S. as giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and the complex, contradictory societal reactions to the police homicide of George Floyd in May of 2020 in the Northern city of Minneapolis.

The similarities between Israeli and South African apartheid relate to the historical and ideological narratives of both countries in which European settlers displaced, subjugated, and exploited the resources of the indigenous population, and claimed rights of ethnic supremacy based on race. In both South Africa and Israel, native claims to homeland were overridden, and the settlers took over control of all aspects of governance with the intention of keeping the natives permanently under strict control, using law and lawmaking as a principal tool of control and exploitation by the state and its favored settler ethnicity.

The dissimilarities between Israel and South Africa derive from fundamental demographic, economic, and ideological considerations. The fact that the white minority was never more than 25% of the South African population meant that inclusive democracy could not be entertained as a legitimating option, while for Israel political democracy was a fundamental aspiration of the Zionist Project of establishing and legitimating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This undertaking relied on biblical and historical connections to the land of Palestine (eretz Israel) that went back for hundreds of years. Israel’s first and most illustrious president, David Ben Gurion, put aside his secularized Judaism, famously declaring ‘the Bible shall be our weapon,’ by which he presumably meant that Zionism would mobilize support from Jews and others by insisting that Jews had a sacred right to return to the biblically promised land.

A further fundamental dissimilarity related to the economic role of blacks in South Africa and Palestinians in Israel. South African wealth was derived mainly from extractive industries involving mining, which depended on a large source of cheap labor. In contrast, Palestinian cheap labor undercut a well-organized labor movement at the core of the Zionist movement, and was considered inessential to the growth and development of Israel. The Israeli economy came increasingly to emphasize high technologies, including armaments, in part to avoid any future dependence on Palestinian labor.

In this regard, many on the Israeli right even now favor ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to achieve racial purity in Israel and to complete the work of de facto annexation of the West Bank. These concerns reference the so-called ‘demographic bomb’ that is seen as posing a future threat to the presently solid Jewish majority in Israel, and hence to political control. This threat arises partly from the higher Palestinian fertility rate, which if Israeli annexation plans become fully realized would lead to a 50:50 division of the combined population of fourteen million living in Israel and Occupied Palestine, which would mean a circumstance of demographic equality, which would weaken the case for considering Israel to be a Jewish state, and for that reason alone is regarded by most Israelis as intolerable, portending worse to come.

Q3. I raised the previous question about the relevance of the comparison between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel because when it comes to the occupied territories, the situation is far worse than apartheid. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out to me in some personal exchange, which I believe to be correct, “South Africa needed  its Black population, and catered to them at least to a limited extent. Israel had no need of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and is making life unlivable for them.” Can you comment on this as I think it really raises questions about the broad use of the term “apartheid” when it comes to describing the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In my understanding, Chomsky’s essential insight is correct and significant, but I do not agree that South Africa catered to the black population more than Israel do to the Palestinian. Because Israel rests its claims on being ‘democratic’ it caters to the Palestinian minority of 20% in a variety of ways to sustain its international image of political legitimacy. The South Africans drew strict color lines that deprived blacks of any civil or political rights, while Palestinians in Israel proper can vote and even form their own political parties and serve in the government.

The greater harshness of Israeli apartheid arises from the Israeli ambition to control a relatively limited territory as compared to the South African ability to rely on African townships and bantustans for purposes of segregation, security, and control in a rather sparsely populated country. In effect, the proximity and demographic vitality of the Palestinians, ‘the dangerous neighborhood’ of hostile Arab countries, the historical legacies of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and the character of Palestinian armed resistance led Israel to be more engaged in violent repressive activities than were the South Africans, especially in Gaza. Also, Israeli concerns with demographic implications of a diminished Jewish majority led both to its adoption of a politics of fragmentation involving the dispersal of Palestinians beyond Israel’s borders and to the exclusion of Palestinians seeking fulfillment of their right of return. South Africa, as devising apartheid from the perspective of a racial minority, never had to cope with these specific to Israel concerns.

The Problematics of Middle Eastern Diplomacy: The Case of Iran

2 Feb

[Prefatory Note: this is a modified, updated version of an article published in CounterPunch, January 30-31, 2022.][*]

The Problematics of Middle Eastern Diplomacy: The Case of Iran  

When a nuclear agreement with Iran was reached by U.S.- led multilateral diplomacy in 2015, despite vigorous opposition from Israel, it was widely viewed as the greatest foreign policy achievement of the Obama presidency, and for good reason. It also showcased the potentialities of great power cooperation when national interests sufficiently converge in a manner that supports the pursuit of the regional and global public good. In those days before Washington’s strategists and foreign policy wonks rediscovered the joys of geopolitical confrontation, not only the major NATO powers (UK, France, and Germany), but more intriguingly, China and Russia, joined as signatories to what became known at the time as the 5 +1 Iran Nuclear Agreement or simply, JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

That Iran was willing to curtail its nuclear program without demanding compensating moves by Israel remainss a surprise. Decades earlier Israel had been permitted, indeed helped, to acquire secretly the means to establish and develop a nuclear weapons capability without any adverse international reaction, becoming in 1967 or so the first state in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, although discreetly, to avoid embarrassment for the geopolitical promoters of a anti-proliferation approach to the risks posed by nuclear weapons. It would have seemed reasonable for Iran to have adopted a posture of willingness to commit itself to a nuclear-free Middle East, which would have been a more dramatic move toward denuclearizing the Middle East than was JCPOA. Why did Iran refrain in 2015 and now again, even with a hardline leadership in control of its government? Perhaps, because the Iranian leadership understood there was no prospect of sanctions relief if it depended on Israel’s willingness to give up its status as a nuclear weapons state. In this sense, the 2015 agreement can be interpreted either as a diplomatic triumph by the P-5 + 1 in so limiting the negotiating agenda, and especially the U.S., or as an indication that Iran was prepared to close its eyes to the unreasonableness of demanding restrictions on its nuclear program while ignoring the far greater breach of the nonproliferation ethos by Israel over a period of many years. Iran apparent willingness to accept such a bargain can only be explained by the high priority given to ending the societal devastation being wrought by the sanctions. It appears that the 2021-2022 Vienna talks among the five adherents to JCPOA (plus indirect talks with the U.S.) have similarly not been faced with demands to address Israel’s nuclearism, quite possibly for similar reasons.  

Why did this exhibition of constructive diplomacy happen in a region of the world, entailing overlooking Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons coupled with its belligerent posture so as to reduce tensions with regard to Iran, which had long been a major site of struggle, strife, and periodic warfare ever since 1979? I presume the main motivation was war avoidance in the Middle East and the belief that JCPOA contributed to the overall goals of nonproliferation and thus avoided a regional arms race by major Arab states to acquire nuclear weapons in the event that Iran crossed the nuclear threshold.

A secondary consideration prompted by the lingering failures of the Iraq ‘democracy promotion’ regime changing intervention of 2003 was to reduce the level of American military and political engagementsd in the Middle East. The 2015 initiative to downgrade Iran as a confrontational priority was seen as facilitating Obama’s ill-advised ‘pivot to Asia.’
Proclaiming this pivot amounted to geopolitical coded message for ‘taking on China in the South China Sea.’ How different might the mood and politics have been had Obama instead opted for a ‘pivot to America!’ And even now it may not be too late for a turn away from global militarism, although Biden, frustrated in achieving his campaign promises by Republicans on the home front, now seems hell-bent on pivoting toward Russia, Iran, and China, all at once. Biden seems to be yearning for the good old days of the crisis-fraught geopolitics of the Cold War with the most opportune zones of confrontation currently being the Ukraine, Iran, and Taiwan.

A side benefit of the 2015 agreement, not often noted, was to give moderates in Iran a major victory in the form of achieving sanctions relief, unfrozen bank accounts, and a path to normalcy in their external relations. The agreement was vigorously opposed at the time by Israel and its supporters, as well as hawkish elements in the U.S. political class. Their main contentions were that Iran would be free from enrichment and centrifuge limits by 2030 and that the agreement did not include an enforceable Iranian pledge to end support for anti-Israeli, anti-Saudi, and anti-American political actors in regional conflict situations as well as to place restraints on its missile program. Iran has adamantly insisted on separating diplomacy concerning its nuclear program from its political involvements in regional politics and its national security posture. In effect, although willing to overlook Israeli nuclearism, Iran has been steadfastly unwilling to alter its sovereign independence with respect to foreign policy or

In relation to the non-nuclear elements of its national security posture.  

When Trump came along in 2017, the unraveling of JCPOA was a foregone conclusion, guided as much or more by his vindictive resolve to erase Obama’s legacy in ways designed to degrade and denigrate the achievements of his predecessor, while gaining praise from Israel, many members of the U.S. Congress, and militarists in and out of government. Trump somewhat absurdly denounced the agreement as one-sided in Iran’s favor, a betrayal of Israel’s security interests, and thus calling for replacement by a more stringent arrangement, or according to his transactional mindset, ‘a better deal.’ In May of 2018 Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement, followed that June by the reimposition of sanctions, which were later further intensified inflicting great damage on the Iranian economy and civilian population. These moves were all part of a comprehensive approach to Iran that came to be known as ‘maximum pressure.’ These escalating steps toward confrontation were hailed by Israel’s leaders. In contrast, the repudiation of JCPOA was not appreciated by the five other signatories, and deeply destabilizing for the region as well as striking a devastating blow to the reformist government in Tehran led by President Hassan Rouhani, having the effect of opening the gates for the hardline victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the 2021 elections. It also led to retaliatory action by Iran, especially attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

In Tehran this return to the tense pre-2015 days was regarded as confirmation that the West, and especially the U.S., could not be trusted to keep its word and was regarded as evidence that Washington remained determined to bring the Iranian government to its knees in pursuit of its political agenda. Trump had also authorized the assassination of General Qasim Soleimani in early 2020, the most popular of Iranian leaders and seen as a future president of the country. In such an atmosphere Israel felt emboldened enough to assassinate Iran’s leading nuclear scientists and to engage in unlawful sabotage attacks on its nuclear facilities without adverse effects.

As might have been expected, Iran although it gave the remaining JCPOA signatories a year to overcome the U.S. withdrawal, eventually responded by gradually increasing the enrichment of uranium fuel that were somewhat closer to weapons grade levels, reportedly reaching 60% as well as installing higher quality centrifuges. Despite these steps, Iran reiterated its intention not to develop nuclear weapons on numerous occasions, and Western intelligence services confirmed that there was no evidence that Iran was intent on becoming a nuclear weapons state in the near future. Israel and its supporters issued alarmist statements suggesting that Iran was only weeks away from have the bomb, and was determined to become a nuclear weapons state.

When Trump was defeated and Biden elected in 2020, it was naively assumed to be just a matter of time until the 2015 Agreement was restored, and again made operational. After all, Biden had pledged to do so throughout his campaign to become president. It turned out to be far from simple in practice, partly because there was plenty of pushback from Israel and Republicans, and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of many Democrats. In the meantime, the leadership in Iran shifted, with a conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi easily elected to replace Rouhani in early 2021. It is relevant to observe that Raisi was a pre-Trump advocate of skepticism about the wisdom of trying to reach a diplomatic accommodation with the West. Despite this background, after being elected Raisi has seemed open to restoring JCPOA, yet entertaining this option in an understandable spirit of caution, suspicion, and firmness. Despite pressure from Washington, Iran has refused so far to engage in direct talks, now in their eighth round, with the U.S. in Vienna. Iranian officials have been telling the media that Iran is awaiting reliable signs from the U.S. that it is prepared to remove all sanctions without conditions accompanied by guaranties that it will not again withdraw from whatever arrangement is agreed upon. Once such a willingness is signaled, if it is, Iran will agree to direct talks. Until then, it will discuss the issues directly only with governments of the remaining five signatories, that is, 5+1 minus the U.S., allowing the co-signatories to serve as intermediaries in what amount to pre-negotiations with Washington the purpose of which seems to be to allow Tehran ascertain whether negotiations of the U.S. return to the 2015 framework will be fruitful. Iran seems determined not seem so weak as to accept whatever arrangement the U.S. insists upon, or to be in a position of being portrayed as a deal-breaker when it refuses the conditions set by the American negotiators.  

Beyond the obstacles associated with satisfying Israel’s alleged security concerns and a determination not to get mired in controversial foreign policy initiatives, Biden sought in the early months of his presidency to focus on domestic issues, especially the social and economic fallout from the pandemic. This meant an avoidance of even the semblance of a break with Israel, which helps explain why the White House made a series of unusual high-profile gestures to reassure Israel that the U.S. would not act unilaterally in negotiating the renewal of its participation in the 2015 agreement, but would coordinate with Israel its negotiating efforts to restore JCPOA. The only way for Biden to find such a level of approval by Israel for a restored nuclear agreement with Iran is if the new arrangements appeared to strengthen the constraints of the 2015 text by removing sunset clauses terminating vital features of the agreement, and through inclusion of more stringent monitoring and verifying procedures to assess compliance with permanent restrictions on enrichment, testing, stockpiling, and centrifuges. The U.S. has also signaled that the pace of sanctions relief would be quickened if Iran additionally pledged to roll back its political engagements hostile to the interests of the Gulf monarchies, Israel, and the U.S.. These engagements by Iran are supposedly currently causing trouble for Western interests in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, and Gaza.

Matters of Context

Most important is the acknowledgement and relevance of the Trump withdrawal from the 2015 agreement because he (following Israel’s encouragement) thought it a bad deal. Because Iran reacted, at first cautiously, hoping for some compensatory actions from the European countries, which was never forthcoming. It seems obvious that Iran wanted the agreement to survive the U.S. withdrawal, but not at the cost of enduring the renewal of sanctions. With the present effort to restore JCPOA the U.S. acts as if it doesn’t even owe Iran an apology to Iran but seeks to condition its renewal of participation on the acceptance by Iran of a new more restrictive agreement, policy goals partly dictated by domestic circumstances. Anything less, will be openly attacked by Trumpists and by Israel, at least by the Netanyahu-led Likud opposition party.

The peculiarities of American politics should have been put aside in the Vienna diplomacy, and not heightened expectations about what it was reasonable to demand from Iran. If this was politically untenable, then Biden should have been willing to confess that his campaign pledge to restore American participation in the JCPOA was ill-considered. After all, from Iran standpoint it would have been reasonable to expect not only an apology and some compensation for the damage done to Iranian society by the post-2018 Trump sanctions. Instead Washington acts as if it is doing Iran a favor by rejoining and it is Iran that should be willing to accept more U.S. participation. 

It is important to appreciate the broader context of both the 2015 agreement and this attempt to renew compliance by both the U.S. and Iran with or without an alteration of its terms. To begin with, as mentioned, the 5 +1 group should recognize that Iran’s willingness to curtail its nuclear program without reference to Israel’s nuclear weapons, constituted a major concession without which negotiations would have been fruitless from their outset. It should also be appreciated that a genuine concern with nonproliferation, regional stability, and the equality of states would have made it reasonable for Iran to insist on prior Israeli denuclearization or parallel negotiations of a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. What is more, such an inclusive approach to regional denuclearization would have served the regional and global public good. At the same time, for Iran to condition negotiations curtailing its own nuclear program by linkage to Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal would preclude any diplomatic attempt to end Iran’s suffering from sanctions. It seems virtually certain that Israel would refuse all efforts to call into question its national security posture, including its right to possess and develop nuclear weaponry, and almost as certain that the U.S. and Europe would not exert pressure on Israel to link its relationship to the weaponry with efforts to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program never crossed the nuclear threshold.

Related to this, is the failure of Iran in its public discourse to condition its willingness to accept international controls be tied to an acceptance by Israel and the U.S. of a commitment to refrain from destabilization efforts to undermine the authority of the Iranian government or to damage its nuclear facilities by covert operations. In other words, Iran has not conditioned its participation in the 2015 agreement or its renewal on respect for its sovereign rights as prescribed under international law. This again is a meaningful indication of the importance Iran attaches to sanctions relief and overall normalization.

During this period of diplomatic uncertainty, Iran’s diplomacy has not been passive. The January drone attacks on Abu Dhabi by Houthi rebel forces in Yemen are assumed in the West to be undertaken with the approval of Tehran, and may be thought of as a setoff to Israel’s periodic attacks and threats directed at Iran, as well as a neutralizing response to the anti-Iranian moves of the Gulf monarchies. Whether the political allies of Iran in the region can be considered ‘Iran proxies,’ as contended in the Western media, is somewhat fanciful.

From the Western perspective, Iranian efforts to disregard the constraints of JCPOA seem to suggest an Iranian ambition to be at least a threshold nuclear weapons state, that is, capable of acquiring nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks. It remains ambiguous as to whether Iran is seeking leverage in the bargaining process currently underway or indeed had become disillusioned with accepting restraints in exchange for shaky promises of sanctions relief in light of Trump’s 2018 withdrawal, and the failure of the other parties to the agreement to step in to neutralize the imposition of harsh sanctions. In light of this history, it seems reasonable for Iran to demand a commitment against withdrawal or the reimposition of sanctions, although it may

not be implementable within the constitutional frameworks of the 5 + 1 states. For example, if Trump is reelected in 2024, it seems a near certainty that he would repeat his moves of 2018 without meaningful internal legal or political obstruction, especially given the conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the restored agreement took the form of an international treaty, its legal durability might be enhanced, but such an instrument would require submission to the ratification procedures of the participating countries. Such a requirement would undoubtedly doom the agreement as the Republicans in the U.S. Congress, probably with help from some Democrats, would block ratification, which in any event would have to gain a 2/3rds majority in the Senate.

The broader context should not be overlooked. Imposing sanctions on Iran in relation to its nuclear program is unlawful as even the nonproliferation treaty does not impose such restrictions, making the sanction an unlawful exercise of force. Beyond this, foregoing nuclear weapons is from the perspective of international law a voluntary matter. The NPT gives parties to the treaty a right of withdrawal on the basis of supreme national security interests to be explained by an official explanation. Israel has resisted pressures to join the NPT, which would remove its ability to hide behind a refusal to admit or deny the possession of nuclear weapons.

Geopolitical Spillovers

If the agreement were to be restored within the JCPOA framework with minimal modifications, and is then implemented, including a show of tacit respect exhibited by Israel and, most importantly, if the promised sanctions relief is forthcoming and expeditiously implemented, the likelihood of a stabilizing impact on regional and global relations would greatly increase. It would also strengthen the political position of Raisi in Iran, claiming that greater diplomatic firmness yields better results.

If the Vienna talks fail, however, then the prospects for a heightening of regional tensions is likely, taking the form of intensifying anti-Iranian confrontational tactics, maintenance of sanctions, and a reactive Iranian pushback by way of asserting its leverage in regional hot spots. The likelihood of Iran’s alignment with Russia and China also becomes probable, already foreshadowed by long-term trade agreements, high-profile diplomatic visits, and recent joint naval training exercises. Again, the Raisi leadership will likely be strengthened by the claim that diplomacy failed, interpreted as showing the unwillingness of Raisi to fall into the kind of trap that occurred when the moderate leadership of Rouhani took the poisoned bait in 2015. The increased availability of reliable geopolitical alternatives that would ease the economic hardships long experienced by the Iranian people would also work to Raisi’s advantage.

Israel’s mood in its comparable post-Netanyahu phase exhibits continuity its stand of belligerent hostility toward Iran consisting of coercive diplomacy and threatened military strikes, combined with a major effort to expand the normalization accords, which was the final Trump gift to Israel, strongly affirmed by the Biden leadership. Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog’s, January visit to the UAE exhibited both the belligerence and the spirit of Israeli post-normalization self-confidence. While visiting the “Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi spoke these alarming words: “There are only two alternatives in this region. One is peace, prosperity, cooperation, joint investments and a beautiful horizon for the people, or alternatively, or alternatively what Iran is doing, which is destabilizing the region and using its proxies to employ terror.” This kind of language boils down to normalization for Israel, confrontation for Iran, the forces of stability versus the forces of chaos and terror, good versus evil.

As if to confirm my worst fears, Israel conducted at the beginning of February a huge air force drill off its coast to simulate what the Times of Israel called ‘a massive attack’ on Iran’s nuclear facilities. These military exercises included dozens of F-15, D-16, and F-35 fighter jets, and featured what was described as the unusual presence of an officer of U.S. Air Forces as an ‘observer’ of such classified military exercises. Among the practice maneuvers tested were mid-air refueling operations, long-range military strikes, and responses to anti-aircraft fire. This provocative event was reinforced by extra Israeli budgeting to fund preparations for a military attack on Iran and a formal statement by the Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, that regardless of whether an agreement is reached in Vienna, Israel reserves the right to protect its population by the means of its own choosing. The stunning silence of Biden/Blinken in the face of this belligerent independence and military drum beats by Israel should be deeply disturbing for all those wishing for stability, peace, and justice in the Middle East. Silence in such a context amounts to complicity in unlawful threats to engage in aggressive use of force with grave implications for regional peace and security.  

Concluding Observation

It is way past time for the West to get over its distress about the outcome of the Iranian revolution that brought the popular movement headed by Ayatollah Khomeini to power in early 1979. In 2015 the JCPOA seemed a step in that direction, soon to be spoiled by the disruptive Trump behavior. With a new president the U.S. Government was positioned to take the initiative in reinvigorating the JCPOA, acting in ways that that would engender hopes of a new dawn of peaceful relations in the Middle East, an end to the prolonged misery of the Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Palestinian people. Unfortunately, assuming my analysis is correct, this desirable course of action now seems extremely unlikely. The Biden administration seems disinclined to accept any U.S. responsibility for the breakdown of the 2015 agreement, and unreasonably expects Iran to start from a premise of co-responsibility, or worse, without taking account of the fact that JCPOA worked well until the U.S. withdrew. Israel remains defiant. And as for the Palestinians, who have been wrongly treated as disinterested bystanders, already disappointed by Biden’s decision to go along with several of the most blatantly partisan moves in favor of Israel during the Trump presidency. It is foolish to expect anything more from Biden than a more moderate style of pro-Israeli solidarity, and few course corrections as to the way Trump faciliated unlawful Israeli expansionism. In relation to both Iran, Israel, and Palestine, the essential message sent by the new leadership is continuity when it comes to substance combined with a resumption of the pre-Trump pretension of equi-distance diplomacy when it comes to the search for a sustainable peace. 


[*] Richard Falk is Professsor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University; Chair of Global Law, Queen MaryUniversity London; author of Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim (Clarity Press, 2001).

Will the Iran Nuclear Agreement be Restored?

26 Jan

[Prefatory Note: An interview with Mojtaba Majidi of the Mehr News Agency (Tehran) on the Vienna Talks that are seeking to restore the Iran Nuclear Agreement of 2015 reached during the Obama presidency. When Trump became president in2017 he denounced the agreement as harmful to Israel and notstrong enough to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The U.S. withdrew in 2018, reimposing harsh sanctions, moves criticized at the time by the other five signatory countries (UK, France, Germany, Russia, China). Biden pledged to reinvigorate the agreement by rejoining, but has not wanted to override Israeli concerns nor generate a controversy at home. At present, it is quite uncertain as to whether these hurdles can be overcome.]

Q1: Apparently Iran has taken a constructive stance on the Iranian nuclear issue and has sent a delegation to take part in the new round of negotiation on resuming compliance with the JCPOA. However, the US and Western countries still criticize Iran for not being serious enough in the negotiation. How do you evaluate Iran’s performance in the negotiation?

It is difficult to assess these public statements made by both sides with reference to the Vienna Talks. It appears to be a pre-negotiating communication with media platforms and public opinion, as well as in the US. It seems to be a way of blunting Israel’s criticisms for any negotiations with Iran that might lead to the restoration of the 2015 Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA), the end of sanctions, or improved relations between the two countries. We do not know how motivated the US and Iran are to give ground so as to reach an agreed outcome. The degree of negotiating flexibility and the red lines of both parties will become more obvious as their respective preconditions for agreement are put forward in the negotiations.

Having acknowledged this obscurity, I believe the main burden is on the US to demonstrate its sincerity and credibility. In 2018 US formally and unilaterally withdrew, Trump having repudiated the agreement soon after he was elected in 2016, subsequently reimposing sanctions and authorizing various unlawful covert operations in violation of Iran’s sovereign rights, as well as refusing to criticize Israel’s unlawful threats and uses of force against Iran. In this sense, it is vital that the US demonstrate its good faith, including a willingness to offer some sort of guaranty against a second repudiation of the JCPOA( Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) that would probably be combined with the reimposition of sanctions should the Republican Party return to power in 2025. To be sure, even a strong guaranty embedded in the restored agreement would be unlikely to be respected by Trump or enforceable. A US commitment to oppose any Israel’s future hostile acts directed at Iran would serve the purposes of the agreement, which aims at enhancing regional stability, but would also be vulnerabilities of American electoral politics.

Q2: Iran insists on the removal of all nuclear-related sanctions. Will the US do so? In fact, do you see any real political will in the US to reach an agreement?

I believe the US does seek stability in the Middle East. The question is whether it is prepared to pay the diplomatic and domestic political price of increased friction with Israel accentuated by the added difficulties with Congressional allies of Israel claiming a weakening of ‘the special relationship’ that the US has long maintained with Israel and the Biden presidency has repeatedly reaffirmed. It is less the absence of political will to reach an agreement, but the need Washington evidently feels to weigh the balance between the benefits of such agreement against the strong pushback in the US led by Trump-oriented Republicans. After the problematic manner of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, Biden is undoubtedly sensitive to allegations from the American right that he is projecting an image of American weakness, regional disengagement, and global decline.

Q3: Iran has repeatedly stressed that the core purpose of this round of negotiation is to lift sanctions against Iran and normalize Iran’s economic and trade activities. How do you evaluate this appeal of Iran?

I think the genuineness and justification of this pursuit of normalcy on Iran’s part is sincere, deserves respect, and is mandated by international law and the UN Charter. Arguably, Iran has done nothing wrong that would warrant punitive actions of the sort taken or the kind of coercion embedded in the ‘maximum pressure’ approach to the Trump presidency. It is unlawful to threaten or use force as a tactic of diplomacy, and Iran has been constantly threatened over a period of many years, economically harmed, and politically destabilized by such tactics, as well as by the imposition of sanctions that have inhibited foreign investment and trade by third party countries.

Q4: Iran says the text of the 2015 JCPOA should be the cornerstone of the Vienna talks but the other side, in fact, is after a new 2021 JCPOA. How do you assess these excessive demands?

On its face, these US demands are unreasonable considering that it was its unilateral, unprovoked act that led to the breakdown of the agreed arrangements embodied in the 2015 JCPOA  framework. Iran should not be politically expected to accept new conditions and constraints that impose additional limits on its freedom of action in a 2022 revamped version of the former agreement.

The argument for new conditions is to take account of Iran’s technological advances, its enhanced enrichment capabilities, improved centrifuges, and its alleged closer approach in knowhow and time to acquisition of nuclear weaponry. It is notable that the CIA director has recently declared that there is no evidence that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Nevertheless, the expiration of key clauses of the 2015 JCPOA in 2030 is sufficiently close that there is pressure on the US, especially from Israel and counter-proliferation extremists to insist upon a longer termination date of 25 years from the time that a new agreement is signed.

Q5: Biden administration says it is not going to guarantee that the US will not withdraw from the possible future agreement like what Trump did. And even some in Washington are threatening to kill any agreement that Biden may reach. How do you assess the US stance and its effect on the talks’ process?  How may U.S. domestic competitions ruin any chance of reaching a good nuclear pact?

I think this risk of a future obstruction of an agreement within the US is very high. The prospect of Republican electoral success in 2022 and 2024 elections cannot be disregarded, and are reinforced by public opinion polls.

Such outcome would undoubtedly raise pressures for restoring the Trump approach to Iran and an overall approach to Middle East politics more in accord with Israel’s preferences. It may be because Biden accords priority to domestic issues, including COVID, public funding of infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, renewable energy), and improved race relations that the US will continue to adhere to its version of a hardline approach with regard to both the Vienna negotiations on nuclear issues and in its overall relationship with Iran. At the same time, the US Government seems likely to engage in crisis management if the talks breakdown, and may believe it will have enhanced leverage to restrain Israel if it maintains the present status quo with Iran, meaning no new agreement and no sanctions relief. I think this would be a dangerous turn of events, likely to lead to a downward spiral in the Middle East that could produce open warfare.



Q6: Under such fragile circumstances threatening any possible agreement, how constructive role can Europe play? Basically, is Europe independent enough to be able to play a constructive role in securing any possible agreement? Or it will behave inactively as it did after Trump’s withdrawal?

I believe Europe is not likely to exert much influence on US diplomacy with Iran unless it fears the effects of a slide into war or aggravated instability in the Middle East. Europe seems currently more concerned about relations with Russia and China at this point, feeling a renewed dependence on the NATO alliance for its own security. In an atmosphere of a second Cold War Europe seems as though it will continue to accept Washington’s leadership. As well, European governments, above all Germany, but also France and the UK, remain subject to considerable pressure from Israel, and are not likely to take a strong independent position that is opposed by either Washington or the Israeli government.

I think Iran’s main source of leverage is to continue exploring the benefits of geopolitical realignment, especially in relation to China and Russia, but also seeking greater support from the Islamic world and by way of regional accommodations. .

Further in the background of the Vienna talks but in some respects Iran’s strongest diplomatic tool would be to support and advocate long languishing proposals for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MENWFZ). Iran has somewhat surprisingly not yet voiced public vigorous objections to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry and their subsequent development. By making the MENWFZ an active peace proposal, perhaps enlarged to encompass categories of Weapons of Mass Destruction (that is, chemical and biological weapons), Iran would be taking a constructive stand consistent with its commitment to its reliance on non-nuclear defense capabilities and a security posture based on mutual principles of non-aggression.

Iran has a strong interest in promoting denuclearization for the region. Doing so would have additional benefits. It would expose Israel’s nuclearism, and accompanying hypocrisy. It might even exert pressure on Israel to change course and itself become receptive to the virtues of MENWFZ, which might include normalization of all inter-governmental relations. To make such an approach politically and morally feasible for Tehran, it would be important to reaffirm Iranian solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. This factor would undoubtedly complicate the diplomacy surrounding the nuclear issue as Tehran would be inhibited from using ‘normalization’ with Israel as a bargaining chip in the nuclear context so long as Palestinian rights are being denied.

By raising these issues, I am suggesting the need for fresh thinking on all sides if the present signs of an impasse relating to the future of JCPOA are to be overcome, or if the Vienna process proves to be a failure with both sides shifting blame away from itself. This impasse would not exist, in my judgment, if Israel was not part of the diplomatic equation. This dysfunctional obstacle should be overcome or circumvented, and JCPOA restored in a form acceptable to both sides. Even should a favorable result be reached, it will not remove Israel from relevance, but would likely find Washington scrambling to provide Israel with tangible reassurances that its ‘special relationship’ with the US remains operative. Quite possibly, and most unfortunately, this could result in one more Palestinian setback in their struggle for basic rights if care is not taken by Iran to do its best to avoid such blowback side-effects or providing Israel with the latest weaponry or the funds to ensure that it maintains its regional edge with respect to military power.   

Dangerous Gaps: Knowledge, Action, and Justice

16 Jan

[Prefatory Note: The following essay was published on the website of This View of Life (TVOL) <thisviewoflife.com>, which brings to bear the views of science and evolutionary biology on a series of global challenges increasingly overwhelming the capabilities of civilizational modernity. A series of related articles can be found on the TVOL website. My essay was published there on January 13, 2022.]

Dangerous Gaps: Knowledge, Action, and Justice

Knowledge without Action

Modernity prides itself on its core achievement—basing political order and economic progress on the tools of reason and a trust in science-based knowledge. Yet when it comes to grappling with the large problems of our time it is obvious that there exist wide and dangerous gaps between what we know and what we do, both individually and collectively. Organized governance structures have only selectively integrated the Enlightenment ethos into their formation and implementation of policy, and this explains part of the path of the pathos of Modernity, which despite the technological wonders it has wrought has led to the first bio-ethical-ecological crisis in all of planetary history. To address responsibly such a crisis in relation to climate change or other problems of global scope requires an adequate diagnosis together with new strategies for bringing our knowledge and collective wisdom to bear. Additionally, there exists a discrediting, and likely paralyzing, normative gap between what we do and should be doing in relation to the ethical and political dimensions of climate change.

The severe threats to present and even more to future human generations and habitat wellbeing have long been convincingly confirmed by a consensus among climate experts. [see Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, Columbia University Press, 2014; Climate Change 2021, 6th Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2021, and earlier assessment reports ] Civil society activists, most charismatically a young Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, have been sounding the alarm, raising public awareness and anger throughout the world as much as the unprecedented frequency of extreme weather events. Thunberg, speaking to an audience composed of UN diplomatic representatives of member governments gave the issue an embittered inter-generational twist: “You will die of old age. I will die from climate change.”

Not only do we know and increasingly experience the multiple harms due to global warming, but we also have increasingly dire and reliable warnings that unless the underlying situation is corrected within a narrow temporal window of diminishing opportunity, the effects of climate change will cause a series of worsening events and impacts. These include extreme weather causing flooding, drought, heatwaves, and super-storms; sea levels rising; destruction of river systems and lakes; glacial melting and polar warming; unmanageable migratory flows; polarized citizenries leading to extremist politics, demagogic styles of political leadership, and deteriorating quality of democratic governance. We have possessed this knowledge for several decades, and most governmental responses remain deeply disappointing and what is worse, objectively menacing.

Helen Camakaris in a brilliantly perceptive article writes: “The existential risks we now face are largely the consequence of neoliberal capitalism and partisan politics, super-charging growth, greed, and short-term self-interest.”[See Camakaris, “Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts,” In This View of Life, March 9, 2021.] She sensibly concludes that the time has come to rethink the fundamentals of democracy and the economy, and act “to quiet the partisan rage that is currently tearing the US apart.” It is my view that this partisan rage together with the greed-fueled preoccupation with maximizing the efficiencies of capital at the expense of human wellbeing and habitat sustainability is additional to the causal explanation Camakaris provides, a product of historical circumstances and the form of world order that has been evolving since the middle of the 17th Century when it began to take shape in Europe.

Historical Circumstances

Two elements of the historical circumstances bear heavily on why the present context fails to take rational account of the scientific consensus and its evidence-based warnings about the future when it comes to climate change. The first of these circumstances relate to the outcome of the Cold War, which induced a triumphal mood in the West about the superiority of what was touted at the time as ‘market-based constitutionalism’ that resulted in privileging capital flows at the expense of people, giving rise to ‘economic globalization’ as guided by neoliberal ideology. As long as the Soviet Union was associated with a socialist alternative on national stages, the political class in the West, including its economic elites, felt obliged to supply a measure of social protection to their citizenry and to place some limits on the accumulation of wealth by the ultra-rich. With the Soviet collapse, countervailing ideological forces no longer existed to exert a restraining impact on economic and social policies, and the result was to appraise economic wellbeing by aggregate GDP statistics and corporate profitability. In other words, humanity and natural habitat are paying this enduring price for a distorted and shortsighted response by the political classes in the West, led by the United States, to the Soviet collapse and the related discrediting of socialism as an alternative.

The second historical circumstance of particular relevance to the difficulties associated with mobilizing a political consensus on climate change at a global level that adequately complements the scientific or expert consensus relates to the post-colonial character of intergovernmental relations at the UN and elsewhere. Newly independent countries in Asia and Africa either refused to be distracted in their efforts to give the highest policy priorities to rapid economic and social development or challenged whether their relationship to industrialization deserved to be burdened by constraints designed to keep global warming within tolerable limits. Indeed, the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere was predominantly brought about by industrialization in the West, yet the countries suffering most from climate change are in Africa and the Middle East, including the destruction of the agricultural foundation of their economic viability, prompting millions of climate refugees to flee their countries, and seek entry elsewhere to improve their livelihood prospects. The countries in the West assume scant responsibility, and when they do, it is not because of an acknowledgment of these causal connections of their behavior with migration flows, but as a hypocritical and purely discretionary humanitarian gesture displaying their high moral standards. Yet analyzing and negotiating safe limits on carbon emissions has largely ignored the underlying injustices arising from the historical antecedents of colonial governance, an aspect of which was keeping colonized peoples backward so that they retain their predominant role in the colonial era–providing raw materials and agricultural goods sought by the factories and lifestyles of the West. [See Deepak Nayyar, Resurgent Asia: Diversity in Development, Oxford University Press, 2019 on the de-development of Asia during the period of European colonialization.]

Dysfunctional Structures, Norms, and Ideologies

The failures of rational response to climate change also reflect the impacts of the deeply engrained and legitimated fragmentation of world order. There are many references to the efforts of ‘the global community’ to act and perform cooperatively, but behavioral patterns do not vindicate such rhetoric of solidarity. International institutions are overwhelmingly controlled by governments of sovereign states, whose representatives are beholden to national interests rather than either human or global interests. It could not be otherwise given the ideology of nationalism, ‘political realism,’ and geopolitical ambition that orients behavior toward the wellbeing of individual sovereign states, in other words maximizing what is good for the part rather than the whole.

Now it may be that the process of evolution, which has demonstrated that natural selection privileges cooperation, is in the early stages of manifesting an evolutionary jump ahead by the human species. It is possible that global cooperative potential is on the verge of breakthroughs, which if they occur, will only be adequately explained retrospectively being hidden from view until after their unexpected occurrence. As matters now stand there are not sufficient shared values at the global level to constitute community, and the cooperative alignments that are most robust in terms of commitment and funding take the form of alliances confronting adversary states.

This pattern was recently exemplified by the kind of vaccine diplomacy that illustrated the primary international realities of geopolitics and statism, the secondary reality of multi-state antagonistic clusters, and the tertiary reality of special interest private sector actors, especially the large vaccine manufacturers. Some civil society transnational actors are oriented toward holistic perspectives but exert almost no influence in settings where important global challenges are addressed, as for example, climate change, COVID pandemic, regulation of markets, migrant rights, and nuclear weapons.

Evolutionary Relevance

At first glance, the timelines of both biological and cultural evolution seem much too long to be relevant to unraveling the prospect for a timely, effective, and just response to the multiple challenges posed by climate change. And yet we cannot be certain that there has not been in progress over the course of antecedent decades and centuries natural selection events that incline toward the emergence of species identity along with an appreciation of the mutual benefits of collective cooperation at a global scale. In effect, humanity in various contexts seems increasingly aware that the tepid response to climate change, and perhaps other apocalyptic menaces to the future of humanity, are indeed dire news, having produced the first bio-ethical-ecological crisis in human history.

It is possible that the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, although falling short of what the scientific consensus prescribed with respect to reductions of carbon emissions necessary for assurances that a safe ceiling for global warming will be achieved, was a partial breakthrough with respect to collective action with response to climate change at a global level. It seemed a dramatic recognition by 196 governments of sovereign entities that collective action in the form of global cooperation was indispensable in view of the dangers confronting humanity, and to be achieved needed to take account of diverse capabilities, vulnerabilities, and experience of these state actors. Such an event constituted a global moment of universal recognition, although limited by the voluntary nature of participation and subject to withdrawal, could be understood as a manifestation of an emergent evolutionary trend. The withdrawal of the United States from the Agreement by the Trump Presidency in 2018 followed by the promise of a return to full participation in 2021 by the Biden Presidency can be interpreted in contradictory ways or as the ebb and flow of the underlying evolutionary reality. It may be best understood as revealing the opaqueness of evolution. In this instance, in relation to the fragility and weakness of moves toward global cooperative problem-solving or as signifying the need to modify behavior within the prevailing fragmented world order.

Because inter-governmental behavior continues to be driven by short-termism as well as nationalism, sovereign rights, and geopolitical ambition, it would seem that transnational civil society activism is faced with an evolutionary responsibility and opportunity to act more forcibly in support of a transition from statism to regionalism/globalism, with a corresponding appreciation at the state level that deference to international law and other mechanisms to contain militarism and capitalism serve a drastically revised view of ‘political realism’ and ‘geopolitical ambition.’ [See Ahmet Davutoglu, Systemic Earthquake and the Struggle for World Order, Cambridge University Press, 2021; Robert C. Johansen, Where the Evidence Leads: A Realistic Strategy for Peace and Human Security, Oxford University Press, 2021; Richard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Zed Books, 2016; also, Jeremy Brecher, Common Preservation in a Time of Mutual Destruction, PM Press, 2020; Brecher, Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual, PM Press, 2017.]

If there is to be a positive outcome to the bio-ethical-ecological crisis it will necessarily be more comprehensive than bridging the current gap between knowledge and action as reflected in the polarized politics within sovereign states that misdirects the popular imagination toward subsidiary concerns of national egoism, obscuring the unprecedented challenge to human wellbeing, and species survival. Also, of crucial importance is the parallel normative gap between neoliberal capital-driven ethics and eco-humanistic ethics expressive of an inclusive practice of justice responsive both to human rights and the rights of nature. [See Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (2010) setting forth widely accepted normative frameworks.] If bold action is taken to bridge these gaps, we can begin to be somewhat hopeful about the prospects for overcoming the current ‘evolutionary mismatch,’ but not until then.

Richard Falk

Richard Falk

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London,  Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. Falk is currently acting as interim Director of the Centre of Climate Crime and Justice at Queen Mary. He directs the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published March 2021. He has been nominated annually for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2021.

Glimpsing the Light

10 Jan

My last blog [“January 6: A Year Later”] could be read as an anguished first draft for the obituary of democracy in the United States, and it without question looks at the national future through a glass darkly. I received some feedback that complained about the tone, the darkness of the forebodings, and the foreclosure of liberating surprises. Although my Enlightenment mind fails to find good reasons to paint the U.S. national and indeed the human future in brighter colors, my undernourished spiritual side has not given up, discovering feelings of hopefulness from radical uncertainty, grace, and ‘the politics of impossibility.’ 

I am not pretending that the impossible can happen, but only that what now seems impossible becomes possible with the passage of time and the creative impact of hidden forces of justice and change. From this vantage point I have grounds for hope, and if hope exists, then there exist a moral and spiritual imperative to engaged in struggles for a better national future for which outcomes are inherently unforeseeable, although if we are blessed and receptive, emancipatory glimpses can be foretasted and cherished. 

I find myself engaged in struggles to save American procedural (or electoral) democracy from the ravages that would be wrought by the onset of fascism. Beyond this rescue operation from the mobilized, violently disposed militant Trump base in full control of the Republican Party lies the more ambitious agenda to restore and extend the New Deal by creating social protection for everyone residing within American borders in relation to health, work, housing, education, food, clean air and water, natural habitat. A visionary commitment to the creation of a polity that combines substantiveand procedural democracy, and beyond that participates in a parallel movement for global democracy, a matter of planetary urgency. 

On the agenda of global democracy: giving priority to ecological responsibility, mobilizing against nuclearism and militarism, against racism, against predatory capitalism, and on behalf of a stronger United Nations, rights of self-determination for currently oppressed nations, on behalf of global problem-solving, against geopolitical impunity, for humane governance at all levels of social organization, on identity befitting citizen pilgrims seeking to construct a global community of shared values and visions, for human security, for love, wisdom, beauty,  compassion, and explorations of cosmic consciousness.

I add this picture capturing the reality of light in a dark sky as well representing this metaphysical moment in the evolution of the human species. It is a photo taken by my dear friend and collaborator, an exemplary citizen pilgrim, Hans von Sponeck on his daily morning meditative walk in the countryside of southern Germany.