Interpreting the UAE/Israel Agreement on Suspending Annexation

16 Aug

[Prefatory Note: Responses to Interview Questions from Javad Heiran-Nia, an Iranian journalist, on the UAE/Israel Normalization/Annexation Agreement of Aug. 13, 2020.]

Interpreting the UAE/Israel Agreement on Suspending Annexation

 

  1. The UAE and Israel normalized their relations. What are the reasons for this and what effect will it have on regional equations?

Any comment on regional implications of the Agreement is, of course, highly speculative as the real reasons for such an initiative are rarely disclosed by those with the power of decision. In this case the uncertainties are magnified by some central ambiguities in the language of the text, especially the word ‘suspend’ in relation to Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank. This territory is considered internationally to be part of Occupied Palestine, and by Israel as ‘disputed territory.’

 

I would offer the following tentative reactions to the Agreement: Israel was motivated by Netanyahu’s effort to justify a delay in fulfilling his election promise to annex large portions of the occupied West Bank territory belonging to Palestine, and the Agreement provided a basis to claim compensatory benefits. Netanyahu was also under pressure to convince Israelis that he could be an effective leader, and achieve peace and security in the region while under indictment for corruption and without making concessions to the Palestinians. The Agreement can be viewed as a victory for hard line reactionary Israeli politics, and also pleased Trump by allowing him to claim credit for brokering a deal that is being touted as a ‘breakthrough’ for ‘peace.’ In this usage, peace refers to Israel/Arab relations, and ignores the unresolved conflict with the Palestinian people and their leadership.

 

It is less clear what motivated the UAE to act at this time. There is speculation that once ‘peace’ with Israel is achieved, the UAE will be eligible to buy advanced weapons systems from the U.S., including the latest military drones. The UAE may have also wanted to strengthen the anti-Iran coalition while Trump remains the American president, fearing that if Biden wins the November election, he might restore the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program negotiated during the Obama presidency but repudiated by Trump. It is also plausible that the UAE is making a move to establish its leadership among Gulf countries, and getting out from beneath Saudi Arabia’s shadow.

 

It is possible in order to reach a common understanding the parties agreed not to specify what was meant by the word ‘suspend’ in relation to formal annexation by Israel of West Bank territory. It is also possible that a confidential understanding among the three parties was reached that the annexation freeze would be maintained for at least six months, and that during the next six months could be ended by Israel with U.S. approval, after one year, could be ignored by Israel in moving forward with annexation.

  1. This is the normalization of relations mediated by Trump and this agreement is to be signed in the White House. What propaganda will Trump use for this issue in the presidential election?

As Trump has already claimed, this will be presented to the American people as a demonstration of the effectiveness of Trump’s deal-making diplomacy, as well as securing a victory for Israel in its efforts to achieving normalization with Arab countries without allowing the formation of an independent sovereign Palestine. The location of the signing ceremony at the White House will be a high-profile photo op for Trump, and will be conveyed to the world as a sign of continued American leadership in the search for stability in the region in ways that preserve the strategic interests of the U.S. and Israel. Whether many Americans will be very impressed by such PR showmanship remains to be seen. Some liberal American anti-Trump voices have joined in celebrating the Agreement, including a feverish puff piece by the influential NY Times opinion writer Thomas Friedman that misleadingly treats the Agreement as a ‘geopolitical earthquake’ with a positive and unifying impact on the entire Middle East. Little attention has so far been devoted in the West to how the agreement harms the Palestinian struggle for basic rights or bears on the efforts to exert pressure on Iran to conform to Western priorities.

  1. This agreement, on the other hand, shows the concern of the UAE and Saudi Arabia about a US without Trump. In fact, by bringing Israel into clear security and political relations, the two countries will have more support from the US government. What is your assessment?

It seems that this is an accurate, but not central consideration. These leading Gulf countries had long been cooperating with Israel in a variety of ways, including establishing economic and diplomatic links, cyber-security, and joining forces to exert pressure on Iran and to lend support to anti-government forces in Syria. It is doubtful that the Biden presidency would have challenged these political orientations if he is elected, although a changed leadership would likely review whatever promises or commitments Trump made to induce the UAE to sign the Agreement, and openly break ranks on whether to normalize Arab relations with Israel without the prior commitment by Israel to accept a Palestinian state on the territories occupied in 1967. It remains unclear whether Saudi Arabia was a silent partner to this initiative or feared that it might spark anti-regime activism within its own country, and encouraged UAE to take the lead.

  1. The UAE has announced that the annexation plan has been canceled under this agreement. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the plan to annex the West Bank was still on the table and had only been postponed. What is your assessment?

There seems little doubt that the two parties to the August 13th Agreement want to put forward divergent interpretations of what was agreed upon as it bears on the Netanyahu/Trump endorsement of annexing those portions of occupied Palestine on which unlawful Israeli settlements are currently situated. The UAE to hide its abandonment of the Palestinians in their struggle for basic rights seeks to claim that obtaining the Israeli pledge to suspend its annexation plan preserves the hope for a Palestinian state that encompasses the entire West Bank. In contrast, Israel wants to convince especially its settler movement that the suspension is temporary, and when an opportune moment arises, annexation will go forward on the basis of the assertion of Israeli sovereignty. It should be understood that the territory in question has already been annexed by facts on the ground, and what is pledged by Israel is the ambiguous pledge to ‘suspend’ formal annexation for an unspecified time. The shift from de facto to de jure annexation seems to be connected with the readjustment downwards of Palestinian expectations in the event that some kind of negotiations between Israel and Palestine are resumed in the future. It may be relevant to recall that the UN partition resolution (GA Res. 181) looked to confer about 56% of Palestine to Israel after the end of the British Mandate. At the end of the 1948 War Israel increased its territorial scope to 78% of Paleestine, and it was presupposed in diplomacy that Israel would be expected to retain the territory gained by military operation and Palestinians lowered their goals to achieving statehood on the remaining 22%, which was again further eroded by the outcome of the 1967 War, and subsequent developments (including settlements, separation barrier, and other encroachments, all unlawful).

  1. Doesn’t this agreement mean the failure of the deal of the century? Because the lands that are to be occupied by Israel according to the deal of the century apparently cannot join according to this agreement (According to the announcement of the United Arab Emirates, of course).

In my judgment this UAE/Israel Agreement should not be regarded as the failure of the deal of the century, but its indirect and partial implementation, which looked to vest Israeli sovereignty in 30% of the West Bank. Although Israel has agreed to suspend annexation, I think the best interpretation is that this is a temporary commitment that will be altered within a year, and then a gradual renewal of annexation will go forward, possibly without needing or seeking U.S. approval. The UAE may object, especially if Netanyahu moves too soon to revive annexation plaans, but is unlikely to undo the Agreement so long as it serves its regional strategic interests. The UAE, together with other major Arab governments, had long ago abandoned meaningful support for the Palestinian struggle and adopted policies that moved by stages toward the sort of cooperation that is now normalized and endorsed openly in the Agreement, which has the blessings of Washington and allows Israel to reassure Israelis that it is enhancing security and lessening its sense of being a regional pariah.

 

An alternative view of the Israel/UAE Agreement is to view it as a Plan B that is designed to hide the provisional failure of the parties and the world to accept the Trump plan (From Peace to Prosperity). The new approach pretends that the Agreement is a ‘HUGE’ contribution to peace, as Trump claimed in a tweet. The Palestinians, Turks, and Iranians know better! Also, noteworthy, the parties ignored the relevance of international law. Annexation, whether de facto or de jure was in violation of international humanitarian law, and so Israel & Trump are rewarded for agreeing to suspend what amounts to a ‘money laundering’ operation even if no money was involved.

 

Trumpism: What Will 2020 Bring?

8 Aug

Trumpism: What Will 2020 Bring?

 

During the height of the Cold War when it was viewed as disloyal and compromising to show a sympathetic interest in Marxism or sympathies with Soviet ideology, someone at the U.S. military base at Frankfurt distributed to the soldiers stationed there, a handwritten version of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution, in the form of petition. Very few of the soldiers approached were willing to affix their signatures, most alleging that this seemed a subversive document circulated by enemies of the United States, and was Soviet propaganda. Somehow the Western propaganda message that the Cold War was about the defense of ‘the free world’ against a totalitarian enemy had made no impact, or alternatively, that the free world had nothing to do with the substantive elements of freedom as social practice.

 

For me, and for the person who was using the petition to assess the commitment of Americans to the values of a free and democratic society, it conveyed the reality that what freedoms exist can be easily swept aside by an opportunistic or autocratic leadership. This perception has been confirmed, at least provisionally by Trump’s extreme encroachment on American institutions and civil liberties during his first term as president. A final confirmation would occur if Trump is able to hold onto power either by being reelected in November or by somehow managing to remain in the White House even if defeated by his electoral opponent.

 

There is another more subtle interpretation of the Frankfurt test. The political reality of systemic racism and discriminatory practices is so engrained in the lived experience of America as to make the U.S. Constitution seem indeed a radical document that must represent the views of an adversary ideology intent on undermining the American way of life. In effect, to implement fully the Bill of Rights would require nothing less than a revolution, and in this sense aa cross section of American soldiers were undoubtedly not so minded, and acted appropriately by refusing to endorse such drastic departures from their experience.

 

More disappointing to me is the degree to which Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 exhibited massive support for a regressive and demagogic leadership by an alienated American electorate. Of course, there were attenuating factors. Hillary Clinton, despite a poor campaign and a militarist foreign policy profile, won the popular vote by three million votes. Part of the

rightest populist backlash reflected a global trend, which was a result of the alienating impact of neoliberal globalization, and its production of drastic forms of inequality and its tendency to homogenize identity. Additionally, the American experience emphasized hostility to immigrants and Islam blamed for destroying the quality of life and bringing terrorism, crime, and drugs to the country, as well as losing a white identity for America as prefigure by the Obama presidency.

 

Now almost four years later, there is even less reason than in 2016 to regard Trump as an acceptable candidate even for Republicans who subscribe to a social contract that is based on a governing process of laws not men, and upholds ideas of separation of powers, checks and balances, and judicial independence, as well as the Bill of Rights. On matters of material interests the two party system is hobbled by the persistence of the Cold War ‘bipartisan consensus’ that creates commonality of views on militarism, Wall Street capitalism, and Israel/Saudi Arabia. Such a consensus means that there is no pragmatic reason for Democrats or moderates to vote for Trump to uphold liberal/moderate self-interest and worldview. Although Republican campaign strategy and Trump rally rhetoric uses inflammatory rhetoric to portray Biden and the Democratic Party as ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’ to make the middle of the voting spectrum to fear the material threat to their class interests if Democrats control the White House and Congress. In reality, only progressive have reason to ponder not voting or voting for a third party candidate as Biden, seen in abstract, offer little to hope for and nothing to inspire.

 

In the end, the future of the United States, and indirectly the world, rests on whether the fear of fascism exceeds the fear of left liberalism, as the balance plays out given the peculiarities of the electoral college system. It seems clear that the Trump base responds positively to Trump partly because he offers the prospect of a fascist future for the country premised on white racial supremacy and partly because of indifference to his ideas, giving their support having succumbed to the numbing excitement associated with his demagogic style of leadership even if it could cost them their life. For many in the muddled political middle, distressed by the Trump base but also wary of the more radical demands of Black Lives Matter and AOC Squad, the challenge is one of choosing the lesser of evils, which is analogous to the dilemma of progressives who wonder whether they can persuade themselves to pull levers that favors Democrats and Biden. The difference being that the moderates believe that the Democratic Party even with Biden will be pushed toward adopting the progressive agenda while many progressives believe that Biden will be ‘a feel better’ version of Trumpism, leaving the plutocratic and militarist pillars of neoliberal capitalism, somewhat deglobalized, but as sturdy as ever.

 

The immediate future of the United States will likely be determined by the results of the November election. For the first time in my life the prospect of a peaceful transfer of power respectful of the will of the people cannot be taken for granted. Unless Trumpist support shrinks dramatically the fascist threat will remain part of the scene even if Trump loses and leaves the White House without putting up a fight. If Trump should lose the election, despite rigging and gerrymandering, and yet refused to leave the White House, the resilience of the constitutional order will be severely tested, and left to the tender mercies of the military leadership, the deep state, and private sector elites, which in turn will assess the intensity of public outrage and the risks of civil strife. Trumpism will also be tested as to. whether its fascist leanings and demagogic submission are sufficiently belligerent to launch a second American civil war rather than loosen their grip on state power.

 

 

With John Lewis in Stockholm 1969

1 Aug

 

Moved by the iconic recognition of John Lewis’ exceptional courage and perseverance on behalf of human rights, non-violence, and opposition to American militarism, I recall a weekend spent together in Stockholm. We were the two invited American speakers at a conference opposing the American War in Vietnam. Although I spoke at many events devoted to these themes this may have been my most memorable occasion because Lewis made such an indelible impression. We shared meals together, and were hosted at the same hotel.

 

It was the very late 1960s not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, a time when these bloody events, including the Selma march and many others, brought success to the Civil Rights Movement, but far from a decisive victory that finally banished systemic racism from the American political and societal landscape. Lewis was the most radical figure in the movement against racial injustice I had encountered. At the time he was the activist leader of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC, which was seen as both dedicated to nonviolent struggle but more confrontational than the sort of national leadership provided by King.

 

I found Lewis engaging, brash, funny, charming, and above all, projecting a kind of radical aura that in the course of his life caused him, despite his lifelong adherence to principled nonviolence, to be the victim of repeated violent assaults by white supremacists, KKK members, and law enforcement as well as enduring 45 arrests and frequent jail time. I only learned later to appreciate his unswerving dedication to challenging racist moves to sustain the cruelties of white privilege throughout the South in every sphere of human existence, flagrantly trampling on both the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution.

 

In my experience of Lewis, he was as passionate about opposing American war making in Vietnam as he had been previously celebratory of African liberation struggles. He famously often asked the rhetorical question as to why Lyndon Johnson was willing to send American troops to kill Vietnamese peasants thousands of miles away but unwilling to order Federal troops to protect African Americans seeking to uphold their most basic human rights within their own country. He gave such a talk along this general theme in Stockholm, exhibiting anger about the long-embedded injustices he was devoting his life to struggle against in America, and declaring this commitment as inseparable from his opposition to the unlawful devastation and suffering being visited upon the Vietnamese, a distant people of color.

 

As much as I enjoyed and learned from John Lewis as he came across in Sweden on that weekend it never occurred to me that he would become a member of Congress, and even less, that he was destined to emerge as the most widely revered African American leader and inspirational figure since MLK. Of course, his death in the midst of the pandemic and in the wake of the eruption of the most sustained protests against systemic racism added a special poignancy to his death, making it a symbolic complement to the police murder of George Floyd weeks earlier. The funeral for John Lewis featured emotional eulogies by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi, whose collective eloquence lived up to this historic occasion, recognizing Lewis’ extraordinary dignity, persistence, and leadership. It could said that of his generation no single person better personified ‘the better angels’ of the American spirit that Lincoln summoned all of us to nurture than did John Lewis.

 

Thinking back to that weekend in Stockholm I marvel at how John Lewis reinvented himself, and rose to a position of moral preeminence and unsurpassed political wisdom and maturity, a progressive beacon for people like myself yet becoming mindful enough of the mainstream to win respect and exert influence almost across the entire political spectrum. The firebrand I had the precious experience of meeting over 50 years ago kept the fires within him burning brightly throughout his long life, while transforming his style so that all would listen and many would heed.

 

Unlike the other fallen heroes of the past century John Lewis realized the imminence of his death, and seized the opportunity to write a will and testament of faith and commitment to the American people as a whole, without a shred of bitterness or a trace of ethnic exclusiveness.

The text of his deathbed essay provide the guidance we so desperately need as a people, and an endangered species, to move toward the light despite the darkness of the hour.

 

I end with quotations from his essay that are so translucent as to make words of commentary or interpretation superfluous:

 

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”

 

“Continue to build a broad union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”

 

“So I say to you walk, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

 

Is the United States a Failing State? A Failed State?

22 Jul

Is the United States a Failing State? A Failed State?

 

To ask whether the United States, the world’s dominant military power, is ‘a failing state’ should cause worldwide anxiety. Such a state, analogous to a wounded animal, is a global menace of unprecedented proportions in the nuclear age. Its political leadership is exhibiting a reckless tendency of combining incompetence with extremism. It is also crucial to ascertain at what point a failing state should be written off as ‘a failed state’ for which there is no longer a clear path to redemption. The November elections in the United States will send a strong signal as to whether the United States is failing or has failed.

 

Even raising these issues suggests how far the United States has fallen during the Trump years, despite already being in sharp decline internationally ever since the Vietnam War, and continuing, despite a few redemptive moves (now renounced), during the Obama presidency. The responses of the Trump presidency to the two great crises of 2020 were helpful in solidifying the image of the world’s #1 state as truly failing, and not just sour grapes taking the form of an expression of partisan frustration with an appalling leadership. It was appalling because it was affirming the most regressive features of the American past while unconvincingly claiming credit for the stock market rise and low unemployment. The COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter campaign against systemic racism gave Trump the opportunity to exhibit his lethally systemic incompetence as a crisis manager producing thousands of deaths among his own countrymen. He also seized the occasion to show the world his seemingly genuine racist solidarity with the Confederate spirit of the American South that tried to split the country and preserve its barbaric slave economy and supportive culture in the American Civil War 150 years ago, and has been a sore loser ever since.

 

With these clarifying developments, it no longer captures the full reality of this downward trend to be with content by calling attention to America’s ‘imperial decline.’ In the present setting, it seems more relevant to insist on describing America as ‘a failing state,’ and try to understand what that means for the country and the world. To make the contention more precise, it is instructive to realize that the United States is not only a failing state, but the first instance ever of a failing global state, which takes due account of its multi-dimensional hegemonic status as concretized by the planetary projection of its military might to air, land, and sea, to space and cyber space, as well as by its influence on the operation of the world economy and the character of popular culture whether expressed by music or cuisine.

 

There are several measures of a failing state that cast light on the American reality:

functional failures: inability to respond adequately to challenges threatening the security of the society and its population against threats posed by internal and external hostile political actors, as well as by ecological instabilities, by widespread extreme poverty and hunger, and by a deficient health and disaster response system;

normative failures: refusal to abide by systemic rules internationally as embedded in international law and the UN Charter, claiming impunity and acting on the basis of double standards to carry out its geopolitical encroachments on the wellbeing of others and its disregard of ecological dangers; patterns of normative failures include endorsements of policies and practices giving rise to genocide and ecocide, constituting the most basic violations of international criminal law and the sovereign rights of foreign countries; the wrongs are too numerous to delimit, including severe and systemic denials of human rights in domestic governance; economic and social structures that inevitably generate acute socio-economic inequalities on the basis of class, race, and gender.

 

Some additional considerations accentuate the failing state reality of the U.S. due to the extensive extraterritorial dimensions that accompany the process of becoming ‘a failing global state.’ This new type of transnational political creature should be categorized as the first historical example of a ‘geopolitical superpower.’ Such a political actor is neither separate from nor entirely subject to the state-centric system of world order that evolved from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and became universalized in the decades following World War II. Although lacking a true antecedent, the role of European ‘great powers’ or ‘colonial empires’ give clues as to the evaluation of the U.S. as a global state or geopolitical superpower;

effectiveness: the loss of effectiveness by a failing state is disclosed by its inability to maintain and exert control over challenges to its supremacy. Such an assessment if vindicated by failed military operations (regime-changing interventions) and the inability to learn from and overcome past mistakes, disclosures of vulnerability to homeland security (9/11 attacks) and overly costly and destructive responses (9/12 launching of ‘war on terror’; declining respect and trust by secondary political actors, including close allies, in the context of global policy forming arenas, including the United Nations; as a further reflection of this failing dynamic of lost control is the pattern of withdrawal from arenas that can no longer be controlled (Human Rights Council, WHO) and the rejection of agreements that appear beneficial to the world as a whole (Paris Climate Change Agreement and Iran Nuclear Program Agreement-JCPOA;

legitimacy: the legitimacy of a global state, which by its nature potentially compromises the political sovereignty and independence of all other states, reflects above all else, on its usefulness as a source of problem-solving authority, especially in war/peace and global economic recession settings; the degree of legitimacy also depends on perceptions by political elites and public opinion that the assertions of global leadership are in general beneficial for the system as a whole, and as particularly helpful to states that are vulnerable due to acute security and development challenges; in this regard, the U.S. enjoyed a high degree of legitimacy after the end of World War II, as a source of security, and even guidance, for many governments in most regions of the world throughout the Cold War, and was also appreciated as the architect of a rule-governed liberal economic order operating with the framework of the Bretton Woods institutions charged with avoiding recurrences of the Great Depression that undermined stability and economic wellbeing during the 1930s, developments that then contributed to the rise of fascism and the outbreak of a systemic war costing upwards of 50 million lives. The American leadership role was also prominent in achieving global public order in such settings as the management of the oceans, avoiding conflict in Antarctica and Outer Space, establishing international human rights standards, and promoting liberal internationalism as a way to enhance global cooperative approaches to shared problems.

 

As suggested, the United States as a failing state has been graphically revealed as such by its response to the COVID-19 pandemic: refusal to heed early warnings; unacceptable shortages of equipment for health personnel and insufficient hospital capacity; premature economic openings of restaurants, bars, stores; contradictory standards of guidance from health experts and from political leaders, including falsehoods and fake news embraced by the American president in the midst of the health emergency. Beyond this, Trump adopted an inappropriate nationalist and commodifying approach to the search for a vaccine capable of conferring immunity from the disease, while at the same time immobilizing the UN, and especially the WHO, as an indispensable venue for dealing with epidemics of global scope, including its role in dispensing vital assistance to the most disadvantaged countries. These failings have shockingly resulted in the United States recording more infected persons than any country in the world, as well as having the highest incidence of fatalities attributable to the disease.

 

In contrast, has been the responses of several far less developed and affluent countries that effectively contained the disease without incurring much loss of life or severe economic damage by way of lost jobs and diminished economic performance. Judged from the perspective of health such societies are success stories, and instructively, their ideological identity spans the political spectrum, including state socialist Vietnam to market-driven countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Such results parallel the finding of Deepak Nayyar who reports in his breakthrough book, The Asian Resurgence (2019), that the remarkable growth experience of the 14 Asian societies that he empirically assesses, supports the conclusion that ideological orientation is not an economistic indicator of success or failure. Such findings are relevant in refuting the triumphalist claims of the West that the Soviet collapse demonstrated the superiority of capitalism as compared to socialism. The crucial factor when it comes to economistic success is the skilled management of state/society relations whether in relation to investment of savings in prioritizing development projects or seeking to impose a lockdown to curtail the spread of a deadly infectious disease.

 

Yet, there is a normative side of response patterns as suggested above. China treats the desperate search for a workable vaccine as a sharable public good, while the United States under Trump maintains its standard transactional approach despite issues of affordability for many countries in the South, as well as the poor in the North. From a 21stcentury perspective, the ethos of being all in this together is the only foundation for grappling with the increasingly challenging dilemmas of world order. It is a sign of a failing state, whatever its capabilities and status, to use its leverage to gain national and geopolitical advantages. Along this line, as well, is the normative disgrace of refusing to suspend unilateral sanctions imposed on countries such as Iran and Venezuala, already stressed, for at least the duration of the pandemic in response to widespread humanitarian appeals from civil society actors and international institutions.

 

A final observation as to whether the U.S. vector points toward a failed or redemptive future. If Trump loses the election and gives up the White House to his opponent the prospects for reversing the failing trend improve, while if Trump is reelected in November or succeeds in cancelling the electoral outcome then the U.S, will have moved closer to being a failed state as the citizenry would have endorsed failure or the constitutional order shown to be enfeebled, insufficiently resilient to reject failure. Even if Trump is replaced and Trumpism subsides, the momentum behind predatory capitalism and global militarism will be difficult to curtail without a revolutionary push that rejects the bipartisan consensus on such matters and challenges the sufficiency of procedural democracy centered upon the role of political parties and elections. Only a progressive movement from below will shatter that consensus, ending laments about the U.S. being in transition from failing to failed. Whether the BLM leadership of a movement alternative is robust and comprehensive enough to end American freefall will become clearer in coming months.      

Will China be the New Russia? The Future of American Geopolitics

16 Jul

Will China be the New Russia? The Future of American Geopolitics

 

[Prefatory Note: The text below is a slightly modified interview conducted by Daniel Falcone, and published in Counterpunch on July 9th. Even the passage of a few days has made it seem more likely that a new geopolitical confrontation could dominate the global peace and security landscape for years, with likely dire economic consequences coming on top of the dislocations arising from COVID-19 pandemic and heightened risks of war and regional tensions. One question is whether the differences in the global setting and main geopolitical actors sufficiently resemble the Cold War circumstances to make designating a U.S./China confrontation as a Second Cold War. As my responses below suggest, I have my doubt.]

 

[Daniel Falcone’s Introduction to the Interview: Should there be a Second Cold War an alleged US concern for human rights would indeed become another ongoing tool of propaganda. In this interview, International Relations scholar Richard Falk breaks down the grave dangers and prospects for a New Cold with China. Falk worries that tensions and rivalries both regionally and economically could result in a series of hot war conflicts set off by nuclear complacent countries that fail to recognize the catastrophic risks at stake.

In retracing the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization, Falk analyses the origins of US resentment towards China’s remarkable market growth that is absent of liberal democratic structures. Aside from commenting on how ‘cold war’ with China, an economic rival, is different from 20th century Russian tension, which was largely militaristic and ideological, Falk suggests additional motivations for an escalation on the part of Trump and the possibly forthcoming bi-partisan consensus.]

 

Will China be the New Russia? The Future of American Geopolitics

Daniel Falcone: Do you anticipate the United States entering a new Cold War with China? What are the prospects for a new Cold War? Can you also discuss the fall of the Soviet Empire and the modern rise of China to better contextualize the present set of diplomatic tensions?

 

Richard Falk: I think there are grave dangers of either sliding into a new Cold War by unwitting interactions, especially with China, and possibly with Russia. More complex opposing alignments could also take shape, for instance, an alignment that features the U.S., Europe, and India on one side and China and Russia on the other. Such an encounter would likely be less ideological than the Cold War that broke out after World War II and also less preoccupied about the outbreak of an all-out nuclear war. The next cold war is likely to be more focused on economic rivalry, cyber dimensions of conflict and major regional wars involving Iran, the Korean Peninsula, India/Pakistan, or elsewhere. In this regard, what might start as a cold war has a greater prospect of producing major hot wars as there could be present less of a self-deterrent. In this altered global setting, there are distinctive risks arising from what I would call ‘nuclear complacency, underestimating the dangers and catastrophic results of nuclear war.

 

In the background of this look ahead is the extent to which China has spoiled the triumphalist narrative that was spun in the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One somewhat notorious version, associated with Francis Fukuyama ‘s claim, which seemed ludicrous when it was put forward in the early 1990s, is that after the Cold War the world had reached ‘the end of history.’ Western secular values had prevailed both with regard to state/society relations and in relation to the organization of the world economy. The future seemed, for some years, almost to vindicate this myopic interpretation, with a virtually universal endorsement of neoliberal globalization, which Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the previously left socialist leader of Brazil explained in the 1990s as ‘the only game in town.’

A cruder version of this clear vision of a victorious West was the assertions of the Tory leader in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, who aggressively shouted down the British opposition to her economic policies with the slogan ‘there is no alternative’ (to market driven economies), or simply TINA. This idea had been initially attributed to Herbert Spencer, notorious for suggesting in the 19th Century that history of society parallels human evolution in the sense of privileging ‘the survival of the fittest.’ Not surprisingly, given such an uncongenial atmosphere, progressive forces felt demoralized.

 

Left perspectives often adopted defeatist postures after the Soviet collapse, and were derided as having endorsed political oppression and backed economic failure. Perhaps worse for progressive prospects, was the awkward fact that the only surviving major socialist economy, post-Mao China after the ascent of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, seemed itself to be opting for joining the capitalist choir, seeking and gaining membership by in the World Trade Organization and rationalizing its active participation in the neoliberal world economy as ‘market socialism’ fooling almost no one, least of all capitalist investors and traders.

For many years, this seemed like a win/win reality. China’s economy expanded at a remarkable rate, but world trade increased and Western investors were pleased with their profits, associated with the low costs of skilled labor in China and the absence of strict environmental and safety standards. All was well as long as China stayed in its lane as ‘the factory for the world,’ but when it made the transition to a sophisticated high technology innovating economy it began to pose a new kind of geopolitical challenge to the primacy of the United States and the West, and murmurs began to be heard about stealing Western technology, unfair trade practices, and currency manipulations. In my view, although these issues were significant, they were capable of negotiated solutions, and were not the core concern. What began to bother the West was the degree to which China for all of its superficial adaptations to capitalist logic was dramatically outperforming its competitors in the West, seeming benefitting from the state management of economic activity, despite political authoritarianism, in a manner superior to what seemed possible in the developed societies of the West, especially with respect to savings, the investment of public funds, and even with regard to technological innovativeness relating to the post-industrial, digital age.

 

This extraordinary Chinese dynamic is brilliantly depicted for Asia as  whole by the Indian economist, Deepak Nayyar, in The Asian Resurgence: Diversity in Development (2019). The book explains the overall post-colonial Asian challenge to Western ascendancy in which 14 Asian countries, led by China, produced the most remarkable record of economic growth and poverty alleviation in the past 50 years that the world has ever known. These countries achieved these remarkable results without the private sector trappings of liberal democracy, thus drawing into question the American claim that market-driven constitutionalism was the only modern arrangement of state/society relations that was both legitimate and materially successful.

 

With these considerations in mind, three rather distinct alternative futures for the U.S./China relationship deserve scrutiny if the objective is to avoid the onset of a lose/lose second cold war. On a preliminary basis it would seem helpful to take notice of a serious language trap that suggests misleadingly that  because the words ‘cold war’ are convenient to designate a new central geopolitical confrontation, if it occurs, it would resemble in its essential features the Cold War that followed directly from the contested peace arrangements of World War II, and represented two major states that both conceived of international relations through the realist postwar prisms of hard power as complemented by adherence to rival ideologies that temporarily suspended their enmity toward each other in order to join forces to defeat fascism. There are many differences between the global settings then and now. First, there is only a rather shallow ideological difference among the leading political actors at this time, although those on the far right in the West are seeking a renewal of intense geopolitical conflict by portraying China as a Communist, socialist, even Maoist, and hence an ideological adversary of the supposedly freedom-loving West. In contrast, old style Cold War liberals are thinking more along traditional lines of geopolitical competition among principal states promoting national interests as measured by growth, military capabilities, wealth, status, and influence, with ideological differences and human rights invoked, but put situated far in the background.

 

With these thoughts in mind it becomes reasonable to depict three world futures that portray relations between China and the West. The first, and most evident one, arises from the kind of provocative Trump diplomacy that combines blaming the COVID pandemic on Chinese malfeasance with intensifying the divergencies relating to economic policies and in relation to the island disputes in the South China Sea. Such a conflict-generating diplomacy is best understood as a diversionary tactic to obscure the multiple and shocking failures by the Trump presidency to provide unifying leadership or science-based guidance during the unfolding of the health disaster that continues its lethal sweep across the country with undiminished fury, and should be exposed as such. If China takes the Trump bait, the world will be plunged into a new ferocious geopolitical rivalry that will divert resources and energies from an agenda or urgent global-scale challenges.

 

A variation on this theme is connected with the possibility that Trump thinks he faces a landslide defeat in the November election, and esscalates hostile diplomacy to stage a confrontation with China, possibly accompanied by declaring a national emergency, or by contriving Gulf of Tonkin style false incidents as a pretext for launching some sort of attack on China that is the start of a hot war, which if saner minds prevail, would be contained, and toned down to mere Cold War proportions, and likely becoming a multi-dimensional rivalry that comes to dominate international relations.

 

The second more subtle drift into a Cold War with China would arise from a deep state consensus reinforcing a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and further encouraged by private sector war industry pressures. The likely objective would be to challenge China militarily in the South China Sea or in the course of some regional confrontation, possibly arising from tensions on the Korean Peninsula, along the Indian border, or in the Indo-Pakistani context. It would represent a more common structural militarist response patterns to growing evidence of relative Western decline in the face of a continuing Asian rise.

 

The third future is even more abstract and structural, and has been influentially labeled ‘Thucydides Trap’ in a book by Graham Allison [Destined for War: Can America and China escape the Thucydides’s Trap? (2017)], who accepts the analysis of the classical Greek historian on the basis of case studies over the centuries finds that when an ascendant Great Power fears the loss of its primacy to a Rising Power, it frequently initiates war while believing it still retains a military edge, which it will not retain for long. Note that such an assessment presumes actual warfare, and should not be perceived as a sequel to the U.S./Soviet Cold War, which came close to war in several situations of bipolar, but managed to restore order in a series of tense crises without engaging in direct combat.

 

There is a further complication with an analysis that extrapolates from the Cold War. Unlike the Soviet Union, China’s rise and challenge is far less associated with military capabilities and threats than it is with a remarkable surge of economic growth and soft power expansionism by pursuing win/win approaches that combine infrastructure aid to foreign societies with the growth of influence. In this regard, China has not weakened its domestic society by excessive investment in a militarist geopolitics, which depends on maintaining an expensive and vast global military presence that produced a several failed interventions that cast doubts on the United States’ capacity to uphold global security. This loss of credibility with respect to global security, despite its military dominance can be traced back to the Vietnam War in which overwhelming combat superiority on the battlefield nevertheless led to a political defeat.

 

The United States has repeated that fundamental failure first fully exposed in Vietnam in several other military misadventures. This inability to adjust to the realities of the post-colonial era in which nationalism mobilized on behalf of self-determination often neutralizes and eventually outlasts an intervening external power despite having grossly inferior weaponry has still not been overcome by the United States as it continues to act as if its military prowess shapes contemporary history. There is a second Thucydides trap that Allison doesn’t mention, which is that Athens lost its ascendancy from internal moral and political decay more than from the challenge posed by rising Sparta, succumbing to demagogues who led Athens into imprudent military adventures that weakened its overall capabilities, and especially its political self-confidence. Such a downhill path has been traveled by the United States at least since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in which wars and contested long occupations of hostile societies has been expensive and contributed to alienation, extremism, and unrest within the United States.

 

Daniel Falcone: Can you draw on specific historical comparisons to the Soviet Union and China in terms of what is at stake geopolitically?

 

Richard Falk: There are several important comparisons. To begin with, the Soviet Union emerged from a devastating war as a victorious military power, and soon acquired nuclear weapons, posing a direct threat, ideologically and militarily to the European heartland of the Western alliance. The Cold War unfolded out of the tensions associated with the mutual disappointments of the peace diplomacy, especially as it divided Europe, including the city of Berlin.

 

The other flashpoint that provoked extremely destructive and dangerous wars in Korea and Vietnam, and recurrent crises in Germany, was the problems arising from unstable compromises between the victors in the war taking the form of countries divided without the consent and against the will of their national populations, and in disregard of the right of self-determination. In the present historical situation, the only leftover divided country is Korea, which after a serious and devastating war, 1950-52, ended as it began with the division remaining along with crises, tensions, threats, and periodic diplomatic efforts to achieve normalization leading to some form of reunification. It should be noted that although China’s geopolitical profile is overwhelmingly economistic as compared to the U.S. militarist profile, China become very sensitive about threats and disputes along its borders, and has had fighting wars with both India and Vietnam, as well as a defensive engagement in defense of North Korea.

Tensions rising to confrontation levels with China would probably either derive from disputes within China’s sphere of South Asian influence with respect to Taiwan, Hong Kong, island disputes or in some way related to China’s economic rise to a position of primacy, which contrasts with the grossly inferior economic performance of the Soviet Union if compared to the U.S. and the other major world economies, including Germany and Japan. The Soviet Union was never an economic rival or mounted a challenge in the manner of China.

 

The Cold War also coincided with the decolonizing process in Asia and Africa, which put the West and the Soviet bloc on opposite sides in a variety of struggles. In one respect this provided a safety valve that shifted bipolar confrontations to peripheral countries while trying to keep nuclear peace and stability at the center of the world system, which both sides assumed to be Europe, as well as their relations with one another. If a prolonged geopolitical confrontation emerges with China, Europe will not likely be an important site of struggle, and Europe even might sensibly opt to be non-aligned. Asia, including the Middle East, will become the main geopolitical battlegrounds, and Africa will offer a peripheral zone of contention where a Cold War II rivalry might assume its most direct expression as escalation risks would seem lower than in the various Asian theaters of encounter.

 

Unquestionably, the biggest difference is between the nature of the two challengers to Western systemic hegemony. The Soviet Union was a traditional geopolitical actor relying for expanding influence on its material capabilities and ideological penetration, while China focuses its energies and resources on soft power economic growth at home that is sustained and managed by the state in a manner that attracted massive foreign investment and domestic reinvestment based on a high rate of savings, a skilled labor force, and benefitting from highly favorable trade balances. China’s expansionist energies relied on win/win forms of economic and infrastructure assistance to countries in need with minimal interference with their political independence. The Soviet Union never undertook anything remotely comparable to China’s Road and Belt extraordinarily massive infrastructure initiative, again stressing huge win/win gains for a large number of countries, including in Africa. Aside from the special case of Cuba, the Soviet Union provided only military support to its allies in the so-called ‘Soviet bloc,’ and in East Europe intervened militarily to avoid ideological deviation.

It remains to be seen whether now that China is being challenged geopolitically by the United States it will begin to adopt a hard power mode, and the resulting confrontation between the two countries will come to resemble the Cold War. It is likely that China will emerge from the COVID pandemic with a reputation for greater efficiency in controlling the spread of the disease, reviving its economy, and understanding the functional benefits of global cooperation than the Trumpist West. At the same time, the Chinese image has been badly tarnished by damaging disclosures documenting the repression of the 10 million Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province and by forcible extensions of direct control over Hong Kong.

 

Daniel Falcone: The Cold War featured widespread propaganda in all facets of American cultural and political life. How could the United States attempt to sell the concept of an ideological confrontation with China in these times? The Republicans and Democrats are both constructing similar policy proposals it seems.

 

Richard Falk: I believe there are two approaches to confrontation with China that might be followed in the coming months, depending on which leadership controls American foreign policy after the November elections. Neither is desirable in my opinion. There is the approach of provocation adopted by Trump, which blames China for the pandemic and imposes various sanctions designed to roll back their economic and technological advances coupled with Trump’s normal transactional emphasis on securing a more favorable trade deal for the U.S. tied to a promise of warmer diplomatic relation.

 

The second approach is more closely associated with a reenactment of the Cold War bipartisan consensus that formed after World War II, and continues to animate the national security establishment in Washington. It involves a new version of containment as focused on the South China Seas island disputes, sometimes more loosely described as ‘boxing China in’ with India playing the role that Europe played in the earlier Cold War, along with an emphasis on China’s human rights abuses to achieve liberal backing, or at least acquiescence.

 

This approach is more likely to be pursued by a Biden presidency  reasserting U.S. global leadership, with a Carteresque revival of ideological emphasis on Western liberalism as a superior mode of governance and global leadership due to its record on human rights and democracy, proclaiming its dedication to ‘a new free world.’ It is this approach that is more usefully and accurately regarded as a successor to the first Cold War. This softer version of confrontation with China would not challenge the structural features of America’s geopolitical posture adopted during the Cold War based on militarism at home and globally, capitalism, Atlanticism, and ‘special relationships’ with Israel and, somewhat less stridently, with Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt.

 

At the same time, there are some strong disincentives for so engaging China in a post-pandemic setting when policy priorities should be directed at restoring the economy and addressing climate change/biodiversity, which was almost forgotten about during the health crisis. The wisest course for future American foreign policy is providing constructive global leadership with an emphasis on inter-governmental cooperation for the human interest, a receptivity to compromise and conflict resolution in dealing with economic and political disputes, a radical defunding of the military, and strong commitments to restoring the spirit and substance of the New Deal with respect to social protection and national infrastructure.

 

Daniel Falcone: Are there any specific human rights issues and regions that would present immediate concerns and be jeopardized in your estimation within a new Cold War framework?

 

Richard Falk: Neither China nor the United States are currently positioned to promote human rights in other parts of the world with any credibility. The U.S. has lost credibility due to its handling of asylum-seekers on its borders and the maintenance of sanctions against such countries as Iran and Venezuela despite widespread humanitarian appeals for temporary suspension. In addition, the worldwide surge of support for Black Lives Matter after the Floyd police murder has called attention to the ugly persistence of systemic racism in gun-toting America. With these and other concerns in mind, it is hypocritical for the U.S. to be lecturing others, complaining about human rights abuses, and imposing sanctions allegedly as punitive responses to human rights failures.

 

China has never treated human rights as an element of its foreign policy, and with its own failures to adhere to international standards at home it is unlikely to engage the West on these terms. At the same time, there are at least two positive sides to China’s treatment of human and humanitarian issues that are rarely acknowledges in the West. First, China has lifted tens of millions of its own people out of extreme poverty (while the U.S. has widened disparities between rich and poor, and oriented growth policies over the course of the last half century to benefit the super-rich causing dysfunctional forms of inequality and acute alienation and rage on the part of working class). The Chinese achievement could easily be interpreted as a great contribution to the realization of the economic and social rights and to some extent should balance its disappointing record with regard to civil and political rights.

 

Secondly, during the COVID pandemic China has displayed important contributions to human solidarity while the United States has retreated to an ‘America First’ statist outlook that is combined with very poor performance with regard to both preventive and treatment aspects of responding to the virus. China has added funding to the WHO, send doctors and supplies to many countries, and most impressive of all has pledged to place any formulas it develops for effective vaccines in the public domain, placing this vital intellectual property on the web accessible to public and private sector developers. China deserves to receive positive recognition for such acts of what is sometimes described as ‘medical solidarity,’ while the United States deserves to be shamed for its blending of capitalist greed and nationalist selfishness.

 

Should there be a Second Cold War, human rights would become even more than, at present, a tool of cynical propaganda, especially if the bipartisan consensus regains the upper hand in U.S. policymaking. As with the First Cold War, human rights considerations would be brought to bear on countries deemed hostile to U.S. geopolitics and ignored with respect to friends and allies. At present, such a dichotomy is evident by way of an emphasis on Turkish human rights failures while ignoring the far worse failures in EgyptSaudi Arabia, and Israel. Because the Second Cold War would be more explicitly geopolitical rather than ideological, I would expect less emphasis on ‘free world’ definitions of the core issues giving rise to the conflict.

 

Daniel Falcone: Although it’s a long-standing concern of strategists and planners, how do you see or anticipate China becoming an issue in the upcoming presidential election?

 

Richard Falk: It seems likely that Trump will campaign on a new strategic threat to the United States emanating from China, primarily aimed at its unacceptable economic manipulations to deprive the U.S,  of trading benefits and jobs as well as its charging China with responsibility for American deaths due to the pandemic resulting from its refusal to release information about the virus immediately after it struck Wuhan and by way of conspiring with the WHO to conceal information about the international dangers of the COVID-19 disease. As in 2016 with its inflammatory message about immigrants, it can be anticipated that Trump will use the same techniques to cast China as an evil challenge to American greatness that only he has recognized and possesses the will and ability to crush.

 

I would expect that the Democratic Party election strategy would not take fundamental issue with the Trump approach, although its emphasis might seem quite different, attacking Trump for using China as a means to distract Americans from his gross failures of international and domestic leadership. A Biden campaign would also condemn China with regard to curtailing Hong Kong democracy and autonomy, as well as its abusive policies toward the maltreated Uighur minority. Biden might also agree that Chinese behavior has been unacceptable with respect to trade practices, stealing industrial secrets, including advocating militarization and confrontation in the South China Seas.

 

Where Biden and the Democrats would differ from Trump quite dramatically is with respect to Russia. Biden Democrats would likely make Russia enemy #1, sharply criticizing Trump for being ‘Putin’s poodle,’ and arguing that Russian expansionism and its alleged responsibility for killing Americans in Afghanistan is a more frontal threat to American interests in the Middle East and Europe than are the China challenges. Depending on the rhetoric and supporting policies being advocated there is a risk that Biden’s approach would lead to geopolitical fireworks, but probably not with China, and with less preoccupation with Europe than the First Cold War that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

 

Daniel Falcone: How does our ongoing and continual: medical, racial, economic and environmental pandemics help in exploiting Cold War narratives and approaches for heads of state around the world?

 

Richard Falk: I believe it is not yet clear whether these competing narratives will outlive the health crisis when pressures to revive the economic aspects of the ‘old normal’ will be intense. It is possible that if Trump remaining in control of the U.S. Government, there would be an opportunity for China or possibly a coalition of countries to exercise global leadership by seeking to promote a global cooperative approach to health, while also seeking common ground and shared action on climate change, global migration, food security, and extreme poverty.

 

If Biden becomes the U.S, president and reasserts U.S. leadership it will likely strike a balance between pushing back against Russian and Chinese challenges and learning from the pandemic to seek global cooperative solutions to urgent problems confronting humanity. This renewal of liberal internationalism would likely be signaled on Day One by rejoining the Paris Climate Change Agreement and soon thereafter restoring American participation and support for the Iran Nuclear Agreement, supplemented by such internationalizing initiatives as returning to active membership in and robust funding for the WHO and support for the UN.

 

In conclusion, the buildup of anti-Chinese sentiments is establishing this dual foundation for a Second Cold War. Not surprisingly, the Editorial Board of the NY Times calls on Trump to use sanctions against China in response to reports of its mistreatment of the Uighur minority and its Hong Kong moves. Such advocacy is set forth without a mention of the hypocrisy of Trump being an international advocate of human rights given his record of support for autocratic denials at home and abroad, not to mention border politics and cruelty toward those millions in the U.S. without proper residence credentials. This kind of belligerent international liberalism, if not moderated, would recall the ideological joustings that made the First Cold War such a drain on resources and destroyed hopes for a rule-governed geopolitics, anchored in respect for the UN Charter and embodying commitments to promote a more peaceful, just, and ecologically responsible world.

 

 

Learning Now from Gandhi   

12 Jul

[Prefatory Note: I wrote the text below before being aware of the drastic challenges posed for the human species in 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, Trump & Trumpism. These challenges are posed in their most extreme forms in the United States, not only the first global state, but also the first failed global state, exporting its failures far beyond normal borders of time and space.

 It is with these circumstances in mind that I am posting my foreword to Suman Khanna Aggarwal’s The Science of Peace, a faithful and highly accessible presentation of Gandhi’s essential thought and practice as applicable to the rather overwhelming set of circumstances that amount to gathering storm clouds. Such a darkened sky hovering over the present is intended to call to our attention the severe threats to the human and ecological futures all being on earth confront, whether or not they are aware of these unprecedented dangers. In such circumstances, many seek shelter in the most dangerous places out of feelings of loneliness, desperation, and alienation, which is terrain of consciousness on which Trump and Trumpism builds its political architecture of evil, most visibly in the United States, but worldwide taking hold of societies through insidious structures of capitalism, militarism, pacification, and chauvinistic forms of statism. What we learn from Gandhi is the piety of radical action as resulting from the dormant power of the powerless once a sufficient collective will dedicated to resistance and transformation is realized and acted upon. Contact with Gandhi’s approach encourages the conversations and reflections we urgently need if we are to rediscover hope in an era of hopelessness.

 Ms. Aggarwal is a devoted Gandhi scholar and Gandhi activist known worldwide. The Science of Peace is available through Amazon as a Kindle book for $5.95. You will not regret reading and reflecting on it relevance.]

 

 

Learning Now from Gandhi   

 

 

 

RAF Foreword toThe Science of Peace by Suman Khanna Aggarwal

 In a brilliantly lucid and compelling manner Suman Aggarwal instructs us, and the world, about Gandhi’s highly originally and historically tested approach to peace. What makes this approach so timely for our conflict-ridden world is that Gandhi’s ideas are not sentimental or based on wishful thinking, but derived from scientifically validated experience of practicing nonviolent conflict resolution coupled with an unconditional commitment to truth and perseverance. Aggarwal’s book takes its readers stage by stage through Gandhi’s revolutionary impact on how we should feel, think, believe, and act if we sincerely seek peace privately and publicly. We are guided on a path that starts with the understanding of conflict, moves on toward why the path of nonviolence accompanied with a grounding in truth is more effective and beneficial than the prevailing military approaches, illustrates this demanding way of nonviolence by a short discourse on Gandhi’s tactical genius in devising nonviolent practice, and concludes with a gripping explanation of why nonviolence is a source of power that is consistent with the truths of science. After reading and reflection such a book we can hardly help being both enlightened and inspired for we are enabled to view the torments of the world with bright and hopeful eyes.

 

 

We live at a time when the political leaders of the world exhibit and accentuate its worst ills rather than meet the profound challenge of the first bio-ethical crisis of the human species. In times past societies, even civilizations, were frequently at risk of collapse, but never the species and the viability of its planetary habitat. As Gandhi immediately understood, the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities were nothing qualitatively new, but rather a culminating exposure of the logic of violence carried to its outer extreme, indicting with unmistakable clarity the deadly effect of relying on incoherent and deadly war-making and militarism as the foundation of security for individuals and groups. We know that a nuclear war could doom the human experience by producing a nuclear winter that might last at least a decade, destroying the agricultural foundations of collective and healthy life on the planet. We now also know that the life styles of modernity continues to emit unsustainable amounts of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Such irresponsible behavior causes global warming that threatens to make the earth contaminated and uninhabitable forever.

 

We also know what to do to meet such momentous challenges, and yet we do not act with sufficient ambition. At most, we invest faith in the vain hope that prudent leadership will save the world from nuclear catastrophe and that technology will rescue the planet from global warming before it is too late. Despite being a species aware of this severe crisis, we mostly look away, entrusting the future to those who are aggravating these problems by their militarism and economic greed. We turn to leaders that look upon desperate strangers seeking asylum as ‘invaders,’ that embrace ultra-nationalism, express contempt for real democratic governance and participation, and nurture escapism and even denialism to pacify and divert mass discontent when it comes to acknowledging these unprecedented threats to human wellbeing and survival. Prevailing ideologies of nationalism, capitalism, and political realism are all perversely premised on the fragmentation of humanity into a multitude of distinct identities related to state, nationality, religion, race, gender, income, and others.  This stress on difference precludes experiencing and acting upon the essential similarities that alone could produce a spirit of unity that is an underlying precondition for fulfilling the spiritual potential of humanity as well as meeting the practical challenges that hang like storm clouds over our prospects of a benign future.

 

Such a background suggests that we humans as a species are not only floundering but drifting toward catastrophic scenarios of extinction. What seems clear to those with eyes to read and ears to hear is that the way the planet is organized by reliance on a statist system of world order is violence prone, nationalistically driven, and ecologically unsustainable. My own country, the United States, has led the way in accentuating political fragmentation, indulging a chauvinistic form of nationalist narcissism, electing as its current president a man who feasts on divisiveness, employing a coercive diplomacy based on threats and weaponry, and constructing a social order on its home territory that features plutocratic control of wealth and resources. Such a social setting is insensitive to the gross socio-economic inequalities being experienced by the citizenry and totally disregards the menace of rapidly declining biodiversity and the rising multiple dangers of climate change and nuclearism.

 

If this understanding of the present human outlook is even partially correct it suggests that we are neglecting the available tools that could do a far better job of arranging how we live together on planet earth. Ideologies and cultural outlooks now even mildly responsive to the spirit and realities of the age we live in have been virtually abandoned almost everywhere. In the darkness of such night every so often a book comes along that sheds light, being deeply responsive to these unmet challenges of our life circumstances. Suman Khanna Aggarwal’s The Science of Peace is just such a book. With lucidity, insight, erudition, visual diagrams, and expert commentary it explores the thought and practice of Mahatma Gandhi, explicating his central ideas and making us better understand his daring practices of extraordinary life-threatening fasts and of mobilizing historic massive displays of nonviolent opposition by the Indian population to the mighty British Empire. Gandhi’s radicalism creatively blended truth-seeking, nonviolence, and love, offering a cure for the yet improperly diagnosed maladies that currently afflict humanity.

 

Ms. Aggarwal highlights in an original and illuminating manner the importance of Gandhi’s fundamental belief that his approach to politics and life was a matter of ‘science’ and not a question of feelings and sentiments untestable by realities. In this regard, Gandhi believed himself to have discovered via nonviolence and love sources of power that were themselves expressive of natural laws as ingrained in reality as the laws of gravity. To so present Gandhi is to remind readers that his approach to knowledge was not so much a matter of morality or personal preference or pragmatic problem-solving or even religious conviction. Gandhi was acting on the basis of empirically discoverable truth, incorporating his unshakable belief that failure to so act would end in disaster whatever the undertaking, whether intensely personal or highly political. By way of contrast, patiently adhering to truth would inevitably summon the power of love, which for Gandhi would be eventually vindicated in all human affairs. After reading Aggarwal’s stimulating insistence on the scientific nature of Gandhi’s radicalism, signaled by her title, a better understanding of this great historical figure emerges.

 

There are two distinct ways of thinking about the relevance of Gandhi’s science.  The first way, which is quietly advocated in this book, is to suggest that what Gandhi proposes is the only way forward for humanity, and that this has always been the case, but now has become more manifestly so. In effect, we cannot hope to break the death grip of war and hateful patterns of social interaction without a nonviolent surge by the peoples of the world based on their unconditional recognition that an inclusive love is all-powerful in situations of conflict. The second way, which is closer to my own outlook, is to find in Gandhi’a life and thought a coherent and ethically sublime radicalism of a magnitude that corresponds to the momentous scope of present humanistic and ecological challenges. This book demonstrates convincingly that humanity will not survive without a radical turn toward inclusiveness in all aspects, including our relations with animals and nature broadly considered, but whether Gandhi’s particular brand of radicalism fits the historical situation seems to me more questionable, or at least in need of creating connections between his specific struggles and the present perilous global situation.  

 

Of course, embedded in the undeniably heroic life and exploits of Gandhi’s form of radicalism are some haunting questions. Gandhi, as did one of his most admired precursors, Jesus, died violently, and their legacies were distorted and exploited even as they were honored. Of course, also we know as Aggarwal makes evident, that Gandhi’s life ended not in a celebratory mood resulting from ending colonial rule, but in despair about the breakup of India and the communal rioting that pitted Hindu against Muslim. We need, I believe, to ask ourselves whether Gandhi’s demanding regimen was too difficult given the character of the overwhelming majority of people that are at most capable of what Gandhi dismissed as ‘the nonviolence of the weak,’ that is, as a means to achieve an end without being necessarily  committed to a nonviolent path as both means and end. Is not Gandhi expecting too much? And would not the world benefit from a transnational movement of people dedicated to peace and ecological sustainability even if it didn’t claim scientific validation and insist upon nonviolence as the end, as well as the means sought by struggle? I do not claim to have answers to such questions, but their relevance to what is proposed in the pages of this book should encourage readers to engage in active dialogue with the author.

 

In the end, we should all be deeply grateful to Ms. Aggarwal for making us aware of Gandhi’s incredible body of thought that speaks so directly to our time. She makes a strong argument for endorsing Gandhi’s vision of peace, including its unconditional character, and an indirect argument for any type of radical thinking and action capable of achieving comparably unattainable goals to that of achieving India’s political independence, which involve caring for the safety and health of the human species when it faces unprecedented threats to its wellbeing, and even survival. If we care about the future of humanity we owe it to ourselves to read and ponder this fine book.

 

          

Post-COVID Prospects Assessed

8 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The text below is a slightly edited interview on post-COVID prospects that was published in Mutekabiliyet, a Turkish student online journal, July 3, 2020]

Post-COVID Prospects Assessed

Question 1: I​​n the past few decades, the world has been heading towards more globalisation, more openness, more interconnectedness and there were more bridges between the civilisations and countries. However, with the rise of US President Donald Trump to power, the far-right started to gain more momentum all over the world. For instance, in France, Marine Le Pen got around 33% which was unprecedented and never happened before. In Germany, Neo-Nazi AfD got around 25%. These are the powers of convergence. Powers that are closing up the countries and not building bridges with the countries. In light of this, what are we going to witness after COVID-19? Are we going for more convergence or divergence? More nationalism and divisiveness or more connectedness?

Response: ​As there are contradictory tendencies present, and their relative strength difficult to evaluate, speculation about post-COVID-19 realities remain highly conjectural. I can offer more or less informed opinions setting forth hopes, fears, and assessments of what we expect in light of what we should have learned from the planetary scope of such an exceptionally dislocating pandemic experience. Also, some alternative scenarios suggest that there are events that might bear heavily on what we expect will happen in the aftermath. Maybe reflecting my identity as an American, although presently residing in Turkey, I regard the American upcoming presidential elections six months away as highly significant, maybe the most significant of my lifetime. It is not only a question of a referendum on the national leadership provided by Donald Trump, but also whether the United States will continue to withdraw from its pre-Trump internationalist role of encouraging global cooperation to achieve shared results that are somewhat reflective of ​human interest at stake as well as of ​national​ and ​geopolitical​ interests.

The earlier Obama role in championing a UN approach to climate change that led to the Paris Agreement in 2015 and his promotion of a deescalating agreement on the nuclear program of Iran in 2015 are illustrative of pursuing national interests by way of global multilateral diplomacy. Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. participation in relation to both of these agreements, previously internationally praised as benevolent breakthroughs for a more positive ecological approach in one instance and a laudable attempt to replace conflict with accommodation in the other, highlights the difference between these two statist and globalist approaches to global problem-solving. During the period of the current health crisis the absence of global leadership by the United States has been a pronounced negative element that has aggravated efforts to combat the disease, with leading countries engaging in blaming rivals rather than promoting cooperation, and some governments even seeking to gain national and commercial advantages by commodifying medical supplies and vaccine research and development.

I would venture the view, that the extension of Trump’s presidency to a second term will mean that nothing fundamental will change with respect to the absence of global leadership attuned to challenges facing humanity as a whole. If Trump is defeated in November 2020, then a vigorous resumption of American internationalist leadership is almost certain to occur, but containing some new and different dangers of geopolitical confrontation. As matters now stand, this dimension of steering the global ship of state remains overly dependent on the U.S. as no alternative leadership is now visible on the horizon, although this could change, yet not likely for some years. China or a conceivably resurgent European Union are the most likely political actors that might become politically assertive in global settings if unresolved issues reached crisis levels of perception. The UN is institutionally situated to play such a role, but so long as geopolitics retains primacy with respect to global policy formation, the UN will remain marginal when its leading members disagree and instrumental only when they agree.

Aside from leadership, another area where conjecture seems helpful, if read with caveats in mind, is with respect to preparedness for future health challenges of pandemic magnitude. It seems tragically evident that many countries, including some of the most affluent and technologically sophisticated were both grossly unprepared with respect to medical supplies (ventilators, ICU units, test kits, personal protective equipment), hospital facilities, and governmental knowhow (timing of lockdowns, social distancing). It would seem likely that the experience of the COVID-19 Pandemic would encourage two sets of adjustments: increased investment in national health systems and an expanded role for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations generally. The U.S. formal withdrawal from WHO in mid-2020 will create a funding crisis and a loss of universal support. It can be expected that pressure from the public to institute these health-oriented reforms will be considerable in the aftermath of the current crisis, but whether it will lead to major improvements in preparedness remains in doubt as some contrary elements are in play.

On the one side, national leadership, as with wars, learn from disasters to address past mistakes, often without an accompanying realization that future health challenges might not resemble COVID-19. As health crises have tended to be inter-generational, there is are strong temptations for politicians, once the crisis atmosphere passes, to concentrate resources on existing or very short-term public policy challenges. Their performance is not judged by their degree of preparation for longer-term threats but what they do in the span of their term in office, and if a crisis should materialize, then their handling of the situation, not their failure to prevent or prepare, will be the focus of evaluating their leadership. Beyond this, so many governments around the world are stretched thin to a point of being unable to devote resources and energies to the sort of health infrastructure that would put a society in a better position to minimize damage if faced with future viral epidemics.

Such considerations build a strong case for a global approach as it would seem much more economically efficient than expecting the almost 200 countries in the world to make prudent national adjustments, especially those that are poorest, densely populated. and most vulnerable. It would seem sensible to increase the budget of the WHO and assign it major responsibilities with respect to detection and early warning mechanisms, as well as to formulate guidelines as to prevention, treatment, and recovery, and possibly with regard to stockpiling of medical supplies and the subsidizing of regional hospital capabilities. Although this would seem a rather uncontroversial post-pandemic response, it is far from assured. Trump has been attacking the WHO for incompetence and complicity with the alleged early coverup by China, has defunded the agency in the midst of the crisis, and has alone blocked support for the UN call for a global ceasefire that had the support of the other 14 members of the UN Security Council. It seems true that the WHO has not enjoyed the sort of leadership that appears above politics, operates transparently, and commands a high level of professional respect. Additionally, the ultra-nationalist trend in so many countries, unless reversed, is hostile to globalizing solutions to policy challenges, and seems content to let severe problems simmer rather than empower international mechanisms beyond their national governance structures to seek and implement solutions.

In general, what should be the major learning experience from COVID-19 is the significance of what is called the Precautionary Principle (PP) in environmental policymaking. The PP privileges ​prevention​ over ​reaction,​ and encourages action to reduce risks of severe harm before the extent or timing of the risk can be conclusively established. Such an approach rests on heeding warnings from science and relevant experts. The failure to apply the PP has been frequently discussed in recent years with respect to regulating the dissemination of greenhouse gasses, especially CO2, so as to avoid global warming beyond a certain threshold. The reasoning that applies to climate change would also encourage preventive behavior in other areas of concern, such as risks of major wars fought with nuclear weapons or the further increase in transnational migratory flows. Each challenge has its distinctive features, but each would benefit from the application of the PP, but is blocked and resisted by short-termism and by leaders and segments of the public that prefer to leave the future in the hands of God, bestow confidence in the belief that technology will come up with solutions when the risks materialize, or indulge conspiracy theorists that reject all claims of governance structures to limit individual freedom, whether involving pollution or disobeying lockdown decrees.

And, of course, sometimes even well-evidenced risks do not materialize, and the prophets of doom are discredited as was the case of the warnings about Y2K destroying bank records and computer files at the turn of the century or the dire predictions of famine, over-population, and resource depletion by the Club of Rome fifty years ago. The COVID-19 experience underscored the precariousness, fragility, radical uncertainty, and deficiencies of governance at all levels of social action, but what to do poses daunting challenges to the moral and political imagination of all of us. The meme ‘we are all in this together’ has never rung truer, but so has the inverse, as the bodies of the poor and marginalized pile far higher than those of the rich and racially/religiously dominant who minimize the gravity of the crisis because for them it is not as serious as is the economic challenge.

Finally, is the perplexing challenge of interpreting the impacts of interconnectedness, and the contrary moves involving various retreats from globalization. Technological trends in relation to networking and digitalization are certainly heightening the sense of interconnectedness, and the varieties of vulnerability associated with the ease of transnational communication, commuter hacking, and cyber warfare. The degree of networked interaction is creating a new human imaginary. The post-9/11 combat zone pitting non-state extremists against the ‘global state’ of the United States encompasses the entire planet as a global battlefield. Both sides targeted their enemies, with low technology ‘terrorists’ relying on box cutters for weapons and high technology counter-terrorists relying on drone attacks from the air and infiltrated special forces units on the ground. Such interconnectedness erodes greatly international boundaries as markers for a disconnected world order, while the connectedness that arises is a kind of lawless anarchy with no acknowledgement of shared respect for international law, sovereign rights or the authority of the United Nations.

In addition, there is the kind of retreat from globalism that is expressed by the references in your question to a generation of autocratic leaders elected to preside over important states on the basis of an ultra-nationalist, nativist, and chauvinistic message. Such a Hobbesian contrast between order and community within the state and chaos without represents a reaction against the excesses of neoliberalism, especially gross inequality and severe social alienation subject to manipulation by aspiring demagogues. These developments bear witness to the dialectical relations between the pulls toward ​connectedness​ for the sake of market gains and global cooperation to meet systemic challenges such as climate change and migration and ​separation and ​self-reliance​ for the sake of identity, tradition, and community. We can wonder now whether the COVID-19 ordeal will revive the globalizing dynamic seemingly the wave of the future in the 1990s or will intensify the reactive reaffirmation of the statist benefits of disconnectedness that attained such prominence in the decade preceding the pandemic.

Question 2: ​The legitimacy of the international organizations is decreasing as they were not able to do much during pandemic. Some leaders like Trump are threatening international organizations to cut funds which would mean that these organizations would shut-down. What future would IOs have after COVID-19 is over? Is it something that would reinforce their legitimacy and their functioning or something that decreases the legitimacy?

Response: ​My response here again emphasizes the dialectical flow of history, but in a lesser key than with respect to the complex interactions between states and markets in the period following the end of the Cold War. I disagree somewhat with the premise set forth. I think that both the. WHO and the Secretary General demonstrated an importance that came as a surprise to many observers. It is well to remember that COVID-19 became ‘a pandemic’ only when WHO so declared  on March 11th​ and this designation was accepted as authoritative by the entire world. Such deference is a sign of legitimacy and speaks to the need for having responses unified in relation to a shared assessment of the nature of the challenge. Similarly, taking advantage of the leadership vacuum mentioned above, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, filling the void, receiving attention and respect as the world’s leading moral authority figure when he spoke in favor of unity and a people-first perspective. More than any political voice, Guterres seized the historic moment to call in late March for a global ceasefire for the duration of the pandemic that gained at least rhetorical support from most of the world’s government and almost unanimous approval from world public opinion, although with somewhat mixed behavioral results.

At the same time, it is true that the most publicly visible elements of the UN, the Security Council and the General Assembly, have been up to this point largely missing in action during the pandemic. The silence of the Security Council during the health crisis has been deafening, confirming that if any action had been attempted it would have floundered due to U.S./China tensions. This silence is also a result of the stubborn refusal of the U.S. to allow a Security Council resolution to go forward because of an indirect positive reference to the WHO that would have been an important geopolitical endorsement of the Guterres call for a global ceasefire in a text that embodied six weeks of work to find political compromises that succeeded in satisfying all 15 members of the Security Council except for the U.S.. This unfortunate confirmation of the degree to which the U.S. is prepared to oppose even symbolic moves expressing global solidarity in responding to the pandemic curtails the relevance of the UN even as people are dying the world over from this lethal disease.

The less geopolitically accountable General Assembly did manage to pass two constructive resolutions calling for sharing of medical supplies and vaccines as well as emphasizing the globality of the crisis, accentuating the human solidarity rather than nationalist factionalism, but were largely ignored because without authoritative force and not embraced by major governments or the media. On reflection, it should be understandable that the political organs of the UN are by design of its founders, shaped mainly to be instruments of Member states and especially the uber-states that are given privileged P-5 status with an unrestricted option of obstructing UN responses by casting a veto whenever their leaders are better off with silence rather than action.

With respect to legitimacy considerations, any assessment must be alive to the contradictions present. Among the most salient of these are the tension between Trump’s hostile actions toward the WHO and the widespread public appreciation of its role and essential contributions for countries with less sophisticated health systems. So long as nationalist and geopolitical turns in world politics remains influential among leading states, the relevance of the UN and internationalism generally is likely to remain at the margins of world politics, not so much with regard to legitimacy, but more with regard to effectiveness as assessed by behavioral impacts. If as mentioned in my response to the first question, Trump is defeated in 2020, and a more internationalist leader takes over control of the U.S. Government, there will be a strong push toward the reaffirmation of globalism in many of its dimensions, including the institutional dimensions exemplified by the UN System. International institutionalism as part of global governance is far more extensive than the UN if regional, economic, civil society institutionalization is taken into account. As matters now seem, the short-term aftermath of COVID-19 is likely to disappoint globalists hoping for a major transformative impact that lessens the statist nature of world order, and legitimates the UN as confirming that ​the whole has at last become greater than its parts​. This cautious view would seem to hold even if more globalist leadership from the United States is forthcoming as of 2021. This is because the public sentiments, as present in legislative and executive organs, tend toward affirming sovereign rights and dismissing externally imposed duties or accountability procedures.

If the dialectical interpretation of historical process is correct, then we can expect before too long a reaction against ultra-nationalism and chauvinistic styles of leadership of sovereign states, which will translate concretely into a new dawn for globalism, and especially for the UN. The material explanation for this anticipated sea change in political atmosphere is the near certainty that global scale challenges will grow more menacing in the course of the coming decade, and could induce a post-catastrophe mood that has been the only historical circumstance in which global reforms of any magnitude have any hope of gaining sufficient support from heads of the more influential states. Given the disparity of wealth and capabilities among states, such pressures could work in the opposite direction, intensifying inward and selfishly oriented national political postures, although a problem-solving approach would produce a growing recognition of the need for globally structured solutions, but quite possibly along hierarchical or even hegemonic lines.

Question 3: I​​n case we are heading for more convergence, more right-wing and nationalism, are we going to have head towards more wars, more clashes, more proxy wars like in Syria or larger scale wars? What are we most likely heading to?

Response:​This is a fundamental question, yet formulating a coherent response is not a simple matter given the radical uncertainty arising from the complexities and contradictions of the historical circumstances. A haunting unknown is whether the turmoil of the Middle East is a special case or a foretaste of what will happen in other parts of the world, and has already been causing prolonged havoc in several sub-Saharan African countries despite arousing far less concern in the West for a variety of reasons. The Middle East has several defining features that are not reproduced elsewhere to nearly the same degree: artificial states created on the basis of European colonial ambitions after the Ottoman collapse at the end of World War I; the primacy of oil as a the indispensable source of energy in the modernizing process of the industrial age and still crucial in the digital age; the inflammatory support given to the Zionist Movement by Europe in the early 20th​ century leading to the success of its settler colonialist project at the time when European colonialism was collapsing in the rest of the world; the fact that the region was perceived as the epicenter of both political Islam (after the Iranian Revolution of 1979) and Western grand strategy after the Cold War (replacing Europe), and then became the main crucible of transnational terrorism after 2001. Given the frustrations of prolonged acute strife in Syria, Yemen, as well as discrediting regime-changing interventions in Iraq and Libya, one wonders whether the geopolitical appetite for engagement in the region will persist. A further regional concern is whether the United States and Israel will press Iran to the point that provokes a major war that neither side wishes.

The other dangerous global hotspots in East Asia and South Asia seem to involve unresolved inter-governmental conflicts of a more traditional type familiar throughout world history. The question posed as to whether the U.S. and China can escape ‘the Thucydides trap’ by which ascendant hegemons have historically tended to go to war rather than risk being displaced by rising rivals seems like a central concern over the course of the next decade, and tensions between these two dominant world powers rose to a fever pitch of mutual recrimination during the pandemic. Much may depend whether the rivalry remains centered on economic competition or takes the form of military encounters. A second concern, also in East Asia, is whether the denuclearizing pressure on North Korea exerted by the United States so as to maintain its global security framework anchored in a regime of ‘nuclear apartheid’ will cross the military threshold, and bring about a possibly devastating war on the Korean Peninsula that engages China and Japan, and possibly Russia. A third concern is whether India and Pakistan will turn their conflict over Kashmir in a direction that erupts in a war fought between two states possessing nuclear weapons.

 

Poems, Pandemics, and Preservation

3 Jul

[Prefatory Note: with the help of a friend I taught myself to write poems in a haiku form following classic Japanese guidance. Poetry has long been a place of sanctuary for me, and in recent months it has also offered me the pleasures of ‘lockdown therapy.’ I hope I am not abusing readers of this blog by posting a sample, and hoping others will be drawn to join an invisible community of haiku lovers.]

 

Poems, Pandemics, and Preservation

 

Lonely despair wilts

Colorful blooming flowers

Can’t hide fragrance

 

 

Joy is a heart wave

Complacency vanishes

Blue replaces gray

 

 

black while jogging

Ahmaud Arbery

Then dead like King

 

 

By choice blue birds fly

Above the prisoners below

Singing their freedom songs

 

 

Enough of dreaming

The scent of this rose is real

Holding the stem I bleed

 

 

 

Rogue States Sanction the International Criminal Court  

26 Jun

[Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified version of an editorial contribution to TMS (Transcend Media Service), June 22-28, 2020).]

 

Sanctioning the International Criminal Court

 

Even Orwell would be at a loss to make sense of some of the recent anticsof leading governments. We would expect Orwell to be out-satirized by the American actions to impose penalties and sanctions on officials of the International Criminal Court, not because they are accused of acting improperly or seem guilty of some kind of corruption or malfeasance, but because they were doing their appointed jobs carefully, yet fearlessly and in accord with their proper role. Their supposed wrongdoing was to accept the request for an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed in Afghanistan by military personnel and intelligence experts of the U.S. armed forces, the Taliban, and the Afghan military. It seemed beyond reasonable doubt that frequent war crimes and crimes against humanity have occurred in Afghanistan ever since the U.S.-led regime-changing attack in 2002, followed by many years of occupation and continuous combat amid a hostile population.

 

It should be noted that Israel is equally infuriated that the ICC has affirmed the authority of its Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to investigate allegations by Palestine of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. These allegations include the unlawful transfer of Israeli civilians to establish settlements in the OPT as well as administrative structures and practices that constitute violations of the criminal prohibition on apartheid. Netanyahu, like his Washington sibling, has called for the ICC to be subject to sanctions for staging this ‘full frontal attack’ on Israeli democracy and  on ‘the Jewish people’s right to live in Israel,’ a ridiculous contention on its face. The Israeli Prime Minister seems to be contending that Israel as a sovereign state has the right to defend itself as it wishes, and should not be impeded by any obligation to respect international criminal law, or for that matter, any external source of authority, including the United Nations. Such a defiant claim, and the abusive practices and policies that have followed over many years, amounts to a crass affirmation of what I have elsewhere called ‘gangster geopolitics.’

 

Of course, Israel or the United States would be given broad latitude to make arguments in support of their innocence or their jurisdictional claims that the ICC lacked authority to prosecute, but these U.S. and Israel objections are not complaining about encroachments by the ICC on their right to mount legal defenses, but rather on the far more radical idea involving a total denial of international legal accountability. These two  rogue states refuse to accept even the authority of the ICC to determine whether or not it has jurisdiction to consider the criminal charges. This kind of repudiation of an international institution that has been acting responsibly, well within their legal framework set forth in the Rome Statute, an international treaty, represents an unprecedented and extreme expression of anti-internationalism.

 

The angry American pushback did not bother contesting the substantive allegations, but denied only the jurisdictional authority of the ICC, and attacked the audacity of this international entity for supposing that it could investigate, much less prosecute and punish the representatives of such a mighty state that, by implication, should never, no matter what, be held internationally accountable. When the ICC was investigating, and indicting, only African leaders few Western eyebrows were raised, but recently when the Court dared ever so gingerly to treat equals equally in accord with its own legal framework—the Rome Statute of 2000—it had in Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s eyes so overstepped its unspoken limits as to itself become a wrongdoer, and by this outlandish logic, making the institution and its officials legitimate targets for sanctions. What this kind of unprecedented punitive pushback against ICC officials amounts to is a notable rejection of the global rule of law when it comes to international crime and a crude geopolitical reminder to international institutions that ‘impunity’ and ‘double standards’ remain an operational principal norm of world order.

 

Speaking for the U.S. Government the response of the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, stunningly exhibited the hubris that became the American global brand well before Donald Trump disgraced the country and harmed the peoples of the world during his tenure as president. Pompeo’s reaction to the unanimous approval of the Prosecutor’s request to investigate war crimes in Afghanistan was little other than seizing the occasion to insult the ICC by describing it as “little more than a political tool employed by unaccountable international elites.” Such a statement crosses the borders of absurdity given the abundant documentation of numerous U.S. crimes in Afghanistan (the subject-matter of Chelsea Manning’s WikiLeaks 2010 disclosures that landed her in jail) and in view of the several ‘black sites’ in European countries where foreign suspects are routinely tortured, and subject to rape. Contra Pompeo, it is not the ‘international elites’ that are unaccountable but the national elites running the U.S. and Israeli governments.

 

The Pompeo dismissal of the ICC initiative was a prelude to the issuance by Trump on June 11th of an Executive Order that extended the prior denial of a U.S. visa to Bensouda, and threatened a variety of sanctioning moves directed at anyone connected with the ICC and its undertakings, including freezing assets and withholding visas, not only of ICC employees, but also of their families, on the laughable pretext that the prospective ICC investigation was creating for the United States a ‘national emergency’ in the form of an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Long before the present crisis, Trump had told the UN in a 2018 speech at the General Assembly that “..the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority..We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.”

 

As crude as are the words and deeds of the Trump crowd, there were almost equally defiant precursors, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, an anti-ICC campaign led by none other than John Bolton who was to become Trump’s notorious National Security Advisor, and has suddenly become his antagonist-in-chief as a result of his book depicting Trump’s array of impeachable offenses. Remember that it was Bush who ‘un-signed’ the Rome Statute that Bill Clinton had signed on behalf of the U.S. on the last day of his presidency, but even he did so with the proviso that the treaty should not be submitted to the Senate for ratification and hence not be applicable, until the ICC had proved itself a responsible actor in Washington’s judgmental and biased eyes. Congress and the State Department stepped in to make sure that American military personnel would not be charged with international crimes both by threatening preventive action and entering into over 100 agreements with other countries to ensure immunity of American soldiers and officials from ICC jurisdiction, coupled with a threat to withhold aid if a government refused to agree to such a law-defying arrangement. Hillary Clinton also put her oar in the bloody water some years ago, insisting that since the U.S. was more of a global presence than other countries, it was important to be sure that its military personnel would never be brought before the ICC, no matter what their alleged offenses. The global military reach of the U.S. by way of hundreds of overseas bases, special forces covert operations, and naval patrols around the globe should enjoy immunity on a individual level, as impunity on a collective level of state responsibility. The impulse is understandable given the degree to which U.S. global security activities are so often conducted in ways that violate the most basic prohibitions of international criminal law.

 

In other words, non-accountability and double standards have deeper political roots in the bipartisan soil of American security politics than the extreme anti-internationalism of Trump. These tactics of self-exemption from legal accountability can be usefully traced back at least as far as the ‘victors’ justice’ approach to war crimes during the second world war where only the crimes of the defeated countries were subjected to accountability at Nuremberg and Tokyo, a step hailed in the West as a great advance despite its flaws. It was deeply flawed considering that arguably the most horrifying and least forgivable act during the four years of hostilities were the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities. Is there any serious doubt that if Germany or Japan had struck cities of the Allies with the bomb, and yet lost the war, those responsible for the decisions would have been held accountable, and harshly punished?

 

In some ways as bad from a law angle was the U.S. orchestrated trial of Saddam Hussein and his closest advisors for their state crimes, although the 2003 Iraq War arose from acts of aggression by the United States and UK, and subsequent crimes during the prolonged occupation of Iraq. In other words, the idea of unconditional impunity for the crimes of the United States is complemented by self-righteous accountability for those leaders of countries defeated in war by the United States. Such ‘exceptionalism’ affront the conscience of anyone who shares the view that ideas of fairness and equality should be affirmed as core values in the application of international criminal law.   

 

As might be expected, mainstream NGOs and liberal Democrats are not happy with such an insulting and gratuitous slap in the face of international institutions that have previously proved mainly useful in going after the wrongdoing of non-Western leaders, especially in Africa. It should be remembered that African countries and their leaders were the almost exclusive targets of ICC initiatives during its first ten years, and it was from Africa that one formerly heard complaints and threats of withdrawal from the treaty, but I doubt that ideas of sanctioning the ICC ever entered the imaginary of the understandable African displeasure at an implicit ethos of ‘white crimes don’t matter’!

 

David Sheffer, the American diplomat who headed the U.S. delegation that negotiated the Rome Statute on behalf of the Clinton presidency, but who was careful to preserve American geopolitical interests in the process, expressed the liberal opposition to Trump’s arrogant style of pushback with these words: “The [Trump] Executive Order will go down in history as a shameful act of fear and retreat from the rule of law.” There is an element of hypocrisy present in such a denunciation due to withholding the pre-Trump record of one-sided imposition of international criminal law.  True enough, it was the prior Republican president that had locked horns with the ICC some years ago, but the ambivalence of Congress and the Clintons is part of a consistent American insistence of what I would label as ‘negative exceptionalism,’ that is, the right to act internationally without accountability while taking a hard line on holding others accountable; impunity for the powerful, accountability for the weak. It used to be that American exceptionalism was associated with a commitment to decency, human rights, the rule of law, and a visionary approach to world order that was missing elsewhere, and could serve as a catalyst for peace and justice in the world. Such self-glorification, which was never deserved or appropriate, has long since been forfeited at the altar of global geopolitics, whose players make up the rules as they go along, while showing contempt for the legal constraints that are deemed suitable for the regulation of their adversaries.

 

Finally, it should be appreciated that while geopolitical actors can get away with murder, their rogue behavior is a precedent for all states, and weakens and undermines what fragile procedures exist to uphold the most basic norms of international law.

 

 

The Politics of Kneeling: A Tribute to Colin Kaepernick  

22 Jun

 

 

 

The Politics of Kneeling: A Tribute to Colin Kaepernick

 

I had long held the image of kneeling as primarily ritual behavior in placesof religious worship, a sign of reverence for the sacred and divine. More broadly, getting down on one’s knees is an expression of submission associated withformal meetings between those of unequal social rank—as when commoners or even nobles interact with kings and queens. In a more metaphoric, and somewhat hypocritical spirit, kneeling has traditionally often been associated with assuming a submissive posture as when men have conveyed marriage proposals to the woman of their dreams, a pre-marital gesture of supplication. A more pragmatic recourse to kneeling is often the sign of a beseeching or well-trained street beggar, seeking our sympathy, most of all a bit of our money. We kneel or crouch, when performing as a grandparent, seeking to be less intimidating to our young and small grandchild. Whatever else, it is perverse to consider a kneeling person to be a defiant or subversive citizen. When citizens are denied the right to exhibit their deepest concerns about injustice democracy is dead! When citizens are punished or chastised for kneeling democracy is dying!

 

When the NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, decided to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem during the 2016 season, his announced intention was to call attention to racial inequality in the United States, and its ugliest manifestations via excessive uses of deadly force by police against African Americans. Kneeling, for the reasons noted above is a respectful and dignified way for a public figure to communicate their deepest felt concerns to a wider public, and contrasts with turning one’s back while the National Anthem is playing, and is a far more gentle reminder of injustice than raising a defiant clenched fist as the African American Olympic athletes, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, did during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem as is customary at the medal ceremony to honor the country of the athlete winning a competition as occurred in Mexico City after the 200 meters race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Such a deliberately militant show of identification by way of the Black Power Salute was at the time controversial (supposedly politicizing the Olympics as if tallying the overall winner by the number of medals a country has won is apolitical!). It should also be remembered that 1968 was a tumultuous year during which both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It struck me at the time as an effective nonviolent means of conveying an urgent moral, social, and political message that all was not well when it came to race relations in the United States, and if racial injustices were not addressed, massive suffering would persist, and could give rise to bloody conflict and strife. Smith later explained that the clenched fist was meant as  ‘a human rights salute’ rather than a ‘black power salute,’ but the distinction was hardly noticed at the time, and even had it been, I doubt that its intention would have been to shift our perception from ‘militant’ to ‘liberal’ or from ‘political’ to ‘humanitarian’?

 

Such displays of outrage by prominent athletes or entertainers are often denounced, especially by reactionary talk show hosts and reactionary politicians, insisting that athletes and entertainers are being paid millions for doing what they are superbly skilled at doing, but they have no credibility when it comes to declaring their unwelcome opinions on controversial societal issues. Such individuals are even instructed to renounce normal rights as citizens because speaking out would be taking unfair advantage of their notoriety. To engage in political advocacy or to promote a social cause such as racial equality or justice and equality for gay and trans people is treated by such monitors of propriety as crossing a red line. I would contend the opposite. Athletes and entertainers of conscience are the canaries in the mines of modern societies in North America and Europe, bearing witness often to their own unhealed wounds received from childhood experiences, neighborhood encounters, and personal struggles that many of us have been spared.

 

Kaepernick’s act was brave and had an impact, and partly because it dared violate sports etiquette by putting at risk his professional life, and also served as an early warning of the kind of volcanic feelings of pent up anger and distrust that came from generations of racial abuse in America. It is not surprising that Kaepernick’s ‘statement’ should now be remembered and intoned by protesters in the streets, but that it is also being reevaluated in the board rooms of NFL billionaire owners and league officials is less a surprise than a sign that the protest sweeping America might be beginning to make difference. It also should be appreciated that it took the martyrdom of George Floyd to redeem Kaepernick’s initiative that should have been heeded in the manner intended rather than shifted to a trivializing debate about whether kneeling during the National Anthem was a form of wrongdoing rather than what it was, a dignified exercise of the right of free expression on an unresolved issue of great gravity. We in America need to grasp our crucial dependence on acts of conscience by public figures and by whistleblowers with insider information about state crime if we have any hope at all of preserving democracy in the face of fascist style assaults on the rule of law and citizen dissent.

 

Of course, do not wait for Donald Trump to rethink any of his past appalling behavior on matters of either race or justice. Trump has made it a signature trait to double down on his worst missteps in these domains. It was Trump who called a player who kneeled ‘a son of a bitch,’ who deserved to be fired by club owners. He insisted that Kaepernick was showing disrespect for flag and country by kneeling, which he with typical unknowing arrogance compared to ‘sitting.’ He urged suspensions and disciplinary action, leading Trump’s fan base to boo whenever any player knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick. Trump showed no remorse when Kaepernick’s exercise of free agency resulted in no offers of a contract from any NFL team, and he soon discovered that he was improperly rendered unemployable. Such a punitive pushback was so excessive and abusive that Kaepernick filed a formal complaint in accord with the League’s grievance procedures, negotiating a confidential agreement, presumably a financial settlement that avoided a costly legal battle over innocent behavior that severely damaged his professional reputation with the result that he was unable to continue his outstanding career as a football player.

 

Thankfully, Roger Goodall, the Commissioner of the National Football League, is not Donald Trump. He has at least and at last issued an apology, belatedly urging teams to hire Kaepernick,  and even acknowledginging the impropriety of his past actions. This reappraisal has been reinforced by the comment of Kaepernick’s coach, Chip Kelly, who said that his protest move had a ‘zero distraction’ effect on the team. Kaepernick, even before Floyd’s death, received several awards from many human rights NGOs, in recognition that his action were justified, and deserved commendation not censure. The players on the San Francisco 49ers’ team likewise recognized his contributions by naming Kaepernick the recipient in 2016 of the Len Eshmont Award for best epitomizing the courageous and inspirational play of Len Eshmont, a beloved former player for the 49ers. A comprehensive assessment of the incident by two psychologists in the Scientific American ended with these words from its authors, Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Kettner: “Will Americans one day look back on Kaepernick’s symbolic act as a moment when we started to understand each other just a little bit better?” [“The Psychology of Taking a Knee,” Scientific American, June 2020]

 

Of course, there have been many Kaepernick moments that stretch back to the era of slavery, and forward to Rosa Parks’ 1956 refusal to go to the back of the bus sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott , King’s 1963 letter from the Birmingham Jail, and the death of George Floyd, some more resonant than others, but none have been enough to remove the darks stains of systemic racism from the fabric of daily life in America, and elsewhere in the world. It takes a dedicated movement, not a string of moments, no matter how searing and memorable, to achieve the deep structural changes that will allow all persons of color to be treated as equal citizens with equal rights, and until that feeling exists among those previously victimized, there will be inter-racial ceasefires, but no enduring peace.

 

The challenge is resoundingly clear, but up until now the response is not.  Racism in America has over and over again proven its lethal resilience.