Biden’s Middle East Visit: An Orgy of Cynicism, Hypocrisy, and Erasures

21 Jul

[Prefatory Note: A stylistically modified version of this post was published a few days ago in COUNTERPUNCH. It criticizes the dual tracks of Biden’s ill-executed trip in mid-July to Israel and Saudi Arabia. It faults Biden for the extreme cynicism of pursuing a realpolitik approach in Riyadh and an approach in Israel that mixed silences about apartheid, Shireen Abu Akleh, and the Palestinian ordeal with fanciful claims about shared values and democratic affinities.]

Biden’s Middle East Visit: An Orgy of Cynicism, Hypocrisy, and Erasures–

Shared Values and Fist Pump Geopolitics

The U.S. Government at the highest level criticized Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, because she went to China on a mission to develop opportunities for cooperation with respect to the protection of human rights, which I found appalling at the time. The mission had been carefully several weeks earlier by UN staff that had visited China and negotiated the itinerary of the visit, which took occurred in May of this year. The whole experience seemed a win/win breakthrough as a major country opening itself up to a high degree of independent international scrutiny with respect to its human rights record, an exposure the U.S. has resisted and opposed. High officials in Washington let it be known in advance that they considered the trip ‘a mistake,’ and expressed consternation that its hyped allegations of ‘genocide’ associated with the treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang were not confirmed by Bachelet, although human rights violations in the province were duly noted by the High Commissioner in her report on the visit. 

Western policy-minded China experts pointed to the supposed ‘danger’ of legitimating China’s narrative by the visit and contributing “an important milestone in China’s normative power.” [see Patrizia Zoguo and Lukian Da Bono, “The Steep Cost of Bachelet’s Visit to China,” The Diplomat,June 13, 2022] Critics even observed that such a visit so effectively whitewashed China’s wrongdoing that rather than improve prospects for its compliance with human rights the mission would likely have the perverse effect of emboldening China to commit even grosser violations in the future, and this despite China having agreed to establish a variety of continuing interactions and periodic consultations with the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner, connections no other geopolitical actor has seen fit to negotiate, and yet the critics failed to draw any such comparisons such was there resolve to prove it wrong for any part of the UN System to cooperate with China.

I regard China’s effort to enhance its image as a legitimate state to be a positive development not deserving the hostile reaction that it received in many sectors of the West, but especially in those quarters that were intent on a new cold war to blunt the competitive edge that China was gaining, especially in the world economy and on many technological frontiers of special relevance in the digital age. To seize upon this Chinese initiative, even granting that it was partly motivated by quite nomal soft power ambitions of sovereign states, is to denigrate most attempts to develop an international culture of respect for human rights as an essential foundation for indispensable cooperation in a variety of functional areas, including trade, climate change, migration, and environmental protection. And we should not overlook American class-based arrogance in relation to human rights, given its refusal to accord economic and social rights the normative status they deserve, and of which China is proud, and justly so, given its remarkable record of poverty alleviation over the course of the last half century. This acute societal shortcoming in the United States is exhibited to the world and visible to all in the form of large-scale urban homelessness in the cities of the United States, and accented by less visible unavailability of affordable health care and nutritious food to millions of its own citizens; as well, constitutionally validated gross violations of the right to life arising from permissive rules governing access to assault weaponry for anyone with the money to make the purchase. A surge of civic violence, including mass school and mall shootings that keep blindsiding governing institutions at all levels of society who remain willing to pander to the interests of the munitions industry and the toxic populism of gun culture. Should not we, as Americans, have long ago interrogated our distinctive vulnerability to such a pattern of negative exceptionalism.

It is with these considerations in the background that we should assess the Biden mid-July visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. If the critical reaction to Bachelet’s mission reflected establishment resentment to this breach in the geopolitical wall of hostility that had been constructed during the last years of the Trump presidency to justify coercive diplomacy directed at China. In contrast, Biden’s visit to the Middle East dramatized the extent to which human rights are buried far underground when perceived to clash with strategic interests being pursued in foreign policy as abetted by the domestic incentives to treat certain flagrant violators of human rights as if they are upholding the highest standards of a model democracy. Of course, it is of relevance to note that overlooking Saudi Arabia dreadful record, which includes blood dripping from the hands of the de facto head of state, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS), did bring Biden and the normally compliant media visible discomfort and occasioned some retreat from Biden’s fist pump greeting in Saudi Arabia. 

Perhaps embarrassed, Biden made clear that it was only national security interests prevented him from fulfilling his 2020 campaign pledge to treat Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah’ state. Biden somewhat surprisingly affirmed, considering his good will diplomatic goals, that he still believed in the rightness of his pledge when it came to Saudi human rights. Even more provocatively, Biden rejected MBS’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi back in 2018. In view of his praise of Israel’s democratic credentials, Biden made himself vulnerable to MBS’s clever taunt—you seem to care much more about Jamal Khashoggi than Shireen Abu Akleh. Rather than implicate Israel, the U.S. official investigation of the murder of its own citizen, seems constructed to share the grief of Akleh’s surviving family instead of accepting the political costs of seeking accountability of the sort that might protect future journalists covering dangerous hotspots in Israel and elsewhere.

When it came to Israel, not only were human rights issues off the table, but Israel was     praised extravagantly and unreservedly as an ally with shared values whose behavior could not be judged negatively. Biden displayed his affection for Israel by unnecessarily declaring himself to be a non-Jewish Zionist as if race was not a factor in the implementation of the Zionist vision in Israel. On another level, such a flourish seemed to express Biden’s view that disregarding the plight of the Palestinians was not a sufficient demonstration that U.S. partisanship was underpinned by a ideological identity. Pro-Palestinians had anticipated this one-sidedness, [See statement of the Global Network on the Question of Palestine, “Biden’s Upcoming Visit to the Middle East: A Recipe for Violence not Peace, July 12, 2022] and predicted its refusal to take note of such developments as the condemnation of the most internationally respected human rights NGOs in Israel and Occupied Palestine were branded as ‘terrorist’ organizations months ago by the Israeli Secretary of Defense and currently aspiring prime minister, Benny Gantz. Even nine of the most important EU members (including France, Germany, Spain, and Italy) issued a joint statement on July 12th repudiating this cynical branding by the Israeli government evidently designed to inhibit international funding as well as destroy the domestic viability of these key civil society actors. In the same spirit, although much more serious from a human rights perspective, Biden and Western media kept completely silent about the glaring reality of Israel apartheid despite the strong mainstream human rights NGOs in the West and even in Israel concluding that Israel was guilty of committing the continuing international crime of apartheid.[See 2001 reports of B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and 2022 of Amnesty International, as well as 2017 UN report of the Economic and Social Council of West Asia).  Unlike the visit to Riyadh if Biden had raised these concerns even politely if would have undoubtedly produced a negative reaction among Jewish lobbying groups in the U.S., with repercussions for fundraising and the 2022 and 2024 elections. Despite Biden groveling at the feet of Yair Lapid, the Israeli caretaker prime minister, Trump remains the American leader of choice for the majority of Israelis according to recent public opinion polls. Trump doesn’t bother to pretend that he favors Palestinian statehood in a meaningful form, while Biden is apparently eager to retain membership in the liberal Zionist camp by way of rhetoric that falls short when it comes to policy.

The visit to Israel ended with the so-called The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration signed by the two leaders on July 14, 2022. The opening sentences of the Declaration set the tone, which unlike the national interests justifications for the diplomatic visit to Saudi Arabia, the prior Israel visit is affirmed as a virtual pilgrimage, far exceeding the proprieties of alliance statecraft or the pursuit of common national policy agendas. The extravagant language used is worth noticing, and especially as it implicit vindicated the marginalization of the Palestinian quest for justice and a shared war-mongering tone toward Iran:

“The United States and Israel reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our two countries and the enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. Our countries further reaffirm that the strategic U.S.-Israel partnership is based on a bedrock of shared values, shared interests, and true friendship. Furthermore, the United States and Israel affirm that among the values the countries share is an unwavering commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the calling of “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world.”

The Declaration went on to attack the UN and even the ICC as giving way to anti-Semitism, all because it was a venue for well-evidenced criticisms of Israel’s state practices and policies. This love fest even agreed to join forces to oppose the BDS Campaign and indeed any effort regarded as delegitimizing Israel as a state. There were, as well, imprudently phrased commitments in the Declaration especially with reference to Iran, the language of which is provocative:

“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome. The United States further affirms the commitment to work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”[emphasis in the original}

Of course, among the revealing and dangerous silences associated with the Biden visit was the failure to mention Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weaponry and resulting strategic hegemony throughout the region. From any kind of detached perspective dedicated to peace and stability a nuclear free zone for the Middle East would be the optimal way to promote the true interests of the United States in the region, including energy production increases. When in history has a dominant state enacted its own policies in ways that ran against its national interests in response to pressures from a small state that it heavily subsidizes, including with weapons?

To end on a constructive note, the White House might considering entrusting future international political travel plans to American Express rather than the State Department. Its time to shed Blinken’s blinkered ‘rule-governed’ geopolitical fairy tale if we want to live together with others on the planet in ways that work. If this bit of unsolicited advice is follower, it might lead to real foreign policy gain! 

The Worst is Yet to Come: When the Center Cannot Hold

15 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in slightly modified form in

COUNTERPUNCH on July 15, 2022. It attempts to connect my despair about developments

In America with wider global systemic tendencies. It is not hopeful about the future, yet 

Its central message is that we should continue to struggle for a future we can believe in given that we live at a time of radical uncertainty.]

The Worst is Yet to Come: When the Center Cannot Hold

No lines of poetry are more resonant with our time than the celebrated lines of

William Butler Yeats’ famous poem ‘The Second Coming’:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

  are full of passionate intensity.”

This is especially true here in the United States, as it was in post-World War I Germany’s

nurturing the rise of Naziism and its demonic voice, Adolph Hitler, the consummate outsider who managed to crawl up the mountain to ascend its peak. The core disabling affliction of the United States in the 21st Century is an energized and armed extreme right-wing and a listless, passive center, a development lamented by liberals who would sell their souls long before parting with their stocks and bonds, all for a non-voting seat at various illiberal tables of power. This lack of humane passion at the political center serves as a reinforcing complement to the violent forces of alienation waiting around the country for their marching orders, as the January 6th insurrectionary foray foretells. Together these contrasting modes of ‘citizenship’ signal the death of constitutional democracy as it has functioned, with ups and downs, flawed by slavery, genocide, and patriarchy at birth, indeed ever since the republic was established in 1787 as ‘a more perfect union.’ In 2022 a fascist alternative is assuming institutional, ideological, and populist prominence with active support of many American oligarchs who fund by night what they disavow when the sun shines (again recalling the behavior of German industrialists who thought of Hitler as their vehicle, whereas it turned out to be the other way around).

This contemporary political ordeal is globally systemic, and not only the sad tale of American moral, economic, and political decline, temporarily hidden from public awareness by an orgy of excess military spending that has gone on for decades, a corporatized, compliant media, diversionary exploits abroad, and a greedy private sector that grows bloated by arms sales and a regressive tax structure, Pentagon plunder, and its profit-driven regimen. What may be most negatively revealing is the failure to take account of geopolitical failure or sanctified domestic outrages (mass shootings in schools and elsewhere with legally acquired weapons suitable only for organized military combat). It is time to link the inability to mount any serious challenge to the tyranny of the Second Amendment as interpreted by the NRA in cahoots with Congress and the Supreme Court, cowing much of the public to the sullen sense of befuddled spectators. Even before these hallowed institutions acquired their Trumpist edge, they shied away from constructing rights as if they were aware of the violent societal and ecological fissures tearing up the roots of bipartisan civility. The moral rot and criminality that victimizes society as a whole is less the work of the sociopaths among us than the outcome of a two-party plutocratic dynamic that is controlled by infidels and their bureaucratic minions who either actually like the way things are working out or feel impotent to mount a challenge with any chance of producing benevolent changes.

These same patterns of stasis are evident among the centrist elites who have been educated at the most esteemed universities. Perhaps the brightest, but surely not the best. Refusing to learn from Vietnam where military dominance, widespread devastation of a distant country, much bloodshed, resulted in a political defeat that should have induced some learning about the limits of military agency in the face pf colonial collapse and a new landscape of resistance. Instead of learning from the failure brought about by a changing post-colonial political balance in the countries of the Global South, anointed foreign policy experts in Washington whined about the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ that allegedly hampered a pragmatic recourse to military instruments to advance U.S. national and strategic interests because the American citizenry feared a repetition of Vietnam. It was President George H.W. Bush who reveled in the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the desert war fought against Iraq in 1991, not primarily because it restored Kuwaiti sovereignty but because it supposedly restored societal confidence that the U.S. could win wars of choice at acceptable costs. In Bush’s prematurely triumphalist words, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” (March 1991) 

In plainer language, that American military power had efficiently vanquished its Iraqi enemy without enduring many casualties or expending much wealth, and hence the leadership of the country could feel free again to rely on military threats, weapons, and intervention as a decisive geopolitical policy tool to get its way throughout the world. But was this triumphalism vindicated? Better understood, this First Iraq War in 1991 was a strictly battlefield encounter between asymmetric military forces, and as in many earlier wars, so unlike Vietnam, the stronger side won this time quickly and without body bags alerting Americans to the sacrificial costs of a war meaningless to the security of the homeland. The lessons of Vietnam for the foreign policy establishment were to the extent possible substitute machines for troops, reinforced by professionalized armed forces replacing a military conscripted by government decree, as well as adopting tactics that shortened the military phase of political undertakings designed to nullify forms of self-determination that seemed to go against American post-Cold War resolve to run the world to serve the interests of its wealthiest 1%. 

These lessons decidedly were not what should have been learned from a decade of expensive failed blood-soaked efforts in Vietnam. The true primary lesson of the Vietnam War was that the political mobilization of a people in the Global South behind a struggle for national self-determination could now usually neutralize, and often eventually overcome, large margins of military superiority bv an outside intervening power, especially if it hails from the West. The stubborn refusal by politicians and the most trusted advisors by their side to heed this lesson led to regime-change and state-building disasters in the Iraq War of 2003, Afghanistan (2001-2021), Libya (2011), and others less pronounced and widely acknowledged failures. No matter how many drones search and destroy mission or how much ‘shock and awe’ is staged for its spectacular traumatizing effects on a vulnerable society, the end result resembles Vietnam more than Iraq after the 1991 war. Despite this accumulation of evidence, there is still no relevant learning evident, which would be most meaningfully signaled by massive downsizings of the military budget and more prudently and productively using public monies at home and abroad. The bipartisan foreign policy, again evident in response to the Ukraine War, is locking that country into an expensive and lengthy dynamic of failure and frustration, somewhat disguised by dangerous deceptions about the true nature of the strategic mission. Instead of intervention and regime change, the dominant insider Ukraine rationale for heightening tensions, prolonging warfare devastating a distant country and bringing tragic losses of life, limb, and home to many of its people, is scoring a geopolitical victory, namely, inflicting defeat and heavy costs on Russia while sternly warning China that if it dares challenge the status quo in its own region it can expect to be confronted by the same sort of destructive response that Russia is facing. Long ago patriots of humanity should have been worried about the ‘Militarist Syndrome’ and paid heeded the ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’ with a sense of gratitude. This could have led the U.S. to adopt a war prevention strategy rather than insisting on worldwide capabilities enabling a reactive military response to unwanted actions of others. Pre-2022 Ukraine diplomacy by the U.S. led NATO alliance rather than seeking a war prevention outcome in Ukraine seemed determined to provoke a war dangerously designed to extent life support to an unstable unipolar geopolitical order disliked by most of the Global South as well as China and Russia. 

Here at home with its embedded gun culture, massive urban homelessness, and cruelty to asylum seekers at the Mexican border, it is the underlying systemic malady that remains largely undiagnosed, and totally untreated—namely, a lame and unimaginative leadership that is alternatively passively toxic and overtly fascist in the domestic sphere, and geopolitically irresponsible and transactional when it ventures abroad for the sake of Special Relationships or insists that global security anywhere on the planet is of proper concerns only for Washington think tanks, lobbyists, and upper echelon foreign policy bureaucrats. It is not surprising that in such a quandary, those on the extreme right with energy, passion, and excitement on their side seem destined to control the future unless a surge of progressive energy erupts mysteriously, and enables a new social movement to emerge that is animated by strivings toward bio-ethical-ecological-political sanity.

This drift toward fascism is not the only plausible scenario for a highly uncertain American future. There is also Yeats’ assessment made long before the current world crisis emerged. We should not be surprised that poets see further ahead than foreign policy gurus, politicians, and mainstream academicians who remain fixated on electoral or other performance cycles even in autocracies:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

And then there is to be newly considered Barbara F. Walter’s carefully researched assessment that the United States is drifting toward a second civil war, and not a fascist sequel to republican democracy. [See Walter, How Civil Wars Start and how to stop them, 2022] It presents a somewhat more optimistic view of the future, although it fails to contextualize the political challenge in relation to the global systemic damage done by neoliberal economic globalization, an unsettling lingering COVID pandemic, and a general planetary condition of ecological entropy.

Nevertheless, I find this prospect of civil wars less disheartening than the related drift toward fascism or the torments of anarchy. Civil wars end and can often be prevented, and the winners have a stake in restoring normalcy, that is, assuming the more humane side prevails, which under current conditions may seem utopian. At present, only respect for international law, responsible geopolitics, a UN more empowered to realize its Principles and Purposes (Articles 1 & 2), and ethically/spiritually engaged transnational activism can hope to turn the tides now engulfing humanity toward peace, justice, species survival, and a more harmonious ecological coexistence. Miracles do happen! Now more than ever before, struggle rather than resignation seems the only imperative worth heeding.

A European Call for an end to the Ukraine War

5 Jul

[Prefatory Note The following letter appeared in the prominent German weekly, ZEIT, last week. It is written from a European perspective, calling for a ceasefire followed by bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. The organizers and the signers are almost totally drawn from the higher echelons of German intellectual and academic life. The letter does not directly address the geopolitical dimensions of the Ukraine War. As a result, it fails to cast blame on the United States or NATO for seeking a Ukraine battlefield victory or on Russia for threatening to unleash nuclear warfare. Nevertheless, the urgent call for an end to the killing and diplomacy is a welcome and valuable alternative to the idea, seemingly endorsed by leading NATO governments, of a prolonged Ukraine War even if it keeps escalation tensions at a heightened level, diverts attention and resources from climate change, and subjects especially countries in the Global South to multiple forms of severe hardship and dangerous forms of instability.]

Ceasefire Now. Negotiations as soon as possible.

Jakob Augstein (journalist), Richard A. Falk (professor of international law), Svenja Flaßpöhler (philosopher), Thomas Glauben (professor of agricultural economics), Josef Haslinger (novelist), Elisa Hoven (professor of criminal law), Alexander Kluge (filmmaker and author), Christoph Menke (professor of philosophy), Wolfgang Merkel (professor of political science), Julian Nida-Rümelin (philosopher), Robert Pfaller (philosopher), Richard D. Precht (philosopher), Jeffrey Sachs (professor of economics), Michael von der Schulenburg (former UN diplomat), Edgar Selge (novelist), Ilija Trojanow (novelist), Erich Vad (retired general, former military advisor to Angela Merkel), Johannes Varwick (professor of international politics), Harald Welzer (social psychologist), Ranga Yogeshwar (science journalist), Juli Zeh (novelist)

Europe faces the task of restoring and securing peace on the continent. This requires the development of a strategy to end the Russian war in Ukraine as soon as possible.

Ukraine has been able to defend itself against Russia’s brutal war of aggression for three and a half months now, partially thanks to massive economic sanctions and military support from Europe and the United States. However, the longer this support continues, the less clear it becomes which goals are being pursued with it. A Ukrainian victory with the recapture of all occupied territories, including the Donezk and Luhansk oblasts and Crimea, is considered unrealistic by most military experts, given Russia’s military superiority and ability to further escalate militarily.

All western countries that provide military support to Ukraine must therefore ask themselves what their precise goal is and whether (and for how long) arms deliveries continue to be the right course of action. Continuing the war with the aim of Ukraine’s complete victory over Russia means that thousands more victims will die for a purpose that does not seem realistic. 

Moreover, the consequences of the war are no longer limited to Ukraine. Its continuation is causing massive humanitarian, economic, and environmental distress around the world. Rapidly rising prices, energy and food shortages have already led to unrest in many countries. Fertilizer shortages will have a global impact if the war lasts beyond the fall. High casualty rates, many deaths from hunger and disease and destabilization of the global situation are to be expected. Warnings of these dramatic consequences are also being issued at the international political level (G7, UN). 

All western countries must stand united against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and further revanchist claims. However, prolonging the war in Ukraine is not the solution. The current developments surrounding rail transit to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Putin’s announcement to deliver nuclear-capable missile systems to Belarus, show that the danger of escalation is increasing. The western countries must do anything they can to ensure that the war parties reach a negotiated settlement as soon as possible. This alone can prevent years of a war of attrition with its fatal local and global consequences, as well as a military escalation that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

Negotiations does not mean a surrender of Ukraine, as is sometimes assumed. A dictated peace by Putin is not an option. The international community must do everything it can to create conditions under which negotiations are possible at all. This includes a declaration that the Western actors have no interest in continuing the war and will adjust their strategies accordingly. It also entails a willingness to secure the terms of a truce as well as the results of peace negotiations internationally, which may require a high level of commitment. The longer the war continues, the more international pressure will be necessary to get both sides back into negotiations. The West must make every effort to persuade the governments of Russia and Ukraine to suspend combat actions. Economic sanctions and military support have to be integrated into a political strategy aimed at gradual de-escalation until a ceasefire is fully implemented.

So far, there has not been a joint and concentrated effort by the international community, the major Western players in particular, to seek negotiations. As long as this is not the case, it cannot be assumed that an understanding is impossible and that Putin in particular does not want to negotiate. In a deadlocked conflict, it is a standard practice that war parties have maximum demands or explicitly reject peace talks. The course of the negotiation attempts so far has shown some initial willingness on both sides to come to an understanding by a flexible approach to the attainment of their goals. At this point, only a major diplomatic offensive can lead out of the current impasse.

The opening of negotiations is not a justification for war crimes. We share the desire for justice. Negotiations, however, are first and foremost a necessary means to prevent further suffering in Ukraine and adverse consequences of the war around the world. Considering the threat of humanitarian catastrophes and the manifest risks of escalation, stability must be restored as quickly as possible. Only a suspension of combat actions will create the time and opportunity necessary to do this. The supreme importance of this goal demands that we rise to the challenge and do everything in our power to make an early ceasefire and the start of peace negotiations possible – and refrain from doing anything that contradicts this goal.

Human Rights and Confronting China Geopolitically

16 Jun

[Prefatory Note: The collaborative opinion piece below written by the Geneva jurist, Alfred de Zayas, and myself, is a reaction again the criticism directed at the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, about her recent mission to China. The complaint of Western governments, mainstream journalists, and some China experts was that the Chinese deflected criticism of their human rights record by manipulating the mission as shown by the mission report failing to echo the most strident charges directed at China, especially of genocide in relation to the Uyghur minority mainly living in Xinjiang Province. Our response was published in COUNTERPUNCH on June 9, 2022 under the title of The Unjustified Criticism of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s Visit To China. Rather than provoking a critical storm the mission, in our judgment, should have been applauded with a sustained shout of BRAVO! The sad sequel to this incident is the announcement that Ms. Bachelet has decided not to seek a renewal of her term as High Commissioner. I would point out that it will be a long time before the U.S. is as forthcoming, inviting an investigative mission by the Human Rights Commission and subjecting its future internal policy to review and cooperative mechanisms with a UN agency.

Bachelet during a television debate in 2005.

As former UN rapporteurs we are committed to the promotion and protection of human rights in all corners of the world, including China.  Progress can only be achieved on the basis on good faith implementation of the UN Charter and UN human rights treaties, and requires patience, perseverance, and international solidarity.

An artificial atmosphere of hostility, sustained by geopolitical agendas, double standards, fake news and skewed narratives has made it difficult to tackle specific human rights problems and advance the progressive enjoyment of human rights in larger freedom. Human rights allegations have been selectively deployed as a geopolitical tool, above all to stoke the embers of confrontation, so high on the agenda of both the Trump and Biden presidencies.

Already in April 2021, in an essay on China published in Counterpunch[1], we noted that spreading propaganda about a supposed “genocide” in Xinjiang was highly irresponsible and would poison relations between the US and China besides weakening the human rights discourse.  We then warned that such hyperbolic narratives would make it more difficult to increase respect human rights concerns in other more appropriate settings.  A similar essay was published by Professors Jeffrey Sachs and William Schabas in Project Syndicate[2]. In a variety of fora we have since repeatedly called for more professionalism on the part of politicians, journalists and human rights activists in addressing human rights issues, which are always delicate matters as infringing upon sovereign rights unless reliably grounded in objective appraisal of evidence. Otherwise, as in relation to China, allegations can be perverted into serving the ends of coercive diplomacy and even war-mongering.

The invitation by the Chinese government to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to come and see for herself, and the invitation to UN rapporteurs were very positive signs, and rarely has a government under scrutiny been so forthcoming. It represents an important show of confidence by China and its leadership in its own willingness to uphold international norms and to have trust in the impartiality of the HRC and its High Commissioner. China should have been applauded along with Ms. Michelle  Bachelet instead of being subjected to a barrage of geopolitically motivated hostile propaganda. She accepted the invitation some months ago, dispatching in April an advance-team of five OHCHR professionals to prepare her mission.[3]

While many welcomed China’s opening to the United Nations, some politicians who evidently are not interested in objective assessments but a priori already have their standard condemnation of China, criticized Bachelet’s intention to visit China and advised her not to go[4].  This is not unlike the experience of the UN independent expert, co-author de Zayas, on international order, who prior to his mission to Venezuela in November/December 2017 (the first in 21 years) received letters and emails from some NGO’s asking him not to go, because, of course, as everybody already knew, the Venezuelan government was corrupt and incompetent and that the only proper function of a rapporteur would be to demand “regime change”[5].  This disturbingly politicized approach to human rights missions – and indeed any form of independent assessment – misuses and inflates human rights wrongs as part of a mobilization of public opinion against the targeted state, and often preceded regime-changing interventions as in Iraq, 2003.  Partaking of such a politicized approach to human rights should be unworthy of a High Commissioner, UN rapporteurs or special envoys, and should not be indulged, as it sometimes is, by human rights NGOs.

At the end of her six-day mission to China, Bachelet issued a highly informative, comprehensive, and nuanced end-of-mission statement in Guangzhou on 28 May 2022. https://vimeo.com/714742493 that constitutes the most trustworthy assessment of China’s human rights record that is now available.

To our dismay, instead of hailing the breakthrough achieved by Michelle Bachelet in opening the door to OHCHR monitoring and cooperation, a number of academics and NGOs criticized the High Commissioner’s mission to China, condemning it as  a “failed visit”[6]  with some critics even calling for her resignation[7].  As UN former rapporteurs who recognize the ground-breaking nature of Bachelet’s visit, we strongly reject such unjustifiable criticism and consider that impressive progress has been achieved by this highly professional mission to China, a first to China in 17 years by a UN High Commissioner. We note with satisfaction that Bachelet returned to Geneva with positive prospects for future cooperation, including the formalization of a mechanism for future activities to strengthen the observance of human rights in China.  A likely first step will be to arrange future visits by the High Commissioner of the HRC,  by UN rapporteurs and working groups, and even by other UN agencies such as ILO, WHO and UNHCR. We would take note of the fact that no comparable gestures of cooperation with UN on human rights matters has been exhibited by China’s leading adversary, the United States.

It appears that some critics have misunderstood the High Commissioner’s mandate[8] pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 48/141, and disregard the over-all purpose of the Human Rights Council, which is to assist countries in improving their human rights performance.  Progress in human rights terms is not achieved by confrontational policies, by “naming and shaming” or by insulting governments, but rather by patient investigation of the root causes of problems, rigorous compilation of evidence, balanced evaluation of the facts in their proper context, due consideration of all views by governments, civil society, non-governmental organizations, academics and victims.  That was precisely the focus of  the High Commissioner’s mission to China.

Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 48/141, High Commissioners:

“Function within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other international instruments of human rights and international law, including the obligations, within this framework, to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic jurisdiction of States and to promote the universal respect for and observance of all human rights, in the recognition that, in the framework of the purposes and principles of the Charter, the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate concern of the international community.”

Among the duties of every High Commissioner are

“To provide… advisory services and technical and financial assistance, at the request of the State concerned and, where appropriate, the regional human rights organizations, with a view to supporting actions and programmes in the field of human rights;

To engage in a dialogue with all Governments in the implementation of his/her mandate…”

The end of mission statement made by Michelle Bachelet demonstrates she diligently listened to the views and grievance of all parties, pursuant to the rule “listen to all sides”  — audiatur et altera pars. Her mission encompassed a wide range of issues bearing on  civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, including the rule of law, the administration of justice, the death penalty, civil society participation in the political processes, freedom of expression, human rights defenders, climate change, world peace, the sustainable development goals, and others.

With regard to the allegations concerning grave human rights violations in Xinjiang, the mission statement notes:

“In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, I have raised questions and concerns about the application of counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation measures and their broad application – particularly their impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities. While I am unable to assess the full scale of the  Vocational Education and Training Centres, I raised with the Government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the program, the reliance by law enforcement officials on 15 indicators to determine tendencies towards violent extremism, allegations of the use of force and ill treatment in institutions, and reports of unduly severe restrictions on legitimate religious practices. During my visit, the Government assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled. I encouraged the Government to undertake a review of all counter terrorism and deradicalization policies to ensure they fully comply with international human rights standards, and in particular that they are not applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.

Before coming to China, I heard from some Uyghur families now living abroad who have lost contact with their loved ones. In my discussions with the authorities, I appealed to them to take measures to provide information to families as a matter of priority.”

With regard to Tibet Bachelet observed:

“it is important that the linguistic, religious and cultural identity of Tibetans be protected, and that Tibetan people are allowed to participate fully and freely in decisions about their religious life and for dialogue to take place. I discussed education policies in the Tibet Autonomous Region and stressed the importance of children learning in their own language and culture in the setting of their families or communities.”

With regard to Hong Kong she noted:

 “Hong Kong has long been respected as a centre for human rights and independent media in the region. It is important that the Government there do all it can to nurture – and not stifle – the tremendous potential for civil society and academics in Hong Kong to contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights in the HKSAR and beyond. The arrests of lawyers, activists, journalists and others under the National Security Law are deeply worrying. Hong Kong is due to be reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee in July, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The mission must be seen as the beginning of a process that will hopefully contribute to the gradual improvement of the human rights situation in China.  This must be welcomed by all governments, civil society and professionally responsible NGOs. In this regard we are appalled by those private sector organizations (NGOs and think tanks) proclaiming a commitment to human rights yet in their operations, often funded by the U.S. Government or wealthy right-wing donors, exemplified by the  National Endowment for Democracy.

Among the many successes of the Bachelet mission, we highlight arrangements calling for further cooperation between OHCHR and China. In the words of the report:  “We also agreed to establish a working group to facilitate substantive exchanges and cooperation between my Office and the Government through meetings in Beijing and in Geneva, as well as virtual meetings. This working group will organize a series of follow-up discussions about specific thematic areas, including but not limited to development, poverty alleviation and human rights, rights of minorities, business and human rights, counter-terrorism and human rights, digital space and human rights, judicial and legal protection and human rights, as well as other issues raised by either side.

This will allow for structured engagement of my Office with China on a number of human rights issues. This is especially important as my Office does not have a country presence. The working group will also provide a space for us to bring to attention of the Government a number of specific matters of concern. The Government has also stated that it will invite senior officials from the Office to visit China in the future.”

By any objective standard, such results represent a considerable success, which many countries in the West do not begin to match.  As we know, the United States has not allowed the UN to visit Guantanamo in more than 21 years.  Similarly, Israel does not allow UN rapporteurs to enter the territory in order to conduct independent fact-finding on the ground in territory seized during the 1967 War, and subjected to harsh military administration for more than half a century with no end in sight. Indeed, the silence of those most shrilly complaining about China’s human rights violations are embarrassingly silent about the abundantly documented findings that Israel is guilty of apartheid. Such findings an apt occasion for media criticism and governmental reaction, but for opposite reasons to the push against China, we note this failure to respond to the grossest of human rights violations not only in Israel, but such flagrant disregard of human rights by the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and a host of others.

What strikes us as independent observers, is the intellectual dishonesty of the mainstream  media platforms –as abetted by those academics and NGOs that selectively view human rights through a geopolitical optic that demonizes some situations while exempting others more severe from scrutiny.  The chorus of Sinophobia and “hate speech, itself in contravention of article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, manifests opportunism and intellectual dishonesty, because the same ngo’s turn a blind eye toward other geopolitically inconvenient transgressions.

It is worth contrasting the use of the term “genocide” by the United States and its friends in their referencing of the situation in Xinjiang with other instances, far better documented, of genocide in the world.  Such inflammatory language would have to be backed up by verifiable evidence, but it is not.  Even the one-sided Uyghur Tribunal in London refrained from making a finding on genocide with regard to killings or population transfers.  Whoever has followed developments around the Uygur tribunal and the disinformation in the corporate media realizes that the tribunal was pre-determined to reach certain conclusions, namely that genocide occurred. The so-called “trial” was conducted on the basis of  a “presumption of guilt.” Therefore, it would not deserve our attention, except that it has functioned as a tool of dangerous hostile propaganda by which the “narrative managers” in the corporate media  are now channelling in mounting their malicious campaign against Michelle Bachelet.

The judgment as rendered is not as sensationalist and inflammatory as the tribunal convenors and Sinophobic media hoped for. The Tribunal reviewed the five acts of genocide listed in article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention, and rejected four of them, observing that there is no evidence of genocidal intent. The judgment of the Tribunal does go on to examine the fourth listed criterion of genocide–imposing measures on a racially distinct group  to prevent reproduction and this practice was deemed sufficient to uphold the allegation of genocide. There is really no relevant antecedents to support such a finding.  The Uyghur case is a peculiar candidate for such a momentous finding. The clear purpose of the Chinese measures is not and never was to “destroy in whole or in part” the Uyghur group by suppression of births, but reflects a general population-control strategy in a country that already has 1.4 billion human beings, and has long experimented with various kinds of population control and stabilization policies and practices.

Considering the Sinophobic articles that have been published in the Western press, it is remarkable how the media keeps silent about the highly credible documentation of the Apartheid[9] allegations against Israel and gross human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  As well, the media downplays the responsibility of the United States and Saudi Arabia for the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today – Yemen[10].  The use and abuse of human rights as a geopolitical tool is so irresponsible to the genuine protection of human rights that it is itself worthy of an investigation by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as by genuinely dedicated members of the global human rights community.

For now, we content ourselves with this show of support for the breakthrough success of Bachelet’s HRC mission to China, and decry those who would distort such an achievement so as to continue with their efforts to rationalize confronting China coercively. Opportunism in relation to human rights is not a path to peace and justice in our tormented world, which depends on cooperation and multilateralism, and should reject as irresponsible all efforts to split the world into a self-righteous struggle between good and evil. Such a normative binary will exert serious damage on the world economy, causing harsh suffering in the least developed countries, and spark more wasteful and dangerous spending on military capabilities that should never be used.

Notes.

[1] https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/cgjed/eng/xgxw/t1874614.htm

[2] https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/biden-should-withdraw-unjustified-xinjiang-genocide-allegation-by-jeffrey-d-sachs-and-william-schabas-2021-04

[3] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/05/bachelet-conduct-official-visit-china-23-28-may-2022

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/20/un-human-rights-commissioner-xinjiang-michelle-bachelet-criticised

[5] See the report of the IE to the Human Rights Council https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/ie-international-order/country-visits

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/06/01/uyghurs-michelle-bachelet-china-visit-failure/

[7] https://www.news24.com/news24/world/news/dozens-of-ngos-call-on-un-rights-chief-to-resign-after-china-visit-20220608

[8] http://www.un-documents.net/a48r141.htm

[9] https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution

[10] https://www.unfpa.org/yemen

Alfred de Zayas is a lawyer, writer, historian, expert in the field of human rights and international law and retired high-ranking United Nations official. Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Ukraine and the Risk of Geopolitical Conflict 

11 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction: The Folly of Ignoring Disarmament

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

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

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

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

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

Global Acquiescence in Great Power Nuclearism

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

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

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

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

The Risks of Escalation in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction: The Folly of Ignoring Disarmament

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

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

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

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

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

Global Acquiescence in Great Power Nuclearism

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

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

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

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

The Risks of Escalation in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

Stumbling into Nuclear Conflict?

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

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

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

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

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

Multipolarity Among Nuclear Powers

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

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

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

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

Ukraine and the Deepening Global Divide

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

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

Stepping Back from the Nuclear Precipice?

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

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

The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh

28 May

[Prefatory Note: The Collaborative article below was published in Foreign Policy in Focus on May 23, 2022. The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh sent shock waves throughout the Middle East as she was known and respected as a trusted journalist. We keep waiting for a ‘Sharpville Moment’ with respect to Palestine and Israeli impunity. When will it come?]

AMERICANS MUST DEMAND A CREDIBLE INVESTIGATION INTO SHIREEN ABU AKLEH’S KILLING

If our tax dollars are furnishing the weapons that kill journalists and other innocents, that’s not just an international crime — it’s against U.S. law, too.

By Phyllis BennisRichard Falk |

Shireen Abu Akleh was a seasoned al-Jazeera correspondent for the past 25 years. She was known and respected throughout the Arab world for her brave, honest reporting of the Palestinian struggle.

On May 11, she was shot and killed while covering an Israeli raid on the Palestinian refugee camp outside Jenin.

Abu Akleh’s killing in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was shocking, but hardly unusual. According to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, she was the 86th journalist to be killed while covering Israeli oppression since Israel first occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in 1967.

But her killing is part of a longer pattern of Israeli violence and collective punishment — not just against journalists but against all Palestinians — committed with impunity and rationalized by trumped up “security” concerns.

The depth of this abuse was again made shockingly visible after the killing itself, when Israeli police attacked the funeral procession carrying Shireen’s body to the church. They threw Palestinian flags to the ground and violently beat mourners — including the pallbearers, who nearly dropped the casket.

The killing of Shireen and the assault on the funeral procession demonstrated once again the structural nature of Israeli racism and violence against Palestinians. As Amnesty International describes it, Israel’s “regular violations of Palestinians’ rights are not accidental repetitions of offenses, but part of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination.”

There’s no serious question that Abu Akleh was deliberately killed by an Israeli sniper. She was wearing a helmet and a blue protective vest marked “PRESS” and surrounded by other journalists when the group was fired on. She was shot in the head and killed. Another Palestinian journalist was shot and seriously injured.

As so often happens, Israeli officials immediately tried to blame the Palestinians. Israeli officials from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on down made unconvincing claims that Palestinian gunmen were responsible for the killing. Within hours, fieldworkers for the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem easily refuted the Israeli claims.

By the time Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz on May 17, Tel Aviv had largely pulled back from its claims of Palestinian culpability. The Israeli press claimedthat Gantz had indicated Israel welcomed an investigation of Shireen’s killing.

But that claim (unmentioned in the Pentagon’s read-out of the meeting) flew in the face of reports that Israel had already decided it would not investigate, because questioning Israeli soldiers as potential suspects “would provoke opposition and controversy within the IDF and in Israeli society in general.”

Such a pattern of denial is but one aspect of a broader pattern of oppression that is much more pervasive.

Israel itself makes no secret of this. The country’s own Basic Law of 2018 explicitly gives only Jewish citizens of Israel, not Palestinian citizens, the right of self-determination.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, along with B’tselem, have concluded that this pattern constitutes the crime of apartheid. This international crime, and its associated human rights violations and war crimes, has continued for decades while political, diplomatic, economic, and military support from the United States goes forward unconditionally.

Washington sends more than $3.8 billion every year directly to the Israeli military, most of it used to purchase U.S.-made weapons systems, ammunition, and more. This makes the U.S. complicit in Israel’s criminal wrongdoing.

So what needs to happen now?

International engagement is crucial. The International Criminal Court has the authority to add the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh and attacks on Palestinian journalists to its existing investigations of alleged Israeli crimes. A variety of UN bodies could also respond by issuing reports that offer policy recommendations.

Calls for an independent, credible investigation need to include a focus on United States responsibility.

Biden administration officials and some members of Congress have called for an investigation of Abu Akleh’s killing. That’s welcome, but hardly sufficient. Israel has a long history of conducting its own investigations, and virtually all result in impunity for Israeli military forces. High-ranking military officials and political decision makers are never even scrutinized.

We in the United States should insist on more.

Why? Above all, because our own tax dollars pay for 20 percent of Israel’s entire military budget. The bullet or the gun used to kill Shireen could have even been purchased from U.S. weapons manufacturers with our own money.

If that’s the case, we need to know — because U.S. laws prohibit it.

The Leahy Law’s restrictions on military aid is unequivocal: “No assistance shall be furnished,” it says, “to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

Credible information, including from Israel’s leading human rights organization and five respected journalists standing with Shireen Abu Akleh when she was killed, indicates she was shot in cold blood. If that isn’t sufficient, the State Department should propose an independent, UN-based fact-finding team to prepare a report.

Militarism is on the rise, both in the U.S. and around the world. Maybe the brutal killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a U.S. citizen as well as a proud Palestinian born in Jerusalem — and the police attack on mourners grieving her death — will provide an impetus toward rethinking Washington’s unconditional support of Israeli lawlessness.

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Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age

24 May

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in a somewhat modified form in COUTERPUNCH, May 20, 2022. Its main theme is the contrasting normative logics derived from law (Westphalian logic)  on one side, and power politics (geopolitical logic) on the other side. The regulatory guidance of law derives from agreement and interpretation, and that of power politics, from what the Quincy Institute calls ‘responsible statecraft’ and I refer to as ‘responsible statecraft’ that under contemporary circumstances should involve voluntary compliance with international law, that is, in the nuclear age law and geopolitics often converge in their commitments to regulatory rationality.] 

Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age

The Ukraine War, its complexities and global spillover effects, have not been adequately

depicted by either political leaders or the more influential media. Most commonly, the Ukraine War has been narrowly and reductively depicted as a simple matter of defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. Sometimes this standard portrayal is somewhat enlarged by demonizing Putin as criminally committed to the grandiose project of restoring the full spectrum of Soviet boundaries of post-1994 Russia by force as necessary. What tends to be excluded from almost all presentations of the Ukrainian struggle is the rather distinct U.S. Government policy  agenda of inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia which purports to be related to the defense and in the interests of Ukraine yet is unfolding in a quite separate manner that seems to depart from the best interest of Ukraine and the wellbeing of its people. 

This geopolitical agenda replicates Cold War confrontations, and in the global setting, seeks to remind China as well as Russia, that only the United States possesses the will, authority, and capabilities to act as the guardian of global security with respect to the maintenance or modification of international boundaries of sovereign states anywhere on the planet. Illustratively, Israel has been given a tacit green light by Washington to annex the Golan Heights, an integral part of Syria until the 1967 War, while Russia remains sanctioned for its annexation of Crimea and its current claims to incorporate parts of the Dombas region of Ukraine have been met with harsh punitive sanctions and allegations of war crimes by the U.S. president, Joe Biden. Additionally, Biden has officially and publicly committed the United States to the military defense of Taiwan in the event of an attack by China.

The most influential Western media platforms, including CNN, BBC, NY Times, The Economist, with few exceptions, have largely supported one-dimensional governmental narrative accounts of the Ukraine War, which leaves the misleading impression that U.S./NATO involvement is strictly responsive to the Russian attack on Ukraine with no broader policy objective in play. The views of progressive and anti-war critics of the manner that American foreign policy has handled the Ukraine crisis are almost totally unrepresented. At the same time, some elements of the extremist right is castigated for daring to oppose the national consensus as if only the only dissenters are conspiracy inclined fascists or those motivated by treasonous sentiments. Almost no attention given by these powerful media outlets to understanding either the buildup of tensions relating to Ukraine in the years preceding the Russian attack or the wider security rationale that could partially explain (although not justify) Putin’s resolve to reassert its former authority in the Ukraine. Similarly, there was virtually no mainstream discussion of or support for ceasefire/diplomatic options, favored by many peace and religious groups, that sought to give priority to ending the killing, coupled with a search for possible reconciling formulas that combined Ukrainian sovereign entitlements with some adjustments taking account of Russian security concerns. 

The most trusted and influential media in the West functioned largely as a war-mongering propaganda machine that was only slightly more nuanced in its support for the official line of the government than what one would expect from unambiguously autocratic regimes. Coverage highlighted visual portrayals of the daily brutalities of the war coupled with a steady stream of condemnations of Russian behavior, detailed reportage on the devastation and civilian suffering endured by Ukrainians in the combat zone, and a tactical overview of how the fighting was proceeding in various parts of the country. These bellicose narratives were repeatedly reinforced by expert commentary from retired generals and intelligence officials, and never subjected to challenge from peace advocates, much less political dissenters and critics. I have yet to hear the voice or read texts on these mainstream media platforms from the most celebrated public intellectuals, Noam Chomsky or Daniel Ellsberg, or even from independent minded high-level former diplomats like Chas Freeman. Of course, these individuals are talking and writing but to learn their views you generally have

to navigate the internet in search of such online websites as COUNTERPUNCH and Common Dreams.

The fog of war has been replaced by a war fever while making the transition from helping Ukraine defend itself against aggression to pursuing a victory over Russia increasingly heedless of nuclear dangers and worldwide economic dislocations that threatened many millions with famine, acute insecurity, and destitution. The shrill assured voices of generals and think tank security gurus dominated commentary, while pleas for peace from the UN Secretary General, the Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis, if reported ed at all, were confined to the outer margins of public awareness.

This unfortunate absence of reasoned and responsible debate was further distorted by dangerously misleading statements made by the highest public official responsible for the formation and explanation of American foreign policy, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Whether out of ignorance or the convenience of the moment, Secretary Blinken has been widely quoted as explaining to the public here and abroad in prime time that the U.S. does not recognize ‘spheres of influence,’ an idea “that should have been retired after World War II.” Really! Without mutual respect for spheres of influence throughout the Cold War it is probable that World War III would have been ignited by Soviet interventions in East Europe, most notoriously in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Similar deference was exhibited by Moscow. U.S. interferences in Western Europe as well as the Soviet Bloc defection of Yugoslavia were tolerated by the Kremlin. Some of the most dangerous armed confrontations occurred during the Cold War Era were revealingly located  in the three divided country of Germany, Korea, and Vietnam where norms of self-determination exerted continuous pressures on boundaries artificially imposed on these countries for reasons of geopolitical convenience. 

Since the end of the Cold War, Blinken should be embarrassed about telling the peoples of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela that the idea of spheres of influence is no longer descriptive of how the U.S. shapes its policy in the Western Hemisphere. Decades age Octavio Paz, the Mexican author found vivid words to express the reality of such spheres: “The tragedy of Mexico is to be so far from God and so near to the United States.”  As has been observed, the Russian assertion of a traditional spheres of influence has more continuity with the past than does respect for territorial sovereignty of the countries that have regained statehood within such spheres after the Soviet collapse. This recognition is not meant to express approval of such spheres, serving only as a realization of geopolitical practice that has persisted through the whole of modernity and a further sense that mounting a challenge in light of this practice is almost certain to produce friction and heighten risks of major warfare., which in relations among states armed with nuclear weapons should induce extreme caution on the part of prudent actors. To pretend that spheres of influence are a thing of the past, as Blinken seems to be doing in relation to Ukraine, is doubly unfortunate—it is mindless about the relevance of geopolitical prudence in the nuclear age and it either ignorantly or maliciously condemns behavior of others while overlooking the analogous behavior of his own country, thereby adopting a U.S. posture of geopolitical hubris ill-suited to human survival in the nuclear age.

In the months before it became politically convenient to throw spheres of influence into the dustbin of history, Blinken was lecturing the Chinese about adhering to a ‘rule-governed’ international order that he contended was descriptive of U.S. behavior. Such an invidious comparison was a cover for confronting the quite different Chinese challenge to unipolarity being mounted as a result of China’s growing competitive edge in economic and diplomatic influence and technological breakthroughs. A puzzle for Washington arose because it could not complain that the Chinese ascent was due to posing a security threat due to its military capabilities and its aggressive uses of force (except, interestingly, within its traditional coastal and territorial spheres of influence). And so, the claim centered on the rather original allegation that China was not playing the game of power with respect to intellectual property rights by the ‘rules,’ but what are these rules and where does their authority derive from? Blinken was careful in his complaints about Chinese violations not to identify the rules with international law or decisions of the United Nations. Wherefrom then? Most probably Blinken has in mind a self-serving interpretation of the Breton Woods neoliberal framework associated with the operations of the World Bank and IMF, but refrained from saying so.

There is, to be sure, a subtle complexity about rules of order in international relations, especially on matters bearing on the use of force in international relations. A normative dividing line can be identified as 1928 when many leading governments, including the U.S., signed on to the Pact of Paris outlawing war as an instrument of national policy, [see Oona A. Hathaway & Scott Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (2017)]. This ambitious norm, was then turned into the formulation of a Crime Against Peace in the London Agreement of 1945 by the victorious powers in World War II that set forth the War Crimes Charter that provided the jurisprudential foundation for the Nuremberg and Tokyo criminal prosecutions of surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders. These legal innovations, although treated as major milestones in the development of international law, were never meant to constitute new rules of order and accountability that would bind sovereign states enjoying geopolitical stature as made plain in the UN Charter. Probably that should have been evident given the supreme irony of the London Agreement being formally signed by these governments on August 8, 1945, two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima and one day prior to the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Otherwise, how could one explain the conferral of a right of veto on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which can only be viewed as a geopolitical right of exception, at the very least within the UN context. Apologists for this seeming repudiation of a law-oriented approach when it came to the most dangerous states at the time point to the need to give the Soviet Union assurances that it would not be outvoted by the West, or otherwise it would be unwilling to participate in the UN, and the Organization would wither on the vine in the manner of the League of Nations. But if this was truly the dominant reason for the veto, a less obtrusive could have been chosen as the way of providing reassurance, such as requiring decisions of the Security Council opposed by the Soviet Union to be supported by all non-permanent members. There would be no comparable need to give the four other states the veto unless there was an overriding motive to entrench in the UN Charter the prerogatives of geopolitical leverage as measured by being on the winning side in World War II.

Such an observation makes us aware that there exists more than one source of normative authority in the sphere of international relations. and at least two. There is the fundamental idea deriving from the origins of the modern states system identified with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which accorded equality to sovereign states. And then there is a second source of largely unwritten and rarely spoken about normative authority that regulates those few states that are freed from the constraints of international law and enjoy impunity for their actions. These are the states given the veto power, and among these states are those that seek the added discretion of being non-accountable for their acts. This deference to power and national supremacy, undermines fidelity to law where it seems most needed, and has long been a fundamental deficiency of sustaining peace in a nuclear-armed world. Yet geopolitics, like international law itself, possesses a normative order that is designed to impose certain limits on these geopolitical actors that if responsibly applied serves the public good. The Quincy Institute recognizes this vital feature of international relations by its positive emphasis on ‘responsible statecraft,’ which is roughly equivalent to my call for ‘geopolitical prudence.’

A crucial geopolitical prescription along these lines was the appreciation of spheres of influence as delimiting extraterritorial zones of exclusive influence, which might include ‘unlawful’ interventions and exploitations of weaker states (e.g. ‘banana republics’). As abusive as the diplomacy of spheres has been for targeted societies it has also been a way of discouraging competitive interventions that might otherwise lead to intensive wars between the Great Powers, and as mentioned, plays an indispensable role in reducing the prospect of dangerous escalations in the nuclear age. How Blinken can be so myopic in addressing this essential feature of world order is stunning, and is paralleled by the failure of the media to expose such dangerous and self-serving nonsense.

To be sure international law is itself subject to geopolitical influence in the formation and interpretation of its rules and their unequal implementation, and is far from serving justice or even public order in many critical circumstances, including its validation of settler colonialism. [See Noura Erakat, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine(2019)] Yet when it comes to upholding the prohibition on non-defensive uses of force and accountability for war crimes, it has sought to uphold the norms unless violated by major geopolitical actors and their special friends. The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, established by the UN, did not distinguish between winners and losers in the manner of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals or for that matter the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (2005-06), which imposed a death sentence on Saddam Hussein while ignoring the U.S./UK crimes of aggression in the Iraq War of 2003.

In conclusion, it is important to recognize the interplay of international law and the geopolitical normative order. The former rests on agreement of juridically equal states as to norms and customary practice. International law also increasingly rests on voluntary compliance as illustrated by the World Court being confined in its law-declaring role to issuing ‘Advisory Opinion’ that states and international institution are permitted to disregard. Or more substantively, in relation to compliance with carbon emission pledges of parties to the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015.

The geopolitical normative order depends on prudence along the lines of the precautionary principle, its norms being self-interpreted, best guided by past experience, tradition, mutuality, and common sense. It should be understood that geopolitical status of the Permanent Members of the Security Council is not reflective of their de facto role in international relations. At present, only the United States, China, and Russia enjoy an existential geopolitical status; France and the UK do not, and perhaps, India, Nigeria/South Africa, Brazil possess some de facto geopolitical attributes, but lack a corresponding de jure recognition.

In the context of the Ukraine War Russia is to be faulted for its flagrant violation of the prohibition of aggressive war and its war crimes in Ukrainian combat zones, and for intimating

a willingness to have recourse to nuclear weapons if its vital interests are threatened. The United States is to be faulted for irresponsible statecraft or imprudent geopolitics by its replacement of a defensive role of support for Ukrainian resistance by more recently pushing for the defeat of Russia through the massive increases of aid, encouragement of enlarged Ukrainian goals, supplying offensive weaponry, continuation of demonizing Putin, absence of advocacy of ceasefire and peace diplomacy, inattentiveness to escalation risks especially in relation to nuclear dangers, and overall manipulation of Ukraine Crisis as part of its strategic commitment to the sort of unipolar geopolitics that has emerged during the aftermath of the Cold War. Unipolarity entails a repudiation of Chinese and Russian efforts to achieve a multipolar management of global governance. It is this latter tension that if not addressed points to a second Cold War more dangerous than its predecessor, feverish arms races, periodic crises, and the diversion of resources and energies from such urgent global challenges as climate change, food security, and humane migration policies.  

A Ukraine Peoples Tribunal?

7 May

[Prefatory Note: A somewhat modified version of this pose was published online in CounterPunch on May 6, 2022 under the title “Toward a Ukraine Wars Peoples Tribunal. The most important change is the insistence that the Geopolitical War taking place under the rubric of the Ukraine War is different and farmore dangerous than what is being described as a ‘proxy war.’ Also important is the growingevidence that the inflammatory nature of Biden’s tactics in the Geopolitical War, especially the endorsement of ‘a victory scenario’ compounds the dangers, including heightening the risk that nuclear weapons will be used. What is needed is for civil society to frame with a sense of urgency ‘a peace scenario’ with as many specifications of its character as possible. I consider the proposal to form a civil society tribunal a step in this direction.]

Toward a Peoples Ukraine Wars Tribunal

The deepening current Ukraine Crisis is properly linked to the Russian aggression that commenced with a massive military attack against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, although it should not cover up the provocative developments of preceding years that prepared the way for what has erupted. The Russian attack has continued to ravage the country since, including inducing a refugee flow numbering several million. There is a broad consensus around the world that such aggression is a criminal violation of international law, and while noting the irresponsible nature of NATO provocations, it is widely agreed, fail to provide Russia with a legally, morally, or even politically persuasive rationale with respect to accountability for such a violent encroachment on Ukrainian sovereign rights and territorial integrity. At the same time, from the outset of these events there was much more limited international support for the American led punitive response by NATO featuring harsh comprehensive sanctions amounting to ‘economic warfare,’ shipment of weaponry to the beleaguered country, dehumanization of Putin and Russo-phobic propaganda, along with silence about recourse to a diplomacy directed at stopping the killing and devastation. In the background of the two-level war was the related internal struggle within Ukraine between dominant indigenous forces in the Western part of the country and the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who are the majority in the industrial heartland of the country in the Dombas East.

As Russian military operations proceeded, perceptions of the core conflict began to change. What seemed at first a simple war of aggression, to be followed by belligerent operation, became by successive phases a geopolitical war between the United States and Russia, with strategic goals quite apart from the outcome of events in Ukraine, as well as heightening costs of the encounter for the entire world, including the people of Ukraine and especially the extreme poor everywhere. And while Washington bears the main responsibility for this shift, the Russian response was also irresponsible– not compromising war goals and recourse to veiled threats of nuclear warfare emanating from Moscow and Putin. Yet the essential character in this elevation of the war strategy to a geopolitical level of engagement is the rather explicit American shift in its policy entailing less of an emphasis upon bolstering Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression and far more about inflicting a stunning geopolitical defeat on Russia and at the same time revitalizing post-Cold War transatlantic unity through a reaffirmation of the benefits of the NATO alliance in a global text where Russia is once more cast as the enemy of Western democracy. 

It is important to understand that this Geopolitical War raises the stakes in Ukraine much higher than the prevailing tendency to view the second level war between the U.S. and Russia as a ‘proxy war.’ A proxy war conceives of the strategic stakes in terms of the outcome of the conflict on the ground, whose overt antagonists are Russia and Ukraine. Conceiving of this confrontation as a geopolitical war calls attention to the much larger strategic consequences and risks because what is at stake is the structure of power on a global scale, specifically this Geopolitical War will influence the struggle between the U.S., Russia, and China as to whether the global security will reflect unipolarity or multipolarity. It is easier for a country to accept defeat in a proxy war than in a geopolitical war, and herein lies embedded grave dangers of escalation.

Given such developments, the time has come for civil society initiatives to counter the disastrous global confrontation that is now endangering the world, and indeed even species survival prospects, in the pursuit of these geopolitical goals by the United States disguised somewhat by media complicity that continues to convey the impression that the Ukraine War is still only about the defense of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, the daily war crimes attributable to the Russians, and the heroic and increasingly successful efforts of the Zelensky leadership and the courageous national unity of the Ukrainian people. I believe this is a basically deceptive and potentially dangerous image, including for Ukraine, and even for the main disseminator of hostile geopolitical propaganda, the U.S. Government and consequently, the American people. Perhaps, it comes as a disturbing surprise that only the political extremes of right and left are interpreting the Ukraine War as producing a global disaster that begun to spill across the borders of Ukraine, with far worse to come without even taking full account of the growing nuclear dangers. What has also become evident is the helplessness of peace-oriented approaches. Such voices are being shut out by mainstream media platforms, which is reinforced by the inability of the UN to act independently of a geopolitical consensus, and by inter-governmental impotence to safeguard human interest in face of the menacing moves by the most powerful states motivated by strong contradictory geopolitical goals.

In light of this line of interpretation, I am proposing the establishment of a civil society tribunal along the lines of the Russell Tribunal that brought independent critical voices to the fore during the Vietnam War, which has become the principal combat theater of the Cold War in 1966-67. Although the tribunal was controversial at the time and of questionable relevance to ending that war, the Russell undertaking inspired many notable efforts along the same lines, most notably organized under the sponsorship of the Lelio Basso Foundation in Rome. Perhaps, most notable was the elaborate series of such initiatives in response to U.S. aggression against Iraq in 2003 culminating in the very significant Iraq War Tribunal of 2005. The proceedings of that event, appropriately held in Istanbul, can be beneficially studies to cast light on the policy dilemmas of the Ukraine Crisis. This self-funded event in Istanbul orchestrated brilliantly by a group of Turkish progressive women citizens brought together internationally prominent jurists and moral authority figures including Arundhati Roy who served as the chair of the jury of conscience that sat in judgment, and rendered an opinion of lasting significance, especially for anti-war world tendencies. 

It is my belief that such a tribunal devoted to passing judgment of the Ukraine Wars, constituted as a matter of urgency, is more important than any of these previous comparable civic events because the stakes for humanity are higher. The use of the plural for what is happening in Ukraine is not a typo, but reflects the view explained in my prior articles that the Ukraine Crisis can only be properly understood if interpreted as three interrelated wars with contradictory features: Level 1: Russia vs. Ukraine; Level: 2: U.S. vs. Russia; Level 3: Western Ukraine vs. Dombas. It is for this reason that I am proposing here that the tribunal named Peoples Tribunal on the Ukraine Wars, despite its awkwardness.

The case for such an initiative is not only to give expression to views of the Ukraine Crisis that take international law, geopolitical crime, and nuclear dangers seriously, but also in view of the political incapacity of the UN to act effectively and responsibly when geopolitical actors get heavily embroiled in such a violent conflict which threatens world peace generally and causes massive suffering throughout the world, especially in the least developed countries or in societies dependent on import of basic foodstuffs and energy for reliable supplies at affordable prices. Most of the people vulnerable to such a mega-crisis live in states that have hardly any influence in the formation of global policy, but often bear the heaviest weight of its shortcomings. At present a normative vacuum exists in response to the Ukraine Crisis. This leaves transnational civil society as the last, best hope to exert a responsibility to act, and indeed seize the opportunity to goad the formal political actors on the global stage to operationalize a peace scenario before it is too late

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Clarifying the Background

First, when it comes to war/peace issues there exist two operational sets of norms with respect to international relations: (1) International Law, binding of all sovereign states; (2) Geopolitics that privileges a few powerful states. The identity of geopolitical actors is not as clearly identified as is that of sovereign states, which is rather clearly signified by internationally recognized territorial boundaries and access to membership in the UN, now numbering 193, that is, virtually all. The most influential, yet still misleading, guideline as to geopolitical stature is contained in the UN Charter, taking the form of the right of veto conferred on the five Permanent Members of the Security Council (also known as the P-5) who happened to be the winners in World War II and also the five countries first to acquire nuclear weapons. As the composition of the P-5 has remained frozen in time for more than 77 years it is no longer descriptive of the geopolitical landscape, and never was. For this reason alone geopolitical identity is currently more blurred and problematic than earlier. Some P-5 members have declined in both hard and soft power since 1945, such as the UK and France, and seem to lack the capabilities and stature to qualify any longer as first tier geopolitical actors. In contrast, countries such as India, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, South Africa have increased their capabilities and raised their stature in such ways as to seem existentially entitled to the status of ‘geopolitical actors’ at least regionally, and in some instances, globally.

From a normative point of view the distinction between international law and geopolitics is fundamental, and again is made clear by the significance of P-5 status within the UN framework which was designed to keep the peace after World War II. International law is applicable to every state, but is explicitly not obligatory for the P-5, which is what has made the UN so limited in its operational ability to provide humanity with a globally supervised war prevention system based on compliance with international law. Giving the Western states a veto was tantamount to acknowledging, as had been true for international relations in prior centuries, that the UN could not be expected to implement its own Charter norms if they collided with strategic interests of the P-5, but that compliance with these norms, if forthcoming at all would depend on geopolitical self-restraint or the counterforce of adversary geopolitical actors exerted outside the UN. A similar pattern of obstruction existed when Russia was the Soviet Union, yet its participation that was seen as vital in 1945 if the UN was to enjoy global legitimacy premised on universal membership. Granting the USSR a right of veto was also a matter of protecting the country against its understandable anxiety about facing a Western majority on vital issues. As the decades have shown, the U.S. in particular has used the veto (e.g. to shield Israel) or avoided the UN (as in the Vietnam War, NATO Kosovo War, and Iraq War of 2003) when it thought its proposed plan of action would be vetoed, or otherwise not supported. The UN was deliberately disempowered from any legal attempt to implement compliance with the UN Charter in relation to geopolitical actors, and the existential reality was not dissimilar from the pre-UN Westphalian structure of and experience with world order since the mid-17th century. Regulation of the use of force by the Great Powers, as they were formerly called, depended on a mixture of their self-restraint and what came to be known as ‘the balance of power,’ redesigned in the nuclear age as ‘deterrence.’ These nuclear dimensions are under challenge from many non-geopolitical states and world public opinion, most recently in the form of the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TCNP). This initiative is so far limited in its impacts due to the distressing non-participation of any of the nine nuclear states, as well as their allies staking their security on the reliability of the ‘the nuclear prrotectorate’ provided by geopolitical actors. 

A second set of related considerations can be identified as the ‘Nuremberg Exception,’ which can be interpreted as follows: a geopolitical actor loses its impunity with respect to international law if it is defeated in a major war. This attitude is evident in the course of the unfolding two-level war in Ukraine. The U.S. at the highest level of its government has been condemning the Russian attack as a war crime that should engage criminal accountability of Putin, and others, if the International Criminal Court acts to fulfill its mandate. This can be viewed from one angle as a kind of ‘winner takes all’ feature of geopolitical order, or from another as gross hypocrisy by recourse to one-sided (in)justice beneath the banner of ‘Victors’ Justice.’ Nuremberg would enjoy somewhat increased jurisprudential credibility if the U.S. had demonstrated post-Nuremberg its own willingness to be held accountable under the frameworks of international criminal law or the codified version of the Nuremberg Principles, which do not acknowledge that a Nuremberg Exception exists, despite its persisting reality.

Thirdly, what is missing in this recital of the jurisprudential realities of international relations is the availability of a venue capable of a legitimate normative assessment of the behavior of geopolitical actors whether they are on the winning or losing side in a major war. It is evident that the UN lacks the constitutional mandate and political independence to undertake such a challenge without a thorough overhaul in its authority structure. Such reforms would require the approval of the very actors whose behavior would then become subject to international law, and these actors show no readiness to curtail their discretion. It is for this reason that the only way to close the accountability gap is to rely on civil society activism as a legitimate source of normative authority. One such responsive effort, used in the past, has been to convene a tribunal based on the authority of ordinary people as representatives of society to uphold international law in the event of the failure of the UN or governments to do so. In the setting of the Ukraine Crisis such a tribunal could be entrusted with investigating the three levels of the war from the perspective of international law, with the addition of an aspirational norm that extends the reach of the tribunal to the geopolitical domain. 

At present, inter-governmentally generated international law not surprisingly fails to criminalize geopolitical wrongdoing. It is not surprising because throughout modern history geopolitical actors have been the principal architects of international law and vigilant about protecting their freedom of action along with their national interest more generally. I believe it has become desirable to posit the existence of a residual civil society legislative capacity somewhat analogous to the residual role of the General Assembly of the UN if at an impasse is present in the Security Council with respect to a serious threat to international peace and security. On this basis a civil society endorsement of the concept of ‘geopolitical crime’ is justified to bring the US/Russia Geopolitical War within the ambit of the authority of The Ukraine Wars Tribunal.

There are two obvious weaknesses of this line of thinking that should be acknowledged. First, the Tribunal lacks any formal enforcement capability, although it could call for civil society boycotts and divestments that were effective in exerting transformative pressure on South Africa’s apartheid regime. Secondly, the activist impulses that fund and make operational The Ukrainian Wars Tribunal are themselves self-consciously partisan or reflect the outlook of social movement, which is of course not qualitative different than the deep biases intergovernmental institutions. Such partisanship of this radical civic action will be subject to criticism from start to finish, which may yield a helpful debate about war, law, and accountability.

It is evident that this proposal is principally an undertaking whose effectiveness will in the first instance registered symbolically rather than substantively in the sense that nothing immediate will change behaviorally in the prosecution and conduct of the three Ukrainian wars. Symbolic impacts should not be underestimated. The political outcomes in the most salient wars since 1945, including the epic struggles against colonialism, were politically controlled, often after many years of devastating warfare, by the weaker side if measured by material, especially military capabilities. I recall hearing the American president, Lyndon Johnson, in the mid-1960s boast that there was no way the United States could lose the war to Vietnam, ‘a tenth-rate Asian power.’ Symbolic venues shift power balances due to the commitments of people, and even alter the impacts of material interests over time. The struggles against slavery, racism, and patriarchy each manifest this dynamic. What at first seemed futile somehow became history!

In concluding, I hope some readers throughout the world will feel motivated enough to make the Peoples Ukraine Wars Tribunal a reality! It should be thought about as contributing to the imperative of framing A Peace Scenario that challenges the now ascendant Victory Scenario.

The Second Level Geopolitical War in Ukraine Takes Over

30 Apr

[Prefatory Note: A slightly modified version was published in CounterPunch, 4/29/2022; the recent acknowledgement that U.S. goals are, at best, secondarily related to the wellbeing of Ukraine, and primarily by the dangerously regressive goals of taking on challengers to the major premise of unipolarity, which has guided U.S. grand strategy since the end of the Cold War. First China, and now Russia, are strategic rivals, with the proclaimed goals of multipolarity. In the Cold War the battlelines were drawn between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, giving rise to the practice of bipolarity, which was epitomized by two features: mutual assured destruction (or MAD) identifying the nuclear dimension of the rivalry and respect for offsetting spheres of influence in Europe between the two ‘superpowers.’]

The Second Level Geopolitical War in Ukraine Takes Over

It has become increasingly clear to the world that there is not one, but two, actually three, distinct levels of conflict embedded in what the world’s media and political leadership deceptively insist on calling the ‘Ukraine War.’ The first level was initiated on February 24, 2022 when Russia launched an aggressive war against Ukraine imperiling the country’s most basic sovereign rights as well as its territorial integrity. The second level was difficult to discern in the first weeks of the war, but became soon evident as the NATO countries led by the United States placed an increasing emphasis on lending escalating support to Ukraine’s adopted goals of achieving an unexpected military victory. This support took various forms including the steady supply of heavy weaponry, robust financial assistance, punitive sanctions, and a drumbeat of ‘official’ demonization of Russia and its leadership. In the beginning it seemed appropriate to lend support to Ukraine as the target of aggression, and hail the resistance efforts led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, in defense of a relatively small country being overrun by a large neighbor. 

Even this widely endorsed narrative was deceptive and one-sided as it overlooked the provocative nature of NATO expansion, abetted in Ukraine’s case by American interference in the internal politics of the country to help turn the political tide against Russia. It is in this internal setting that on which the third level of the war persists as there is no doubt that anti-Russian elements in Western Ukraine were deeply abusive toward the majority Russian speaking population in Eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas region. The non-implementation of the Minsk Agreements negotiated in 2014-15 to protect the Ukrainians in the East and accept a high degree of autonomy led to oppressive policies by the Kyiv government giving added strength to separatist aspirations. It remains uncertain as whether the Russia/Ukraine level of combat can be resolved without serious addressing Russian and Dombas concerns at the core of this third level of conflict.

What has been apparent to critics for some time is that Western diplomacy has increasingly become primarily committed to the second level Geopolitical War even at the cost of greatly prolonging and aggravating the Ukrainian war on the ground and producing growing risks of a wider war. Only in the past few days has this priority been more or less acknowledged by high officials in the U.S. Government, most dramatically in the visit of Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, and Austin, Secretary of Defense to Ukraine and later in their meeting with NATO counterparts in Europe. What was revealed was that the number one policy goal of the U.S. was ‘the weakening of Russia’ made to military planners a credible undertaking by the unexpected resistance capabilities of Ukrainian armed forces bolstered by a show unified nationalist resolve. In keeping with this line of thinking, arms shipments to Ukraine were steadily increased in quantity and quality. More tellingly, so-called heavy armaments with offensive capabilities began to be supplied to Ukraine, with militarists in NATO countries even proposing attacking targets in Russia. As this dynamic unfolded, Germany joined in by dramatically reversed its proclaimed policy of not providing heavy weaponry. The whole tenor of assistance from NATO countries shifted from helping Ukraine resist to addressing the geopolitical agenda with its two goals: inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia and signaling China not to indulge any doubts about Western resolve to defend Taiwan. 

Despite this shift in emphasis, earlier concerns with escalating the Geopolitical War with Russia have not been entirely abandoned. Efforts continue to be made to ensure that U.S. and Russia to not engage in direct combat with opposing weapons system and to not produce situations that push Russian toward a reliance on nuclear weapons to avoid battlefield defeat. White House perceptions of what will cause such recourse to nuclear weaponry at this point seems dangerous divergent. It is widely reported that the Biden presidency continues to resist pressures to establish No Fly Zone in Ukraine because it would greatly heighten prospects for direct combat encounters between the NATO and Russia, and with it risks of this new species of cold war turning uncontrollably hot. But what of Biden’s demonization of Russia as guilty of genocide and Putin as a war criminal who should be driven from power? And what of the continuous increases of political, financial, and military assistance to Ukraine coupled with the absence of any hint that a diplomatic alternative exists that would stop the killing. This has been missing all along. There have been no indications by Washington of receptivity to a diplomacy emphasizing the primary humanitarian imperative of an immediate ceasefire and a political process of compromise and mutual security between Russia and Ukraine the overt international antagonists. It is missing because the U.S. on prosecuting the Geopolitical War as long as necessary, and this  takes precedence over the wellbeing of the Ukrainian people, or even the rationally conceived self-interest of the NATO powers.  

Zelensky early in the war indicated receptivity to a ceasefire and political compromise, including an acceptance of permanent neutrality for Ukraine, signaled his willingness to meet with Putin to agree upon a process. As time passes, however, Zelensky has pulled back from this dual stance of armed resistance and peace diplomacy, and come to adopt a position that appears seamless with that of the U.S. as if his priority had also shifted to the level 2 Geopolitical War.

My conjecture is that Zelensky, although displaying great talents as a wartime resistance leader has very little sophistication about international relations in general, and seems susceptible to this more militarist line bolstered by promises of decisive support from Washington and possible pressures from his own supposedly hawkish general staff. After all, Zelensky’s background is in theater, until recently he was a performing comedian without any signs of awareness of the wider risks to Ukraine if it subordinates its national interests to the logic of going on with the Geopolitical War wherever it might lead. 

As expected, Moscow has already reacted to this escalation of this second level war by warning that it will not back down, but will take all necessary steps to protect its national security interests, intimating if it comes to that, a readiness to have recourse to nuclear weapons. Such inflamed atmospherics can easily produce accidental or preemptive acts that accelerate escalation, which is especially serious in the current context that lacks crisis management links of the sort established between Moscow and Washington in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It took that close encounter back in 1962 with its apocalyptic war scenario that led these superpower antagonists to understand that they had averted a monumental mutual catastrophe by sheer luck, and must take steps to avoid future drifts toward nuclear war however great the crisis in their relationship.

While most attention is focused on the inter-governmental play of forces it is helpful to take account of other perspectives: civil society peace initiatives, the views of the Global South, and the initiatives of the UN Secretary General. These perspectives call attention to the startling fact that alternatives to aggressive war and geopolitical ambition exist. The Western media blithely hides the awkward fact that Russia is more globally supported in the Geopolitical War than is the United States, preferring the balances of multipolarity to the hegemonies of unipolarity. The Global North controls the discourse prevailing on the most influential media platforms, creating the misleading impression that the whole world, except the outliers, are content with U.S. leadership.

Civil Society Initiatives

Almost from the day the Russian attack began, peace activists and NGOs concerned in some way with peace, security, and humanitarianism urged an end to the killing by way of a ceasefire and some political process that dealt with the level 1 and 3 grievances. This is not to say there were not sharp tensions within civil society, especially surrounding how to interpret the pre-war NATO maneuvers  or the Russian manipulation of the strife in Dombas. By and large the liberal and left liberal mainstream supported outright condemnation of Russian aggression, but favored an immediate ceasefire and diplomacy to ending the war and mitigating the humanitarian emergency of death, devastation, and displacement. Those who can be crudely identified as the anti-imperial left tended to excuse or at least place major responsibility for the outbreak of war on the context largely fashioned by Western provocations (especially NATO expansion) and interference in Ukraine’s internal politics since 2014 as did some on the extreme right who identified with Putin’s authoritarianism as future wave of world politics.

What contrasted the civil society perspectives in spite of their diversity, with NATO/mainstream media postures, was their shared stress on stopping the killing, the relevance of diplomacy, and their implicit or explicit refusal to condone recourse to the Level 2 Geopolitical War. Typical examples of civil society proposals can be found in the Pugwash Peace Proposal and the Just World Education booklet distributed under the title “Ukraine: Stop the Carnage, Build the Peace”(available from Amazon or from www.justworldeducational.org, containing eight policy recommendations). 

The Voice of the Global South

Given little notice in the Global North was the refusal of the greater part of the Global South to support the mobilization of coercive and punitive sanctions diplomacy directed at Russia and its leader. This split from the West first became evident in the two votes on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly. The entire world including the most of the main countries in the Global South supported the condemnation of the Level 1 Russian aggression, but either abstained or opposed support for the Level 2 Geopolitical War Initiated by the U.S. against Russia in the early stages of the attack on Ukraine. As Trita Parti of the Washington-based think tank, Quincy Institute, pointed out much of the Global South actually supported Russia in the Geopolitical War context, which was interpreted as the U.S. commitment to extending the mandate contained in a unipolar world order of the sort it had acted upon since the Soviet collapse and the end of the Cold War. The Global South greatly preferred the dynamics of a multipolar world, and regarded Russia as seeking in Ukraine to reassert its traditional geopolitical suzerainty over its ‘near abroad,’ a stand against the U.S. as the unopposed guardian of security throughout the planet. It should be appreciated that the U.S. has 97% of overseas military bases and accounts for 40% of the world’s military expenditures, greater than that of the next 11 countries. 

The U.S. position is no way renounces traditional geopolitics but seeks to monopolize its implementation. In that spirit it views the attempted reassertion by China and Russia of traditional spheres of influence as an intrusion on international law, while the U.S. at the same time defends its practice of managing the first global sphere of influence in world history. Blinken has said as much, declaring spheres of influence as contrary to international law ever since World War II while simultaneously upholding the sole prerogative of the U.S. when it comes to managing security throughout such a rule-governed world (not to be confused with international law, and its efforts at rule- governance). The UN or international law are marginalized with respect to peace and security in the face of this assumption of geopolitical dominance resting on a mixture of political ambition and military capabilities.

The UN Secretary General

Throughout the Ukraine crisis Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has articulated a point of view toward the Ukraine Crisis that contrasts in fundamental ways from the positions taken by the political actors on the three levels of conflict. His words and proposals are much closer in spirit to the calls emanating from civil society and the Global South. He expressed the spirit of his endeavors concisely shortly after Russia attacked: “End the hostilities now. Silence the guns now. Open the door to dialogue and diplomacy.” “The ticking clock is a time bomb.” 

Traveling in Moscow to meet with Putin and the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the SG’s message was more in keeping with diplomatic style, yet similar in content: Focus on ways to end war, and desist from carrying the fight against Russia a day longer. He told Lavrov that “We are extremely interested in finding ways to create the conditions for effective dialogue, create conditions for a ceasefire as soon as possible, create conditions for a peaceful solution.” Putin in the one-on-one meeting with Guterres given the aggressiveness of his counterpart in Washington seemed guardedly receptive to allowing the UN and Red Cross to play a humanitarian role in Ukraine and seemed cautiously receptive to seeking a negotiated end to the conflict on the ground. Of course, it would be premature to have much confidence in any assessment until deeds follow words. At the same time we seem entitled to lament the failure to hear a comparable level of peace-mindedness in Biden’s public statements, which so far seem calculated to stir anti-Russian fury and war-mindedness rather than to set the stage for ending this frightening multi-level conflict.

The stark difference between the UN SG’s approach and that of the geopolitical leadership of the world, should make many persons dedicated to a better future initiate a campaign to set the UN free from its Charter framework that accords primacy explicit primacy to its geopolitical actors.

Concluding Observation

Unraveling the intertwined nature of these three levels of conflict bound up in the ambiguities of the Ukraine War is crucial for an understanding of its complexity and to analyze whether responses and proposals are of service to the general betterment of humanity. It also facilitates the identification of unresponsive policies and proposals that hearken back to the days when matters of war and peace could be left to the discretion of politicians guided by neither ethics nor prudence, but rather have risen to power because they serve the material interests of elites in the private sector. On this basis, I believe that two overriding assessments emerge from an examination of the current interplay of forces in these Ukraine wars: stop the killing by all means available and unconditionally repudiate the Geopolitical War.   

Al-Aqsa Violence during Ramadan

21 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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