Tag Archives: Biden

Biden’s Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons: A Dialogue

5 May

☰[PREFATORY NOTE: Previously published online in Counterpunch, May 4, 2021. Biden’s international bipartisan approach risks a renewed arms race in a political and economic atmosphere that makes it unaffordable as well as acutely dangerous. My conversation with David Krieger explores some of the ramifications.]

Biden’s Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons: a Dialogue

BY RICHARD FALK – DAVID KRIEGERFacebookTwitterRedditEmail

B61 nuclear warheads in storage. Photo: US DOE.

Ricard Falk: The humane and competently handled responses that the Biden presidency has pursued with respect to the COVID challenge, mitigating economic burdens on the poor, empathy for abuses of persons of color, and moves toward proposing a massive infrastructure program are uplifting changes in policy and leadership of the country, especially welcomed after enduring Trump for four years. Even the handling of the seasonal surge of asylum aspirants at the Mexican border, although disturbing, exhibits a presidential approach seeking to find ways to reconcile ethics with practicalities of governance. Yet if we turn from these impressive beginnings at home to the early indications of Biden’s foreign policy the picture seems bleaker, and this includes our primary focus on nuclear weaponry.

Of course, it makes perfect political sense for Biden to tackle these domestic challenges first, and avoid distractions that would arise if the government were to pursue international policies that agitated pro-military Republicans and even so-called moderate Democrats. To get his emergency programs past legislative obstacles in a robust form required mustering as much unity across the political spectrum as possible, yet even with this acknowledgement I feel uncomfortable about what Biden has so far done with respect to foreign policy.  I am worried by the Biden stress on restoring the alliance/deterrence approach to global security as if the Cold War never ended. In slightly veiled language that conveys a militarist spirit Biden expresses these sentiments in a cover letter to his March 2021 Interim National Security Strategy Guidance official document, advancing as “..a core strategic proposition: the United States must renew its enduring advantages so that we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength.”

Apparently without forethought Biden called Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, ‘a killer,’ and lacking ‘a soul,’ then followed up by rejecting Moscow’s temperate call for a diplomatic meeting between the leaders to address disagreements between the two countries. Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have followed suit with interactions in their Alaska meetings with Russian counterparts that were calculated to raise tensions. Such postures are all about projecting American strength and conveying to others a dangerous geopolitical disposition that refuses to back down in crisis situations that are certain to arise, and for these important public figures, it means encounters with China and Russia.

When it comes to the nuclear agenda, despite agreeing to renew the START Treaty for another five years, preliminary glimpses of Biden’s general outlook seem driven by viewing America’s global experience as one of confronting, deterring, and overcoming. More concretely, it seems to involve reconstructing the Cold War atmosphere of friends and enemies, which is accompanied by national self-love, American exceptionalism, and a strong tendency to blame others for whatever goes wrong in the world. We lecture others, while bitterly resent being criticized, especially along similar lines.

It is not that the shortcomings of Russia and China are unworthy of concern, but not less so than systematic racism, gun violence, and persisting poverty in the United States, national deficiencies that are well within our capabilities to correct. Foreign policy aims are cynically disclosed by whether human rights violations are obscured as with Saudi Arabia and India or stridently asserted as with Russia and China.

In such an atmosphere to have the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard proclaim that relations with these two adversaries of the U.S. is likely to produce a regional crisis in the months ahead is a signal that should not be ignored. Worse, Richard adds that given the stakes and force postures in the South China Seas, such a faceoff could quickly escalate to the point of provoking a nuclear war. The admiral is not inclined to suggest ways to reduce such risks of confrontation. Instead, he issues a solemn assertion that it is imperative for the U.S. to shift the focus of its security planning from the supposedly prevailing idea that the use of nuclear weapons is not possible to the view that such use “is a very real possibility.” [See Richard, “Forging 21st Century Strategic Deterrence,” Proceedings of United States Naval Institute, Feb. 2021.] The failure to repudiate or to tone down such a public statement might well be causing panic among strategic planners in Beijing and Moscow.

It seems Inexcusable to let matters move so quickly in such menacing and unacceptable directions. Not only is Admiral Richard’s language chilling, but it is being used to plead for increased spending devoted to the modernization of the U.S. already outsized nuclear arsenal. I think we at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation should be depicting an alternative denuclearizing future with all the energy and resources at our disposal. As serious as are the domestic challenges we must remain vigilant, doing our best to avoid the scenarios that Admiral Richard projects as probable, and even more so, the way he envisions nuclearizing responses to such geopolitical challenges should they arise. Such conjectures are made more menacing if account is taken of recent Pentagon simulations that suggest that China’s regional naval prowess is such that if war making erupts China is likely to prevail if the confrontation is confined to conventional weaponry.

Is it already too late to awaken Biden and his entourage to this heightened nuclear risk? Let’s hope we never find out? To be clear, I would argue that this overarching issue commands our immediate attention, but there are other pressing concerns and opportunities for those of us devoted to achieving a world without nuclear weapons as a necessary and attainable goal.

David Krieger: Biden embarked on the presidency with a full and pressing domestic agenda, starting with bringing the Covid-19 pandemic under control in the U.S., and dealing with an economy in serious trouble as a consequence of the pandemic. In addition, Biden has pushed forward legislation on rebuilding infrastructure in the country and in support of voting rights for all Americans.  He has been ambitious and determined in pursuing his domestic agenda, but has so far paid little attention to foreign policy.

Biden’s choices for Secretary of State and National Security Advisor have been from the foreign policy establishment, individuals who support, as does Biden, a strong U.S. nuclear posture based in Cold War thinking.  You raise some worrisome examples of expressions of nuclear arrogance toward Russia and China, which demonstrate more of a taunting attitude than the compassion and empathy that Biden has expressed toward victims of Covid, mass shootings, and poverty.

Biden should be commended for acting quickly upon assuming the presidency to extend the New START treaty with Moscow.  He has not, however, brought the U.S. back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018.  Nor has he pursued relations with North Korea concerning their nuclear weapons program.  On balance, it appears that Biden has not given much attention to foreign policy matters and that his default position is a Cold War stance based upon nuclear deterrence, and a world divided into alliance partners (friends) and adversaries (enemies). This is a dangerous posture because nuclear deterrence is not guaranteed to work and, in fact, cannot be proven to work because it is not possible to prove a negative (something does not happen because something happens).  Nuclear deterrence is based on threats of nuclear use, which could encourage one side to act first in launching nuclear weapons at an adversary before the adversary launches first.

I doubt that Biden or those around him have seriously considered the critique of nuclear deterrence and simply accept it at face value.  Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev concluded that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”  Biden seems comfortable basing U.S. security on a policy of nuclear strength.  But strength in the form of nuclear deterrence is extremely dangerous.  A nuclear war could begin by malice, mistake, miscalculation, or madness.  Of these, only malice is even possibly subject to nuclear deterrence. Mistake, miscalculation and madness are not influenced by nuclear deterrence posture (threat of nuclear retaliation).

I believe that Biden is a good and decent man who is guided in his life and leadership by compassion and empathy. Nonetheless, he has not shown up to now that he brings those traits to bear on U.S. nuclear policy.  He must be pressed to understand the global dangers of policy based upon U.S. nuclear dominance. Such a policy, although it has been U.S. policy since the end of World War II, could fail catastrophically, were nuclear deterrence to fail. It is as if we were playing a game of nuclear roulette with the gun pointed at the heart of humanity. This is the message that the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and other like-minded groups must convey to Biden. If we are to reduce the dangers of standing at the nuclear precipice, he must bring as much compassion and leadership to U.S. nuclear policy as he has shown he is capable of bringing to U.S. domestic policy.

What do you see as the specific policy initiatives that we should press for in the area of foreign and nuclear policy?

Falk: I don’t want to come across as someone who has only one arrow in his quiver, but I believe the danger of a confrontation with China in the South China Seas poses the highest risk of nuclear warfare since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I recall no prior occasion where top military officials were arguing in public that a regional confrontation with China was not only probable, but that the U.S. naval capabilities would not be able to avoid defeat in such combat if conducted with conventional weaponry. Since an American defeat at the hands of China would be an unacceptable option, preparation for the use of nuclear weaponry should be seen by American strategists as probable, imperative, and strategically necessary. All indications are that China regards this region off its coast as properly within its sphere of influence, and would be unlikely to back off if confronted either mistakenly or deliberately. We know further that both sides have engaged in provocative activity in the region to convey their commitment to defend strategic interests, which could easily have produced a military encounter due to bluff or miscalculation, if not by deliberate intention.

What is disturbing is Biden and Blinken’s failure, given these risks, to seek a de-escalation of tensions, but have acted in directly the opposite manner. I don’t share your sense that the Biden presidency has not accorded a significant amount of attention to foreign policy. Throughout his campaign and in comments since in the White House three connected ideas have been stressed: (1) making a great effort to restore a bipartisan consensus in foreign policy with a revived emphasis on alliance diplomacy of the sort that flourished during the Cold War; (2) treating China as a prime adversary because it challenges U.S. economic and technological primacy in the world, and adheres to an alien ideology that includes the oppression of the Uyghur minority; when U.S. foreign policy stresses human rights is wants to inflame tensions, when it wants to nurture allies it shuts up—for example, silence about the Modi discriminatory moves against Muslims in India or Sisi’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; (3) the combination of (1) + (2), points to rising geopolitical tensions and an alarming dependence on nuclear weapons to ensure a favorable balance; this is enough for me to reach the conclusion that a pre-crisis atmosphere exists between these two globally dominant states that must be exposed, and bold steps taken with no time to waste, seeking peaceful coexistence with China (and Russia) coupled with a tangible readiness to cooperate on meeting the challenges of climate change.

I do not want to evade your invitation with regard to specific steps that would have denuclearizing effects. I have long been supportive of seeking to engage nuclear weapons states in a joint pledge of No First Use, and if that were not forthcoming, then a bilateral pledge along such lines by the United States and Russia, the two countries with 90% of the nuclear warheads in existence. Such a step, accompanied by adjustments in doctrine, deployments, and strategic planning would considerably reduce the risks of stumbling into a nuclear war and would go part way to repudiate the unconscionable development of first use weaponry and missions, as well as the failure to take the immediate step of confining deterrence to a situation of ultimate self-defense, thereby partially conforming to the views of the International Court of Justice as expressed by the majority in the rendering of 1996 Advisory Opinion.

A second specific step would be to restore the JCPOA Nuclear Agreement with Iran as you suggest. Again, I think that rather than explain the failure of Biden to move constructively to undo the damage done by Trump’s withdrawal by inattentiveness, the hard bargaining stance taken by the U.S. is an attempt to be responsive to Israeli and Saudi pressures, as well as to avoid giving rise to distracting controversies at home.

Let me conclude by feeling less positive about Biden’s political profile. I do, like you, as I earlier indicated, commend his sensitive and energetic responses to the pandemic, the need for equity in government efforts to hasten an economic recovery, and thinking big on infrastructure. And yet I don’t see evidence in his past for an optimistic rendering of either his policies or character. He is the political variant of ‘a company man’ as near I can tell. Recall Kamala Harris’ acerbic takedown of Biden during an early campaign debate. He not only supported the Iraq War in 2003, he championed the public and Congressional mobilization for it as chair of the relevant Senate Committee; he was always a reliable proponent of large peacetime military budgets, a Cold Warrior in all respects, who was also compliant with Wall Street’s agenda, and certainly did not do himself proud during the Clarence Thomas hearings while presiding over the pillorying of Anita Hill. Let’s hope this past is not a prelude to his foreign policy future. Yet we should refrain from canceling his complicities in some of America’s worst past political moments. We can forgive, but we are foolhardy if we forget.

Krieger: I share your concern that a confrontation between China and the U.S. could escalate into a nuclear war, but the same holds true of a confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir or a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.  There are any number of ways in which a nuclear war could be initiated and, so long as nuclear arsenals exist, escalation of a conflict to nuclear war is always a possibility.  De-escalation of tensions in a nuclear-armed world is always called for, but even more important is recognizing the chronic danger of nuclear weapons in the world and taking actions to move away from the precipice of nuclear catastrophe by committing to and developing a plan for moving to nuclear zero.  I am most interested in what actions need to be taken now to achieve the goal of nuclear zero.  In other words, what actions must be taken to assure that the world is on the way to a place where fear of nuclear war is matched by steps leading to total nuclear disarmament. Thus far, Biden has shown no inclination to move in this direction. He has not opposed such steps, but neither has he proposed them, For the most part he has been silent on issues related to nuclear policy and his silence has been worrisome.

You mention that one step toward nuclear sanity would be a pledge of No First Use of nuclear weapons.  This is a controversial step in that it seems to give some legitimacy to second use (retaliatory use) of nuclear weapons. Still, though, it is the case that if no country used nuclear weapons first, there would be no use at all, except for the possibility of mistake or accident, which would remain a serious problem. A further critique of No First Use is its reliance on a pledge, which could be broken. The best way to deal with the danger of breaking the pledge would be to accompany the pledge with deployment strategies that make first use far more difficult, such as separating warheads from delivery vehicles, as I believe is still done by China.  Further, in the case of the U.S., it would be appropriate to dismantle and destroy all land-based nuclear-armed missiles, since, as fixed targets, they are “use them or lose them” weapons.

It was reported that Barack Obama wanted to make a pledge of No First Use near the end of his presidency, but this idea received considerable push-back from his national security team.  It would be interesting to know what position Biden took on the possibility of a U.S. No First Use pledge. Regardless, though, of where Biden stood on this issue then, it should be pressed on him now or, even better, he should be pressed to make a pledge of No Use of nuclear weapons.  This would be an even larger step toward nuclear abolition, demonstrating that the U.S. had no plans to use these omnicidal weapons and, in that way, demonstrating serious leadership toward the goal of nuclear zero.  The push-back for this step would be that it would likely cause the states under the U.S. nuclear umbrella to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

In addition to restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), there is much more restoring of agreements that should be done.  Trump pulled the U.S. out the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia, which eliminated a whole class of missiles.  Trump also pulled the U.S. out of the Open Skies Agreement, a confidence building agreement between the U.S., many European countries, and Russia, which allows for overflights of each other’s territories. Additionally, George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia.  These treaties were important means of restraint of nuclear arms races.  They should be restored and expanded.

There is much more that Biden could do if he had the inclination to protect U.S. security by moving toward eliminating the nuclear threat to the U.S. and the world.  He could, for example, make a pledge of No Launch on Warning, in order to protect against launching to a false warning. He could change U.S. policy so that the president no longer has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. He could stop plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and use the one trillion dollars saved to support his plans for replacing infrastructure and supporting social welfare programs.

Biden has given little indication as of now that the issues of nuclear catastrophe and nuclear policy are on his mind.  But, as I said previously, he has been focusing on eradicating the Covid pandemic and on his domestic agenda. You are right to say that we should not forget that Biden has made some unfortunate decisions, such as supporting the initiation of the Iraq War, during his long political career. Regardless, he is who we have as president, and he is certainly far more thoughtful and rational than his predecessor. He may not be ideal, but we have no choice but to try to influence his nuclear policies in the direction of nuclear sanity. I think the most important thing that we could do is to challenge the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. If we can successfully do this, it opens the door to moving the U.S. to play a leadership role in seeking the abolition of all nuclear weapons, as it is required to do under the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Falk: I agree with all that you propose in your last response, and agree that those who favor denuclearization and the abolition of nuclear weaponry should suspend final judgment on whether Biden, once that the domestic challenges have been addressed, would seem responsive to some of the points of emphasis that you encourage. My supposition is that he is so much a product of the Cold War mentality that he will not be willing to question the continuing reliance on a deterrence role for nuclear weapons beyond adapting its delimitation to the present realities of political rivalry. His imaginary featuring an American-led global alliance of democratic states also presupposes deterrence to reassure allies such as Japan, South Korea, and others that the U.S. security umbrella remains trustworthy enough so that other governments will not feel a need for obtaining their own national nuclear option. In other words, deterrence and non-proliferation are tied together in what could be described as ‘a suicidal knot.’

I would add two issues to those you have proposed. First of all, I think it would be opportune to argue for either the good faith implementation of the NPT as interpreted by the ICJ Advisory Opinion in 1996 at least at the level of the majority decision, which called unanimously for adherence to Article VI of the treaty. This would have the advantage of putting not only the question of nuclear disarmament diplomacy at the top of the political agenda, but would also look toward a more general international obligation to seek the demilitarization of International relations more generally. It often forgotten that Article VI mandates ‘general and complete disarmament’ as well as ‘nuclear disarmament.’

If Biden refuses such a course of action, then it would be appropriate for non-nuclear states to threaten to withdraw from the NPT if compliance with Article VI is not forthcoming within two years. The movement for nuclear zero should make clear that the record of the nuclear weapons states has been to treat these Article VI requirements as ‘useful fictions’ rather than as an integral element in the treaty bargain between the nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear states. It would also be analytically helpful to make clear that NPT has been supplemented by an American-led geopolitical regime of ‘enforcement’ that denies certain states their Article X right of withdrawal, and as applied is relied upon to justify sanctions against North Korea and Iran, which constitute unlawful threats and uses force in circumstances other than self-defense, violating the core prohibition of the UN Charter set forth in Article 2(4).

In other words, the NPT was drafted to reflect an acceptance of a denuclearization agenda, but it has been geopolitically interpreted over its more than half century of existence from an arms control perspective that seeks to lower some costs and risks of nuclearism but implicitly rejects the treaty premise of denuclearization. We at the NAPF can contribute to vital public education by making this understanding clear, and demystifying the behavior of nuclear weapons states that rhetorically affirm denuclearization while operationally pursuing security in a manner consistent with the logic of nuclearism, including the retention of deterrence as an indispensable element. At the very least, the next NPT review conference tentatively rescheduled for August 2021 should examine adherence to Article VI in a systematic and high-profile manner, and perhaps the diplomatic practice surrounding Article X as well.

Closely related, is the status of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), with 86 signatories, which entered into force earlier in 2021 after the receipt by the UN of the 50thratification. The five permanent members of the Security Council have removed any doubt about their posture toward nuclear weaponry by issuing a joint statement opposing the philosophy underlying TPNW, and essentially opting for the benefits of deterrence, which would be lost if the comprehensive prohibition of all aspects of nuclearism were to be implemented. The anti-nuclear movement throughout the world, despite its many differences, should seek unity through supporting ratification by all sovereign states of TPNW, and most of all the nuclear weapons states. I would hope that an argument to the effect could be made, possibly by a widely circulated statement endorsed by a range of moral authority figures, from William Perry and Jerry Brown to Dan Ellsberg and David Krieger. It would lead, I believe, to a necessary national debate that would alert the public to the dangers of the present structure of nuclearism and point to the existence of a preferred alternative peaceful path to enhanced global security at reduced cost.

My final point is to suggest that we are now at the early stages of a major geopolitical reconfiguration of global relations. It seems likely that the near future will bring either a new form of bipolarity pitting the West against China, and possibly Russia, or an acceptance of coexistence among major states as the basis for multilateral problem-solving with respect to such global challenges as climate change, biodiversity, industrial agriculture and fishing, worldwide migration, and transnational crime. This kind of global cooperative order will not materialize if a regional confrontation in the South China Seas occurs between the U.S. and China, and especially not if nuclear weapons are threatened or used to avoid a U.S. defeat. Such a scenario, even if its occurrence is conjectural, is an added reason to deescalate frictions with China as a foreign policy priority. Martin Sherwin in his fine book, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (2021) convincingly documents his central finding that it was dumb luck that saved the world from a nuclear war occurring in the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Let’s at least learn to be prudent before our luck as a nation and species runs out.

Krieger: You add two treaties, one relatively old and one relatively new, to the set of options available to Biden that could lead to progress on nuclear abolition.  The older of the two treaties is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with its Article VI obligations of good faith negotiations to end the nuclear arms race at an early date, for nuclear disarmament, and for general and complete disarmament. Article VI was the quid pro quo for on the part of the nuclear weapons states for nonproliferation on the part of the non-nuclear weapon states.  It was never intended, at least by the non-nuclear weapon states, for the NPT to be the justification for setting up a permanent structure of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots,” and Article VI was the means by which the playing field would be leveled in achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.  The problem with Article VI is that it has never been pursued in any serious or sustained fashion by the nuclear weapons states.

When the parties to the NPT met in 1995 for a review and extension conference, 25 years after the treaty entered into force, it was already clear that the nuclear weapons states, and their allies under their nuclear umbrella, were not acting in good faith on Article VI.  Nonetheless, the nuclear weapons states and their allies argued for and achieved an indefinite extension of the treaty rather than a series of shorter extensions contingent upon progress on the Article VI obligation of good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.  I strongly agree with you that the public needs to be educated on the actual bargain of the NPT, and the behavior of the nuclear weapons states toward their end of the bargain needs to be demystified and exposed to public scrutiny.  It may be that Biden is too much of a cold warrior to play a leadership role on this, but we need to try to influence both him and the public under any circumstances.  The longer the Article VI obligations remain unfulfilled, the more likely it becomes that a bad nuclear outcome will ensue, by accident or design.  As I have said before, the nuclear status quo is akin to playing nuclear roulette with the gun pointed at the heart of humanity.

The second treaty you refer to, the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), is a relatively new treaty.  It is a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons, and was achieved as a result of a civil society campaign led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which lobbied and worked with non-nuclear weapon states to create and support the treaty.  The treaty was adopted by the United Nations in 2017, and entered into force on January 22, 2021.  The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation was one of some 500 member organizations in ICAN, and shared along with the other member organizations the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

You are certainly right that the nuclear weapons states have put on a full-court press to oppose this nuclear ban treaty, and therefore we must do all we can to educate the public on the existence and importance of the treaty.  If we could spark a national debate on the treaty, it could take us a long way toward changing attitudes about nuclear weapons and the need to abolish them before they abolish us.

Upon considerable reflection, it still remains hard to understand why weapons that could destroy civilization and possibly the human species have been so small a part of our national discussion, and the leadership of the country seems so reliant upon this weaponry.  Nuclear deterrence is not a shield; nor is it a reasonable justification for threatening or committing mass murder. It is a strategy that puts a target on every man, woman and child in the nuclear weapons states, with ripple effects endangering all of humanity.  Until these weapons are abolished we are all at risk of nuclear annihilation.  The leaders of the nuclear weapons states seem to have learned very little about nuclear dangers or risks over the decades since they were first used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Our luck has held since then, but such luck is not guaranteed to continue. There have been many close calls, many near nuclear disasters.

Biden may be, as you say, most comfortable as a cold warrior, but his compassion could move him to explore alternatives to nuclear deterrence, which could result in new hope to end the scourge that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and other forms of life.  There is still time to bring about change, moving us back from the precipice of annihilation, and this must serve as a source of hope.  Biden could take the all-important step of convening the leaders of the nuclear weapons states in a nuclear abolition summit to chart a path to move from the Nuclear Age to nuclear zero, to change the course of our nuclear future.  This would be a valuable step in fulfilling the obligations of Article VI of the NPT and could open the door to the nuclear weapons states and their allies joining the rest of the world in becoming parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. While this may seem like an improbable step at this time, stranger things have happened and it does have the potential of combining hope with logic and vision.

. David Krieger is President Emeritus of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Responses to an Iranian journalist, Javad Heiran-Nia Interview Questions on U.S. Elections (8 Oct 2020).]

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

  1. What is the most important issue affecting the upcoming US presidential election? (Economy; Foreign Policy; Domestic Policy; etc.)

For the voters in America the most important issues at this time are the (mis)management of the health crisis by Trump and the impact on the recovery of the U.S. economy. At this point there is a surge of criticism directed at the present U.S. leadership with respect to the Coronavirus pandemic: more infections and deaths per capita than almost any country in the world, intentional disregard of guidance by health specialists, dishonest and irresponsible reassurances, and economic relief favoring the rich and influential while understating the economic distress caused others by the loss of jobs, food insecurities, and threats of eviction. There is little interest, at least up to this point, in foreign policy with the single exception of international economic relations and geopolitical tensions with China. Both candidates for the presidency seem to adopt anti-Chinese positions, but Biden seems less militaristic and provocative than Trump. Biden refrains from blaming China for the virus, and seems somewhat less likely to embrace a strategy in East Asia that will lead to a second cold war.

For the peoples of the Middle East and elsewhere, the foreign policy implications of the elections assume greater importance. As with China, Trump seems more inclined than Biden to push the anti-Iran coalition of Israel, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia toward the brink of war, with the hope that the persistence of ‘maximum pressure’ will cause destabilization in Iran, and if possible, regime change. Biden would not likely change very much in terms of alignment, but might be expected to be more cautious in endorsing aggressive policies, and might even restore the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program negotiated toward the end of the Obama presidency. At the same time, Biden might be more inclined than Trump to push an anti-Russian approach that could take the form of regional and global confrontations, as well as arms races in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.  

One cost of such foreign policy initiatives is to weaken the attention given to challenges  that can only be solved by multilateral cooperation at a time when it is most needed, especially in relation to climate change, the control of nuclear weaponry, migration flows, and health issues. As noted above, Biden is much more likely to renew American support for ‘liberal internationalism’ than Trump, and can almost certainly be expected to do so unless geopolitically distracted.

There are other hot spots around the world that are capable of generating dangerous foreign policy crises, especially in relation to Korea or India/Pakistan.

2. Which candidate has the best chance of winning? (Trump or Biden)

As of now, it appears that Biden will win the election rather decisively, but in 2016 there existed a comparable clear outlook close to vote, reinforced by public opinion polls. It created a strong impression that Hillary Clinton would win easily over Donald Trump, a view almost universally shared by the media, and reportedly even by the Trump campaign. The American political mood is unstable, and could be influenced by developments in the coming weeks as the date of the election approaches that are supportive of Trump’s campaign for reelection as, for example, violent riots in American cities, a further surge in the financial markets, a crisis in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula. .

Additionally, there are a series of factors that sow doubt about present expectations of a Biden victory that go beyond which candidate will gain the most votess: first of all, Biden could win the popular vote by a wide margin, and yet lose the election because of the way in which the peculiar American institution of the Electoral College determines the outcome of presidential elections by counting the results on a federal state by state basis rather than nationally. This happened in 2016, Hillary Clinton winning by wide margins in New York and California, but losing close votes in such battleground states as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan. According to the Electoral College a candidate receives the same number of electoral votes assigned to a state if he wins by one vote or 10 million votes. The value of the vote in states where one party dominates, an individual vote becomes of diluted value, whereas if both parties are more or less of similar popularity, the value of an individual vote is inflated. The question posed is whether the Electoral College vote will again override the popular vote as it did in 2106.

Secondly, it is well known that Republican control of governments in the 50 states making up the U.S. has resulted in a variety of voter suppression schemes that make it harder to vote, and particularly affects African Americans and the very poor, making voting more difficult i cities and the rural South. Trump has also attacked mail-in voting as subject to mass fraud although the evidence in no way supports the accusation. Less votes are seen as helping Trump. Republicans are better organized and more disciplined than Democrats, although the Democrats have devoted great energy this year to getting out the vote.

Thirdly, Trump has intimated that he can only lose the election if it is has been ‘rigged’ by the Democrats. The reality seems to justify a different complaint that targets the Republicans. Much of the rigging that occurred in 2016 was attributable to Russia, and definitely worked in Trump’s favor, being intended to do so. Back then such partisan interference seemed welcomed by the Republican campaign, and likely would be again.  There are concerns that similar interferences might occur again this time around as Russia continues to prefer Trump to Biden, although there seems to be a greater effort in 2020 to insulate the election process from outside interferences, especially in relation to social media.

It is important to grasp a basic ideological feature of recent American elections of the presidency. Ever since the unified response to fascism during World War II the political parties have accepted a ‘bipartisan consensus’ that almost completely excludes certain crucial policy commitments from political controversy. The most important of these is overinvestment in the military, the predatory features of global capitalism, and so-called ‘special relationships’ with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and European alliance partners. This consensus held up throughout the Cold War, was sustained during the banner years of neoliberal globalization in the decade of the 1990s, and reinvigorated after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon after George W. Bush launched the war on terror, and Barack Obama continued it. 

Bernie Sanders challenged this consensus as it impacted upon policy discourse during his two campaigns to obtain the Democratic Party nomination, but his efforts were rejected by the party elite because he threatened the consensus, defied the ‘deep state,’ worried the Washington foreign policy establishment, and frightened the large private sector donors whose funding support depended on respecting the bipartisan consensus. In this sense, the Democrats successfully subordinated in their own party all radical elements that enjoyed movement support, especially among youth. The Republicans sidelined their moderate leadership, giving over control of the party to extremists that formed the base of Trump support. And so while the Democratic Party establishment neutralized the progressive Sanders’ challenge the Republican Party was radicalized from the right giving Trump control over all mechanism.

In part, it is this issue of party identity, and its relation to the governmental structures of power, that may be the most important effect of the November elections. If Biden wins, the bipartisan consensus is reaffirmed, while if Trump somehow prevails, the bipartisan will be further weakened, and even threatened by replacing the consensus with a right-wing policy agenda. If Biden loses, the consensus will be further discredited by its mistaken view that moving toward the political center is what wins election. What evidence exists by polls and other measurements of public opinion suggest that Sanders would have been a stronger candidate than Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020, but for reasons suggested above, adhering to the bipartisan consensus was more important or Democrats than winning elections. 

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Trumpism: What Will 2020 Bring?

8 Aug

Trumpism: What Will 2020 Bring?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

World Order and Covid-19 Pandemic

19 Apr

[PREFATORY NOTE: THE POST BELOW IS A SLIGHTLY MODIFIED TEXT OF AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY DANIEL FALCONE, AND PUBLISHED ON APRIL. 17, 2020 IN COUTERPUNCH.]

World Order and the Sars-Co2-Virus

 Daniel Falcone: Carlos Delclós, a sociologist based in Barcelona has highlighted the need for bottom up responses for social solidarity in Spain when compared to the unity declarations put forth by the monarchy. Further, journalist Ben Ehrenreich cites that while there are severe problems with the government, remnants of a democratic spirit and mutual aid keep optimism and hope alive within their system of universalized healthcare. Can you comment on the greater European response to pandemic?

 

Richard Falk: I am aware of the greater strength and role of cooperative movements in European countries, a residue of the socialist movements of the prior century, that give rise to more spontaneous approaches on local levels to immediate threats to well-being, exhibiting both less trust and less dependence on governmental undertakings.

 

Furthermore, European health systems are more evolved, fewer people left out, and more sense of public responsibility, although some deficiencies also emerged. Italy and Spain lacked sufficient governmental capabilities to cope humanely with the challenge of a pandemic, although the epicenter was initially in Lombardy, the richest part of the country.

 

Given the urbanization and social complexity accompanying modernity, the need for intelligent, imaginative, and humane governance is a necessity in times of societal crisis, and its absence magnifies suffering.

 

Daniel Falcone: The World Bank is reporting that Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a drastic economic downturn and the first in more than a couple of decades. Can you explain the unfolding in this region, which is fairly under reported by western democracies?

 

Richard FalkSub-Saharan Africa is still heavily dependent on the exports of resources rather than on the provision of services and high-end manufacturing, and as a result is exceedingly vulnerable to changes in the adverse terms of trade that arise whenever “deglobalization” trends are present. It would seem that the rise of ultra-nationalism, as highlighted by “Trumpist” economic nationalism, have negative impacts on sub-Saharan African development prospects.

 

 

Daniel Falcone: Recently, I spoke with John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus and he explained how the pandemic has impacted globalization in regards to a “slowbalization.” He has commented on additional dimensions of this elsewhere. Could you elaborate on the anti-globalization and ultra-nationalist worldview wave that autocrats around the world are riding currently? This looks as dangerous as the pandemic.

 

Richard Falk: There is no little doubt a rise of autocrats, elected and non-elected, in what seemed entrenched democracies (U.S., UK, India, Brazil), in faux democracies (Russia, Hungary, Egypt), and monarchies (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco). This authoritarian surge, which came initially as a surprise to most of us, superseded expectations associated with the end of the Cold War that were triumphantly interpreted as an ideological victory for the West and its values, and especially for the American political economy.

George H.W. Bush, president at the time of the Soviet collapse, proclaimed ‘a new world order’ in which the geopolitical hegemony of the U.S. now was unopposed, and would no longer be challenged in global arenas. This meant that the UN could function as intended on the basis of consensus in a world without ideological rivalry, which allowed the UN to sponsor the Iraq War of 1992 designed to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty by compelling Iraq to abandon conquest and annexation.

 

Then Bill Clinton came along promoting a foreign policy based on a doctrine of ‘enlargement,’ shorthand for predicting and promoting the spread of democracies. It was accompanied by the optimistic belief that an era of peace and prosperity would follow the further spread of democratically governed states. It was widely believed that democracies do not go to war against one another and capitalism is the best engine of growth the world has ever known. From such perspectives the post-Cold War world was envisioned as becoming increasingly both peaceful and prosperous.

Such a worldview was supportive of regime-changing interventions, especially in the Middle East, to get rid of the more strategically troublesome remnants of autocratic regimes and reflected the prevailing enthusiasm about the growth potential of neoliberal globalization, an approach long championed by the neoconservative movement.

 

To become operational such a policy outlook needed both the 9/11 attacks to re-securitize American foreign policy and the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush. The decisive test of this proactive outlook occurred in the Iraq War of 2003. Expressing this jubilant mood, Bush II introduced a government report on national security in 2002 with an assertion of faith in the singularity and superiority of the American form of governance that went largely unchallenged at the time. He contended that market-oriented constitutionalism (as exemplified by the USA) had demonstrated to the world that its form of democracy (elections plus capitalism) was the only legitimate way to organize the political life of a sovereign state in the new century.

 

So, the haunting question remains, ‘what went wrong’? The most obvious explanation rests on the alienating impacts of neoliberal globalization that seemed to heap its rewards on the very, very rich while leading to stagnation or worse for the multitudes.

 

This structural explanation of the rise of autocracy is certainly a large part of the story as predatory capitalism in this period gave rise to gross inequality on all levels of social order, symbolized by the 26 richest individuals controlling more than half of the world’s wealth. Another part of this story, less frequently acknowledged, is that the socialist alternative to capitalism was successfully discredited by falsely representing the Soviet political and economic failure as a decisive and sufficient test case of the viability of a socialist alternative.

 

This ideological supremacy of neoliberal capitalism facilitated two regressive developments: first, leading neoliberal globalization to privilege capital over people, or put differently, to choose economic efficiency over human well-being. Secondly, creating a political consciousness that fed the illusion that there were no tenable alternatives to the existing mode of political economy, completely ignoring the kind of autocratic state capitalism that flourished so remarkably in China in an ideological atmosphere that presented itself as fulfilling the hopes and dreams of socialism, experiencing a remarkable modernizing facelift under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping that had did not rest its claims on the virtues of democracy.

 

For most of the world, the Chinese phenomenon, while mesmerizing, was seen as not generalizable beyond China, or at least not beyond Asia. In such a setting there was a very unhealthy political situation—the dominant practices and policies of neoliberal globalization were not delivering material benefits to most people living in democratic societies, and the excesses of this stage of capitalism were left unchallenged, and hence unmitigated, by socialist challenges that had since Marx led the most adept masters of capital to seek accommodation with the laboring classes and create an image of an ethical capitalism that was inclusive of the great majority of people in their respective national societies.

 

With that humanistic imperative of ideological rivalry pushed aside, the path was cleared for the emergence of demagogues, and those who found scapegoats to blame for the widespread distress among the public, especially foreigners. This new kind of political appeal produces a blind kind of trust in the leader, however misleading the diagnosis, and feeds a nationalist frenzy at the very time that the world needs recognition of a cooperative global order to address such challenges as climate change. It is not without irony, that the U.S., which had long lectured the world on the many virtues of democracy, should voluntarily succumb to the autocratic ‘charms’ of Donald Trump.

 

It is notable to take account of the existence of some dissenters from ‘slowbalization,’ the most prominent is Richard Haass, former government official and currently President of the Council of Foreign Relations. He anticipates a recovery process that involves an ‘acceleration’ of pre-pandemic trends, including a concerted effort to restore the neoliberal world order with especial emphasis on its orientation toward limitless growth based on technological innovation and capital efficiency, but revamped in the precarious context of continuing American decline, which includes an absence of the kind leadership required to address global problems through multilateralism.

 

In the background of the Haass view of the post-pandemic world is an intensifying geopolitical rivalry producing conflict and increasing dangers of strategic warfare, presumably featuring a standoff between the U.S. and China.

Henry Kissinger, a stalwart of the triumphalist outlook that followed the Soviet collapse, is more hopeful than Haass, projecting the period after the pandemic subsides as a call for the reassertion of robust American leadership on the global policy stage. He believes that the openness of trade and the transnational mobility of people depend on the renewal of confidence in the neoliberal world order that proved so successful after World War II, and was constructed on the basis of Enlightenment values emphasizing the fusion of political stability, confidence in science and technology, and market-driven economic growth

 

In the background of the restoration of the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ is the ecological illiteracy of supposing that maximizing economic growth via globalization, or otherwise, can proceed without respect for the limits on carrying capacity of the earth. Frank Snowden, the widely respected expert on epidemiology in an illuminating interview (Il Manifesto, Global Edition, April 11, 2020) suggesting that COVID-19 virus and earlier flu epidemics (SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian flu) can all be traced to zoonotic transfers of the virus from animals to humans, expressing spillovers that he argues are bound to occur when animal habitats are encroached upon by spreading urbanization and industrialization.

 

A more reconstructive post-pandemic approach would strive for ‘a new normal,’ which combined the health imperative of sensible preparedness and universal coverage with an ecological sophistication that sought to mitigate inequalities among peoples and societies by addressing poverty as a health issue, including the recognition that diseases are more lethal in relation to vulnerable peoples, who suffer as victims and victimize others by becoming agents of contagion.

Daniel Falcone: After the dust settles from the pandemic, if it does, can you attempt a forecast of how global powers will align or realign?

Dealignment’ is more likely than ‘realignment.’ I am assuming here that either that the nationalist retreat from neoliberal globalization will continue or there will be strong moves, hard to forecast, in the direction of regional and global cooperation in key sectors of policy, with international institutions given important coordinating roles. In either alternative alliance, diplomacy seems not likely to reemerge in any manner comparable to what it was in the prior century. Trump has already significantly weakened the Western alliance structure, and except for the forays of “coercive diplomacy” contra Iran (in concert with Saudi Arabia, Israel), seems to have adopted a unilateralist foreign policy course supplemented by transactional bilateralism in which the interaction seeks win/lose outcomes based on hard power disparities.

 

Reverting to Haass and Kisssinger, it is worth noting that the pessimistic assessments of Haass are explicitly linked to his anticipation of the post-pandemic world order as resembling what happened in the decades after World War I, that is, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and a second world war. Kissinger, although habitually associated with a fatalistic view of the international scene, somehow strikes more hopeful notes by advocating and somewhat anticipating a post-pandemic recovery that resembles the dynamics of world order following World War II with the U.S. playing its former leadership role by recognizing the opportunities and needs for a more cooperative approach to global problems.

 

Daniel Falcone: Are there any chances for United States reform at a local or even an institutional level that can offset the political capital maintained by autocrats both here and around the world? Are we in fact, a “failed state?”

You raise an interesting question. A response must start with the disappointing observation that the 2020 election is between Trump and Biden, a familiar political figure who shaped his career around the bipartisan Cold War consensus of militarism, neoliberalism, and pro-Israeli absolutism. This orientation is what I have called elsewhere ‘the three pillars of American foreign policy’ that only Sanders dared challenge (and paid the price) as one sees what was done to his frontrunner status by the guardians of the established order. Sanders’ response that he lost the primary campaign, but his movement will go on fighting, is suggestive of the gap between the establishment world of political parties and his movement consisting of various societal domains of people that seems openly hostile to the bipartisan consensus, the deep state, and the special interest lobbies that continue to dominate not only the governing process, but also the electoral process

What is worth noticing is that even Trump despite his bombastic claims during the 2016 presidential campaign has as president paid his dues to the bipartisanship in foreign policy with his enlarged military budget, tax cuts for the richest and rollback of regulatory interferences with predatory capitalism, and the greenest light ever given to Israeli expansionism and one-statism. His only halfhearted departure from bipartisanship has been the downplaying of Euro-American alliance geopolitics.

Possibly, the autocratic edge of American politics would be dulled by a Biden presidency by more moderate judicial appointments and some effort to address gross inequalities, student debt, infrastructure, and an improved health system that encompasses the whole society. Yet, it would seem absurd to expect more from Biden, given that his principal message is ideational, a promise to restore national unity by reaching out so far as to include so-called ‘moderate’ Romney Republicans, who have never struck me as moderate except in comparison to their alt-right Republican leadership of the Trump era.

Biden’s unity message is also code language for restoring the bipartisan consensus in an overt form that would counter some of the ultra-nationalist retreat from globalization. In foreign policy we could expect a shift in tone from ‘America First’ to ‘NATO First’ as a way of differentiating his approach from that of Trump and of reaffirming faith in the Western alliance as once again the centerpiece of American foreign policy. It would be foolhardy to expect Biden after a centrist lifetime political career to pursue a progressive social and ecological agenda, yet without such an agenda we can be thankful to Biden for ending the reign of Trump while renewing our severe worries about the social and ecological shortcomings of the American governance experience given 21st century urgencies.

 

 

Dumping Sanders: A Provocation

6 Mar

Dumping Sanders: A Provocation

 

I suppose it was all over after the Biden blowout victory in South Carolina, inducing the leading remaining ‘never Sanders’ moderates, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, to drop out of the race for the Democratic Party nomination. Biden’s dominance on Super Tuesday sealed the deal, and adding one more to his extravagant array of futile gestures, Bloomberg could withdraw with satisfaction as his anti-Sanders dirty work had been completed by others. It now seems like there will be no brokered Democrat Convention in Milwaukee, as Biden is almost certain to earn majority support well before the opening gavel is pounded, avoiding the embarrassment of handing the Sanders’ assassination dagger to the superdelegates. Wall Street emitted a giant sigh of relief registering a gain of more than 800 points on the Dow, and even forgetting about COVID-19, at least, for an interval of 24 hours.

 

The evasive rationalization by many faux moderates is that the swing toward Biden was based on electability, and as Bloomberg explained, Biden had ‘the best shot’ to beat Trump. Never a word about those polls that gave Sanders the nod in the November faceoff. For those more sophisticated, who realized that the electability issue was cloudy and that Biden seemed at best the winner of a race to the bottom, stress a shift to governability concerns, that is, even if Sanders were to push Trump off his throne, he would be stymied once he arrived at the White House, never able to get anything done for the American people, as he supposedly would remain an alien outsider even for Democrats. Ultra-establishment stalwarts like Tom Friedman, whose unsurprising first choice for the nomination was the stop-and-frisk billionaire, painted a grotesque picture of Sanders being so slaughtered by a Trump landslide that all branches of government, including both houses of Congress, would be under the thumb of a reelected Trump, which while not as bad for such ‘thinkers’ as the prospect of a Sanders’ presidency, is to be avoided if at all possible. If that is not enough, Americans were reminded over and over again that the last time the Democrats nominated as an outsider, George McGovern, he was crushed by a consummate insider, Richard Nixon, who unlike Trump slid off the impeachment block by resigning, not trusting a more conscientious Senate to let him stay in the Oval Office he did so much to discredit.

 

Sanders is a threat, not only to portfolio (stocks & bonds) Democrats, but also to the super-glue that has manged this three-pillar foreign policy consensus that has held up through many international twists and turns ever since 1945. To the surprise of many insiders it did not lose much ground during four years of Trump’s disruptive and narcissistic style of leadership, and with Sanders all but beaten, its adherents in and out of government can again breathe easily regardless of who wins in November. Trump was barely tolerated at first but became tolerable in the end, including to most denizens of the deep state, because in his own idiosyncratic tweeting style he upheld the three pillars. Indeed, if considered closely, Trump even added to their ideological hegemony and policy realization: he celebrated and strengthened the military without wasting lives and trillions in failed wars; his policies propelled the stock market to record highs, while keeping employment high while lowering taxes on the rich; and he pushed Israel’s maximal agenda to a point that probably exceeded Sheldon Adelson’s wildest dreams, confronting Palestinians with a surrender ultimatum, while giving Netanyahu at least as much as he sought on a series of sensitive issues. What worry about Trump lingers along the corridors of power is no longer about ideology, but about fears that his personality disorders might one day erupt with catastrophic fury. There are genuine secondary concerns about Trump held especially by more traditional Republicans, including his dog whistles to white racists, contempt for NATO, loving embraces of brutal autocrats, Iran warmongering, wall-building, cutting to the bone benefits to the poor, along with the most wretched Supreme Court appointments of all time. This is what makes portfolio Democrats more or less comfortable with Biden as an alternative to Trump. Most such Democrats, along with the Party establishment, sincerely believe it crucial to rid of Trump as his craziness might any day turn apocalyptic. While Trump represents the worst of America, he turns out for a plurality of the citizenry to be not as bad after all as Sanders confirming that class and portfolio issues are the bottom line with electorate, with a bit of demagoguery thrown in to please the alienated underclass.

 And what of Sanders who wants health care and education to be treated as public goods, who favors cuts in the military budget, and might create programs that would produce inflation, deficits, and higher taxes for the rich? Is the progressive populist base strong and disciplined enough to get the job done? It doesn’t seem so, although for most Americans Sanders’ policies would be highly beneficial, and well worth operationalizing, although it would somewhat weaken each of the three pillars. If today’s view holds, as now seems a near certainty, darkness will descend even assuming, what is far from assured, that Biden will win on Election Day. Even Biden’s most reluctant supporters do not feel that way. They are mostly cheered by the fact that Biden is not Trump. Beyond this, many feel confident Biden can steer the American ship of state toward calmer waters while making them comfortable by reenchanting the bipartisan worldview that Trump also affirmed, but without his diversionary and unconstitutional pyrotechnics. And if Biden should fall to Trump next November, there will be regrets and there will be many moans and tears among portfolio Democrats, but no tears will be shed on behalf of Sanders even if the evidence demonstrates that he would likel have been a stronger candidate than Biden. Quite the contrary. Blame for Biden’s defeat will angrily focus on die hard Sanders supporters who stayed home rather than vote or had the banal audacity to exercise their democratic prerogative by voting for a third party candidate.

 

The media labels for the various candidates accentuate the distorted mainstream dialogue. The Democratic primary struggle was not really between moderates and progressives, at least when it comes to foreign policy. There is no moderation among the ‘moderates,’ and Sanders was the only true moderate. His positions while threatening to the guardians of the three pillars really advocated rather mild reforms—small cuts in the military, modest tax increases on the richest among us, and some small moves toward balancing partisanship on Israel/Palestine with calls for accountability by Israel and empathy for Palestine. This is not the stuff of revolution. It strikes me as a truly moderate reformist agenda, and even Sanders’ domestic agenda, which is indeed progressive, is in the spirit of Scandinavian democratic socialism, light years away from the Soviet model of socialism, much less a communist state.

 

And as for Trump, he does project as immoderate worldview, but more as a matter of style than substance. His domestic policies seem mean-spirited and divisive, while his foreign policy seems somewhat innovative, casting China in the role that Bidenites would assign mainly to Russia. Both Biden and Trump seem to see the world through a geopolitical lens that stresses hard power rivalries among principal states, putting the 9/11 counterterrorist preoccupation to one side, although this could change quickly with one large incident. Biden might be slightly more internationalist that Trump, but I would be astounded if he would do anything as provocative (and appropriate) as moving the American Embassy now in Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, an act that would show both policy discontinuity with the Trump presidency and respect for the UN consensus.  

 

Those critics who bemoan living in a choiceless democracy, best conceived as a plutocracy, will feel vindicated, while pragmatic liberals who are either content with the three pillars or only give attention to the domestic agenda will also feel encouraged if Biden prevails although possibly expressing slight disappointment that Sanders and Warren were so abruptly swept aside. I will be surprised if there is solidarity on the more progressive side, which would have meant an earlier withdrawal by Warren coupled with a strong endorsement of Sanders. Given what has happened in recent days, I expect Warren to play her remaining cards astutely, which would mean withholding any endorsement of Biden while campaigning hard against Trump and treating Sanders as a lost cause by not endorsing his candidacy, and thereby keeping her future options open by signaling a willingness to accommodate the DNC and the Democratic Party Establishment.  

 

Choosing a Candidate: Elizabeth Warren for President!

14 Jun

 

[Prefatory Note: I have had several second thoughts since posting ‘Are the Democrats in a Race to the Bottom’? I continue to worry about the disunity of anti-Trump America, and its danger of giving Americans, and indeed the world, four more years of cruel and dangerous governance almost certain to erode the quality of democracy for decades, but there are several major caveats that qualify this anti-Trump priority.

 

Above all, the realization that both parties have affirmed an unhealthy war-mongering approach to Middle East politics, including unconditional support for special relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia that overlook, if not being complicit with the criminal wrongdoing of both governments. As well, the Democratic Party establishment still obsessively seeks to push the anti-Russian line in extremist directions that risk a second more volatile Cold War. Those who speak on behalf of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) also are clearly unready to repudiate the predatory capitalism of neoliberal globalization that flourished since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This predatory behavior since the end of the Cold War underscores the practical insight that capitalism grows extremely abusive and detached from human wellbeing when not challenged by a socialist alternative as endorsed by a sizable proportion of working people. Long before the political tragedy of Trumpism, the overwhelming majority of the American people were being exploited and politically pacified by the bipartisan embrace of Wall Street Economics, which is humanly as detrimental to the society as is the persisting bipartisan embrace of militarism. Unfortunately, the eight years of the Obama presidency, admirable in some ways, did little to challenge these two deadly pillars of the bipartisan consensus that emerged after 1945.

 

I seize the moment to praise Bernie Sanders’ speech at George Washington University calling for the establishment of a new Economic Bill of Rights with six levels of promised specific action under his chosen rubric of ‘democratic socialism.’ As Sanders rightly shows, there is a practice that goes back a century demonizing all steps forward on behalf of the American people as ‘socialism,’ which was used to block FDR’s New Deal reforms during the Great Depression. Sanders invokes the New Deal and the legacy of FDR to insist that this is the most authentic and progressive form of American political leadership, and its absence from recent governance trends is what has alienated, enraged, confused, and disempowered many American citizens contributing to the. vulnerability that brought us Trump and Trumpism in the United States, and even elsewhere.

 

Nevertheless, on reflection, despite my liking and endorsement of Sanders’ central message, I am changing my rank ordering of preferential candidates. mainly by now singling out Elizabeth Warren as my first choice, at least for now. She is showing herself to be an improved campaigner, consistent in values and outlook, setting forth a rich offering of progressive programs in key areas of voter concerns. She also is someone that has demonstrated the ability to get things done while serving in the Senate. Warren comes across as a voice of intelligent, trustworthy, and compassionate concern that avoids any superfluous ideologizing of her political agenda.

 

In light of this hard choice, I relegate Sanders to my second tier of preferred candidates, and add to that group Pete Buttigeig, an oversight on my part in the earlier post. He deserves to be there, more or less for the same reasons as Obama deserved to become president in 2008. He is intelligent, informed, fluent, youthfully sympathetic, and has already taken brave steps toward the kind of leadership America needs by presenting himself as a gay man happily married to another gay man. My revised second tier list now is Sanders, Buttigeig, O’Rourke, Harris, Gabbard, Bennet, and Inslee, with still a few days left for Sherrod Brown to enter the fray. This strikes me as a good list of viable candidates, although I expect the further stages of the campaign to select a nominee will highlight individual strengths and weaknesses not presently apparent. This will undoubtedly alter these rankings in both directions.

 

My other change of heart since the earlier post, is to worry less that Biden will somehow maintain his frontrunner status. Having observed Bidenin action, I have become more confident that he will self-destruct, or at least remove himself from the running. I share the view that the Biden of today, having suffered personal losses that enlarge moral sensibilities and having been pushed to reconsider some of his past policies, and even behavior, is a wiser, more humane person than the opportunistic politico of past years, and yet that does not make him qualified to be president of this complex country at its most perilous time since the American Civil War, maybe even more perilous because of the global setting.

 

In light of these considerations, I am reposting my earlier blog with a new title more responsive to the central issue. I have not done this before, but I think the issues are of sufficient importance to make an exception. I also underscore my rejection of the view that because there are serious concerns about the underpinnings of the Democratic Party, the outcome of the 2020 election is inconsequential, making it a waste of time even to vote. I believe electing a Democrat, anyone on the list, including unlisted third tier candidates would be a dramatic step in the right direction—on economic and social policy, climate change, appointment of Federal judges, women’s rights, public debate and relations with foreign governments.

 

 

We should not at this critical juncture give up on democracy even in the face of its seriously deficient functioning. As Europeans found out in the 1930s, fascism is far worse! Such a view does not invalidate the imperative need for radical restorative reforms if we want to make democracy a progressive reality with respect to the 21stCentury array of challenges, especially the blending of the economic and ecological spheres in sustainable and equitable local, national, regional, and global linkages. Let’s become aware that sustainability with justice is unsustainable.In my view the best way to move down this benevolent path at the moment is to nominate, and then elect, Elizabeth Warren as the next American president.]

 

 

Choosing a  Presidential Candidate: Elizabeth Warren for President!

 

I have had several recent conversations with friends about the 2020 election who preface their assessment with this liberal sentiment—‘I am in favor of whoever has the best chance of beating Trump.’ I respond meekly with a question, guessing in advance their likely response. My words: ‘Where does that lead you?’ and my guess is depressingly accurate. His or her words: ‘I think that Joe Biden is the only one who can beat Trump.’  Or in more pessimistic responses: ‘Biden has the best chance of winning.’

 

I feel depressed with this assessment, or at odds with it, for two reasons: first, I doubt that Biden is a stronger candidate than was Hillary Clinton in 2016, although he might do a bit better with disaffected Midwestern workers and older voters, but likely worse with others. My other reason for being a Biden doubter is more substantive. How can I in good faith and with any enthusiasm support a candidate with such an awful record when it comes to women’s rights, racism, Wall Street, and American militarism (including even support for the Iraq War in 2003). Although Biden has been tacking left and apologizing for some of this past in the last few weeks, one has to wonder what sort of national leader he would be other than not-Trump, to which I would ask, ‘have our expectations fallen this low?’

 

Already, happily, Biden’s frontrunner status is beginning to erode rapid. Name recognition is good to get a veteran politician out of the gate, but as the race itself commences, substance and political magnetism matter more and more. The Trump taunt ‘Sleepy Joe’ may be unkind or even unfair, but it catches something unnerving about the persona Biden projects. I do not envy Biden the challenge of debating Trump should he gain the nomination, and I would be surprised if he were successful. Trump has greater clarity in his delivery, and more punch and style in his swing. If I were a cagey Republican strategist I would do all in my power to exhibit fear of a Biden candidacy precisely because he would likely be a pushover.

 

There is something else about a Biden candidacy that will surely alienate the folks backing Sanders, and likely some of the others among the more progressive candidates. Selecting Biden would represent the DNC and the Democratic Party Establishment as again lining up behind a candidate that is an organization man rather than a political leader with progressive passions and consistent views. Biden, whether reasonably or not, will be perceived by the body politic as Clinton redux. Isn’t it time to let the American people decide, and not the donors with the deepest pockets or the bipartisan congeries of special interests? A Biden presidency would waste no time restoring the Cold War bipartisan consensus, which will probably mean confrontational geopolitics with Russia and China, as well as threatened and actual interventions in the Middle East.

 

In this sense, should we not be patient, allowing the candidates to achieve a rank ordering on the basis of their performance on the hustings? It is difficult to get a sufficient read on the whole field, but a few stand out in my mind, sufficiently for me to believe they could deal effectively with Trump and yet not be disillusioning to people like myself. I think mostly favorably of Sanders, Warren, O’Rourke, Bennet, Inslee, Gabbard, and maybe even Harris.

 

I do not dissent from the view that Democrats are much more likely to prevail in the elections If they find a unifying candidate. At present, despite the large field none of those seeking the nomination, including Biden, or Sanders or Warren for that matter, seems a credible unifier. For this reason, it may still yet be beneficial for Sherrod Brown to come in from the cold, reconsidering his decision not to run. I feel that Brown by his record and his outlook to have the potential to be that much needed unifier with the added bonus of coming from Ohio, a state that could quite possibly decide who will be the next president of this now troubled country.

 

I personally prefer Warren or Sanders because of their integrity and programs, but I recognize for a variety of reasons neither will be an anti-Trump unifier due to ideological reasons. Many rich and elite Democrats reject candidates who are strident in their attacks on Wall Street, inequality, free trade, and militarism, and seek the bromide of a Biden type candidate. Just because such an approach failed in 2016 is no reason for such folks, so it seems, not to try again. I felt this sentiment as informing the pro-Biden advocacy of some of my friends that I mentioned above, feelings disguised a bit by claiming that Biden had the best chance of dislodging Trump.

 

For now, I support Sanders and Warren, not as a joint ticket, but as alternatives for the top spot. Despite my deep disillusionment with the behavior of American democracy in this period, as evidenced by the

inexplicable loyalty of the Trump base or the implacable failure to protect our citizenry by the kind of gun control that exists in other comparable societies or the refusal of the Democratic leadership in Congress to begin impeachment proceedings or a hundred other causes of my discontent, I still feel that such principled candidates not only offer a brighter future for the society but that they would be probable winners. This forthcoming electoral struggle is almost certain to dominate the American political imagination in the year ahead, and determine whether as a nation we recover hope or flounder in despair.

 

And should these preferred candidates fall by the wayside, then I would place a long odds desperate bet on a resurrected Sherrod Brown, but this will not even be an option if the man offstage waits much longer before stepping forth.

 

If we do end up with Biden as Trump’s opponent, what then? I think we

should defer such an unpleasant conversation until the reality is upon us, which I am optimistic enough to believe will be never.  

 

Are the Democrats in a Race to the Bottom?

11 Jun

Are the Democrats in a Race to the Bottom?

 

I have had several recent conversations with friends about the 2020 election who preface their assessment with this liberal sentiment—‘I am in favor of whoever has the best chance of beating Trump.’ I respond meekly with a question, guessing in advance their likely response. My words: ‘Where does that lead you?’ and my guess is depressingly accurate. His or her words: ‘I think that Joe Biden is the only one who can beat Trump.’  Or in more pessimistic versions of the same response: ‘Biden has the best chance of winning.’

 

I feel depressed with this assessment, or at odds with it, for two reasons: first, I doubt that Biden is a stronger candidate than was Hillary Clinton in 2016, although he might do a bit better with disaffected Midwestern workers and older voters, but likely worse with others. My other reason for being a Biden doubter is more substantive. How can I in good faith and with any enthusiasm support a candidate with such an awful record when it comes to women’s rights, racism, Wall Street, and American militarism (including even support for the Iraq War in 2003). Although Biden has been tacking left and apologizing for some of this past in the last few weeks, one has to wonder what sort of national leader he would be other than not-Trump, to which I would ask, ‘have our expectations fallen this low?’

 

Already, happily, Biden’s frontrunner status is beginning to erode rapid. Name recognition is good to get a veteran politician out of the gate, but as the race itself commences, substance and political magnetism matter more and more. The Trump taunt ‘Sleepy Joe’ may be unkind or even unfair, but it catches something unnerving about the persona Biden projects. I do not envy Biden the challenge of debating Trump should he gain the nomination, and I would be surprised if he were successful. Trump has greater clarity in his delivery, and more punch and style in his swing. If I were a cagey Republican strategist I would do all in my power to exhibit fear of a Biden candidacy precisely because he would likely be a pushover.

 

There is something else about a Biden candidacy that will surely alienate the folks backing Sanders, and likely some of the others among the more progressive candidates. Selecting Biden would represent the DNC and the Democratic Party Establishment as again lining up behind a candidate that is an organization man rather than a political leader with progressive passions and consistent views. Biden, whether reasonably or not, will be perceived by the body politic as Clinton redux. Isn’t it time to let the American people decide, and not the donors with the deepest pockets or the bipartisan congeries of special interests? A Biden presidency would waste no time restoring the Cold War bipartisan consensus, which will probably mean confrontational geopolitics with Russia and China, as well as threatened and actual interventions in the  Middle East.

 

In this sense, should we not be patient, allowing the candidates to achieve a rank ordering on the basis of their performance on the hustings? It is difficult to get a sufficient read on the whole field, but a few stand out in my mind, sufficiently for me to believe they could deal effectively with Trump and yet not be disillusioning to people like myself. I think mostly favorably of Sanders, Warren, O’Rourke, Bennet, Inslee, Gabbard, and maybe even Harris.

 

I do not dissent from the view that Democrats are much more likely to prevail in the elections If they find a unifying candidate. At present, despite the large field none of those seeking the nomination, including Biden, or Sanders or Warren for that matter, seems a credible unifier. For this reason, it may still yet be beneficial for Sherrod Brown to come in from the cold, reconsidering his decision not to run. I feel that Brown by his record and his outlook to have the potential to be that much needed unifier with the added bonus of coming from Ohio, a state that could quite possibly decide who will be the next president of this now troubled country.

 

I personally prefer Warren or Sanders because of their integrity and programs, but I recognize for a variety of reasons neither will be an anti-Trump unifier due to ideological reasons. Many rich and elite Democrats reject candidates who are strident in their attacks on Wall Street, inequality, free trade, and militarism, and seek the bromide of a Biden type candidate. Just because such an approach failed in 2016 is no reason for such folks, so it seems, not to try again. I felt this sentiment as informing the pro-Biden advocacy of some of my friends that I mentioned above, feelings disguised a bit by claiming that Biden had the best chance of dislodging Trump.

 

For now, I support Sanders and Warren, not as a joint ticket, but as alternatives for the top spot. Despite my deep disillusionment with the behavior of American democracy in this period, as evidenced by the

inexplicable loyalty of the Trump base or the implacable failure to protect our citizenry by the kind of gun control that exists in other comparable societies or the refusal of the Democratic leadership in Congress to begin impeachment proceedings or a hundred other causes of my discontent, I still feel that such principled candidates not only offer a brighter future for the society but that they would be probable winners. This forthcoming electoral struggle is almost certain to dominate the American political imagination in the year ahead, and determine whether as a nation we recover hope or flounder in despair.

 

And should these preferred candidates fall by the wayside, then I would place a long odds desperate bet on a resurrected Sherrod Brown, but this will not even be an option if the man offstage waits much longer before stepping forth.

 

If we do end up with Biden as Trump’s opponent, what then? I think we

should defer such an unpleasant conversation until the reality is upon us, which I am optimistic enough to believe will be never.