Tag Archives: geopolitics

What Makes Ukraine Different than Serbia? Why Kosovo? Why not Dombas?

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The post below is adapted from responses to questions addressed me to Stasa Salacanin of New Arab on September 14, 2022. My responses here are somewhat modified and greatly expanded.] 

Defying Serbian Territorial Sovereignty in Kosovo, Upholding Ukrainian

Territorial Sovereignty in the Dombas Region

  1. Would you agree that the repeating incidents and crises speak to the great limitation of the EU and the West, which seem to have long lost their sense of direction for a solution, offering no incentives or tangible promises to any of the Western Balkan states, especially when it comes to exact dates and full membership in the EU?

My sense is that EU has never made Western Balkan stability, security, rights of self-determination,  and EU membership for its component peoples a high priority. The Western Balkan states have been approached in a transactional mode by the EU rather than in the spirit of regional and civilizational community.

The Kosovo Exception was motivated by other political considerations than the wellbeing and wishes of the Albanian majority Kosovars, the rationale for humanitarian intervention in 1999 that masked the pursuit of strategic interests of the intervening coalition of states. These interests include establishing the viability of NATO after the end of the Cold Wars and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the lingering liberal sense of guilt associated with the failure to react effectively to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 combined with concerns that it could be repeated in Kosovo. Such a prospect was felt to be a betrayal of the European ‘never again’ pledge made subsequent to the Holocaust, as well as expressive of a general hostility to Serbia and its leader.

At the time Noam Chomsky usefully called attention to the double standards characteristic of such Western undertakings by labeling the Kosovo War as an instance of ‘military humanism.’ After this post-Cold War revitalization of NATO, the liberal elites of the West sought a terminology to legitimize non-defensive uses of force that would conform superficially to the ethos of a post-colonial world. This ethos was particularly sensitive to ‘interventions’ claims overriding ‘territorial sovereignty.’

After Kosovo was ‘liberated’ from its captive status in Serbia, an elite search was underway to reconcile such uses of force with behavior that was neither defensive nor authorized by the UN Security Council. The most satisfactory normative solution turned to involve scrapping the language of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and substituting a less abrasive verbal alternative that would justify such action. The best formula was found in the 2001 report of the Canadian initiative, International Commission on State Sovereignty, which proposed the adoption of a norm mandating a ‘responsibility to protect,’ or R2P. In 2005 R2P was accepted as a framework for the exercise of international responsibility by the UN, and as necessary upholding humanitarian justifications for the use of force to protect basic rights. R2P was invoked by NATO members of the Security Council in 20ll in its call for the imposition of a No Fly Zone with the mission of protecting the civilian population of Benghazi from the alleged threat of approaching Libyan armed forces, Several countries (not only China and Russia, but India, Brazil, and Germany) were opposed to armed intervention, yet succumbed to the more modest sounding claim to establish a defensive No Fly Zone in relation to one city in Libya. resulting in a vote on SC Res. 1970, March 17, 2011. This resolution was supported by 10 states, opposed by none, with five abstentions. 

The implementation of the mission in 2011 was delegated to NATO, with the U.S. in Obama’s words, ‘leading from behind.’ The limits imposed by the SC in its authorization of the undertaking went unheeded. and the actual operation from its outset seemed clearly designed to achieve regime-change. At the very start of military operations the use of force, especially from the air, was greatly expanded beyond what the abstaining states thought they were authorizing by abstaining from the vote in the Security Council. In effect, R2P turned out to be a diplomatic device to give cover to military humanism, but this time clouded by an ambiguous stamp of approval by the UN. The result was to lower the level of trust among members of the Security Council, making further subsequent requests by Western members for UN authorizations of force more problematic as was illustrated by the standoffs during the Syrian Civil War of the prior decade.

The other facet of the Chomsky critique concerning double standards is also pertinent. In the Kosovo instance Chomsky illustrated his assessment by reference to the plight of the Kurdish minority, especially in Turkey. In relation to the Libyan intervention, there are many instances of geopolitical detachment, most notably the failure to authorize, or even propose, the implementation in relation to the Palestinian people, long denied their basic rights and periodically exposed to massive military operations by Israel, especially to the two million Palestinian civilians locked up in Gaza by an unrelenting military blockade that has existed since 2007.

It would be important to contextualize the Russian intervention in Ukraine in relation to the well-documented plight of the Russian-oriented minority in the Dombas region. Of course, this Ukraine Crisis is compounded by the complexity of the objectives sought by both sides. Russia seeking to establish its traditional spheres of influence lost at the time of the Soviet collapse and challenge what is perceived by Moscow (and elsewhere) as the American-led aftermath of the Cold War in the form of a Western-oriented hegemonic unipolarity. The United States, and a compliant Europe, regard the Russian aggression as a challenge to the global security arrangements it has presided over since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. wants to inflict defeat on Russia, claim some credit for defending Ukraine, signal China that challenging unipolarity is self-destructive.

  • Do you think that the so-called normalization process-advocated by the EU, and the US and which foresees the step-by-step establishment of a functional relationship between Belgrade and Pristina will eventually lead to mutual recognition of two states Kosovo and Serbia, will succeed in the current situation, (and given to similar challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also with conflict in Ukraine)?

Each conflict of this character, stressing the rights of aggrieved distinct peoples within the borders of an internationally recognized state, raises a general issue of the integrity and territorial rights of existing sovereign states versus the scope of rights of self-determination. The interpretation of policy options in each case is highly influenced by the overall strategic context and only secondarily by legal rights and moral principle. Overall, geopolitics plays a decisive role in high profile instances where strategic interests and ethnic identifications are at the core of the tensions. This is the only way to understand the contradictory Western presentations of Kosovo on the one side, and Donbas on the other side. In one instance, the claims of an existing state to the integrity of its borders is set aside due to the supposed primacy of humanitarian concerns, while in the other it is upheld, in both instances by NATO/US intervention in support of the national government and at the expense of the separatist claims and human rights of a captive minority. 

  • Is the situation in Kosovo comparable with the conflict in Ukraine (especially regarding Crimea and Donbas, where the West in one case supports the territorial integrity of the state and condemns the invasion of Ukrainea while in another case supports the secession/self-determination and while justifying the international (regional) intervention/aggresssion/occupation of Kosovo? Their arguments have not been convincing. Russia as well as China, Serbia have not missed a chance to remind the collective West about their double standards (and the fact that approximately half of UN members (as well as 5 EU members, still do not recognize Kosovo).

Comparability is a matter of interpreting the broader context of the conflict, and often is shaped by the eye of the beholder. There was a Euro-American readiness in the Kosovo case to take punitive action against Serbia given the background of its political and cultural affinities with Russia, while in the Ukraine the anti-Russian central government in Kyiv enjoys unconditional Western backing, including participation in the deliberately provocative conduct of the decade preceding the Russian attack . Double standards are pervasive and responsible for grave injustices to some captive peoples, and not only in Europe. The blind eye turned toward denials of the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people in what had been their own country of Palestine represents a flagrant example of international double standards. The Zionist Project to establish a Jewish state in Palestine was enacted over the course of more than a century. It resulted in the establishment of a settle colonial regime that maintains Jewish supremacy through the imposition of an apartheid regime of discriminatory and exploitative control. Palestine as a site of injustice is notable, although far from being the only such instance of prolonged denial of basic rights (Western Sahara, Kashmir). Palestine is, however, uniquely linked to the UN through its succession to the British Mandate. By the acceptance of responsibility by the UN in 1947 for finding a peaceful solution between contradictory claims of the Palestinian resident population and the Jewish post-Holocaust Zionist Movement this struggle more than any other since 1945 has dramatized the weakness of the UN in face of strong geopolitical resistance.

The situation in Ukraine resembles Kosovo in the sense that the UN cannot be mobilized by the West due to the right of veto enjoyed Russia and China. As a consequence, the UN Charter restrictions on the use of force are put aside to varying degrees by both Russian and the U.S. The struggle will be finally resolved by the costs and risks these two geopolitical actors are willing to incur over time. The people of Ukraine are being victimized by the apparent refusal of either side to end the killing and turn to diplomacy in the hope of finding a diplomatic compromise. Having drawn the geopolitical lines of battle so starkly, the devastating Ukraine War is likely to be prolonged at the expense of the Ukrainian people. The question of whether post-1989 unipolarity is confirmed or yields ground to the multipolar challengers is likely to determine the flow of history for at least the decade ahead. These high geopolitical stakes are bad news for the Ukrainian people, and seems not to be understood by their Kyiv leaders so that mitigating steps might be independently taken, and diplomacy initiated between Ukraine and Russia, hoping that Moscow might be willing to put aside its geopolitical ambitions and restore peace and security on its border.

Is it Time to Stop Bullying Iran? Washington Should Restore the Nuclear Program Agreement with Iran Now

4 Sep

[Prefatory Note: A somewhat modified text of an article published by COUNTERPUNCH on Sept. 2, 2022. I recommend CP highly for anyone seeking to follow the best quality progressive commentary on global issues; also, follow Transcend Media Service (TMS) for a more global, academic, and cultural orientation heavily influenced by the pioneering work of Johan Galtung in the area of peace studies broadly conceived).

In the post below I call particular attention to the fact that the relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons unregulated weapons capabilities and regional militarism has been totally overlooked in assessing the negotiations on whether the U.S. should rejoin the JCPOA, which Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018, reviving the agreement. Israel’s influence on the nature of the bargain reached for renewal and the side benefits that it will receive as ‘compensation’ for overriding its faux opposition to the agreement as articulated by its leading political figures. It illustrates the distortion of global policy debates whenever the domestic politics of the U.S. are entangled with the way an issue is resolved even sometimes, as here, at the cost of maximizing national interests.]To Renew or Not to Renew the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement, That is the Question

Photograph Source: United States Department of State – Public Domain

The Road Not Taken

After two weeks in Iran during latter part of January 1979, the height of the revolutionary movement against the dynastic, autocratic rule of Mohammed Reza Shah, I had the opportunity for an extended conversation with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his tent where he received foreign visitors and journalists during his final days in Paris. This was the individual who would serve as uncontested Iranian leader, officially the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran until his death in 1989.

I was accompanied at the meeting by Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General and major progressive personality at the time in the United States and Don Luce, a prominent and courageous anti-war religiously oriented activist who gained worldwide fame in 1970 by departing from a prescribed tour route to expose a visiting delegation of U.S. Congress members to the notorious ‘tiger cages’ in Con Son Prison in Saigon, a major facility in South Vietnam that had become a repeated focus of severe torture allegations. During our time together in Iran we met many religious leaders and secular supporters of the popular uprising, individuals who would soon be running the government. We witnessed extraordinary displays of mass popular excitement in the country and anxious sighs of disbelief that greeted the news that the Shah had abdicated the Peacock Throne, and as it turned out, leaving Iran never to return.

There are many aspects of this meeting that are worth recalling but one stands out for me as having current relevance more than 43 years later. Immediately after greetings were exchanged, Ayatollah Khomeini carefully posed a question to us that seemed uppermost in his mind, more so than any of the topics covered in the ensuing two hours or so of questions and answers, with the three of us raising most of the questions. But the Ayatollah’s question came first, and it turned out to be the one where our words of response earned the full attention of this religious leader: “Do we think that the U.S. Government will repeat its intervention of 1953 that overthrew a popularly elected government and restored the Shah as Iran’s dynastic leader?” Later Ayatollah Khomeini confided that he had “only entered politics because there was a river of blood between the ruler and the people of Iran.”

We each responded along these lines: “Of course, we could not know for sure how Washington will act, but we believed the U.S. had learned some lessons from the past, including the awkwardness of supporting coups that brought to power repressive leaders while professing to lead ‘the free world’ against Communism and Soviet expansionism. We also stressed the recent failure of intervention in Vietnam and the apparent strength and unity of the movement that overthrew the Shah, as well as our impressions of the Iranian military as beset by divided loyalties, as well as institutionally weakened by the Shah’s own distrust of the leadership of the armed forces.”

We also called to the attention of the Ayatollah, on the basis of our meeting a few days earlier in Tehran with the American Ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, who told us that he had forwarded repeated similar assessments to the White House, and a supposedly liberal president, Jimmy Carter, that the movement against the Shah’s government enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Iranian people and that even the leadership of the Iranian armed force was resigned to the acceptance of the political outcome. On this basis, Sullivan recommended an immediate and urgent  U.S. Government effort to reassure the leaders of the Iranian revolutionary movement that it sought normal and positive relations with whatever government emerged in Iran during the ensuing weeks.

Ayatollah Khomeini was a formidable presence, pondered our comments, and slowly responded in almost these exact words, “If what you are telling us is accurate, and comes to pass, then we have no objection to the Shah coming to the U.S. or elsewhere for medical treatment, and we can have normal relations with your country.” Of course, this road was not the path taken by either country, which has resulted in enormous adverse consequences for Iran and the Middle East as a whole, with distorting effects that have been playing out over the intervening decades, which are shamelessly generating skepticism and propaganda about the U.S. rejoining the JCPOA, thus setting the stage for another phase of dangerous outcomes whether the Iran Nuclear Agreement is restored or not in 2022.

There were already present some worrisome signs back in 1979 that made such an exploratory attempt to accept this dramatic internal display of the human rights of all peoples to self-determination unlikely to materialize without generating geopolitical friction. The U.S. National Security Advisor at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, strongly favored a commitment to once again restore the Shah to his throne, and had a strong influence on President Carter’s thinking, which was given priority over Sullivan’s strong advice based on his direct knowledge of the realities in Iran.

Meanwhile, in Iran there were some strong words being uttered by militants about the revolutionary intentions of Iran extending to the whole of the Islamic world, and especially the Gulf monarchies, which sent strategic chills down the backs of Western foreign policy elites extremely sensitive in those days to any further strategic threats to Gulf oil reserves. In the background was Israel aware of the pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist leadership emerging in Tehran, which set off loud alarms in reaction to some anti-Zionist rhetoric of the more militant leaders in the early period of the Islamic Republic. In any event, normalization between the two countries was not to be, however much sense it made with respect to peace, security, and self-determination back then and now.

Lines from a much quoted poem by Robert Frost are worth reflecting upon given this exchange of views more than 43 years ago.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Recontextualizing Nonproliferation for Some, Nuclearism for Others

Restoring JCPOA through Negotiations.

It needs to be emphasized that Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 JCPOA and reimposed punitive sanctions (‘maximum pressure’) on Iran that inflicted many hardships on the civilian population despite the fact that Iran had been in full compliance with the terms of the agreement up through 2018 as confirmed by IAEA periodic inspections. It appears that Trump was induced by his ardent Zionist son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and leaders in Israel, especially the Prime Minister at the time, Bibi Netanyahu. Trump seemed thus persuaded to denounce the agreement as a terrible deal from a security perspective, providing a justification for U.S. withdrawal, but seemed no more than a pragmatic rationalization to cover a calculated political move. Not irrelevant, although further in the background is the powerful Iranian expatriate presence in the United States that has not given up on restoring secular rule in Iran, and views any kind of normalizing of relations with Iran to be ‘appeasement.’ Consider the recent shrill declaration to this effect by the eldest son of the autocratic Shah:

  • “This shift to appeasement was never going to solve any of the world’s issues with the Islamic Republic. The regime’s problem with the West is the West’s very existence, which obstructs its path to a global caliphate.” Reza Pahlavi, eldest son of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2022.

In the drawn-out Vienna negotiations on restoring the agreement the U.S. has been under constant public pressure from Israel and the Gulf monarchies to extract concessions from Iran bearing on matters outside the scope of the nuclear agreement. It would seem more plausible for the U.S. Government to have been confronted by demands from Iran for reparations for the harm it experienced by restoring, and intensifying, the sanctions since 2018. This bad faith behavior of the U.S. sets a dreadful precedent for the reliability of non-treaty international commitments. The fact that Iran has been prepared to go along with such a one-sided negotiating format undoubtedly reflects their motivation to gain relief from sanctions, and may also reinforce the sincerity of Iran’s continuing declared intention never to acquire nuclear weapons. Building trust in international relations presupposes mutual good faith adherence to carefully negotiated arrangements. At the very least, Biden should have humbly apologized to Iran for the disruptive 2018 withdrawal, and despite his legal inability to bind future presidents, he might have regained some higher ground by pledging to respect the agreements for as long as he remains president, and more rapidly moved to end sanctions once the agreement was restored.

It is worth comparing the extravagant language of the August 14th Biden-Lapid Joint Jerusalem Declaration of Strategic Partnership in which Biden not only affirmed a long-term U.S. commitment, audaciously proclaiming it as ‘bipartisan’ even ‘sacrosanct.’ The following language deserves scrutiny in light of the Vienna impasse::

“Consistent with the longstanding security relationship between the United States and Israel and the unshakable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, and especially to the maintenance of its qualitative military edge, the United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself   by itself against any threat or combination of threats. The United States  further reiterates that these commitments are bipartisan and sacrosanct, and that they are not only moral commitments, but also strategic  commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.’

Confirming Israel’s Nuclear Hegemony in the Middle East.

It has been completely ignored by the Western media that Iran has made a huge concession when it entered the Obama promoted Nuclear Agreement in 2015 (JCPOA) without an insistence that Israel simultaneously commit to destroying  its arsenal of nuclear weapons. As the agreement was negotiated, at least in public, there were no assurances required of Israel, not even something as intangible as requiring Israel to issue a No First Use Declaration. It was to be expected that Israel and the United States would remain silent about solidifying Western control of the region, and especially the signature feature of the ‘strategic partnership,’ the. crux of which is retaining sole possession of the ultimate weapon of destructive violence. Yet Israel, in particular, seems empowered enough to insist on receiving firm assurances that the U.S. would prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons by all means necessary (again without drawing into question Israel’s retention of such weapons without any disclosure of its intentions with respect to threat or use). The language of commitment in the Jerusalem Declaration puts the U.S. in the position of committing itself to a use of force without any hint of or apparent need for a further legal authorization. Again the language of the Jerusalem Declaration is important:

“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.”

Even this was apparently not enough for Israeli security hawks who wanted the pledge to pertain to any perceived steps toward acquisition.

Such an explicit bilateral strategic commitment as contained in the Jerusalem Declaration seems to overlook Iran’s completely valid legal and political option, if it wishes to rely upon it, to withdraw from the NPT, which it is entitled to do under Article X(1) of the treaty:

‘1. Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall    include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”

Given Israel’s threats, its nuclear capabilities, its strategic partnership with the U.S., withdrawal would seem an entirely reasonable course of action for Iran to take. If deterrence can serve as a security justification under the NPT, it would seem few states in the world could make as strong a case as Iran.

Taking Nonproliferation Seriously. 

There is a further consideration. If the United States were taking the ethos of nonproliferation seriously it would be concentrating on denuclearizing the Middle East as a region rather than acting to preserve Israel nuclear hegemony. The obvious way to achieve such a result would be to support the negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone together with a non-aggression security framework. All states except for Israel have supported such an initiative, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. It would be a breakthrough for peace and security, besides freeing billions for more constructive uses.

The NPT regime is not the best path to non-use of the weaponry in a state-centric world. The NPT, however, it may be best path if the true geopolitical objective is to retain oligopolistic control over nuclear weapons. Phased disarmament within a treaty framework is the only promising path if the overriding objective is to achieve a world free from this infernal weaponry.

A start in this benevolent direction has been made in the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) negotiated under UN auspices and coming into force in 2021. But to gain political traction sufficient to provide a post-nuclear security framework it require to receive the support of the current nine nuclear weapons states. None have so far become Parties to TPNW, and the three NATO nuclear weapons states, the U.S., France, and the UK, along with Russia have issued statements expressing their principled opposition and unconditional rejection of a disarmament approach, despite its promise of total nonproliferation.

A Concluding Remark

If we are destined to live with nuclear weapons, we may have to endure the nuclear hegemony of the P-5, but to use the NPT ethos to justify discriminatory treatment of a non-nuclear state such as Iran seem to be an extremely regressive geopolitical undertaking. For this reason alone, people of good will should hope for the unconditional renewal of the JCPOA. It is time for the morally attuned public to awake to the reality that a nuclear Israel has neither a security justification nor political grounds for its posture of continuing bullying of Iran. To complain about Iran’s political solidarity with some movements in the region as Israel does is gross hypocrisy. It pales in its gravity compared if fairly to the U.S. and Israel’s discretionary bombing, political assassinations, interventions, and violations of the basic sovereign rights of countries in the Middle East..

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.

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.  

This Geopolitical War is a ‘Geopolitical Crime’

9 Apr

[Prefatory Note: This post was earlier published on April 9, 2022 in a somewhat modified form in CounterPunch with the title “Why Ukraine?” Please read the last paragraph to make sense of the title.]

There is no doubt that atrocities have been committed in Ukraine, seemingly yet not exclusively by Russian attacking forces, and in a perfect world those who so acted would be held responsible. But the world is highly imperfect when it comes to accountability for international crimes. When the International Criminal Court in 2020 found it had authority to investigate alleged crimes committed by Israel in Occupied Palestine after painstaking delays to make sure that their inquiry would meet the highest standard of legal professionalism, the decision was called ‘pure anti-Semitism’ by the Israeli prime minister, and defiantly rejected by Israeli leaders across the whole political spectrum. Similarly, when authorization was given by the ICC to investigate crimes by the United States in Afghanistan, the decision was denounced as void and unwarranted because the U.S. was not a party to the Rome Statute governing the operations of the ICC. The Trump presidency went so far as to express its outrage by imposing personal sanctions on the ICC prosecutor, presumably for daring to challenge the U.S. in such a manner even though her behavior was entirely respectful of her professional role and consistent with relevant canons of judicial practice.

Against such a background, there is a typical liberal quandary when faced with clear criminality on one side and pure geopolitical hypocrisy on the other side. Was it desirable after World War II to prosecute surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders at the ‘legal’ cost of overlooking the criminality of the victors because there was no disposition to investigate the dropping of atom bombs on Japanese cities or the strategic bombing of civilian habitats in Germany and Japan? I am far from sure about what is better from the perspective of either developing a global rule of law or inducing respect for the restraints of law. The essence of law is treating equals equally, but world order is not so constituted. As suggested, there is ‘victors’ justice’ imposing accountability on the defeated leadership in major wars but complete non-accountability for the crimes of the geopolitical winners. Beyond this, the UN Charter was drafted in ways that gave a constitutional status to geopolitical impunity by granting these victors in World War II an unconditional right of veto, and this of course includes Russia. In these respects, liberalism defers to geopolitical realism, and celebrate the one-sided imposition of legality, with the naïve hope things will be different in the future, and the next group of victors will themselves accept the same legal standards of accountability are imposed upon the losers. Yet the post-Nuremberg record shows that geopolitical actors go on treating restraints on recourse to war as a matter of discretion (what American liberals called ‘wars of choice’ in the course of the debate about embarking upon a regime-changing attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003) rather than an obligation. When it comes to accountability double standards are still operative, illustrated by the ironic execution of Saddam Hussein for war crimes in the wake of a war of aggression against Iraq.

Another lingering question is ‘why Ukraine’? There have been other horrific events in the period since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Palestine yet no comparable clamor in the West for criminal justice and punitive action. Certainly, a part of the explanation is that the Ukrainian victims of abuse are white, European, Christian, which made it easy for the West to mobilize the mainstream global media and by the related international prominence accorded to Volodimir Zelensky, the embattled, energetic Ukrainian leader given unprecedented access to the most influential venues on the global stages of world opinion. It is not that the empathy for Ukraine or support for Zelensky’s national resistance is misplaced, but that it has the appearance of being geopolitically orchestrated and manipulated in ways that other desperate national situations were not, and thus give rise to suspicions about other, darker motives.

This is worrisome because these magnified concerns have acted as a principal way that the NATO West has gone out of its way to make the Ukrainian War about more than Ukraine. The wider war is best understood as occurring on two levels: a traditional war between the invading forces of Russia and the resisting forces of Ukraine as intertwined with an encompassing geopolitical war between the U.S. and Russia. It is the prosecution of this latter war that presents the more profound danger to world peace, a danger that has been largely obscured or assessed as a mere extension of the Russia/Ukraine confrontation. Biden has consistently struck a militarist, demonizing, and confrontational note in the geopolitical war, deliberately antagonizing Putin while quite pointedly neglecting diplomacy as the obvious way to stop the killing, and atrocities, in effect, encouraging the war on the ground to be prolonged because its continuation is indispensable in relation to the implicitly higher stakes of grand strategy, which is the core preoccupation of a geopolitical war. When Biden repeatedly calls Putin a war criminal who should face prosecution, and even more so, when he proposes regime change in Russia, he is cheerleading for the Ukrainian War to continue as long as it takes to produce a victory, and not be content with a ceasefire.

If this two-level perception is correctly analyzed in its appreciation of the different actors with contradictory priorities, then it becomes crucial to understand that in the geopolitical war the U.S. is the aggressor as much as in the traditional war on the ground Russia is the aggressor. In these respects, despite his understandable anger and grief, one must wonder whether even Zelensky with Russo-phobic echoing of war crimes allegations and calls for the expulsion of Russian from the UN, has not had his arm twisted so as to support the geopolitical war despite its premises being contrary to the interests of the Ukrainian people.

Could the delivery of weapons and financial assistance to Ukraine come with a large price tag?

So far, the geopolitical war has been waged as a war of ideological aggression backed up by weapons supplies and enveloping sanctions designed to have a great a crippling effect on Russia. This tactic has led Putin to make counter-threats, including warnings about Russia’s willingness under certain conditions to have recourse to nuclear weapons. This normalizing of the nuclear danger is itself a menacing development in a context of an autocratic leader backed into a corner. The U.S. approach, while mindful of escalation dangers and taking steps so far to avoid direct military involvement on behalf of Ukraine, shows no rush to end the fighting, apparently believing that Russia is already suffering the consequences of greatly underestimating Ukrainian will and capability to resist, and will be forced to acknowledge a humiliating defeat if the war goes on, which would have the strategic benefit additional to other incentives, of discouraging China from aligning with Russia in the future.

Additionally, the Western architects of this geopolitical war with Russia seem to assess gains and losses through a militarist optic, being grossly insensitive to its disastrous economic spillover effects, especially pronounced in relation to food and energy security in the already extremely stress conditions of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, and even Europe. As Fred Bergsten argues, the overall stability of the world economy is also being put at great risk unless the U.S. and China overcome their own tense relationship, and come to understand that their cooperation is the only check on a deep, costly, and prolonged world economic collapse.

The geopolitical war also distracts attention from the urgent agenda of climate change, especially in light of recent indicators of global warning causing climate experts to be further alarmed. Other matter of global concern including migration, biodiversity, poverty, apartheid are being again relegated to the back burners of global policy challenge, while the sociopathic game of Armageddon Roulette is being played without taking species wellbeing and survival into account, continuing the lethal recklessness that began the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima more than 75 years ago.

In concluding, the question ‘why Ukraine?’ calls for answers. The standard answer of reverse racism, moral hypocrisy, and Western narrative control is not wrong but significantly incomplete if it does not include the geopolitical war that while not now directly responsible for Ukrainian suffering is from other perspective more dangerous and destructive than that awful traditional war. This geopolitical war of ‘poor’ choice is now being waged mainly by means of hostile propaganda, but also weapons and supplies while not killing directly outside of Ukraine. This second war, so rarely identified much less assessed, is irresponsibly menacing the wellbeing of tens of millions of civilians around the world while arms dealers, post-conflict construction companies, and civilian and uniformed militarists exult. To be provocative, I would it is time for the peace movement to make sure that US loses this geopolitical war! To win it, even persisting with it, would constitute a grave ‘geopolitical crime.’

The Ukraine War: A Geopolitical Perspective

12 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat modified version of a talk on March 9th, 2022 at a session of the Global Studies Colloquium, UCSB, convened by Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse. I regret not having a transcript as a series of challenging questions followed my remarks, including several participants in Europe. COVID has made transnational dialogue much more of a common and enriching feature of intellectual activity on university campuses.]

The Ukraine War: A Geopolitical Perspective

When we agreed on a theme for my presentation, we were in a pre-Ukraine world. In the interim developments in Ukraine, including the imprudent US-led provocations, Russian aggression against a sovereign state producing a severe humanitarian crisis in a country of over 44 million people, the confrontational Western response by way of sanctions and a surging Russophobia, producing a win/lose calculus rather than striving for partial win/win political outcomes, which I would identify as restoring respect for Ukrainian sovereign rights (ceasefire, Russian orderly w/drawal; reconstruction assistance; emergency humanitarian aid) coupled with a commitment by Ukraine to never join NATO or allow Western troops or weaponry to be deployed on its soil, as well as a commitment to allow self-government in Eastern Ukraine and the protection of human rights in Donbas region in accord with the reinvigoration of the Minsk Agreements of 2014-15. The West’s refusal to practice win/win diplomacy is suggestive of an absence of political and moral imagination at a time in world history when the resources and energies of the world need to be dedicated to global problem-solving as never before, and not be diverted by geopolitical dramas of the kind that has been tragically unfolding in Ukraine since February 24th.

Geopolitics is often invoked vaguely and abstractly, frequently given diverse meaning, and thus needs to be explained. Geopolitics is most usefully understood as referencing the behavior of dominant states, what used to be called Great Powers. There is a confusion embedded in IR, which generally refers to a state-centric world order based on juridical equality as exemplified by international law, and has been recently mystified in the political discourse of the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. This high official insists that U.S. foreign policy adheres to the restraints of a rule-governed international order, while that of its rivals, China and Russia, does not, and that for him makes all the difference. In actuality, the reality of geopolitics is most manifest in war/peace or international security contexts where all Great Powers throughout the world history of several centuries privilege their strategic priorities over adherence to rules or norms of general application.

At the end of World War II there were basically two geopolitical actors—US & USSR. Additionally, through the strength of Winston Churchill’s personality and the vitality of the trans-Atlantic alliance, UK was treated as a third geopolitical actor. France was later added as a courtesy urged by Churchill to avoid Britain enduring the loneliness of being the predominant colonial power. China as the most populous country and the sole representative of the Global South was the final state admitted to this exclusive club of geopolitical actors, who not only became the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, but were also the first five countries to develop and possess nuclear weapons.

Franklin Roosevelt exerted American influence, backed by Stalin, to ensure that the United Nations would be established in a manner that took account of the institutional failures of the League of Nations that had been brought into existence after World War I to keep the peace. FDR attributed the failure of the League as arising from its Westphalian state-centric framing of authority. Instead of juridical equality as the dominant organizing principle, Roosevelt favored the establishment of a hybrid institution: geopolitical primacy for the Security Council endowed with sole authority to reach and implement, if necessary by force, binding decisions; Westphalian statism was relied upon to legitimate claims of authority in the GA and rest of UN System, yet limited in its efforts to influence behavior to advisory and recommendatory authority that has turned out have had inconsequential impacts in relation to the most pressing items on the global policy agenda.

Additional support for hybridity came from the Soviet Union that sought not only Permanent Membership in the SC but structural assurances that it would not be victimized by a tyranny of the majority composed of anti-Communist Western-leaning countries. Soviet concerns were set forth as part of the justification for granting a right of veto to the permanent five. The central idea was to frame the peace and security priorities of the new UN in a manner that clearer ample space political space for the practice of geopolitics within the four walls of the Organization. It is not surprising that this accommodation of geopolitics produced an impasse at the UN, approaching political paralysis during the Cold War. It also perversely meant that the P-5 were constitutionally empowered to opt out of compliance with international law whenever their strategic interests so decreed by simply casting a veto blocking a SC decision.

It should be noted that a quite differerent approach was taken in the economic sphere of the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and IMF where Western primacy for market economies was achieved by weighted voting and leadership traditions proportionally based on capital contributions. Such a capitalist consensus did indeed lead to a rule-based international liberal order, which contrasted with the contested ideological combat zone of post-1945 geopolitics. [Ikenberry; WTO added later]

Roosevelt’s vision of the UN was vindicated to some extent by achieving and maintaining universality of membership throughout the entirety of the Cold War. Providing a comfort zone for geopolitics did overcome one of the principal procedural weaknesses of the state-centric League. The League suffered from non-participation (US), withdrawal (USSR), and expulsion (Germany), arguably the most important international actors between the two world wars.

The most hopeful part of FDR’s hopes to the UN proved irrelevant and naïve. Roosevelt was hopeful that the of countries with diverse ideologies that had cooperated so effectively in responding to the fascist challenge in the war would extend their alliance to peacetime. He believed, or maybe just hoped, that the victors in World War II would take on the less onerous challenges of peacetime. In retrospect, it seems clear that those who led the peace diplomacy after World War II underestimated the intensity of antagonistic geopolitical ambitions that had been temporarily subdued to address the common threat posed by fascism, and that the removal of that threat made possible the resumption of fierce geopolitical rivalry between the two military superpowers.

The Cold War, despite its periodic crises, proxy wars, and arms races managed to avoid a third world war by producing a relatively stable geopolitical balance of power based on two  principal elements: deterrence (mutual assured destruction) and respect for each other’s spheres of influence. The risks of war during this period arose over different perceptions of respective degrees of control over spheres of influence as in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the interplay of nationalisms and ideological affinities in the three divided countries of Korea and Vietnam that led to horribly destructive proxy wars and Germany that produced recurrent crises that endangered peace in scary ways. War prevention was more successful in Europe where respective spheres of influence accepted hostile interventions by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and more subtly by the U.S. in Western Europe

What might be called ‘the geopolitics of peace’ during the Cold War reflected patterns of assertion and restraint that reflected the prevailing geopolitical structure: the presence of nuclear weapons, and the collapse of European colonialism. The structural reality of the Cold War period was captured by a militarist understanding of geopolitics in the nuclear age, and by the imaginary of ‘bipolarity.’ Such abstractions unless elaborated obscures the role of geopolitical leadership, internal cohesion and governance, and perceptions of the adversary. Yet ‘bipolarity’ gives a more instructive view of geopolitics than does an emphasis on the P-5 in the UN setting, and has prevailed in the academic IR literature.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led what the right-wing neoconservatives in the U.S. heralded as the onset of ‘a unipolar moment,’ which meant that the logic of balance and deterrence no longer applied, especially in conflicts within the spheres of influence bordering on China and Russia. Balance was replaced by the logic of dominance and asymmetry. A triumphalist atmosphere emerged in the US during the 1990s conveyed by such phrases as ‘the end of history,’ ‘the second American century,’ ‘the doctrine of enlargement,’ and ‘democracy promotion.’ No longer was geopolitics conceived largely in regional terms, but rather as a global undertaking of a single political actor, the United States, the first truly ‘global state’ whose security zone encompassed the planet.

But there were problems with operationalizing a Monroe Doctrine for the world: the potency of nationalist resistance neutralizing over time the impact of military superiority enjoyed by the intervening geopolitical actor, a revision of the balance of forces as between intervenors and national sites of struggle recently evident in Iraq and Afghanistan; the fact that China’s challenge was not primarily military, and thus could not be ‘deterred’ by force alone; the growing Russian resentment at being hemmed in and threatened by the geopolitical acrobatics of unipolarity.

One further observation of a conceptual nature: world order is constituted by two normative logics: a geopolitical logic based on inequality of states and a juridical logic based on their equality. For relations based on equality, international law provides a framework; for those based on inequality, strategic priorities including war avoidance underpin action. Bipolarity proved to be relatively resilient, unipolarity turned out to be dysfunctional, producing massive human suffering, widespread devastation and human displacement while frustrating the pursuit and attainment of geopolitical goals.

Before the Ukraine crisis, there seemed to be forming a new geopolitical configuration based on somewhat different patterns of alignment: ‘containment’ was being resurrected in relation to China and focusing on the defense of South Asia, including the islands, with a less Euro-centric alliance on both sides. Instead of NATO v Warsaw Pact there is the relations of US, India, UK, and Australia. Russia seemed to be replacing East Europe as the principal ally or partner of China suggesting a new phase of bipolarity and the onset of a second cold war.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine drastically challenged that playbill, or so it now seems. He had previously pledged ‘the end of the unipolar world,’ and seemed to mean this primarily in relation to the Russian sphere of influence along its Western borders, starting with Ukraine. Such a geopolitical approach is running into some comparable obstacles to those encountered by the US with respect to unipolarity. China is placed in an awkward position of conflicting priorities, balancing U.S. encroachments and hegemonic geopolitics, yet uphold the sanctity of territorial sovereignty, the major premise of Westphalian world order.

One can conjecture that if a diplomatic solution is soon found for Ukraine, the Sino-Russian defensive geopolitics will revive. The Trump factor cannot be discounted in the near future, and with it a return to a geopolitical realignment scheme that was friendlier to Russia and more economistic in character, viewing China as the more troublesome rival of the U.S. from the perspective of trade, investment, and technological innovation.

What seems clear is that the 30-year aftermath of the Cold War is ending amid the ruins and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. What comes next depends on many factors, including the impingement of unmet global challenges not previously prominent on geopolitical agendas, yet posing dire threats to the future stability of planetary political, economic, and ecological arrangements if not treated as matters of urgency.

The UN after 75: What Next?

6 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of a text published in TMS (Transcend Media Service) on 5 October 2021. It assesses the record of the UN over the decades on the basis of its constitutional design, its operational experience, and the gap between UN capabilities and the global need for dramatically enhanced human solidarity mechanisms.]

Worthy, Worthless, and Harmful

I was recently a guest on a TV show that had as its theme “UN: Worthy or Worthless?” It struck me as a misleading question as the UN for its first 75 years was in different settings worthy and worthless, or actually worse than worthless. It was worthless, or almost so, if the appraisal if based either on the war prevention/prohibition of aggression master norm of the UN Charter or the stirring familiar words of commitment at the beginning of the Charter Preamble: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” Such a pledge could be called almost worthless, especially its apparent grant of agency to ‘peoples’ on such grave matters of state as recourse to war, as well as by purporting to have substituted a global rule of law for war as a social institution and to have displaced the primacy of geopolitics. The implication that the strong as well as the weak were to held accountable for a peaceful resolution of conflicts or for transgressions of fundamental legal norms was pure dream talk as became obvious even by only reading beyond the Preamble to the Charter text. Yet this pretense of reaching for the stars is far from the whole UN story.

To begin with, the UN didn’t ever seriously aim as high as the words of the Preamble would lead one to believe. The UN was primarily hoped to become a lasting presence on the global stage, and this it has accomplished. The Organization managed to induce nearly every country on the planet to join, and afterwards value its membership sufficiently to stay involved during the decades of Cold War high tension that produced deep splits in world politics. It is impossible to assess whether establishing and maintaining this arena providing many venues for diplomatic contact between adversaries had a significant moderating effect on conflict that helped save humanity from a catastrophic third world war that likely would have been fought with nuclear weapons. But unlike the League of Nations the fate of UN was not decided before it was even tested by aggression and war. The original champion of the League, the United States, refused to join. This stuck a heavy blow to the birthing process of the League, whose reputation was further seriously undermined by the subsequent withdrawals of such important member states as Germany and Japan, with many others following for a variety of reasons.

By contrast, the UN has achieved and maintained a universality of participation that confirms the beliefs prevailing even among the most cynical political leaderships among national governments that it is more advantageous to be active within the UN than to rely on going it alone. Understanding why this has become so, even among detractors of internationalism as is the case with virtually the entire political class of foreign policy advisors in P-5 states who continue see global issues through the anachronistic optic of ‘political realism.’ Such realists see the UN as a useful enough foreign policy tool to retain, so long as it does not encroach on the domain of vital national interests. The UN’s survival and usefulness is a partly a result of Members and high-level UN civil servants understanding and respecting the strong constaints on its effective authority.

Framing Faustian Bargains

This mild, but indispensable governmental backing of the UN probably occurred because the Organization was deliberately designed by its founders to entail an unconditional surrender to the machinations of geopolitics. First, and foremost, by constitutional design the UN gave the winners in World War II permanent membership and a right of veto in the Security Council the only organ of the UN with authority to reach obligatory decisions. In effect, this was an acknowledgement that the UN had neither the authority nor the intention of overriding the political will of these five permanent members, and would have to live with or without their discretionary adherence to Charter norms and procedures, especially in the domain of international peace and security, and behavioral patterns based on self-restraint and prudence. Such hopes of voluntary compliance were not entirely in vain, but often seemed so, particularly at times of geopolitical confrontation, perhaps most memorably during the Cuban Missile Crisis( 1962). Catastrophic adversity was avoided throughout the Cold War mostly by good luck, although some would give credit to doctrines of mutual deterrence and the related fear factor arising from rival arsenals of nuclear weapons poised to launch missiles if attacked. The UN was usually on the sidelines anxiously watching international crises unfold, reconciled to its role as a virtual spectator, or at most, a helpless commentator. [See definitive exploration of this assertion in Martin Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, (2021)] In other words, the UN by its constitutional framework and its operational reality defers to the most dangerous states in the world as signified by hard power capabilities. This affinity between hard power capabilities and P-5 status was reinforced by the fact that the five permanent members of the Security Council were also the first five countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

The second rationale for this hierarchy of membership in 1945 was to make a maximum effort to avoid a repetition of the League experience. From this perspective it was imperative to keep major states involved as active participants even if discontented with what the UN was doing in specific contexts. In practical effect, this meant mostly persuading the Soviet Union that it was in its interest to belong as in the early UN experience the Soviet Union was consistently outvoted on central peace and security issues. Franklin Roosevelt most notably was of the opinion that the UN would fare better than the League if geopolitical ambitions and rivalry were given recognition and free space within the Organization rather than being carried on by non-Members acting on their own in the unruly jungle of world politics. FDR also naively believed that the anti-fascist alliance that held firm throughout World War II would stay together to assure the peace.

The Soviet Union came to a dramatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining participation when its absence from the Security Council in 1950 due to a temporary protest against the refusal of the UN to recognize the Chinese Peoples Republic as representing China meant that it lost the opportunity to veto the Council decision to condemn North Korean aggression and give its blessing to the action by Western governments to join in the operations of collective self-defense on behalf of South Korea. The Soviets reacted by immediately reoccupying their seat in the Security Council and never again made such a tactical mistake. It is significant that what they didn’t do was to threaten or actually withdraw.

In a sense, this deference to geopolitics involved a pair of Faustian Bargains. In both instances, the UN refrained from its inception to make any serious attempt to impose its authority on geopolitical actors, which introduced a gaping right of exception into all Security Council proceedings. It is mostly the operational reality of this concession to hard power that leads many in the public and media to the perception that the UN is worthless as it is seen as playing no role in wars that involve the participation of P-5 members. This perception has been reinforced by patterns of unlawful behavior on the part of these five states, each of which has conducted military operations that flagrantly violated international law as well as the more specific normative architecture of the UN’s own Charter. We cannot know what would have ensued after 1945 if there had been no permanent membership and no veto in the Security Council, but we can make a good guess. The UN might have turned into a Western anti-Soviet alliance or would have completely lost its relevance as a result of political paralysis, debilitating withdrawals, and uses of force in manifest violation of the UN Charter. Another line of conjecture would seek to imagine the likely UN evolution if the FDR image of keeping the East/West alliance vibrant with a new priority assignment of keeping the peace in the dawn of the nuclear age.

Achievements of The UN System

When we turn to the case for worthiness, the argument is on one level obvious and on anther is somewhat subtle and elusive. The obvious part is that the resources and energies of the UN System are concerned with much more than the peace and security agenda, providing guidance and valuable assistance in such varied areas as development, human rights, economic and social policy, environment, health, culture, and education. Beyond these substantive domains the UN provides indispensable auspices for the management of complex interdependence for many mutually beneficial transnational undertakings. Among the most important UN contributions is host a variety of cooperative activities comprising multilateral diplomacy of global scope. The UN has a strong record of offering its facilities and backing for lawmaking treaties covering a diverse range of global concerns including the public order of the oceans, peaceful uses of outer space, protection of endangered animal species, world trade.

The subtler case regarding the UN as a worthy contributor to a better world is its role in the domain of symbolic politics, which can be understood by regarding the UN as ‘a soft power superpower.’ The UN Secretary General is almost alone as a globally respected voice of reason and empathy on the gravest issues facing humanity, but also on occasion as a gentle critic of geopolitical excess and as a trustworthy alarmist with respect to climate change and the COVID pandemic. The periodically elected administrative leader of the UN exert some influence on world public opinion through their statements of concern, but rarely challenge directly  geopolitical behavior.

More relevant is the capacity of the UN, primarily in the General Assembly, but throughout the UN System to shape perceptions of legitimacy and illegitimacy in ways that exert important influences throughout civil society. The reality of such a perception can be most easily captured by the degree to which states struggle to achieve UN approval and to avoid having the UN pass critical judgment on their behavior. The UN endorsement of the anti-apartheid campaign is one of the factors that both mobilized activism in civil society and eventually led the leadership of the South African apartheid regime to reverse course. The frantic pushback by Israel to UN-backed allegations of racism and criminality, and more recently, of apartheid is further confirmation that what the UN does symbolically matters, and sometimes deeply.

Although Currently Worthy, a Stronger UN is Possible and Necessary, although it seems Unlikely

The COVID experience exposed the essential weakness of the UN when it came to promote and protect human interests in a health crisis of global scope. The ethos that prevailed was both an exhibition of the non-accountability of the geopolitical actors, and more broadly, the prioritizing of national interests and shared civilizational values in a politically fragmented world order. The imperative of global solidarity was too weak to prevent the scandalous hoarding of vaccines, which made descriptive such pejorative labels as ‘vaccine apartheid’ or ‘vaccine diplomacy.’ This experience is disturbing beyond COVID as it offers a metaphor for the global persistence of statist world order, which is partially enacted by marginalizing the UN in the face of an acute crisis of global scale. The record of response is only slightly better when it comes to fashioning a collective response to the dire expert consensus on what needs to be done about climate change. [See Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021)]

We are left with the haunting question of whether pressures toward unity and global public goods can replace geopolitical rivalry and ambition in the years ahead, and translate such awakening into a movement capable of achieving a UN oriented and empowered to serve, at least selectively, the human interest rather than as in the past, the interplay of national interests or the prorities of geopolitics.      

EVERYTHING WENT WRONG IN AFGHANISTAN

23 Aug

[Prefatory Note: Modified responses on Aug. 23rd to questions posed by Zahra Mirzafarjouyan, Mehr New Agency, Aug. 17, 2021.]

EVERYTHING WENT WRONG IN AFGHANISTAN

1-Why could the Taliban capture Kabul and gain power so rapidly without considerable resistance from people and the army?
The U.S. led NATO Afghan intervention and occupation was flawed in mission from its outset in 2001, and indeed in the period before the attack and large-scale, ambitious regime-changing, state-building occupation. In the post-colonial world, the military superiority of Western intervening powers has proved unable to shape the political outcomes of a prolonged struggle for the control of non-Western sovereign spaces, especially if the society is beset by unresolved tribal and ethnic conflicts, as well as by warlordism and drug cartels. In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, this line of observation proved to be once again validated, despite trillions of dollars spent in devastating parts of the country and supposedly building armed forces and police capabilities and institutional competence sufficient to bring order and stability to post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The fundamental explanation of the rapid collapse of the Kabul government is that it had no legs of its own to stand upon, which became evident as soon as the U.S. made clear its intention to withdraw its occupying army. Afghan collaboration with the intervenors was largely left to secularists, opportunists, corrupt politicians and private sector entrepreneurs, and ambitious careerists, as well as the alignment of some ethnic groups, and the support of secularized social elites in the larger cities. The Taliban despite its abysmal human rights record during its five-year period in power at the end of the last century (1996-2001) never lost its credibility as a defender of the Afghani homeland, and retained the loyalty of many nationalist elements in this overwhelmingly religious country.
To explain the unexpectantly quick and dramatic collapse of the Kabul government so elaborately constructed by the Western intervenors over a twenty-year period of occupation defied expectations on all sides. Taliban reassurances of peace and reconciliation undoubtedly weakened whatever will to resist survived the impending American military withdrawal, and gave Afghan collaborators with the Americans a stark choice between cutting their ties to imposed, defeated government or abandoning the sinking ship of state by leaving the country. These 2021 Taliban reassurances touched many of the concerns prompting the West to act in 2001, included proclaiming the end of the war for control of the country, amnesty for those who worked in and on behalf of the Kabul government, promises of the protection of the rights of women, tolerance of diversity, and pledges not to allow its territory to be used in the future as it was in the past as a base for projecting terrorism beyond its borders. The Biden diplomacy never seemed influenced by these reassurances, especially their reliability, as it had unconditionally announced its intention to withdraw and end at least one ‘forever war’ for the sake of ‘national interests.’
Yet the basic explanation of the unexpectedly quick collapse of anti-Taliban resistance also exhibited a series of political misjudgments of the United States despite 20 years of experience in the country. It obviously did not appreciate that its investment in the Afghan army, police force, and state-building failed to create even the semblance of a countervailing force to the technologically war-fighting techniques of the Taliban. Had Washington realized this vulnerability to the chaotic collapse that ensued, it would have handled its own withdrawal differently, getting Americans and their Afghan collaborators out while it still could exert effective control the main cities. If ever, a politics of spectacle made a sensible decision by Washington to withdraw from Afghanistan greeted favorably around the world, including the United States, into a public relations disaster, it was on media display for the past two weeks on TV screens worldwide.
2-How do you assess the US policy in Afghanistan during the past 20 years? To what extent the US policy is responsible for the current instability in the country?
To some extent, my response to the prior question covers these issues. The viability of intervening in a non-Western state in the post-colonial era should have been discredited long ago, and certainly after the decade of maximum effort in Vietnam with its Kabul-like ending. The success of the anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa should have demonstrated to the West that military intervention on the basis of acceptable costs in lives and resources was no longer a policy option, however great the temptation, however strong the insider pressures of special mercenary interests, and however deep the geopolitical memories of ‘the good old days’ when the West could intervene at will confident of a high rate of success (with the ironic exception of Afghanistan that proved unconquerable even in colonial times!). The result of such post-colonial missions, mainly led by the U.S., is their eventual failure preceded by years of devastation, widespread human suffering, what might be called ‘combat capitalism’ (with an appreciative nod to Naomi Klein). ‘Intervention fatigue’ over time grows among the American public and leadership, generally expressed by a growing political consensus that the undertaking, whatever its ideological or imperial rationalization, is not worth the effort. The undertaking is fundamentally illegitimate from the perspective of law and morality. It is increasingly perceived as too costly materially and reputationally, and as essentially irrelevant as a security threat. The senseless ordeal of prolonged killing and dying are viewed as evidence that America has lost its way, lacking credible justifications and stumbling toward a humiliating defeat. Because American lives and taxpayer dollars were increasing seen as wasted, the resulting political fallout is disguised by the leadership with a lame rationale that convinces almost no one except a compliant Western media, yet prepared the way for the next geopolitical fiasco of a similar kind. Such rationales are rejected in the short run, including by returning American soldiers who felt cheated, understanding that their patriotic sacrifices were in vain even misguided, and that the whole imperial venture had been built on delusions and lies. And yet memories are far shorter and weaker than the interests at stake.
These patterns of failed interventions are likely to be repeated in the future, oblivious to this record of failure. The fact that such perverse behavior persists reveals the absence of the moral and political imagination needed to comprehend and act upon the changed international circumstances of the 21st century. This absence includes a stubborn refusal to learn from China about how an ambitious state should go about expanding and heightening its prosperity along with its regional and world influence in a post-colonial era. In part, this failure stems from systemic sources. It is associated with the bureaucratic and entrenched interests in the United States that benefit from a high defense budget and a militarized approach to security that became ingrained in the American internal balance of forces during the long Cold War. From its outset in the late 1940s this approach to security and geopolitical response depends on exaggerating, and even inventing, international threats as well as denying the tectonic global shift in the balance of forces from geopolitical intervenors. National forces of resistance motivated by an ethos of self-determination as the most basic of human rights and by a historical knowledge that intervenors can be defeated if nationalist energies remain united.
3-How do you see the future of Afghanistan? What US approach should be taken toward the country in future?

It is very difficult at this time so soon after the Taliban victory to anticipate the future of Afghanistan. It will depend, first of all, on the behavior of the Taliban as the governing force, and how this is portrayed in and manipulated by foreign countries, especially in the West. The US in particular will likely maintain a very critical attitude toward Taliban governance partly to continue the myth that its intervention was justified was based on good intentions and the attempt to make life better for the Afghan people. The Taliban will also react, especially on the basis of its perceptions of whether the US has genuinely respected the outcome of the struggle, becoming respectful of Afghan sovereignty, and does not lend support to counterrevolutionary movements or impose sanctions. After all, Afghanistan was victimized by two decades of American-led NATO intervention, and will naturally give a high priority to defending the security of the country and its governing process.

There is bound to be hostile propaganda from a growing, aggrieved, and frightened Afghan refugee community, which might be manipulated by American militarist and reactionary forces to restore political will in the United States, reviving its reputation as a self-confident custodian of global security and promoter of human rights and liberal constitutionalism. It is instructive to look back at the behavior of the United States in the decade after its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 under somewhat similar circumstances when it tried, among other evasions of defeat, to sell the hysterical idea that the alternative to fighting against Communism in Vietnam was for the American people to fight its enemies on the city streets of the United States. The American people have been exposed for decades to a disastrous bipartisan combination of fear at home and aggression abroad, which is being translated into a posture of imperial decline, exemplified by leadership that is either extremist in embracing denialism or depressing in its effort to face up to the overwhelming challenges of misjudging changing global realities for decades.

The best approach for the United States at this point in Afghanistan, although unlikely, is to encourage Taliban moderation by exhibiting in deeds and words its acceptance of the outcome in Afghanistan. This could be expressed by a rapid grant of diplomatic recognition to the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in all international arenas, followed by the provision of significant levels of humanitarian assistance. It is also important that the departures from Afghanistan should be handled in a non-provocative manner, stressing humanitarian responsibilities, and appreciating that many of those departing from Afghanistan partook of corruption and opportunism during the American presence, collaborating with a foreign intervention by a political actor with geopolitical motives and a Western secular orientation.

In the wider context of international relations, I would hope that the failures of the US approach to Iran ever since at least 1979 would finally lead the political class in Washington to switch its strategic engagement with the non-West from confrontation to accommodation. It is never too late for this to happen. I wish I could conclude these responses by expressing the belief that this altered course of behavior will actually happen in the near future. I am not presently hopeful.

Reflections on Genocide as the Ultimate Crime

26 Apr

[Prefatory Note: Subsequent to our article addressing alleged genocide by China against the Uyghur people, President Joe Biden declared the Armenian massacres of 1915 to be an instance of ‘genocide.’ The following paragraph addresses this issue in summary form:

“Biden has added another dimension to the misuse of ‘genocide,’ making another indirect controversial intrusion on past memories and present realities by fulfilling on behalf of the United States Government his campaign pledge to declare what befell the Armenian community in 1915 as ‘genocide’ on April 24, 2021 without bothering to clarify whether this was a legal, political, or moral assessment of events that occurred in the midst of World War I. The Nuremberg Judgment was very clear that for action to legally qualify as an international crime it must have been preceded by the enactment of the relevant legal norm. Otherwise, it is an instance of retroactive criminalization, and cannot validly be prosecuted, however abhorrent. As we know the word ‘genocide’ was a linguistic innovation of the 1940s, and it only became criminalized by the adoption of the Genocide Convention in 1948. For Biden to come along in 2021 and pronounce these events as genocide is again to trivialize this ultimate crime for the sake of domestic political gain and as a way of demeaning Turkey because of some foreign policy differences. If genuinely motivated for historical redress, a responsible approach might have been to call for an independent international inquiry to interpret the events, giving Turkey, as well as representatives of the Armenian community, an opportunity to present its narrative which is more an explanation than a justification.”] 

APRIL 23, 2021

Reflections on Genocide as the Ultimate Crime

BY ALFRED DE ZAYAS – RICHARD FALKFacebookTwitterRedditEmail

This photograph depicts the Armenian leader Papasyan seeing what’s left after the horrendous murders near Deir-ez-Zor in 1915-1916. Photograph Source: Bodil Katharine Biørn – National Archives of Norway – Public Domain

The misuse of the word genocide is disdainful toward relatives of the victims of the Armenian massacres, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide – and as well a disservice to both history, law, and the prudent conduct of international relations. We already knew that we were adrift in an ocean of fake news. It is far more dangerous to discover that we are also at risk of being immersed in the turbulent waters of “fake law”. We must push back with a sense of urgency. Such a development is not tolerable.

We thought that Biden’s election would spare us from menacing corruptions of language of the sort disseminated by Donald Trump, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. We thought that we would no longer be subjected to evidence-free allegations, post-truth and cynical concoctions of fact. It now seems we were wrong.

We recall Pompeo’s bragging about the usefulness of lying, we listened to his incendiary allegations against Cuba, Nicaragua, his outlandish claims that Hezbollah was in Venezuela, his antics on behalf of Trump — all in the name of MAGA.

Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo did not succeed in making America great again. They did succeed in lowering the already low opinion that the world had of America as a country that played by the rules set forth in international. A decisive development in this downward spiral was George W. Bush’s megacrime — the unprovoked invasion and devastation of Iraq, which UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called an “illegal war” on more than one occasion. We observed Barak Obama’s involvement in the destruction of Libya, given a bitter resonance by Hillary Clinton’s unspeakable words on Qaddafi’s demise uttered with imperial glee: “We came, we saw, he died”. We cannot forget Trump’s criminal economic sanctions and financial blockades punishing whole societies in the midst of a crippling pandemic. These were crimes against humanity committed in our name. Such sanctions reminded us of merciless medieval sieges of towns, aimed at starving whole populations into submission. We think back to the one million civilian deaths resulting from Germany blockading Leningrad 1941-44.

No, to make America great again, it seems perverse to suppose that this can come about by continuing to behave as an international bully, threatening and beating up on entire peoples. No, in order to make America respected and admired in the world we can and should start by reviving the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, by rediscovering the spirit and spirituality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and more broadly reenacting the peace-oriented humanism of John F. Kennedy.

We can and should be demanding more from Joe Biden and Antony Blinken. Evidence-free allegations of “genocide” in Xinjiang, China, are unworthy of any country, and most of all, of the country that wants to act as the prime international champion of human rights. Raphael Lemkin would turn in his grave if he learned that the crime of “genocide” has been so crassly instrumentalized to beat the drums of Sinophobia. The sudden flurry of United States interest in the fate of the Uyghur people seems less motivated by compassion or the protection of human rights than lifted from the most cynical pages of the Machiavellian playbook of geopolitics.

Genocide is a well-defined term in international law – in the 1948 Genocide Convention and Article 6 of the Rome Statute.The most respected international tribunals have separately agreed that proof of the crime of genocide depends on an extremely convincing presentation of factual evidence, including documentation of an intent to destroy in whole or in part national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the International Court of Justice – all have endeavoured to provide authoritative tests of “intent,” treating intent as the essential element in the crime of genocide. This jurisprudence is what should be guiding our politicians in reaching prudent conclusions as to whether there exist credible grounds to put forward accusations of genocide, given its inflammatory effects. We should be asking whether the factual situation is clouded, calling for an independent international investigation followed by further action if deemed appropriate, and in nuclear-armed world, we should be extremely careful before making such an accusation.

Mike Pompeo’s allegation that China was committing genocide in Xinjiang was unsupported by even a hint of evidence. It was a particularly irresponsible example of ideological posturing at its worst, and besides, an embrace of reckless geopolitics. That is why it is so shocking to us that the 2021 US State Department Human Rights Report repeats the “genocide” charge in its Executive Summary, yet doesn’t even bother to mention such a provocative charge in the body of the report. This is an irresponsible, unreasonable, unprofessional, counter-productive, and above all, dangerously incendiary allegation, which could easily spiral out of control if China should choose to respond in kind. China would be on firmer ground than Pompeo or the State Department if it were to accuse the United States of “continuing genocide” against the First Nations of the Americas, Cherokees, Sioux, Navajo, and many other tribal nations. We can only imagine the angry backlash if it hadbeen China that had been the first to put forward loose talk about genocide.

By making non-substantiated claims the U.S. Government is seriously undermining its own authority and credibility to revive its role as global leader. To play this constructive international role is not on display by “weaponizing” human rights against China – or Russia. Instead, a foreign policy dedicated to the genuine promotion of human rights would call for international cooperation in conducting reliable investigations of gross violations of human rights and international crimes, wherever they occur – whether it be in India, Egypt, China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Yemen, Brazil, Colombia. We would hope that Biden’s Washington is confident enough to be even receptive to investigations undertaken in response to allegations of violations against the United States of America and its closest allies in Europe and elsewhere.

The Orwellian corruption of language by U.S. Government officials, the double-standards, the dissemination of fake news by the mainstream media, including the “quality press” and CNN, self-anointed as “the most trusted name in news” are eroding our self-respect. Indeed, the manipulation of public opinion undermining our democracy as we succumb

to the exaggerations of the wrongs of others that give an added bite to hostile propaganda, and are leading the world to the very edge of a forbidding geopolitical precipice, and in the process, heightening the prospects of a new cold war – or worse.

The Biden Administration at the very least should show respect for the American people and for international law by stop cheapening the meaning of the word “genocide” and cease treating human rights as geopolitical tools of conflict. Such irresponsible behavior may soothe the nerves of Trumpists, and fashion a façade of unity based on portraying China as the new ‘evil empire,’ but it’s a foreign policy ploy that should be rejected as it seems a recipe for global disaster.

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. 

From Counterterrorism to Geopolitics: Reviving the U.S. Deep State

25 Dec

[Prefatory Note: The challenge of transnational non-state violence, what the media dutifully criminalizes as ‘terrorism’ while whitewashing the abuses of state and state-sponsored violence as ‘counterterrorism’ or exercises of every state to act in self-defense. Language matters as those who wanted to sugarcoat ‘torture’ by such phrases as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ The pendulum of U.S. foreign policy is swinging back in the direction of geopolitical confrontation, given the prospects of the Biden presidency. Although it is the highest political priority to be done with Trump and Trumpism, the renewal of ‘bipartisan foreign policy’ under the guidance of the American version of the deep state is not good news. It could mean a new cold war tilted toward China, but with different alignments, possibly including Russia, filled with risk and justification for continuing overinvestment in a militarized approach to national security causing a continuing underinvestment in human security, exposing the root cause of American imperial decline. The post below addresses some of these issues, and was published in the Tehran Times (17 Dec 2020).]

From Counterterrorism to Geopolitics: Reviving the U.S. Deep State

  1. In 1972, a specialized Committee on Terrorism was set up at the United Nations, and member states made great efforts to provide appropriate definitions of international terrorism, but due to intense political differences, the actual definition of international terrorism and comprehensive conventions in practice was impossible. Security Council Resolution 1373 was the most serious attempt to define terrorism after 9/11, which evolved into UN Security Council Resolution 1535. Despite providing a definition of terrorism, countries approach it differently. What is the reason?

There exists a basic split between those political actors that seek to define ‘terrorism’ as anti-state violence by non-state actors and those actors that seek to define terrorism as violence directed at innocent civilians, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. The latter approach to the definition reaches targeted or indiscriminate violence directed at civilians even if the state is the perpetrator. States that act beyond their borders to fulfill counterrevolutionary goals seek to stigmatize their adversaries as terrorists while exempting themselves from moral and legal accountability.

There exists a second basic split due to state practice following political rather than legal criteria when identifying terrorist actors. When the Taliban and Al Qaeda were opposing Soviet intervention in Afghanistan they were identified as Mujahideen, but when seen as turning against the West, they were put on the top of the terrorist list. Osama Bin Laden, once hailed as a Western ally deserving lavish CIA support became the most wanted terrorist after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Such subjectivity and fluidity makes it virtually impossible to develop a coherent and legal approach to ‘terrorist’ activity.

In essence, geopolitical actors have always sought to have international law regard the use of force by states acting on their own as falling outside the framework of terrorism while regarding transnational political violence by adversary or enemy non-state actors as terrorism even if the targeted person or organization is a government official or member of the armed forces, or if the non-state actor is resisting occupation by foreign armed forces. Before the 9/11 attacks Israel adopted influentially adopted this approach in its effort to portray Palestinian resistance as a criminal enterprise. After 9/11 the United States added its political weight to this statist approach to the conception of terrorism, which meant in effect that any adversary target that could be characterized as associated with a non-state actor that resorted to armed struggle was criminalized to the extent of being treated as unprotected by international humanitarian law. In practice, this subjectivity was vividly displayed in recent years by support given to anti-Castro Cuban exiles that engaged in political violence against the legitimate Cuban government, and yet were given aid, support, and encouragement while based in the United States.

The UN was mobilized after the 9/11 attacks by the United State to support this statist/geopolitical approach to political violence, which possessed these elements, and given formal expression in a series of Security Council Resolutions, including 1373, 1535: 

     –terrorists are individuals who engage in political violence on behalf of non-state actors;

               –states, their officials and citizens may be guilty of supporting such activities through money, weapons and safe haven, and therefore indictable under national law as aiding and abetting terrorism;

              –political violence by states, no matter what its character, is to be treated by reference to international law, including international humanitarian law, and not viewed as terrorism;

              –even if the non-state actor is exercising its right of resistance under international law against colonialism or apartheid, its political violence will be treated as ‘terrorism’ if such a designation furthers geopolitical ambitions.  

The alternative view of terrorism that I endorse emphasizes the nature of the political violence, rather than the identity of the perpetrator. As such, political violence can be identified as ‘state terrorism,’ which amounts to uses of force that are outside the framework of war and peace, and violate the sovereign rights of a foreign country or fundamental rights of citizens within the territory of the state. Such acts of terrorism may be clandestine or overt, and may be attributed to state actors when counterrevolutionary groups are authorized, funded, and encouraged directly or indirectly by the state. Non-state actors can also be guilty of terrorism if their tactics and practices deliberately target civilians or recklessly disregard risks of death or harm to civilians. 

  • How do you assess the role and position of Iran in the fight against terrorism in the region?

As far as I know, Iran has opposed non-state political violence of groups such as ISIS or Taliban that engage in terrorist activity by committing atrocities against civilians that amount to Crimes Against Humanity. Iran has also consistently condemned state terrorism of the sort practiced by Israel and the United States, and possibly other governments, within the region. In this regard, Iran has been active both in the struggle against non-state and state terrorism.

Iran has been accused of lending funding and material support to non-state actors that many governments in the West officially classify as ‘terrorist’ organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Part of the justification for U.S. sanctions arises from this allegation that Iran supports terrorism in the Middle East. These allegations are highly ‘political’ in character as both Hezbollah and Hamas engaged in violent resistance directed at unlawful occupation policies that denied basic national rights to the Lebanese and Palestinian people, including the fundamental right of self-determination, although some of their tactics and acts may have crossed the line of legality.

There are also contentions that Iran’s support for the Syrian government in dealing with its domestic adversaries involves complicity in behavior that violates the laws of war and international humanitarian law. This contention is a matter of regional geopolitics. As far as international law is concerned, the Assad government in Damascus is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and is treated as such at the UN. Iran is legally entitled to provide assistance to such a government faced with insurgent challengess from within its boundaries. If the allegations are true that Syria has bombed hospitals and other civilian sites, then the Syrian government could be charged with state terrorism. 

3- How do you assess the role and position of General Ghasem Soleimani in the fight against terrorism and ISIS in the region? 

Although a military officer, General Soleiman, was not in any combat role when assassinated, and was engaged in peacemaking diplomacy on a mission to Iraq. His assassination was a flagrant instance of state terrorism. With considerable irony, the truth is that General Soleiman had been playing a leading counterterrorist role throughout the region. He is thought to have been primarily responsible for the ending, or at least greatly weakening, the threat posed by ISIS to the security of many countries in the Middle East.

  • Given the conflict of interests of different countries, can we see the same action by countries against terrorism? What mechanism can equalize the performance of countries against the terrorism?

As suggested at the outset, without an agreed widely adopted and generally agreed upon definition of terrorism it is almost impossible to create effective international mechanisms to contain terrorism. As matters now stand, the identification of ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorism’ is predominantly a matter of geopolitical alignment rather than the implementation of prohibitions directed at unacceptable forms of political violence within boundaries and across borders.

To imagine the emergence of effective international, or regional, mechanisms to combat terrorism at least four developments would have to occur:

             –the reliance on legal criteria to categorize political violence as terrorism;

            –the inclusion of ‘state terrorism’ in the official definition of terrorism;

            –the inclusion of political violence within sovereign territory as well as across boundaries;

            –an internationally or regionally agreed definition incorporating these three elements and formally accepted by all major sovereign states and by the United Nation. 

In the present international atmosphere, such an international consensus is impossible to achieve. The United States and Israel, and a series of other important states would never agree. There are two sets of obstacles: some states would not give up their discretion to attack civilian targets outside their borders and would not accept accountability procedure that impose limits on their discretion over the means used to deal with domestic transnational non-state adversaries.

Under these conditions of geopolitical subjectivity such that from some perspectives non-state actors are ‘freedom-fighters’ and from others they are ‘terrorists,’ no common grounds for  meaningful and trustworthy intergovernmental arrangements exists.

It remains important for individuals and legal experts to advocate a cooperative approach to the prevention and punishment of terrorists and terrorism by reference to an inclusive definition of terrorism that considers political violence by states and by governments within their national territory as covered. 

It is also in some sense to include non-state actors as stakeholders in any lawmaking process that has any prospect of achieving both widespread acceptance as a framework or implementation at behavioral levels. It would seem, in this regard, important to prohibit torture of terrorist suspects or denial of prisoner of war rights. One-sided legal regimes tend to be rationalizations for unlawful conduct, and thus operate as political instruments of conflict rather than legal means of regulation.

Unless surprises occur, almost a probability, the Biden foreign policy will likely follow the George H.W. Approach approach more than the Obama approach, which continued to unfold as part of the aftermath to the 9/11 attacks. This means becoming again captive to the deep state’s approach to world order: global militarism, Euro-centric points of reference, predatory capitalism, and quasi-confrontational toward China, Russia.