Tag Archives: geopolitics

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.

Geopolitical Subservience and Personal Opportunism: Mike Pompeo’s Visit to Israel

22 Nov

[Prefatory Note: Posted below is a greatly modified interview on the entirely inappropriate and distasteful visit of the U.S. Secretary of State to Israel for three days. It was distasteful and regressive to a degree that defied normal levels of its criticism. I would call particular attention to its boastful endorsement of Israel’s cruel and unlawful behavior during the Trump presidency, which was harmful to the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and to Palestinian victimization resulting from the Israeli apartheid regime that has been imposed on the Palestinian people as a whole. The interview questions were submitted by the Brazilian journalist Rodrigo Craveiro on behalf of Correio Brazilence on Nov. 20, 2020. I also highly recommend an article by Rima Najjar, “Bashing and Thrashing: Trump’s So-Called Legacy in Palestine,” Nov. 20, 2020.]

Geopolitical Subservience and Personal Opportunism: Mike Pompeo’s Visit to Israel

For me the entire event was a grotesque occasion of national embarrassment from start to finish. Even the most dimwitted imperialist would know better than to declare Pompeo’s subservience to Israel in these scary words: “Israel is everything we want the entire Middle East to look like going forward.” 

It is impossible not to take note of the cruel absurdity of Pompeo’s visit to Israel, further ingratiating himself to his Israeli minders by celebrating the lawlessness of the Trump diplomacy of the last four years. It was far more plausible to imagine Netanyahu visiting Washington to bid farewell to his benefactor in the White House, with a side trip to one of Sheldon Adelson’s Vegas casinos. An Israeli expression of gratitude to Trump for a level of U.S. Government diplomatic support that went well beyond the pro-Israeli partisanship of prior American leaders would have been annoying but quite understandable. But why would Pompeo want to call attention to such unseemly exploits after enduring a political humiliation at home by a display of homage to the worst excesses of an outlaw foreign country. If given the unsavory task of casting a TV series on theme of ‘geopolitical buffoonery’ I would look no further than Mike Pompeo for a role model! Even Saturday Night Live would be stymied if they attempted to satirize such obtuse political behavior. Is it any wonder that the only support that Israel could find to oppose the recent 2020 annual General Assembly Resolution affirming the Palestinian right of self-determination and independent sovereign statehood were such pillars of international order as Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Nauru in the 163-5 vote.    


1– How do you assess the symbolism of this travel of Mike Pompeo  to West Bank and to Golan Heights? What kind of message did he want to transmit?

First of all, the timing of the visit given the outcome of the American presidential election is mighty strange and beyond suspect, undoubtedly motivated by undisclosed illicit goals. I would call attention to three:

–first, Pompeo is unabashedly positioning himself in relation to the pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination for the 2024 elections, especially burnishing his already incredible credentials as an over-the-top reliable and unconditional supporter of Israel. Presumably, this makes him the best bet to receive financial backing from wealthy militant Zionist donors. To reinforce the claim of doing whatever possible to ingratiate himself with his gloating Israeli hosts, Pompeo delivered a welcome symbolic message by becoming the first U.S. political leader to visit an Israeli settlement during an official visit. He paid a visit to Psagot Settlement which is not far from Ramallah in the West Bank. Psagot operates a winery, which was not bashful about going all out to please Pompeo, bizarrely expressing their gratitude by naming one of their red wines in his honor, which may be a peculiar form of recognition for Pompeo who presents himself at home as a devout Evangelical Christian; 

–secondly, to highlight the tangible contributions of the Trump presidency to the realization of maximal Zionist goals, including moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, intensifying the anti-Iran coalition by increasing sanctions, supporting the annexation of the Golan Heights, brokering the normalization agreement with Arab governments that have ended Israel’s regional isolation, legitimating the Israeli settlements, by doing, blurring the distinction between de facto annexation which has been proceeding ever since 1967 and the Israeli goal of extending its sovereignty to at least 30% of the Occupied West Bank, and pledging to commit the U.S. Government to brand the BDS Campaign as ‘anti-Semitic’ 

–thirdly, an incidental part of the Pompeo mission seems designed to inhibit the Biden presidency from making moves to undo the Trump legacy on Israel/Palestine.  Netanyahu, AIPAC, and most of the U.S. Congress will scream ‘foul play’ if Biden makes even slight moves to reverse, or even moderate, Trump’s lawlessness, insisting that and departure from the Trump initiatives would be proof of an anti-Israeli policy turn in Washington. Actually, there is no reason to suppose that Biden needs inhibiting when it comes to confronting Israel, except possibly with respect to formal annexation.

2– What about the fact that Pompeo agreed that products made in West Bank settlements could now be sold in the United States with the notation ‘made in is Israel’?

Such a step seems partly designed to box in the Biden presidency and to contrast the U.S. pro-Israeli approach with that of the European Union and the UN. The European Court of Justice recently overturned a French judicial decision allowing labeling of settlement imports as ‘made in Israel,’ requiring that settlement imports be labeled as ‘made in Israeli settlements.’ Up until the Trump presidency, the US had not directly challenged the UN view that the settlements were unlawfully established in violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. A few months ago, Pompeo released an official statement declaring, in a break from previous U.S. policy, that the settlements are ‘not per se inconsistent with international law.’ Such a declaration is inconsistent with a widely endorsed view of the requirements of international humanitarian law, and has no relevance except to show American cynical disregard of the most basic precepts of international law when it comes to issues bearing on Israel’s expansionist policies and Palestinian rights.

3– Also how do you see fact he told BDS is a antisemitic movement? 

Again, Pompeo’s gratuitous remark is a gesture of solidarity with the Netanyahu government, and irresponsibly treats the BDS Campaign as antisemitic. Additionally, Pompeo declares an intention to withdraw government support from any organization that supports BDS, thereby threatening funding sources of such leading human rights NGOs as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and also forcing a Biden presidency to face a dilemma of allowing such policy to persist or reversing it, with either course of action producing a strong backlash. 

It should be appreciated that BDS is a nonviolent means of exerting pressure on the Israeli Government, and seeks to induce Israel to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. BDS was an effective instrument of pressure on the South African racist apartheid regime in the 1980s. It was widely supported by religious institutions, labor unions, and universities in the United States, and enjoyed the backing of the UN. It also was criticized in investment and conservative circles, but never was it suggested that the anti-apartheid BDS campaign directed at South Africa was somehow immoral, or even unlawful, or was itself racist in character. For Pompeo and others to brand BDS as antisemitic is to confuse a legitimate expression of concern for human rights of the Palestinian people with hatred of Jews. In this sense, what Pompeo did to please Israeli hardliners should be rejected as the worst kind of opportunistic politics that seeks to harm legitimate peaceful political activity in the United States, including advocating punitive action against respected human rights organizations.

Nuclear Complacency and the Dangerous Drift Toward a New Cold War with China

22 Aug

[Prefatory Note: The text below is a somewhat modified text of an interview conducted by

Daniel Falcone, and published in Counterpunch on August 11, 2020. I am increasingly worried by the either/or quality of the U.S. November elections effectively suppresses concerns about

a bipartisan drift toward a second cold war focused on China as geopolitical adversary that will be confronted. Because it is desperately important to defeat Trump, with its fascist undertones, a view I share, the conventional wisdom of the moment is to wait with such concerns until Biden is safely in the White House. But suppose ‘later’ never comes!]

 

 

Nuclear Complacency and the Dangerous Drift Toward a New Cold War with China

 

  • On this 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can you reflect on that moment historically and how it has shaped your view of American foreign policy since?

 

At the outset, I would point out that for me this is the saddest of anniversaries, and I try my best to avoid the use of the word ‘anniversary.’ I prefer ‘observance,’ which signals a certain solemnity in the course of acknowledging the occasion. Such an observance is not merely looking back as this weaponry has unfortunate continued relevance to human destiny after the horrifying events of 75 years ago.

 

It is also notable that the United States has never officially apologized for these unlawful attacks on heavily populated cities with no military significance in the closing days of World War II, nor even expressed public regret for the unprecedented suffering imposed on the Japanese civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a result of the atomic bombs, which was experienced as a deadly assault on the Japanese people as a whole. Barack Obama was the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park in 2016, but refrained from offering an apology, and directed his remarks to the future, affirming efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

 

As a frequent visitor to Japan I can testify that despite the extraordinary recovery made by the country after 1945 the national wounds inflicted by the bombing have not healed, nor can they heal so long as nuclear weapons are poised for use and relied upon by several countries for security.

 

As many specialists have argued, the principal motivation for dropping the two atomic bombs, grotesquely named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ was not, as in the publicly proclaimed justification, to avoid the loss of American lives arising from an invasion of Japan, and so to bend the will of the Japanese leadership toward an immediate acceptance of the demands of ‘unconditional surrender.’ Historians increasingly agree that the overriding purpose was to send Moscow and Joseph Stalin a chilling message: don’t push the West too hard in negotiating European political arrangements after the defeat of Germany and don’t challenge the United States in relation to the spoils of war in the Pacific or your future might come to resemble that of these two devastated Japanese cities. In other words, the decisive motivation was geopolitical and not based on the only relevant international law justification, which required upholding a claim of military necessity in an ongoing war. Given the indiscriminateness of the devastation it would be highly doubtful that such a claim would be accepted by any impartial tribunal. Such a claim would be especially flimsy here as Japan had indicated through diplomatic circles that it was ready to submit to Allied terms subject to only one condition–that Japan be allowed to retain its emperor system. In the end, this condition was dropped by the victorious Allied Powers. This meant that the war could have been ended diplomatically without the atomic attacks. This also meant that the much relied upon pretext of the bombing being necessary to achieve ‘unconditional surrender’ was at best misleading, and more probably, simply false.

 

As indicated, a consensus among respected historians have concluded that the main idea behind the use of this weapon of mass destruction was to warn the Soviet Union, still a supposed ally, a country that endured as many as 30 million deaths in the common anti-fascist war effort. In retrospect the bombs were the opening salvo in an all-encompassing geopolitical rivalry that would last for more than four decades under the rubric of the ‘Cold War,’ This geopolitical confrontation diverted energies and resources from constructive uses as well as causing acute anxieties about the onset of nuclear war at crisis moments. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the Cold War would have been the sequel to World War II if the atomic bomb had never been used, and instead unilaterally placed by the United States under strict and responsible international control as codified in a lawmaking disarmament treaty. Of all the roads not taken this may have been the most crucial one as it might have allowed post-1945 history to evolve in a less violent, more benign, manner, giving grounds for hopes to build world order around peace, justice, and ecological stability rather than rest the future of humanity on militarism and predatory capitalism.

 

Passing the 75th year since the bombs were dropped should remind us of another moral deficiency that has given a distorted shape to the nuclear age. The atrocities inscribed in world memory most vividly can be summoned to awareness by citing two place names: Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Because Germany lost the war it was made to repudiate the Holocaust, pay reparations to Jewish and other death camp survivors, and join the front ranks advocating the criminalization of genocide. Because the United States won the war its atomic attacks on Japanese cities was never subject to political, legal, and moral scrutiny, let alone repudiated or properly commemorated, much less made subject to criminalization.

 

Despite the clear treaty obligation in Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to seek nuclear disarmament in good faith negotiations, a legal obligation unanimously affirmed in 1996 by the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on the legality of nuclear weaponry, the United States and Russia retain large arsenals of nuclear weapons, backed by deployments and doctrines mandating use under certain undisclosed conditions. Seven other countries also have nuclear arsenals whose numbers, deployments, and doctrines of use are kept secret in many cases from even elected officials. This means that a sociopathic leader of these governments could make a snap decision to end life on the planet as we know it, and even an accident or mistake could change the course of global history.

 

There are many abhorrent features of the nuclear age that have not been given appropriate attention from its very outset. In the most dramatic possible way, it was demonstrated that losers in a major war will be held individually accountable by reference to international criminal law while the winners will enjoy absolute impunity.

The London Charter, also known as the Nuremberg Charter, setting forth the framework for the prosecution and punishment of surviving German civilian and political leaders was formally adopted on August 8, 1945, two days after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and one day prior to the bombing of Nagasaki. Such monumental insensitivity has never attracted the bitterly ironic commentary it deserves. There is not much doubt that had the Germans or Japanese developed an atom bomb and used it against Allied cities, and nevertheless gone on to lose the war, those responsible would have been prosecuted as war criminals, nuclear weapons criminalized, and a likely effect that this weaponry might never have been developed.

 

Such double standards were carried forward in the UN System by endowing the five winners in World War II with permanent membership and a right of veto in the Security Council, the only UN political organ with the authority to impose obligations as distinct from offering recommendations. Even during the pandemic, in the face of humanitarian appeals, the U.S. maintains unilateral sanctions meant to exert pressure on a range of. countries the governments of which it disapproves, including Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and Zimbabwe. It is one more manifestation of the enforcement mechanisms used by geopolitical actors to impose their arbitrary and often greedy political will on weaker sovereign states. Such coercive tactics represent a defiant repudiation of the first principles of international law in contemporary state-centric world order: the equality of sovereign states.

 

With specific reference to nuclear weaponry this hierarchical and hegemonic character of world order is nowhere more clearly present than in relation to nuclear weapons. The countries that possess, develop, deploy, and deter, rely on threat diplomacy, and might at some point use nuclear weaponry remain internationally unregulated whatever form their reliance on nuclear weaponry assumes. In contrast, the more than 180 other countries in the world are legally and geopolitically prohibited from acquiring the weaponry however much under threat from hostile countries. Iran, threatened by hostile political actors possessing nuclear weapons, is geopolitically prohibited from acquiring such weaponry. These non-nuclear states face threats of aggression and occupation if seen as moving close to the nuclear threshold. Such a regime is illustrated by the experience of Iraq since 2003 or the pressures exerted on Iran.

 

Such coercive implementation of the nonproliferation regime runs contrary to the spirit of the treaty itself, which in Article X gives parties the right to withdraw from the treaty if ‘extraordinary events’ ‘jeopardize the supreme interests of the country.’ Withdrawal is achieved by submitting a notice three months in advance that specifies the extraordinary events. The geopolitical regime of counterproliferation ignores this sovereign right of non-nuclear states to determine their own security needs, including by the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The geopolitical regime possesses the features of ‘nuclear apartheid’ in which the dangerous nuclear weapons states are unregulated while the non-nuclear states are subject to the most coercive imaginable regulation that overrides basic sovereign rights. Additionally, the regime has not even been applied in a non-discriminatory manner. Israel’s covert acquisition of nuclear weapons as abetted by the complicity of France (documented in Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Option (1991)) was completely overlooked.

 

Reflection and commentary on all of these aspects of this 75th year after the initiation of. the nuclear age is as necessary in 2020 as it was in 1945, and yet remains more absent now than it was then when the moral triumphalism of victory in just war blunted critical discussion. Alarm bells are clanging but almost no one is listening, and those that could do something, seem more than content to do nothing. The overall public mood is now one of dangerous complacency, bordering on calculated indifference, while nuclear establishments around the world continue to go effectively and mainly covertly about their nefarious business. This includes undercutting any serious denuclearizing initiatives of world leaders, and includes even the occasional positing of denuclearizing visions by the leaders of the dominant states (e.g. Gorbachev, Reagan, Carter, Obama).

2) You recently stated that it’s never been more urgent that we repudiate nuclearism in all forms. What rationales or forms do proponents of nuclearism put forth?

 

It is important to view with skepticism the justifications offered by the governments of nuclear weapons states for retaining the weaponry, and to articulate the unacknowledged, yet true, rationale that relates to geopolitical status, leverage, conflict, and expanding the foreign policy options of leading nuclear weapons states. Secondary nuclear weapons states, including India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea are motivated by a mixture of considerations: regional rivalry, defensive security, and regional geopolitics. There are several different rationales given for retaining nuclear weapons that can be enumerated in distinct categories, but there exists the need to take account of operational variations in motivation and situation of each state that further reflects evolving conditions and varying leadership styles:

 

General Arguments:

–despite global tensions no nuclear weapon has been used since 1945, suggesting that the management of nuclear weaponry has stood the test of time;

–nuclear disarmament is not considered practical given this record of non-use, It is viewed by the governments possessing nuclear weapons and strategic discourse as more dangerous than management as abetted by prudent measures of arms control;

–leading nuclear weapons states rely on nuclear weaponry for defensive security via deterrence, and for geopolitical leverage in some global crisis situations.

 

Regional Arguments:

–the possession of nuclear weapons elevates the status of a country in world politics;

–regional hegemons and expansionist states rely on geopolitical leverage within geographical limits;

–beleaguered countries claim security imperatives to support their acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities;

–international practices suggests that secondary states that do not possess nuclear weapons are more subject to military intervention than those that possess the weaponry (for example, Iraq, Libya versus North Korea).

 

The most explicit and unqualified overall rationale for nuclearism is set forth in the statement issued by the U.S., France, and the UK as to why these governments are unalterably opposed to the UN Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), stressing distrust of North Korea and others combined with a reaffirmation of confidence in the managerial capabilities of the NPT regime and collective security arrangements to continue to offer the best approach to the prevention of nuclear warfare. In effect the objectives of the TPNW are considered neither politically attainable nor a constructive contribution to world order. See response to Q-5 for more detail.

3) Can you comment on the most concerning geopolitical shifts or points of confrontation that are directly pertinent in this current age of autocrats?

 

The most serious geopolitical concern to rise to the surface relates to the increase of tension and hostility between the United States and China. This disturbing development that threatens a second cold war, with a mixture of similarities and rather distinct differences from the Cold War between the Western alliance led by the U.S. and the Soviet Bloc dominated by the USSR, and waged mainly on Third World battlefields and via ideological competition for hearts and minds in the West. In contrast, the emergent confrontation with China focuses on trade wars and friction between China’s claims of  to a regional sphere of influence and growing technological superiority and the U.S. resolve to retain its globality, an extensive reality as the first global security state in history with even cosmic pretensions manifest in extending geopolitical rivalry including war preparations to space. In the background is the Thucydides Trap by which historical experience would seem to incline the U.S. to have recource to war to fend off China’s challenge to overtake the U.S. as the ascendant world power. We should also be nervous about what I call ‘the Clausewitz Trap’ by which ‘the fog of peace’ blinds powerful states to the benefits of peace, as well as to the terrible costs of war and the high costs of preparations for geopolitical war, which is raised to apocalyptic heights by risks of nuclear war. Unlike the Cold War, there was not present challenges of the magnitude or severity of the climate change crisis, which requires focused geopolitical attention which will be almost impossible to achieve if the U.S. and China end up with a confrontation comparable to that of the post-1945 Cold War.

 

The alignments of such a struggle for global ascendancy emphasize the secondary roles of India and Russia, as well as the diminished role of Europe as the geopolitical epicenter of geopolitical confrontation. Also, the West relied on ‘containment’ to address the supposed danger of Soviet expansionism, but can China be similarly ‘boxed in’ considering that its primary modes of expansionism have been based on soft power instruments, which have been economistic, as well as by providing win/win infrastructural assistance to vulnerable countries throughout the world, especially in Africa and Central Asia.

 

There are also significant shifts in geopolitical alignments at the regional level. In the Middle East, although commentary is fraught with uncertainty, the primary alignment of the Arab countries has shifted from antagonism toward Israel to Iran, with Israel becoming a tacit partner and coupled with U.S. backing. This has effectively marooned the self-determination struggle of the Palestinian people, leaving them more dependent than ever on their own efforts to resist Israeli occupation and annexation as reinforced by global solidarity initiatives such as the BDS campaign. It should be noted that this geopolitical shift from an anti-Israeli to an anti-Iranian focus is fragile, reflecting elite recalculations that ignore the continuing solidarity of the citizenries of the Arab countries with the Palestinian struggle.

 

The various Asian regions have also shifted their policy agendas due primarily to the greater regional assertiveness of China as well as the more geopolitically aggressive stance taken by India under the autocratic leadership of Modi. There have been several severe issues of human rights in Asia that have raised regional tensions and global concerns that are manipulated by the background of U.S./China confrontation: suppression of protest activity in Hong Kong, oppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang Province, genocidal treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar, repression in Kashmir.

4) The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) website currently has their doomsday clock reading 100 seconds till midnight. This is a terrifying and unspeakable reality. What are your thoughts on the Bulletin as an indicator of possible nuclear war and devastation?

 

I believe the editorial consensus at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is the most objective and informed assessment of the risks of nuclear war that is available, and should be accorded respect by the public, media, and political leaders. In this case grave concern as was expressed by moving the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than at any time since it was established in 1947, and is now placed at 100 seconds away from doomsday, that is, nuclear conflagration. In an unusual move signifying deep concern, the Elders, a group of global leaders established by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to promote peace, justice, and human rights, endorsed this challenge to nuclear complacency.

 

What prompted this august body to issue this ominous distress signal is worth pondering, and commenting upon. The BAS called attention to three developments: deteriorating efforts to seek stability via arms control, highlighted by the abandonment of agreements in the context of U.S./Russia relations, which is alleged to weaken nonproliferation barriers; failures to address adequately the challenges of climate change; disinformation technologies that have undermined trust in state/society relations. I would question whether this assessment is adequate as it ignores the greater relevance of nuclearism to militarized geopolitics and it does not refer to the greater risks of war arising from the most dangerous intensification of geopolitical tensions, especially U.S./China but also U.S./Russia. The prospect of geopolitical confrontation, entailing arms races and periodic global crises is greater now than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As the current preoccupation with the Coronavirus Pandemic has dramatized, diverting attention from the urgent need to address the menace of climate change, world order will be greatly undermined by a new cold war even if it manages to avoid any use of nuclear weaponry. The global policy agenda seems incapable of mobilizing systemic responses to more than one issue at a time.

5) Can you talk about anti-war organizations and peace groups around the world at the local, state, national, and global level that are working hard to ensure that a cataclysmic event is avoided? How has this work changed over time over the course of your career and what are the prospects for it impacting policy.

 

There are many civil society organizations around the world dedicated to peace with and without support from some governments. In line with my earlier responses, the overall geopolitical situation is giving rise to a warmongering global atmosphere that is more dysfunctional than ever from the perspective of humane values, including ecological stability. I would stress the troublesome reality that the U.S. global decline in legitimacy and capability has left Washington without the confidence or imagination to exert global influence except by relying on its military might, making threats, imposing sanctions, while flaunting international law and the UN that has included repudiating the most important recent instances of global cooperation with respect to climate change and Iran’s nuclear program.

 

The realities of geopolitical confrontation and nuclearism are overshadowed in public consciousness by the concreteness of immediate pressures associated with the pandemic, climate change, global migration, economic downturns, and autocratic patterns of governance. This has led to public complacency about nuclear dangers, making the work of the global anti-war movement more difficult at the very time that it has never been more necessary. This necessity flows not only from dangerous international developments but also from complementary national developments associated with the spread of autocratic leadership more disposed to seek militarist and nationalistic approaches to security, including choosing sides in the intensifying hostility between the U.S. and China, especially in the region surrounding China.

 

Civil society energies have been devoted in recent years to promoting the UN Treaty on  Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), seeking the 50 ratifications needed to bring the agreement into force among the parties. So far, 44 countries have ratified the TPNW, although when negotiated in 2017, 121 countries approved, with only The Netherlands voting against, and Singapore abstaining, and at the time 82 governments signed the agreement as a step toward ratification. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2017, and widely understood as a step taken in recognition of the significance of its worldwide efforts to encourage support for TPNW, and of the assumed importance of the treaty.  We need ask the hard, somewhat uncomfortable question, ‘of what real impact will the TPNW if the nuclear weapons states oppose the treaty and are not bound by its terms?’

 

In view of the refusal of NATO countries to take part in even the negotiations of such an international agreement, and the issuance of a defiant statement of opposition by the U.S., UK, and France after the TPNW text was released, it has become evident that there is a fundamental cleavage in world politics between the nine nuclear weapons states, and especially the NATO nuclear powers, and most of the rest of the world. The NATO view implicitly affirms the permanence of nuclearism, resting its claims for stability and order on preventing further nuclear proliferation via the geopolitical implementation of the NPT regime to control non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons. For relations among states having nuclear weaponry, stability is achieved by relying on various forms of deterrence combined with the implementation of the nuclear apartheid regime.

 

It seems appropriate and timely to challenge this managerial approach to nuclear weapons, which actually supersedes the Nonproliferation Treaty, which called for reciprocal commitments to forego nuclear weaponry and to pursue in good faith nuclear disarmament. Instead the NATO managerial regime that emerged, has refused ever to consider nuclear disarmament as a policy option, refuses to validate the security claims of non-nuclear states facing dire threats, and claims a right of enforcement that contravenes the UN Charter and is not conferred by the text of the NPT. The illegitimacy and unlawfulness of nuclear apartheid should be a major focus of civil society activism and aspiration, but it should not be the whole story.

 

There are continuous developments that call for civil society initiatives, ranging from exerting pressure to seek verified nuclear disarmament, to opposing any resumption of weapon testing and the development of smaller nuclear weapons designed for possible battlefield use, to warning against costly and destabilizing nuclear arms races, and to exploring the connections between nuclearism and militarism.

 

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

16 Jul

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Darkening Sky over Palestine: Storm Clouds or New Dawn?

28 May

The Darkening Sky over Palestine: Storm Clouds or New Dawn?

 

Looking upward, the sky above Palestine has darkened, but whether portending a storm or nightfall is uncertain.

If, de jure annexation will go forward, then the sky is likely to emit thunder and lightning. When the storm passes, nothing will seem changed. Annexation is being discussed as if a game changer yet ‘annexation’ has already taken place in the form of settlements, the separation wall, denial of building and residence permits to Palestinians living in Area C, and long-affirmed Israeli sentiments of biblical entitlement solidified by continued tradition of affirming the territory the British administered as ‘Palestine’ between the two world wars as ‘the promised land’ of the Jewish people. All that changes is retaining what has long been the palpable absurdity of a commitment a to a two-state solution that Israel never wanted in its only legitimate form of two sovereign states, equal in all respects, including security.

Retaining zombie versions of the two-state mantra allowed European governments, liberal Zionists, and the UN to claim that they had not renounced their commitment to peace based on a territorial compromise between the two peoples. ‘The land for peace’ formula never encompassed the breadth and depth of Palestinian justifiable grievances, virtually abandoning millions of refugees stranded for generation in refugee camps. Israel from the outset of the two-state consensus exhibited what can most generously be called ambivalence toward ever tolerating the establishment of even an ‘unequal’ Palestinian state, as distinct from welcoming as now, a Palestinian statelet, and being done with the complaints about the denial of the inalienable right of self-determination. Israel relentlessly created conditions on the ground by its promotion of the overtly unlawful settlement movement that even made the prospect of a statelet seem less like a micro-state such as Andorra, and more like a subjugated South African bantustan.

Increasingly over the years since 1967, it became plain for all but the willfully blind to take note of Israel’s defiant implementations of its unlawful territorial ambitions that made the prospect of a genuine Palestinian sovereignty delusional to the point of irrelevance. Any yet the Palestinian Authority and liberal Zionism in America continue to cling uncritically to the two-state goal by refusals to take proper account of the constantly accumulating facts on the ground and the significance of one-sided security demands in the Oslo negotiations. Long ago it was clear that the best that the Palestinians could hope for was a modified structure of Israeli hegemony, prefigured by the cruelties of Gaza ‘disengagement,’ which in effect would function as a minimal, quasi-sovereign state with juridical equality but existentially as subjugated as during the lengthy occupation of the West Bank. It remains uncertain whether Israel is seeking a hegemonic ceasefire in an agreement mislabeled as ‘peace’ or pursuing an end game that envisioned an Israeli one-state outcome. It was an open question whether in such a ‘solution’ Palestinians would be granted second-class citizenship similar to what has been conferred behind the green line or some sort of third-class variant designed to make sure that Israel never faces the demographic threat of no longer being a Jewish majority state.

Such Israeli ambitions proceeded behind a public relations smokescreen of sweet reasonableness that became no longer necessary when Trump added geopolitical muscle to an Israeli victory scenario, which was not quite explicitly affirmed but packaged as ‘the deal of the century.’ As preceded by U.S. giveaways to Israeli expansion as cutting of UNRWA funding for Gaza, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the American embassy, and endorsing the Israeli annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, Trump’s hyper-partisanship fooled almost no one, not even the PA. It would be an insult to the political intelligence of the Palestinian people to except anything other than a rejection o this poisoned chalice was offered to the Palestinians. Israelis fully realized that what Washington was offering was no deal, but ‘the gift of the century,’ and there was no time to waste as Trump might disappear after the 2020 elections, requiring a return to the slow dance demanded by the American bipartisan consensus that has been the quiet enabler of Israeli expansionist moves ever since Israel was established in 1948, as distinct from the raucous cheerleading emanating from the West Wing of the Trump White House.

What is the nature of this gift so neatly wrapped by Kushner’s stealthy maneuvers? It is a strong-armed attempt to confer legitimacy on decades of unlawful Israeli expansionism and apartheid governance carried on while the U.S. winked in public, and its leaders smiled to Zionist donors in private. What failed as partisan diplomacy during the Clinton/Bush/Obama presidencies has been repudiated. In its place, with only the thinnest of disguises veiling the true nature of the Trump approach, is nothing other than a coercive geopolitical initiative with only a nominal pretense of diplomatic give and take. It is not only Trump + Netanyahu/Gantz that makes this an opportune moment for Israel to crush the Palestinian struggle once and for all. Such an initiative is also helped by the regional confrontation of the Arab Gulf countries with Iran, which leads the governing Arab regimes to throw the Palestinians under the nearest bus, and doing so despite the abiding solidarity of the Arab people with the Palestinian struggle to end their prolonged and insufferable ordeal as victims of Israeli settler colonialism sustained by apartheid structures of governance. For what ends do the Arab governments defy the wishes of their own publics? To please Washington and Tel Aviv, and by doing so, joining forces with Israel to crush the Iranian regional challenge, by inducing its withdrawal from any further active role in regional policies, or more ambitiously, by producing regime change in Tehran.

Will this storm, if it materializes, alter the present play of forces? It seems doubtful. Palestinians, may be discouraged by these dark clouds hovering over their collective destiny, but their perseverance, resilience, and resistance has been demonstrated over and over again for more than a hundred years. Of course, nothing should be taken for granted. If Israel goes ahead with its annexation plans in the West Bank, the Palestinian response will be watched closely as an indicator of the intensity with which la lucha continua. It is possible that Israel will somewhat back down on annexation, at least temporarily, because outsiders, including Jordan, the EU, the UN, liberal Zionism in the diaspora do not want to legalize the facts on the ground almost as much as they do not want to challenge them in any credible manner. Legalization will make the two-state delusion even less tenable than now, and then what? A reluctant acceptance of the lost cause scenario, acknowledging that the Trump/Israel game plan has prevailed, and that the long effort to find a compromise has failed. But will legality confer legitimacy? Or quell resistance? Not for long, if at all.

Here is where the split between the top down perspective of political elites will again diverge further from the bottom up approach of transnational movement politics. The top down approach will grimace, but cave in, implicitly accepting ‘the new normal’ of annexation. The bottom up approach is likely to be enraged and energized, insisting that these moves coordinated between Washington and Jerusalem have no relevance to the status of Palestinian grievances, and merely underscore the criminalization of this move to acquire sovereign rights over occupied Palestinian territory taken by force in the 1967 War. Such a land-grabbing territorial claim was unanimously rejected even in the midst of the Cold War by UN Security Council in Resolution 242, which was repeatedly reaffirmed as the basis for peace in numerous subsequent resolutions, as well as mandating a diplomatic path to peace in Resolution 338 by a 14-0 vote.

Yet might it be nightfall, a long prelude to a new dawn. The sheer injustice of such arrogant geopolitics may be a red line, which when crossed, results in real changes in the balances of forces that will turn out to be helpful for the Palestinian struggle. It is this prospect that has led some stalwarts of the Israeli security establishment and several of the most militant Zionists to break ranks, opposing annexation, at least now for a series of tactical reasons—provoking Jordan, troubling liberal Zionists, alienating Europe, arousing the Arab street, weakening bipartisan support in the U.S., strengthening the BDS Campaign, discrediting the 2018 IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of ‘anti-Semitism,’ ending collaborative relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, promoting Palestinian unity efforts, weakening the anti-Iran coalition, and generating a Third Intifada. If some of these reactions occur it will produce a new stage of struggle, which could even lead toward increasing boycotts directed at Israel, and greater mainstream advocacy of sanctions, especially in Europe, which could mean a loss of Israeli expansionist legitimacy rather than its gain, and in time lead to an Israeli search for a better alternative for its own future than annexation sustained by apartheid.

And what is a better alternative? This question can only be answered by the Palestinian people through their authentic representatives. Even so, there are certain preconditions that must be met if the lessons from the past are to have been learned by the mapmakers of the future. The most important lesson involves the recognition that Israel’s security has long presupposed an apartheid framework of Israeli Jewish domination of the Palestinian people as a whole. This means that Israeli apartheid extends beyond occupation to encompass refugees, involuntary exiles, and the non-Jewish minority in Israel. It resembles South African apartheid as resting on the subjugation of one race by another for purposes of sustaining domination in a manner violating international criminal law. This authoritative understanding is set forth in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973), and listed as a Crime Against Humanity in Article 7(j) of the Statute governing the International Criminal Court.

By ‘a new dawn’ is meant an Israeli change of view as to identity and national security in response to a changed perception of how to improve their overall situation domestically and internationally. There was no moral awakening among the Afrikaner leadership in the early 1990s that led to the previously unthinkable release of Nelson Mandela from prison as preparatory to negotiating the dismantling of the apartheid regime of control established to control the majority African population. It was a recalculation of interests on the part of the white elite governing the country, which went against the assumptions prevailing at the time that the only way for the white domination to persist was by maintaining apartheid and the only way to create peace within and without was by ending apartheid. Israel’s situation is different, reflecting the Zionist imperative to maintain permanently a Jewish demographic majority, the façade of a democratic political structure, and a hegemonic ethnic identity that is coupled with a universal and exclusive right of return. These policy priorities meant that direct control needed to be combined with periodic episodes of ethnic cleansing and a politics of fragmentation. Israel’s early challenges were formidable, maintaining such control and dispersion at a time when European colonialism was under successful attack throughout Asia and Africa, and collapsing despite superior battlefield capabilities. In this respect, Israel has so far succeeded in establishing a settler colonial state of the Jewish people, and has been able to gain diplomatic legitimacy outside its region and through admission to international institutions, including the United Nations.

On the basis of this understanding, it is obvious that ending the occupation would not bring a sustainable peace because its formula of ‘land for peace’ ignores, or at best marginalizes more than five million Palestinian refugees and exiles. Even if that large elephant in the room was to be politely ignored, or minimized, as it was during the Oslo ‘peace process’ or by the UN ‘roadmap,’ it would not be possible to actualize a lasting peace so long as the settlers and their armed settlements retained the best land in the territory that had been set aside for an independent Palestinian state. It is supremely unlikely that settlements on this scale could be dismantled or remain but demilitarized and entrust their fate to the vagaries of Palestinian security control.

Ending apartheid is the only way to end Palestinian resistance, and given the psycho-political realities of the post-colonial world, the fierceness of such resistance will occasion cycles of intensifying harshness of Israeli oppressive control. This has been the meta-narrative of the conflict since Israel established statehood despite anti-colonial historical circumstances, and the Palestine endured the Nakba, as event and process. And if apartheid is ended, transition to a peaceful future would require some formula for a shared destiny based on equality and a reckoning with the past to heal wounds. It is difficult, verging on impossibility, to envisage such a future. Yet anything else dooms both peoples to an unjust social, political, and legal order that can only be sustained or challenged by continued modalities of violent control and resolute resistance. The Palestinian and Jewish peoples deserve more humane prospects, and let us hope that the annexation debacle will force an opening of this gate to a better future that has been kept locked far too long.