Tag Archives: Putin

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.

Sputnik News Agency Interview on G20 Meeting and U.S./Russia Relations

2 Dec

 

Sputnik News Agency Interview on G20 Meeting and U.S./Russia Relations

 

(Prefatory Note:What follows are my responses to questions addressed to me by Sputnik News Agency in Moscow. These responses were submitted on December 1, 2018. Although the focus was on the ongoing G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, the real concern was the future of U.S./Russia relations and how these relations should be managed to avoid arms races, geopolitical rivalry, and ideological tensions. Ironically, of all the weaknesses in the Trump approach to the world, his apparent wish for a normalized relationship with Russia was what most antagonized the American political class, whether Democrat or Republican. Indeed, it so antagonized the established order in this country to such a degree as to undermine Trump’s apparent intention to downgrade NATO and Atlanticism while normalizing and improving relations with Russia. It is always uncertain to assess the real motivations of Trump, which here may involve some kind of vulnerability on his part for undisclosed and awkward economic entanglements or embarrassing personal behavior, but whatever the explanation, the world would be better off with a positive geopolitical atmosphere, and that means cooperative behavior with Russia and China. In our delegitimizing of Trump it is important not to lose sight of the ingredients of sustainable world peace. The Sputnik text is slightly modified.)   

  1. The talks of G20 leaders led to a possible breakthrough on the global trading system. How likely is any progress to be achieved? Will the US be onboard with this?

 

I would be very surprised if there is any outcome of the G20 meeting that can be properly called a ‘breakthrough.’ The leaders of these governments do not have a shared understanding of what would constitute a mutually beneficial world trade framework. Perhaps, such a consensus never existed, yet in the period after World War II, the United States leadership of the West was able to generate what has alternatively been call ‘the liberal economic order’ or ‘the Washington consensus.’ These arrangements rested on giving the World Bank and IMF a central role in stabilizing global conditions, including currency markets, and rested on a rule-based set of procedures. Its performance was assessed almost solely by the rate of global economic growth, which overlooked both issues of the equitable distribution of the benefits of growth and the regulation of adverse ecological side effects.

 

Since the Trump presidency, there has emerged serious ambiguities as to whether the United States, the leading world economy, was itself willing to participate any longer in the liberal world order. Such doubts arose after Trump rejected the Trans Pacific Partnership, sought the renegotiation of North American arrangements set forth in the NAFTA agreements, and adopted a series of protectionist measures inconsistent with the promotion of the most efficient use of capital, a major guideline of the neoliberal ideology that guided American foreign economic policy ever since 1945.

 

The United States, in particular, during the Trump presidency regards world trade as a s sequence of transactions rather than as systemic aggregate of institutions, rules, and procedures by which to regulate and facilitate transnational capital flows and trade relations. By this I mean, that the U.S. wants now to proceed on the basis of economic advantage for itself in each economic policy context rather than promote an overall framework that benefits all participants in the world economy. Under Trump the United States no longer perceives the more structural advantages of having a global trading system that provides a framework that binds together all countries that adhere to principle of market economics on the assumption of shared interests. Of course, such a framework is only a practical possibility if there is a strong political will on the part of leading governments to proceed in this manner. It is difficult to be confident about making assessments of government intentions, but I think most governments would still like to retain a systemic framework for the world economy with the exception of the United States, which wants to leverage its strength in a more flexible and muscular diplomatic atmosphere. We should await the final declaration from Buenos Aires before reaching firm conclusions as to whether this cleavage will be exposed or hidden from public view.

 

This is a different cleavage than existed during the Cold War when fundamental ideological differences led to dual structures for international and transnational economic relations. During the Cold War the market economies organized their trade and fiscal relations within the liberal framework established under American leadership. The Soviet bloc of countries was neither invited to join this liberal world order nor did it seek entry, but rather maintained its economic relations based on the orientation of state socialism as tempered by Soviet hegemonic leadership and the pursuit of national and regional interests.

 

  1. Meanwhile, Trump is reportedly ready to hold talks with Putin after Russia releases Ukrainian sailors. How high are hopes that the two leaders will sit down for talks in the future given the development?

 

It is important for Russian society to understand that Trump seems to be handling diplomacy particularly with Russia, but also with other countries, mainly on the basis of his calculations of domestic politics in the United States as connected with his ‘America First’ mantra. Anti-Trump forces in the U.S. have, wrongfully in my view, concentrated their criticism of Trump, including the apparent focus of the investigations of wrongdoing by the Special Counsel, on the supposedly improper relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential elections. In doing this, it overlooks the importance of establishing peaceful and constructive relations between Russia and the United States, keeping in mind that these two dominant states are the world’s leading nuclear weapons states. World peace depends on avoiding a second Cold War in any form, and this reality is obscured by the focus on alleged Russian interference in the American elections and Trump’s supposed collusion in this process.

 

Some degree of interference no doubt occurred, but it should have raised few eyebrows in Washington, have been a staple instrument of American soft power intervention in many countries over the course of several decades. Furthermore, the belligerent tone of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as well as the outlook of her closest advisors, gave good reason for Moscow to fear a Clinton victory in 2016, and do their best to avoid such an outcome. This is not intended to reject efforts to insulate American elections from manipulation from without or within. When thinking of the wrongfulness of Russian tactics we as a country tend to overlook the wrongfulness of gerrymandering, racial bias, special interests and money being used to manipulate election results in the United States. Both types of interference are incompatible with a legitimate democratic political process.

 

On the immediate prospects for productive relations with Russia following the Ukrainian incidents, I think it is likely that bilateral talks can be held in coming months, maybe even in coming weeks. It should be realized, however, that the main American focus now is in resetting the economic relationship between the United States in China in ways that avoid a trade war and do not make either side appear to be the loser in this important confrontation. In actuality, most attention at the G20 meeting in the West was given over to the question as to whether the U.S. and China could use the occasion to agree on a political compromise, which would undoubtedly benefit the world as a whole. The failure to reach such a compromise could produce detrimental effects for the world economy, as well as raise political tensions and risks of regional, and even global warfare. Therefore, the so-called ‘truce’ reportedly agreed upon by Trump and Xi Jinping were viewed positively at the G20 as constituting an informal agreement to defer American tariffs on Chinese metal exports in exchange for a Chinese commitment to purchase more exports from the United States. It is notable that this stepping back from an economic confrontation required China to make a gesture of acceptance of the American complaints as well as deferring indefinitely American efforts to gain short-term advantages by raising tariffs on goods imported from China. The central drama on the global stage is now how the United States and China will handle their conflicts in the South Asia islands and with regard to trade. The relationship of the West with Russia is of secondary importance. The status of Russia as a major political actor has been significantly restored in the era of Putin’s leadership, but it remains secondary except in certain limited spheres, such as Syria or along its own borders.

 

Unfortunately, the relationship between Trump and Putin is seen by a broad spectrum of political opinion in the West as one where the challenge being posed is how to stand up to perceptions of renewed threats of Russian expansionism. This is why the Ukrainian incident is viewed as something more serious that the event itself. There is a fear, whether justifies or not, of Russian territorial ambitions that is being relied upon by militarist forces in the West to generate anti-Russian sentiments and expanded defense spending.

 

Unfortunately, President Putin did not help those seeking more benevolent relations with Russia by his unseemly show of friendship when greeting Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS) at the G20 meetings. These images were caught on camera by journalists, and widely shown here in the United States evoking commentary that interpreted this greeting as a cynical indirect endorsement by Putin of the gruesome murder of the Saudi journalist, Kamal Khashoggi. Trump has been under pressure to react to this murder, and widely criticized for reaffirming close alliance ties between Washington and Riyadh in the aftermath of the murder, but at least in the G20 context he displayed the good sense to keep his distance from MBS at least when cameras were around, and avoided any public or personal display of friendship for this discredited foreign leader.

 

At this point, the relationship between Putin and Trump are on the American side primarily reflections of political calculations about the effects on the upcoming 2020 presidential elections. Although still two years away, these forthcoming American elections are already shaping the behavior of Trump on such delicate matters as relations with Russia, and the American mood seems now to favor the adoption of a more confrontational approach toward both Russia and China.

 

  1. What is Trump’s earlier move to cancel the meeting indicative of?

 

As I have indicated, Trump’s recent behavior is responsive to growing pressures on his leadership from within the American political system, especially due to his low popularity with the public, the prospect of a damaging report by the Special Counsel investigating Trump’s alleged improper behavior, and the loss of control of Congress due to the outcome of the recent midterm election. He no longer acts as if free to pursue a policy of accommodation with Russia even if this is what he would wish. It is true that when he ran for president in 2016 Trump’s outlook dramatically contrasted with that of Hillary Clinton on the question of relations with Russia. Many Americans then worried about a new Cold War, voted for Trump solely to avoid a rise in tensions with Russia that seems certain to have followed had Clinton been elected. At the same time there remains a strong consensus that is bipartisan in character, and included the Pentagon and CIA, that leans toward a more aggressive approach toward Russia, even more so than toward China. It is in this general atmosphere that it is best to comprehend and interpret Trump’s behavior with regard to Putin and Russia generally. The revelations of Russian interference in American elections further hardens public attitudes in an antagonist direction.

 

On the other side, it is not clear what Russia seeks to achieve during G20 meetings and in its relationship with the United States at this point, although Moscow clearly seemed earlier to be receptive to the Trump approach, and gave many indications of wanting to restore normal peaceful relations. It also seemed that Putin would have welcomed a positive political atmosphere and encouraged robust economic and cultural interactions between the two countries.

 

The fault associated with these deteriorating prospects is not only with America. Russia could achieve a more favorable image in the world if it made some constructive initiatives such as the renewal of nuclear disarmament negotiations or the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East or the establishment of a global migration compact. Perhaps, we in the West are not aware of Russian attempts to contribute to a more peaceful and just world order, in which case a greater effort needs to be made to set forth the positive content of Russian foreign policy. As matters now stand, the Russian role is viewed through the prism of bullying the Ukraine and propping up the criminal Assad regime in Syria.

 

The Uses and Abuses of Uncertainty: The Case of Turkey

9 Sep

 

 

Webs of Uncertainty

 

One of the paradoxes of the digital age with its real time awareness is the degree to which information overloads clouds our imagination with cheaply achieved and false clarity, which in political contexts is often the Mad Men work of selective interpretation or deliberate manipulation. There are two types of uncertainty that complicate our perceptions of reality. There is, first of all, the ontological problems associated with a variety of uncertainties embedded in the unresolvable complexities of our experience in such ways that we make important decisions in the face of serious doubts. And secondly, there are often predispositional problems associated with the sources we choose to rely upon, the intrusion of our opinions, and under the influence of the worldview we adopt that biases understanding, sometimes intentionally, but usually, unwittingly.

 

A fundamental aspect of the human condition, philosophized brilliantly by Jacques Derrida, is a pervasive good faith uncertainty and undecidability that confusingly overlaps with the almost continuous need to act in the lifeworld, and then, despite this, assume responsibility for whatever decisions are taken. In effect, this makes the human condition ‘impossible’ because of this rooted unintelligibility of our experience, depriving the most momentous decisions of our daily life of any firm foundation in decidable fact. This realization is so deeply unsettling as to make its denial a sign of normalcy. Most of us arrange our lives so that this liminal uncertainty can be overlooked most of the time.

 

What is equally disturbing is the degree to which the technicians of public order are shaping our collective future from behind such a dark veil. Of course, this has long been true, but in the past the wider social consequences of disastrous choices tended to be relatively local and the leaders depended on special powers. Now leaders are expected to be ‘certain,’ as well as ‘objective,’ which means the job description includes a willingness to wear a mask of certainty that covers a face that is lined with tensions caused by acute doubt. Such expectations produce dishonesty in the political arena, but like our effort to minimize private uncertainty, many politicians are opportunistically able to treat the uncertain as certain, and by so doing, we drift as a species toward the abyss.

 

In modern times, the magnitude of technological capabilities have been continuously generative of unprecedented catastrophic dangers at the unfamiliarly grand scale of the species as well as habitual human threats and pitfalls experienced at various sub-species levels (nation, family, community). The warnings about climate change have raised this issue to a heightened level of global awareness, accompanied by a fatalistic denialism, as well as a set of politicized responses that up to this point fall well below what is required for a reasonable assurance of species sustainability.

 

 

The Turkish Internal Consensus

 

The experience of political rupture is another circumstance that exposes claims of certainty as pompous posturing, but also can bring forth distinctive forms of denialism that pretends that what is rather certain is mired in the swamps of uncertainty, and what is clear beyond a reasonable doubt, is to be treated as uncertain. Behind this manipulation of uncertainty is a political agenda, usually unacknowledged.

 

These reflections have been prompted by the various reactions to the failed July 15th coup attempt in Turkey. Within Turkey there is a strong consensus (estimated at between 80 and 90%) embracing most of the opposition forces in the country, but with exceptions. The consensus includes even many embittered secular opponents of Erdoğan’s leadership, believing that the attempted coup was the work of the Fethullah Gülen movement and that its leader in residence in the United States should be turned over to the Turkish government to face criminal prosecution for involvement in crimes of terror, murder, treason. Above all, the consensus proudly regards the defeat of the coup attempt as a great patriotic moment of mass support for Turkish democracy. The second element in this consensus is that the United States is somehow involved, and hence is almost certain to find an excuse to avoid extradition or deportation, and distract attention by harping on the importance of protecting the human rights of all Turks. The third element is that it is essential that the Turkish government, to restore a sense of security about the future, eliminate from various sectors of society adherents and operatives of the movement led by Fethullah Gülen. The fourth element is that the attempted coup was carried out in a bloody manner, killing and wounding many innocent civilians, and failed only because initiated ahead of schedule and poorly executed: Erdoğan escaped assassination by a mere 15 minutes and was then able to mobilize quickly the citizenry to take over public spaces in a bold, massive, and brave manner unprecedented in the context of coup politics, and indicative of the depth of anti-coup sentiment among the Turkish people and the intense support bestowed on Erdoğan for defeating the attempt with polls showing his post-coup popularity to have surged to 70% or more. I would maintain that this consensus in Turkey should be treated until reliably refuted as a generally authoritative account of the relevant events, while admitting that there are many complications that emerge if we look more deeply into the full implication of each of these four elements.

 

 

 

Erdoğan’s Critics: Governmental and Civil Society

 

 

In opposition to this consensus, the world press and Western governmental reaction basically ignores this consensus, and treats the coup events as if mired in uncertainty, an outlook coupled with antipathy toward Erdoğan and an overall ambivalence toward Turkey as a legitimate member of Western society despite its NATO membership and its support for the struggle against ISIS. I think there are important differences between the reasons underlying these attitudes that motivate overseas secular and Gülen Turks (and their influential friends around the world) and those that explain the somewhat convergent attitudes of Western governments.

 

To consider the prevailing attitudes of overseas Turks, it starts with hostility toward the Erdoğan leadership, contending corruption, authoritarianism, a hidden Islamic agenda, social conservatism, and a murderous war against Kurdish militants associated with the PKK, as well as against the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG). This is enough to generate antipathy that expresses itself by either ignoring or rejecting the consensus depicted above as dominating public opinion in Turkey. In this sense, the role and effect of the Gülen movement is either downplayed or problematized, and basically treated as either irrelevant or unproven, and criticism is mounted against all efforts of the Turkish government to rid itself and Turkish society of a secretive religious sect that preaches a message of peace and moderation, while acting subversively and violently. As well, the apparent links between Gülen and the CIA are not even considered worthy of mention.

 

When it comes to Western governments the response also revolves around distrust of Erdoğan, claiming that he is a Putinesque autocrat, but seeming to have their deepest concerns because Turkey is an unreliable ally that no longer can be trusted to follow the diktats of Washington. In this regard, Turkey’s recent turn toward Russia and Iran, initiatives that preceded the coup attempt, are viewed by the United States and Europe as geopolitically unwelcome. Already by 2010 Turkey worried Washington by turning strongly against Israel and by trying in collaboration with Brazil to resolve tensions with Iran by working out an agreement to store Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country. Then, of course, there was the tie to Fethullah Gülen and his movement, the dispersion of influential Gülenists around the world that often impacted on public official perceptions, and the mutually reinforcing distinct viewpoints associated with Gülenists and secularists together have created an informal international media counter-consensus to what is believed within Turkey.

 

I became personally suspicious of the ties with the CIA initially in 2010 when Fethullah Gülen personally and organizationally sided with Israel in the dispute with Turkey arising from Israeli commando attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel that was part of ‘a freedom flotilla’ seeking to break the blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian assistance to the entrapped Palestinians. It seemed a peculiar stand to be taken by a movement that purported to be devoted to peace and the spread of Islamic values. Then a couple of years later when invited to meet with some Gülen people in Istanbul my suspicions rose to near certainty. We were shown a short documentary in which James Baker, Madeline Albright, and Bill Clinton, that is, the reigning luminaries of both political parties, made separate appearances in the film to heap praise on Fethullah Gülen and his movement. I have been around long enough to know that this kind of promotional documentary was not an innocent and spontaneous display of enthusiasm for a secretive cult movement led by a mysterious Islamic preacher by the most prominent members of the American political establishment. It could not have happened without a strong government push, and one can only wonder why.

 

I did not believe, at the time, that these signs of governmental engagement was a prelude to a coup, but rather in the nature of a Plan B option in the event that Erdoğan slipped further from favor, and maybe served other purposes as well. There was also the possibility that the Gülen schools all over the world were being used as an effective means to penetrate some societies, such as those in Central Asia, places where American intelligence was weak. It is reported that Graham Fuller, who effectively backed Fethullah Gülen’s controversial request for a green card over the opposition of the State Department and the FBI, believed that such an educational network could be useful in gaining access to and recruits in otherwise closed foreign societies. Fuller had been CIA station chief in Istanbul before his retirement. Fuller claims a purity of intentions, and I have seen no hard evidence to the contrary, but the strong personal connection with Gülen given other confirming circumstantial evidence makes it reasonable to be suspicious.

As with the Turkish critics, the Western governments ignore the context of the coup attempt, and devote most of their attention to the post-coup crackdown on all suspected of any Gülen affiliation. Also, during the coup, diplomatic support for Ankara was not forthcoming, and a wait and see attitude seemed to carry the day. It may be that the West supposed that the coup attempt was the work of discontented Kemalists in the army and elsewhere, and its success would have been welcomed (as with Egypt in 2013). This distancing angered the Turkish government and people, and confirmed for many Turks suspicions about an American involvement as well as its unwillingness to lend support to a popularly elected government.

 

These suspicions are further confirmed by the evident reluctance of the United States to cooperate fully in seeking to grant extradition, which it must be said, does face legal obstacles in the best of circumstances. At the same time, if the U.S. Government wanted to back Turkey in this post-coup attempt atmosphere it could at least put Fethullah Gülen under temporary arrest or consider deporting him. One can only imagine the American reaction if Turkey was seeming to shield a person who was strongly believed by most Americans to be behind a coup attempt or major terrorist incident in the United States. Legalistic excuses would not begin to satisfy the American people in such a situation, and it will not satisfy, much less convince the Turkish people and their leadership given the near certainty, which has been attached to the allegation that Fethullah Gülen masterminded the events of July 15th. It should be recalled that the Russian grant of sanctuary to Edward Snowden was seen in the United States as an unfriendly act that harmed relations between the countries even though the nature of his alleged crime was distinctly ‘political’ in nature, and hence, non-extradictable.

 

An Uncertain Future

 

Among the uncertainties relevant to assessing the situation in Turkey is how the near future unolds. Will the West live with a Turkey that claims the prerogative of a sovereign state to pursue independently its own interests? Will the anti- Erdoğan campaign carry the day in the struggle for the control of world public opinion and shape Western policy toward Turkey? And, of course, will the Turkish government conform formally and in good faith to due process and the rule of law in the course of identifying those who can be reasonably charged with direct and indirect complicity in the coup attempt? (It worth noting that of the 55,000 or so who were originally subject to suspension or detention more than half have been restored to employment or released, according to the Minister of Interior). It is also most important, if Turkey is to regain respect beyond its borders, that it not mingle its legitimate grievances against the Gülen militants, operatives, and financial backers with separate concerns it might have about the opinions and loyalty of pro-Kurdish activists and ardent Kemalists.

 

This unfolding future should gradually tell us which mix of certainties and uncertainties will govern the Turkish internal and international future, and on that may hinge Turkey’s security and overall regional and global orientation, including the future of its relations with the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and its own regional neighborhood. Perhaps, underneath the immediacies of the situation, there are deeper forces at work in Turkey and elsewhere that are seeking to find new alignments that befit the realities of the post-Cold War world order. If this possibility were at the core of what is taking place, then it would not be startling to witness Turkey pulling slowly away from NATO, and finding its own path between East and West. At present, this seems unlikely as there remains in Ankara a strong bonding with the West despite these recent strains, but surely international relations have witnessed far stranger realignments over the course of the past century.

Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows

15 Sep

 

            The Putin Moment: Not only did Vladimir Putin exhibit a new constructive role for Russia in 21st statecraft, spare Syria and the Middle East from another cycleof escalating violence, but he articulated this Kremlin initiative in the form of a direct appeal to the American people. There were reasons to be particularly surprised by this display of Russian diplomacy: not since Nikita Khrushchev helped save the world from experiencing the catastrophe of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 by backing down and agreeing to a face-saving formula for both superpowers, had Moscow distinguished itself in any positive way with respect to the conduct of international relations; for Putin to be so forthcoming, without being belligerent, was particularly impressive in view of Obama’s rather ill-considered cancellation only a few weeks ago of a bilateral meeting with the Russian leader because of Washington’s supposed anger at the refusal of the Russian government to turn the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, over to the United States for criminal prosecution under American espionage laws; and finally, considering that Putin has much blood on his hands given past policies pursued in relation to Chechnya and in the autocratic treatment of domestic political opposition, it was hard to expect anything benevolent during his watch. And so Putin is emerging as a virtual ‘geopolitical black swan,’ making unanticipated moves of such a major character as to have the potential to transform the character of conflict management and resolution in the 21st century.  It should be understood that Putin could have stayed on the sidelines, and benefitted from seeing Obama sink deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire, and instead he stepped in with a momentous move that seems to have served the regional and global interest.

Putin has explained in a coherent manner in his opinion piece that was published in the NY Times on September 11th (without invoking the symbolism of  the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) that his approach to Russian foreign policy relies on two instruments: soft power and economic diplomacy. He acknowledged American leadership, but only if exercised within a framework of respect for international law and the UN Charter. And he appropriately took issue with Obama’s sentiments expressed a night earlier to the effect that America in its leadership role had a unique entitlement to use force to overcome injustice in situations other than self-defense and even without authorization by the UN Security Council. It was Putin, perhaps disingenuously, who claimed (quite correctly) that such a prerogative was “extremely dangerous.” He rejected Obama’s pretension that a unilateral discretion with respect to the use of force could be inferred from American exceptionalism. Whether disingenuous or not, the requirement of a Security Council authorization for non-defensive uses of force, while sometimes preventing a peacekeeping response by the UN to certain tragic situations of civil strife and humanitarian crisis overall contributed to finding diplomatically agreed upon solutions for conflict and enabled the UN (unlike the League of Nations) to persist despite severe tensions among its dominant members. Let hope that this Putin vituoso exhibition of creative diplomacy prompts his counterpart in the White House to explore more diligently soft power opportunities that will better protect American national interests, while simultaneously serving the global interest in war prevention and the rejection of militarism, and might also have the added benefit of reversing the steady decline of American credibility as a benevolent global leader ever since the end of the Cold War.

Constitutional Balance: Perhaps what might be of even greater importance than averting an ill-considered punitive attack on Syria, is the grounding of recourse to war on the major republican premise of Congressional authorization. There is little doubt that here the efficient cause and anti-hero was David Cameron, who turned to Parliament to support his wish to join with Obama in the attack coalition despite the anti-war mood in British public opinion. Cameron was politically spared by the vote of the House of Commons to withhold authorization. It is hard to believe that Obama’s decision to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress was not a belated realization that if Britain deferred to its Parliament as an expression of constitutional democracy, it would be unseemly for the United States to go to war without the formal backing of Congress. Of course, the Putin initiative saved Obama from the near certain embarrassment of being turned down by Congress, which would mean that either he would follow in Cameron’s and face savage criticism from his hawkish boosters or insist upon his authority as Commander in Chief to act on his own, a prerogative that seems constitutional dubious to support a bill of impeachment. Beyond this, the War Powers Act that would seem to require some emergency justification for the presidential bypassing of Congress in the context of a proposed military action. Hopefully, we are witnessing, without an accompanying acknowledgement, the downfall of the ‘imperial presidency’ that got its start during the Vietnam War. The governmental pendulum in the United States may have started to swing back toward the separation of powers and checks and balances, and thus be more in keeping with the original republican hopes of limited executive authority, especially in relation to war making. This renewal of republican constitutionalism, combined with growing populist skepticism about military adventures abroad, might make this Syrian crisis of decision a welcome tipping point, reversing the unhealthy subordination of Congress in war/peace situations during the last half century and anti-democratic disregard of the views of the citizenry.

But it is also possible that the imprudence of the proposed punitive strike against Syria will turn out to be a one-off experience, and that when and if Iran clearly crosses the weapons threshold in its nuclear program, the presidency will retrieve its lost claims to be the unilateral guardian of national, regional, and global interests without feeling that it must await authorization from the Congress and the UN. Note that Congressional approval, even if in concert with the President, cannot sanitize a use of force that is illegal under international law. It is the state as a whole that is bound by the constraints of international law, and not just the head of state. There are two distinct issues present: the domestic constitutional requirement of collective authorization for recourse to war by the United States; and the complementary international requirement of acting in compliance with international law and the UN Charter (which is itself acknowledged in supremacy clause of the Constitution with respect to validly ratified treaties).

Coercive Diplomacy: Obama/Kerry contend that Syria’s chemical weapons would never have been put under international controls and in an atmosphere of unprecedented international cooperation, but for the credible threats mounted by the U.S. Government. In this regard, the poker style bluff can be said to have worked without any sure proof that the threat would have been carried out in the face of a refusal by Congress to authorize and the public failure to show support for an attack. As matters now seem to be unfolding, assuming that the plans for abolishing the chemical weapons of Syria proceed as agreed, threat diplomacy will be applauded by the Obama administration without any widespread sensitivity to the fact that the international law as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits ‘threats’ as well as ‘uses’ of force, although such a prohibition has not been taken seriously as part of the ‘living law’ despite its status as a prime instance of ‘positive law.’ The categorical language of Article 2(4) is unmistakeable: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Syria and its People: In the background of the diplomatic controversy about what to do in response to the large-scale lethal use of sarin gas against the people of Syria on August 21st, was the awareness that such an attack did not even pretend to end the violence in Syria or to produce regime change in Damascus or to change the balance of force in the civil war. From this perspective, it seemed mainly a punitive strike that upheld Obama’s red line credibility, although there was an additional argument set forth that a military strike would have a deterrent impact on any contemplated future recourse to chemical weaponry by the Assad regime and other political actors, assuming that the allegations that the Syrian government order the attack are confirmed and reinforced by the reports of the UN inspection team and other respected sources.

What tends to be given only a secondary glance is the effects of an attack on the Syrian people who have been subject to a harrowing ordeal these past two years that has resulted in over 100,000 deaths, countless wounded, and an estimated 7,000,000, almost one-third of the population, as either internally displaced or forced into overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps in neighboring countries. Beyond this, the always vulnerable Palestinians have endured Syrian attacks on their refugee camps forcing them to flee once more, to become, quite incredibly, refugees from their refugee arrangements, a largely untold Palestinian tragedy hidden within the larger Syrian tragedy. There is almost no political will on the outside to do anything to stop either the proxy war being waged by states external to Syria or the internal struggle being waged by a fragmented opposition against a discredited government that has been incredibly cruel to its own citizens and strangely indifferent to the great cultural and religious heritage of their own country. There are even grotesque murmurings in the background of strategic chatter in Western circles, suggesting that the best outcome is not an end to the violence, but its indefinite continuation with an effort to calibrate future arms supplies and humanitarian aid with the principal aim of making sure that neither side can achieve victory. If this is not an exposure of the raw immorality of strategic discourse at its immoral nadir, I am not sure what would be.

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