Tag Archives: Ukraine War

[Prefatory Note: This is the third iteration of an essay on the evolution of the Ukraine War, the earlier two versions published online in Transcend Media Service (TMS) and CounterPunch. The essential argument remains: war-mongering geopolitics in the nuclear age imperils species survival and suppresses the necessity for emergency action to restore sustainable forms of ecological habitability to planet earth.]

25 Oct
RIP VAN WINKLE SLEEPS FOR 20 YEARS

Ukraine War Evolves: Who  Will Awaken Rip Van Winkle?

Disdaining Diplomacy, Seeking Victory

Ever since the Ukraine War started on February 24, 2022 the NATO response, mainly articulated and materially implemented by the U.S., has been to pour vast quantities of oil on the flames of conflict, taunting Russia and its leader, increasing the scale of violence, the magnitude of human suffering, and dangerously increasing the risk of a disastrous outcome. Not only did Washington mobilize the world to denounce Russia’s ‘aggression’, but supplied a steady stream of advanced weaponry in great quantities to the Ukrainians to resist the Russian attack and even mount counterattacks. The U.S. did all it could at the UN and elsewhere to build a punitive coalition supportive of international sanction hostile to Russia, and when this failed to gain sufficient support resorted to a range of national sanctions. The American president, Joe Biden, also breached diplomatic protocol by resorting to the demonization of Putin as a notorious war criminal unfit to govern and deserving of indictment and prosecution. This incendiary flow of state propaganda was faithfully conveyed by a self-censoring Western media filter that built public support for a Western posture of war rather than diplomacy. It did this primarily by graphically portraying on a daily basis the horrors of the war endured by the vivid portrayals of the sufferings being by the Ukrainian civilian population, something the media has been advised to avoid when dealing with U.S. regime-changing interventions or Israel’s violence and flagrant practices of collective punishment unlawfully inflicted on the Palestinian people.

This unduly provocative behavior, given the wider issues at stake, is underscored by a newly discovered West-oriented enthusiasm for the International Criminal Court, urging the tribunal to gather as much evidence as quickly as possible of Russian war crimes. This law-oriented posture is contradicted by intense past opposition to ICC efforts to gather evidence for an investigation of war crimes by non-signatories (of which Russia is one) in relation to the U.S. role in Afghanistan or Israel’s role in occupied Palestine. To some degree such one-sidedness of presentation was to be expected, and even justified given Russia’s aggression, which while irresponsibly provoked was still a breach of the most fundamental norm of international law. And yet the intensity of this NATO response in relation to Ukraine has been dangerously interwoven with an irresponsible and amateurishly pursued geopolitical war waged by the U.S. against Russia, and indirectly against China. It is so far a war fought without weapons, yet with a major potential impact on the the structure and processes of world order in the aftermath of the Cold War, further complicated by the ascent of China as a credible regional and even global rival to U.S. dominance. Such a geopolitical war proceeds on uncharted historical conditions. It is being waged in a manner oblivious to wider human security interests, and in a profound and perverse sense, contrary even to the wellbeing and fate of Ukraine and its people.

Despite the presence of these features of the Ukraine War, Western minds continue to view the conflict with one eye closed. Even Stephen Walt, a moderate and sensible self-styled realist commentator on U.S. foreign policy, and currently, a prudent, persuasive critic of the Biden failure to do his best to shift the bloody encounter in Ukraine from the battlefield to diplomatic domains nevertheless joins the war-mongering chorus by misleadingly asserting without qualification that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal, immoral, and unjustifiable..” [Walt, “Why Washington Should Take Russian Nuclear Threats Seriously,” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2022] It is not that such a characterization is incorrect as such, but unless supplemented by explanations of context it lends credibility to the war-oriented, self-righteous mentality displayed by the Biden presidency, while shielding its geopolitical war dimensions from scrutiny. Perhaps Walt and others of similar outlook were striking this posture of going along with Washington’s portrayal of the Ukraine Crisis as a tactical concession needed to be in a position to propose a Faustian Bargain of self-righteousness as a prelude to endorsing support for finally adopting a diplomatic stance toward ending the Ukraine War, and abandoning the ultra-hazardous militarist path toward victory for Ukraine and defeat for Russia. Perhaps, Walt frames his argument to gain a seat at the table with influential audiences in Washington. Understandingly believing that even their dire warnings about the rising escalation risks and to improve chances of advocacy of diplomacy will otherwise not even get a hearing from the foreign policy insiders advising Biden/Blinken. 

To be clear, even if it can be argued that Russia/Putin have launched a war that is unlawful, immoral, and unjustified, the wider geopolitical context remains imperative if peace in Ukraine is to be restored and global catastrophe avoided. For one thing, the Russian attack may be as wrong as alleged, and yet conforms to a geopolitical pattern of established  behavior that the U.S. has itself been largely responsible for establishing in a series of wars starting with the Vietnam War, and notably more recently with the Kosovo War, Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War. None of these wars were legal, moral, and justifiable, although each enjoyed a geopolitical rationale that made them seem sufficiently desirable to U.S. foreign policy elites and its closest alliance partners to be worth undertaking despite violating these norms. Of course, two wrongs do not make a right, but in a world where geopolitical actors enjoy a license to pursue vital strategic interests within traditional spheres of influence, it is not objectively defensible to self-righteously condemn Russia without taking some principled account of what the U.S. has been doing around the world for several decades. Antony Blinken may tell the media that spheres of influence became a thing of the past after World War II, but he must have been asleep for decades not to notice that the Yalta Agreement on the future of Europe reached in 1945 by the Soviet Union, United States, and the United Kingdom was premised on precisely the explicit affirmation of such spheres, which in retrospect, however distasteful in application, deserve some credit for keeping the Cold War from becoming the disaster of all disasters, World War III fought with nuclear weapons far more potent than the atomic bombs that so apocalyptically devastated the people and cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such compromised sovereignty of these borderland countries is descriptive of the often tragic prerogatives claimed by so-called Great Powers throughout the history of international relations, not least by the United States through the Monroe Doctrine and its extensions. In this sense, Ukraine finds itself in the long unenviable position of Mexico, and indeed all of Latin America. Many years ago the famous Mexican cultural figure, Octavio Paz, proclaimed the tragedy of his country ‘to be so far from God and yet so close to the United States.’

The UN  Itself a Vehicle of Geopolitics more the International Law

In a somewhat insightful fit of frustration, George W. Bush after a failure to gain UN Security Council authorization in 2003 for the use of non-defensive regime-changing force against Iraq, declared that the UN would lose its ‘relevance’ if it failed to go along with the American imperial plan of action, and so it has. The ambiguity as to international law arises from the UN Charter own equivocation, asserting that all non-defensive uses of force are prohibited, a position reinforced by the amended Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court by declaring ‘aggression’ as a crime against the peace, while conferring a conferring a right of veto on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. How can this right of veto be conferred on these five states, which has the effect of precluding any Security Council decision that clashes with their strategic interests, be reconciled with the Charter and international law prohibition on aggression? Of course, Bush’s frustration was more extreme in the sense that he was expecting the Security Council to sanitize a proposed unlawful war of aggression against Iraq, that is, in a fit of unipolar arrogance, this American president expected that even the veto powers would fall in line, and offer the US/UK attacking coalition the legitimacy of UN authorization. When this was not forthcoming the U.S. did not adjust its war plans, but resorted to this dismissal of the UN.

The right of exception as embodied in the constitutional framework of the UN is not some peculiar anomaly, and the failed Bush override was an unusual rebuff of imperial geopolitics that flourished after the Cold War. It was seldom notice that such developments were indirectly anticipated by post-1945 experience of international criminal law, which from Nuremberg to the present has exempted from accountability dominant geopolitical actors, even for such incredible acts as the dropping of atomic bombs on overwhelmingly civilian targets at the end of World War II. This gray zone separating law from power continues to be the accepted playground of geopolitical actors, never so dangerous as when its prerogatives, alignments, and constraints are in flux. The Russian and Chinese challenges can be best interpreted as seeking to restore the framework of geopolitical bipolarity (or modified to accommodate tripolarity) that collapsed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This situation led the U.S. to fill the resulting vacuum with a militarist/neoliberal form of geopolitical management consisting of full spectrum dominance of the instruments of warfare and an ideological insistence that the legitimacy of the internal political order of a sovereign state depended on its adherence to a market-driven logic of private sector dominance at home and internationally, the s0-called ‘Washington consensus.’ The momentous open question, aside from worrying about how and when the war in Ukraine will end, is whether the geopolitical world order resting on U.S. primacy will be confirmed or modified. If confirmed it will extend the period of unipolarity that followed the end of the Cold War. If modified, it will usher in a new era of geopolitics requiring a new framework of meta-legal accommodation. In either case, there exists the additional uncertainty as to whether post-Ukraine world order will be oriented toward cooperation and the production of global common goods or with hegemonic and conflictual priorities.

Geopolitical Practice: Prudent or Irresponsible

These considerations are mentioned here not to defend, much less exonerate Russia, but to show that the world order context of the Ukraine War is deeply problematic in relation to U.S./NATO claims of normative authority, especially when invoked in such a partisan manner. In contemporary geopolitical relations, as distinct from normal state-to-state or international relations, precedent and Great Power experience generally act as substitutes for norms and rule-governed behavior, at least on matters of peace, national security, and public economic policy. What the U.S. claims the right to do and does, can be generally done subsequently by other sovereign states, especially those with some level of geopolitical entitlement. Blinken has again muddied the waters of international discourse by falsely claiming that the U.S., unlike adversaries China and Russia, is as observant of rule-governed behavior in a similar manner to that regulating the behavior of ‘normal states’ in relation to matters of vital strategic interests

To gain a clearer and more objective perspective on aspects of Russian behavior in Ukraine it seems appropriate to look back at NATO’s clearly unlawful war of 1999. This non-defensive war, unauthorized by the UN, fragmented Serbia by coercively supporting Kosovo’s claimed right of secession, including political independence and territorial sovereignty. Account should be taken of this Kosovo precedent before uncritically condemning the Russian annexation of four parts of eastern Ukraine, rationalized as the exercise of rights of self-determination in the light of alleged Serbian abuse, and supposedly validated by after administering widely condemned referenda. Yet even here an understanding of past geopolitical behavior is instructive. The NATO military victory didn’t even bother with a referendum before implementing Kosovo’s secession.

The point is not to condemn all such undertakings without legal authority by recognizing that there may be extreme cases where the fragmentation of existing states is justifiable on humanitarian grounds and others where it is not, but to claim that Russia overstepped the limits of law in a context where power has been consistently shaping behavior and political outcomes in similar cases is to prepare the public for a wider war rather than leading it to seek and be pragmatically receptive to a diplomatic compromise. In effect, I am arguing for the wisdom and virtue of what might be described as geopolitical humility and self-restraint: do not require of others, what you have yourself done, or at the very least explain non-polemically what is the difference between say Dombas and Kosovo that makes the former unlawful and illegitimate and the latter lawful and legitimate. In the complexity of internal struggles of a beleaguered ethnic or religious minority it is along the same lines helpful to acknowledge that Moscow and Washington ‘see’ the same realities of the Dombas and Kosovo in contradictory ways.

This contextual understanding of the Ukraine War is in my judgment highly relevant as it makes the current fashion of mounting legal, moral, and political arguments of condemnation distract attention and energies from following otherwise rational, prudent, and pragmatic courses of action, which from day one of the attack on Ukraine strongly supported the wisdom of making an all-out effort to achieve an immediate ceasefire followed by negotiations aiming at durable political compromises not only between Russia and Ukraine, but also between Europe/U.S. and Russia. That the U.S. Government never to this day has publicly manifested any such interest, much less setting forth a commitment to stopping the killing and devastation by encouraging diplomacy, in the face of mounting costs and escalation risks associated with prolonging the warfare in Ukraine. Such geopolitical recklessness should be shocking to the conscience of peace-minded persons and patriots of humanity everywhere.

Beyond the immediate zones of combat, catastrophic costs are presently being borne by many vulnerable societies throughout the world from the spillover effects of the war, magnified by anti-Russian sanctions and their major impact on food and energy supplies and pricing. Such a deplorable situation, likely to get worse as the war goes on and likely intensified in the coming Winter months. Beyond this it is now also bringing closer to reality the growing danger of the use of nuclear weapons as Putin’s alternatives may be narrowing to a personal willingness to accept responsibility for a Russian defeat or to give up his status as autocratic leader. While not relenting a bit on implementing an aggressive approach to gaining Ukraine’s ambitions of victory, Biden himself incredibly acknowledges that any use of even a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine would with near certitude lead to Armageddon. This paradoxical duality (combining escalating the war and anxiety as to where it might lead) seems more like a mindless embrace of geopolitical insanity than a sobering balancing of the contradictory somber realities at stake in Ukraine. We can ask when will this Rip Van Winkle of our time awaken to the realities of the nuclear age?

As always actions speak louder than words. Blinken facing a rising public clamor for negotiations, especially in Europe, responds with his usual feckless evasions. In this instance, contending that since Ukraine is the victim of Russian aggression it alone has the authority to seek a diplomatic resolution and the U.S. will continue to support Ukraine’s maximal war aims, supposedly, for as long as and for whatever it takes, including recently even the extension of Ukraine war aims to the recovery of Crimea, which has been widely accepted internationally as reabsorbed by Russia since 2014.

Context also matters in relation to the conduct of the war. Its major escalation within the month of the sabotage of Nord Stream1 & 2 gas pipelines to Europe, which Blinken once more confounded by this act of sabotage outside the war zone by calling it ‘a tremendous opportunity’ to make weaken Russia and force Europe to intensify their efforts to gain energy independence. Such an operation initially implausibly attributed to Russia by the U.S., yet later more or less acknowledged as part of the expansion of the war by reliance on ‘terrorist’ tactics of combat. This latest expression of state terrorism is the suicide bombing of the strategic Kerch Straight Bridge on October 7th, connecting Crimea and Russia, a major infrastructure achievement of the Putin period of Russian leadership, as well as a symbolic expression of relinking Crimea to Russia serving as a supply line for Russian troops operating in the Southern parts of Ukraine. These extensions of the combat zone and tactics beyond the territory of Ukraine contain the fingerprints of the CIA and seems designed as encouragement of Ukrainian resolve to go all out for a decisive victory, sending Putin unmistakable signals that the U.S. remains as unreceptive as ever to a responsible geopolitics of compromise. Biden reportedly refuses even to respond favorably to Putin’s apparent initiative that the two leaders discuss their differences at the G-20 meeting in Indonesia. Biden’s characteristic response was a defiant refusal, subject only to reconsideration if the meeting was limited to negotiating the release of an American female pro basketball player being held in Russia on drug charges. The U.S. anger directed at Saudi Arabia for cutting its oil production is an additional sign of a commitment to a victory scenario in Ukraine as well as a reaction against the Saudi resistance to U.S. hegemonic geopolitics in its co-management of OPEC+ with Russia. With such provocations, it is hardly surprising, although highly unlawful and immoral, for Russia to retaliate by unleashing its version of ‘shock and awe’ against the civilian centers of ten Ukrainian cities. Such is the course of these vicious cycles of escalation characteristic of the lawlessness of major warfare! The neglect of the relevant and shameful American precedents in Iraq and Afghanistan is also integral to sustaining a war mentality under siege.

Concluding Observations

Always lurking in the background, and at Ukraine’s and the world’s expense, is Washington’s geopolitical opportunism, that is, seeking to defeat Russia and deter China from daring to challenge the hegemonic unipolarity achieved after the Soviet disintegration in 1992. This huge investment in its militarist identity as the sole ‘global state’ that best explains such a cowboy approach to nuclear risk-taking and the tens of billions expended to empower Ukraine at a time of internal suffering in the U.S. and elsewhere coexisting with such a costly expression and dangerous expression of international overreach.

Such a tragic political drama unfolds as the peoples of the world and their governments, along with the United Nations, watch this horrendous spectacle unfold, seemingly helpless witnesses not only to stop the carnage, but also to do their best to curtail the spillover and Armageddon dangers, and even to react meaningfully against the potential supreme damage to their own national destinies.

ON LOVING THE ‘VIETNAM SYNDROME’

2 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in modified form in CounterPunch on September 30 2022. Its essential claim is that the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ exerted a desirable downward pressure on hawkish war making tendencies for a period of almost 20 years after the Vietnam War came to end. For those in the political elite in and out of government this was regarded as a negative spillover from a mismanaged war effort in Vietnam. For the anti-war movement this was a positive sequel to a war n Vietnam that should never have been fought, and was wrongly conceived as well as criminally executed. Not surprisingly, the foreign policy establishment carried the day, erasing memories of the Vietnam political defeat, and paving the way for new military misadventures. Never, in my opinion is the country and world more in need of a second coming of the Vietnam Syndrome than at present, with pressures building for an existential nuclear confrontation more menacing to contemplate than was the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago. To be balanced in assessing the global setting, Moscow would likewise gift the world if it emerged from the Ukraine War with some durable version of a ‘Ukraine Syndrome.’]

“Why I Love the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ of the People”

The Vietnam Syndrome was a term deployed after the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War to

explain and complain about the reluctance of the U.S. Government to use international force robustly in shaping its foreign policy. This reluctance was from its first enunciations resented by the foreign policy establishment in Washington including conservative think tanks. The language of ‘syndrome’ was interpreted by powerful men to refer to what they thought of as a psychic disorder afflicting the U.S. policy establishment that needed to be overcome as soon as possible. Yet to others, situated less prominently in the power structure, including myself, the Vietnam Syndrome was welcomed in the late 1970s as major component of long overdue prudent and principled post-Vietnam advocacy of a law-oriented U.S. foreign policy respectful of the self-determination rights of the Global South and restraints on the use of international force as enshrined in the provisions of the UN Charter.

Over the years, the Vietnam Syndrome lived this double life. One proposed cure was by way of the Weinberger Doctrine for those bristling under its restraining influence, which was formulated with the explicit intention of correcting the alleged government mismanagement of armed intervention in Vietnam over the course of a full decade. What Caspar Weinberger, a right-wing political figure and at the time Reagan’s Secretary of Defense proposed in 1983, was that the U.S, should not enter future non-defensive questionable foreign wars, with the Vietnam War uppermost as an example of what not to do. The Weinberger Doctrine set forth six conditions to guide policymakers: 

            “1)The commitment must be deemed vital to our national interest or               that of our allies. 

            2)It should be made “wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of   winning.” 

            3)Political and military objectives and the ways to meet them must       be clearly defined. 

            4)As conditions change, whether the commitment remains in the          national interest must be reassessed. 

            5)Before a commitment is made, there must be “some reasonable          assurance” of popular and congressional support. 

            6)A commitment to arms must be a last resort. “

Weinberger, in particular,  was particularly critical of the incremental character of the Vietnam engagement, which he contended, almost always ends in failure. Although Weinberger, and those on the Beltway who quickly subscribed to his prescriptions for the future, embraced the doctrine as a useful formula to gain political credibility in domestic foreign policy debates as well as victory in regime-changing and state-building wars of intervention (what Tom Friedman with customary arrogance later christened as law-free ‘wars of choice’). Read carefully, there are fundamental ambiguities in Weinberger’s formulation. It was never made clear whether the Vietnam War was vital to ‘our national interest’ or that its supporters lacked ‘the clear intention of winning.’ Yet it was hoped in Washington that the Weinberger Doctrine could put to rest the idea that under no circumstance should the U.S. expend blood of its citizen or treasure on non-defensive wars in the Global South. In this crucial sense, Weinberger’s views prevailed in policy circles and even somewhat in public opinion but failed when put to the test, reaching political outcomes resembling the Vietnam War rather than the standard model of the good war, World War IL.

Despite the bureaucratic backlash against a constrained foreign policy, sophisticated national leaders in the U.S. understood there was more political weight to the Vietnam Syndrome than setting forth a formula to ensure that policy-makers would not in the future commit the country to wars it could not win. It was thus not surprising that the first words uttered by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 after a U.S. led victory over Iraqi ground forces in the First Gulf War were “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndr0me once and for all.” The implicit claim was that the desert victory in conventional warfare would demonstrate to the American people and skeptical members of Congress that the U.S. could turn its military superiority into a political victory at acceptable costs in a time span that would not tax the patience of the American public. In other words, the American war machine was revamped to gain the kind of victory is was unable to achieve in Vietnam. Bush’s enthusiasm was ill-conceived and proved disastrously premature. First of all, the Vietnam War was a war of national resistance fought against Western colonialist forces by relying on guerrilla tactics, not a defensive conventional war designed to reverse Iraq’s aggression and annexation of Kuwait. Beyond this the military phase in the Gulf War was mandated by the UN Security Council and a regional consensus, with implementation delegated to an American-led coalition of countries and limited in its goals to restoring Kuwait territorial sovereignty.  Only hawkish ideologues and unperceptive commentators could in good faith confuse the First Gulf War with the Vietnam War.

Neo-conservative intellectuals eager to exploit the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s understood that the Vietnam Syndrome continued to stand in the way of their ideological commitments to democracy promoting military interventions, especially in the Middle East, by taking advantage of what they declared to be an opportune ‘unipolar moment.’ One of its prominent advocacy platforms, The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), actually recognized the political dependance of their expansionist program on ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ to reawaken the dormant fighting instincts of the American public. Although PNAC didn’t itself connect the dots, the Vietnam Syndrome had withstood earlier erasure efforts, and the rapturous welcoming of unipolarity had an abstract quality that did not overcome citizen qualms about Americans fighting and dying for the sake of a geopolitical abstraction. The Vietnam Syndrome was only existentially overcome in the public sphere by the 9/11 Attacks, which President George W. Bush seized upon in a moment of national hysteria to declare the Great Terror War in 2001. These attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were, in effect, the performative reenactments of Pearl Harbor that the PNAC was waiting for. Yet once again the analogy was disastrously misleading, inducing failures reminiscent of Vietnam that doomed U.S. political efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as indirectly in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The Weinberger Doctrine and revisions of counterinsurgency doctrine may have influenced the Pentagon to substitute air power and drones for boots on the ground to the extent possible and rely upon ‘shock and awe’ tactics to overwhelm a lesser adversary quickly, but as it turned out, these tactics were no more successful than what failed in Vietnam. In the end of costly, controversial, prolonged occupations of hostile societies the desired political outcomes were not attained in the targeted countries of the Global South. Despite the Soviet collapse the U.S. continued to encounter frustration in its attempts to manage geopolitics, especially when the political undertaking encompassed a regime-changing intervention with state-building along Western neoliberal lines.   

In my view, the dominant and sensible interpretation of the Vietnam Syndrome was as an inhibition on entry into non-defensive, essentially internal wars without at least the authorization of the UN and the conformity of the mission with international law. The Vietnam Syndrome was not initially articulated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War as a warning to war-mongering bureaucrats against fighting losing wars, but as opposition to all wars of intervention and aggression. This primary meaning of the Vietnam Syndrome has been lost over the decades, a casualty of state propaganda and a complicit media, reinforced by those private sectors that benefit from militarism and war. U.S. military overinvestment had succeeded in managing geopolitical power in the aftermath of the Cold War, but its innovations in weaponry and tactics achieved no notable political victories in wars surrounding the politics of national self-determination. What should arouse deep concern is that the militarist leanings of the government are undeterred by repeated experiences of failure, and keep trying, which adds to the devastation and suffering endured at the site of the struggle, and may defer the outcome, but it does not end in victory for the foreign intervenor, and hence is recorded as yet another political defeat. In one sense the Vietnam Syndrome was an acknowledgement that in these types of conflicts, military superiority had lost its historical agency. The Era of Western Colonialism was over, or at least coming to an end.

When the elder Bush was announcing to the world the burial of the Vietnam Syndrome ‘beneath the sands of the Arabian desert,’ he wasn’t gloating over successful the application of the Weinberger Doctrine. He was celebrating the first clear post-Vietnam victory in war. The legacy of defeatism prevalent among the American people was what was annoying and inhibiting the Washington establishment, especially its lingering presence in Congress. Already a decade earlier Ronald Reagan had declared ‘[f]or too long we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome.’ As with Bush, Reagan had no trouble accepting the guidelines of the Weinberger Doctrine. They were little more than talking points to wary members of Congress and inquisitive journalists. What Reagan opposed was the national mood of political timidity in the country that undermined the willingness of public opinion to support going after leftist adversaries in the Global South with America’s military might.

Among my current fears is that it is Russia’s attack on Ukraine that has finally nullified the calculus of restraint implicit in the Vietnam Syndrome so far as the American public is concerned, with the odd partial exception of the extreme right of the political spectrum that is less enamored of assuming national responsibility for global security than is the broad bipartisan internationalist consensus that controlled American foreign policy during and after the Cold War. Ukraine as a seemingly victimized white, European society involves an attack by a hostile rival country that has sent tremors of fear and trembling throughout other Russian neighbors, especially those in East Europe that had been coercively subjugated within the Soviet sphere of influence throughout 40+ years of the Cold War and had strong political bases of ethnic and emotional support in the leading countries of Western Europe and North America.  

Currently, the escalating Ukraine Crisis suggests that the absence of the inhibiting influence of the Vietnam Syndrome. As such, it is irresponsibly risking catastrophic consequences in blood and treasure, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of challenging the traditional spheres of influence of great powers historically accustomed to geopolitical prerogatives such as Russia. It is not a matter of endorsing Putin’s aggression, but rather concerns about the failure to exert a greater effort to make the world somewhat more insulated against the onset of major wars, especially warfare with high enough stakes to make strategically plausible the use nuclear weapons. The pre-2022 efforts to interfere in the politics of Ukraine by promoting anti-Russian moves while overlooking abuses by Ukraine toward the Russian-oriented majorities in the Dombas do not vindicate Putin but they do cast a dark shadow on NATO claims of virtuous and responsible behavior guided by respect for the territorial sovereignty of states, human rights, and a mutual concern for maintaining conditions of peaceful coexistence between geopolitical rivals.  The apocalyptic dangers now confronting the world with a greater risk of nuclear war than that posed by the Cuban Missile Crisis should also remind us that the political failure in Vietnam was primarily a result of promiscuous militarism. The geopolitical takeaway should have focused on conflict avoidance rather than avoiding future defeats in comparable geopolitical escapades, the regressive preoccupation of the Weinberger Doctrine.

Against this background, I find myself a fervent advocate of the revitalization of the Vietnam Syndrome in its populist variant, as a doctrine of existential restraint when it comes to  international uses of military force, and not only in the Global South. Rather than a ‘syndrome’ it was from its outset 50 years ago primarily an angry public reflex to a botched war effort that was intended to inhibit and even discredit future belligerent impulses in Washington.

I love the Vietnam Syndrome because it was the proper redemptive path for American foreign policy to take after the Vietnam defeat. Yet the promise of the Vietnam Syndrome was first reformulated in a manner pleasing to the militarized bureaucracy in Washington not to the citizenry eager to prevent such wars. Future wars would become supposedly winnable if the six precepts of the diversionary Weinberger Doctrine were followed. Such an approach made some sense conceptually but it failed miserably when operationalized as in Iraq, Afghanistan. More recently any sense of restraint has been marginalized in American foreign policy deliberations when dealing with a major nuclear weapons state facing defeat on its own borders and led by a dangerous autocrat.  Privileging the righteous cause of resisting Russian aggression in Ukraine while neglecting the offsetting imperatives of geopolitical caution in the nuclear age is a stunning display of managerial incompetence in Washington that is jeopardizing the future of the entire human species. It should enlighten people everywhere about the severe dangers of taking big risks to maintain a unipolar form of world order. These risks are magnified by the dispersed possession, deployment, and alert status of first usenuclear weapons. One false step on either side and we are done for as a species.

ON LOVING THE ‘VIETNAM SYMPTOM’

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in modified form in CounterPunch on September 30 2022. Its essential claim is that the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ exerted a desirable downward pressure on hawkish war making tendencies for a period of almost 20 years after the Vietnam War came to end. For those in the political elite in and out of government this was regarded as a negative spillover from a mismanaged war effort in Vietnam. For the anti-war movement this was a positive sequel to a war n Vietnam that should never have been fought, and was wrongly conceived as well as criminally executed. Not surprisingly, the foreign policy establishment carried the day, erasing memories of the Vietnam political defeat, and paving the way for new military misadventures. Never, in my opinion is the country and world more in need of a second coming of the Vietnam Syndrome than at present, with pressures building for an existential nuclear confrontation more menacing to contemplate than was the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago. To be balanced in assessing the global setting, Moscow would likewise gift the world if it emerged from the Ukraine War with some durable version of a ‘Ukraine Syndrome.’]

“Why I Love the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ of the People”

The Vietnam Syndrome was a term deployed after the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War to

explain and complain about the reluctance of the U.S. Government to use international force robustly in shaping its foreign policy. This reluctance was from its first enunciations resented by the foreign policy establishment in Washington including conservative think tanks. The language of ‘syndrome’ was interpreted by powerful men to refer to what they thought of as a psychic disorder afflicting the U.S. policy establishment that needed to be overcome as soon as possible. Yet to others, situated less prominently in the power structure, including myself, the Vietnam Syndrome was welcomed in the late 1970s as major component of long overdue prudent and principled post-Vietnam advocacy of a law-oriented U.S. foreign policy respectful of the self-determination rights of the Global South and restraints on the use of international force as enshrined in the provisions of the UN Charter.

Over the years, the Vietnam Syndrome lived this double life. One proposed cure was by way of the Weinberger Doctrine for those bristling under its restraining influence, which was formulated with the explicit intention of correcting the alleged government mismanagement of armed intervention in Vietnam over the course of a full decade. What Caspar Weinberger, a right-wing political figure and at the time Reagan’s Secretary of Defense proposed in 1983, was that the U.S, should not enter future non-defensive questionable foreign wars, with the Vietnam War uppermost as an example of what not to do. The Weinberger Doctrine set forth six conditions to guide policymakers: 

            “1)The commitment must be deemed vital to our national interest or               that of our allies. 

            2)It should be made “wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of   winning.” 

            3)Political and military objectives and the ways to meet them must       be clearly defined. 

            4)As conditions change, whether the commitment remains in the          national interest must be reassessed. 

            5)Before a commitment is made, there must be “some reasonable          assurance” of popular and congressional support. 

            6)A commitment to arms must be a last resort. “

Weinberger, in particular,  was particularly critical of the incremental character of the Vietnam engagement, which he contended, almost always ends in failure. Although Weinberger, and those on the Beltway who quickly subscribed to his prescriptions for the future, embraced the doctrine as a useful formula to gain political credibility in domestic foreign policy debates as well as victory in regime-changing and state-building wars of intervention (what Tom Friedman with customary arrogance later christened as law-free ‘wars of choice’). Read carefully, there are fundamental ambiguities in Weinberger’s formulation. It was never made clear whether the Vietnam War was vital to ‘our national interest’ or that its supporters lacked ‘the clear intention of winning.’ Yet it was hoped in Washington that the Weinberger Doctrine could put to rest the idea that under no circumstance should the U.S. expend blood of its citizen or treasure on non-defensive wars in the Global South. In this crucial sense, Weinberger’s views prevailed in policy circles and even somewhat in public opinion but failed when put to the test, reaching political outcomes resembling the Vietnam War rather than the standard model of the good war, World War IL.

Despite the bureaucratic backlash against a constrained foreign policy, sophisticated national leaders in the U.S. understood there was more political weight to the Vietnam Syndrome than setting forth a formula to ensure that policy-makers would not in the future commit the country to wars it could not win. It was thus not surprising that the first words uttered by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 after a U.S. led victory over Iraqi ground forces in the First Gulf War were “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndr0me once and for all.” The implicit claim was that the desert victory in conventional warfare would demonstrate to the American people and skeptical members of Congress that the U.S. could turn its military superiority into a political victory at acceptable costs in a time span that would not tax the patience of the American public. In other words, the American war machine was revamped to gain the kind of victory is was unable to achieve in Vietnam. Bush’s enthusiasm was ill-conceived and proved disastrously premature. First of all, the Vietnam War was a war of national resistance fought against Western colonialist forces by relying on guerrilla tactics, not a defensive conventional war designed to reverse Iraq’s aggression and annexation of Kuwait. Beyond this the military phase in the Gulf War was mandated by the UN Security Council and a regional consensus, with implementation delegated to an American-led coalition of countries and limited in its goals to restoring Kuwait territorial sovereignty.  Only hawkish ideologues and unperceptive commentators could in good faith confuse the First Gulf War with the Vietnam War.

Neo-conservative intellectuals eager to exploit the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s understood that the Vietnam Syndrome continued to stand in the way of their ideological commitments to democracy promoting military interventions, especially in the Middle East, by taking advantage of what they declared to be an opportune ‘unipolar moment.’ One of its prominent advocacy platforms, The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), actually recognized the political dependance of their expansionist program on ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ to reawaken the dormant fighting instincts of the American public. Although PNAC didn’t itself connect the dots, the Vietnam Syndrome had withstood earlier erasure efforts, and the rapturous welcoming of unipolarity had an abstract quality that did not overcome citizen qualms about Americans fighting and dying for the sake of a geopolitical abstraction. The Vietnam Syndrome was only existentially overcome in the public sphere by the 9/11 Attacks, which President George W. Bush seized upon in a moment of national hysteria to declare the Great Terror War in 2001. These attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were, in effect, the performative reenactments of Pearl Harbor that the PNAC was waiting for. Yet once again the analogy was disastrously misleading, inducing failures reminiscent of Vietnam that doomed U.S. political efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as indirectly in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The Weinberger Doctrine and revisions of counterinsurgency doctrine may have influenced the Pentagon to substitute air power and drones for boots on the ground to the extent possible and rely upon ‘shock and awe’ tactics to overwhelm a lesser adversary quickly, but as it turned out, these tactics were no more successful than what failed in Vietnam. In the end of costly, controversial, prolonged occupations of hostile societies the desired political outcomes were not attained in the targeted countries of the Global South. Despite the Soviet collapse the U.S. continued to encounter frustration in its attempts to manage geopolitics, especially when the political undertaking encompassed a regime-changing intervention with state-building along Western neoliberal lines.   

In my view, the dominant and sensible interpretation of the Vietnam Syndrome was as an inhibition on entry into non-defensive, essentially internal wars without at least the authorization of the UN and the conformity of the mission with international law. The Vietnam Syndrome was not initially articulated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War as a warning to war-mongering bureaucrats against fighting losing wars, but as opposition to all wars of intervention and aggression. This primary meaning of the Vietnam Syndrome has been lost over the decades, a casualty of state propaganda and a complicit media, reinforced by those private sectors that benefit from militarism and war. U.S. military overinvestment had succeeded in managing geopolitical power in the aftermath of the Cold War, but its innovations in weaponry and tactics achieved no notable political victories in wars surrounding the politics of national self-determination. What should arouse deep concern is that the militarist leanings of the government are undeterred by repeated experiences of failure, and keep trying, which adds to the devastation and suffering endured at the site of the struggle, and may defer the outcome, but it does not end in victory for the foreign intervenor, and hence is recorded as yet another political defeat. In one sense the Vietnam Syndrome was an acknowledgement that in these types of conflicts, military superiority had lost its historical agency. The Era of Western Colonialism was over, or at least coming to an end.

When the elder Bush was announcing to the world the burial of the Vietnam Syndrome ‘beneath the sands of the Arabian desert,’ he wasn’t gloating over successful the application of the Weinberger Doctrine. He was celebrating the first clear post-Vietnam victory in war. The legacy of defeatism prevalent among the American people was what was annoying and inhibiting the Washington establishment, especially its lingering presence in Congress. Already a decade earlier Ronald Reagan had declared ‘[f]or too long we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome.’ As with Bush, Reagan had no trouble accepting the guidelines of the Weinberger Doctrine. They were little more than talking points to wary members of Congress and inquisitive journalists. What Reagan opposed was the national mood of political timidity in the country that undermined the willingness of public opinion to support going after leftist adversaries in the Global South with America’s military might.

Among my current fears is that it is Russia’s attack on Ukraine that has finally nullified the calculus of restraint implicit in the Vietnam Syndrome so far as the American public is concerned, with the odd partial exception of the extreme right of the political spectrum that is less enamored of assuming national responsibility for global security than is the broad bipartisan internationalist consensus that controlled American foreign policy during and after the Cold War. Ukraine as a seemingly victimized white, European society involves an attack by a hostile rival country that has sent tremors of fear and trembling throughout other Russian neighbors, especially those in East Europe that had been coercively subjugated within the Soviet sphere of influence throughout 40+ years of the Cold War and had strong political bases of ethnic and emotional support in the leading countries of Western Europe and North America.  

Currently, the escalating Ukraine Crisis suggests that the absence of the inhibiting influence of the Vietnam Syndrome. As such, it is irresponsibly risking catastrophic consequences in blood and treasure, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of challenging the traditional spheres of influence of great powers historically accustomed to geopolitical prerogatives such as Russia. It is not a matter of endorsing Putin’s aggression, but rather concerns about the failure to exert a greater effort to make the world somewhat more insulated against the onset of major wars, especially warfare with high enough stakes to make strategically plausible the use nuclear weapons. The pre-2022 efforts to interfere in the politics of Ukraine by promoting anti-Russian moves while overlooking abuses by Ukraine toward the Russian-oriented majorities in the Dombas do not vindicate Putin but they do cast a dark shadow on NATO claims of virtuous and responsible behavior guided by respect for the territorial sovereignty of states, human rights, and a mutual concern for maintaining conditions of peaceful coexistence between geopolitical rivals.  The apocalyptic dangers now confronting the world with a greater risk of nuclear war than that posed by the Cuban Missile Crisis should also remind us that the political failure in Vietnam was primarily a result of promiscuous militarism. The geopolitical takeaway should have focused on conflict avoidance rather than avoiding future defeats in comparable geopolitical escapades, the regressive preoccupation of the Weinberger Doctrine.

Against this background, I find myself a fervent advocate of the revitalization of the Vietnam Syndrome in its populist variant, as a doctrine of existential restraint when it comes to  international uses of military force, and not only in the Global South. Rather than a ‘syndrome’ it was from its outset 50 years ago primarily an angry public reflex to a botched war effort that was intended to inhibit and even discredit future belligerent impulses in Washington.

I love the Vietnam Syndrome because it was the proper redemptive path for American foreign policy to take after the Vietnam defeat. Yet the promise of the Vietnam Syndrome was first reformulated in a manner pleasing to the militarized bureaucracy in Washington not to the citizenry eager to prevent such wars. Future wars would become supposedly winnable if the six precepts of the diversionary Weinberger Doctrine were followed. Such an approach made some sense conceptually but it failed miserably when operationalized as in Iraq, Afghanistan. More recently any sense of restraint has been marginalized in American foreign policy deliberations when dealing with a major nuclear weapons state facing defeat on its own borders and led by a dangerous autocrat.  Privileging the righteous cause of resisting Russian aggression in Ukraine while neglecting the offsetting imperatives of geopolitical caution in the nuclear age is a stunning display of managerial incompetence in Washington that is jeopardizing the future of the entire human species. It should enlighten people everywhere about the severe dangers of taking big risks to maintain a unipolar form of world order. These risks are magnified by the dispersed possession, deployment, and alert status of first use nuclear weapons. One false step on either side and we are done for as a species.

A European Call for an end to the Ukraine War

5 Jul

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

Ceasefire Now. Negotiations as soon as possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make Peace, Not War, in Ukraine 

31 Mar

[Prefatory Note: this post is a modified version of an opinion piece published in CounterPunch on March 30, 2022.]

Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine on February 24 flagrantly violating the most fundamental norm of international law—the prohibition of recourse to international force encroaching upon the territory of a sovereign state except in exercising the right of self-defense against a prior armed attack. Yes, there were a series of irresponsible provocations by NATO that aroused understandable security concerns in Moscow, including the relentless expansion of the Cold War NATO alliance after the Cold War was over, the threat from the Soviet Union had disappeared, and promises were made by Western leaders to Gorbachev of no further NATO expansion. Such geopolitical behavior amounted to imprudent statecraft by the West, especially given Russian historical anxieties about being surrounded and attacked by hostile forces. Such eminent public figures as George Kennan, Jack Matlock (respected former U.S. ambassador to Russia), and even Henry Kissinger issued warnings to this effect, but they went unheeded in Washington.

The Ukraine War is best understood and interpreted as a two-level war. In the active combat zones of Ukraine, it is a devastating traditional war between Russia and Ukraine producing an increasingly severe humanitarian crisis that includes massive civilian displacement taking the dual form of refugee flows over Ukraine’s borders and internal movements away from embattled cities and throughout the country.

This primary war phenomenon interacts with, and in some respects contradicts, an ongoing secondary proxy war pitting Russia against the United States, with Russia trying to impose its will on Ukraine and the U.S. pursuing several geopolitical objectives additional to the support of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. These include revitalizing and strengthening NATO and mobilizing unity in Europe by inflaming anti-Russian sentiments, which as during the Cold War rested on fear and loathing of Russia, then the Soviet Union. There is no military engagement at this point in the proxy war, although its ideological confrontations, while avoiding direct violence at present, run the risk of escalating dangerously in various directions, including putting inhibitions on nuclear threats and risks to their greatest test since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It should be appreciated that the fog of war is denser in the secret sessions of proxy war advisors and leaders than even what is hovering over the Ukrainian battlefields. Strategic objectives in this two-level war are confusing, being neither coherent nor consistent, and because there are no current images of death and destruction, the very real negative effects of the proxy war tend to be ignored, such as prolonging the killing, delaying a ceasefire.

In this proxy war, Russia is seeking to reestablish its traditional sphere of influence over the Russian ‘near abroad’ in Ukraine and the U.S. is determined to frustrate this Russian mission, although at a high cost to Ukrainians. The U.S., along with other NATO members, is doing this by sending weapons and other forms of assistance to help the Ukrainians resist more effectively. In addition, strong sanctions are being imposed on Russia with the announced intention of exerting enough economic and political pain on Moscow and Putin to make Russia reverse course. To augment coercive policies Biden, in particular has used language of incitement to attack Putin, climaxing with this outburst a few days ago while in Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power.” Previously, he had called Putin a war criminal, supportive of indictment of the Russian leader by the International Criminal Court, surely viewed by most of the world as hypocritical given the denunciation of the ICC for daring to investigate charges of war crimes against the U.S. in Afghanistan, reinforced by retaliatory personal sanctions imposed on the Prosecutor in the Hague and other officials of the Tribunal. 

I find both of these war strategies dysfunctional and dangerous. For Russia to impose its will on Ukraine by military force is both unlawful, and unlikely to succeed, while inflicting great harm on Ukraine and Ukrainians, as well as on itself as a result of the sanctions and diplomatic pushback. One symbolic result has been the activation of the International Criminal Court in pursuit of an indictment of Putin. Some critics are urging. the UN to establish the type of tribunal used to prosecute surviving Nazi leaders at Nuremberg after World War II. Although these gestures towards accountability for international crimes are plausibly associated with the Russian leader’s behavior, their wider credibility is gravely compromised as mentioned above by moral, legal, and political hypocrisy given past U.S. comparable behavior that was carefully spared similar scrutiny.

Looked at differently, for the U.S. to pursue a militarist strategy toward Russia in this manner is to choose a path leading toward frustration and danger, drawn out humanitarian suffering in Ukraine, disastrous economic spillover effects already leading to food insecurity throughout the Middle East and North Africa by way of spikes in  prices and shortages, renewed pressures to turn to nuclear power and fossil fuels in the vain search for energy independence, and the likelihood of inducing a severe global recession coupled with an escalation of geopolitical tensions of the West with Russia and possibly China. In other words, these antagonists on the geopolitical level of conflict are on a treacherous collision course, with only China so far acting prudently throughout the crisis, remaining on the sidelines, unwilling to give either Russia assistance or to endorse its flagrant violations of Ukrainian sovereignty while opposing sanctions and punitive action directed at Russia.

There is another, better way to proceed to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Russia should have learned from its earlier Afghanistan invasion that military superiority cannot overcome determined national resistance, particularly if externally supported. This is the unlearned lesson for the U.S. of the Vietnam War and all subsequent regime-changing wars of the Ukraine variant. The political outcomes of the Iraq War of 2003 and the costly failure of the prolonged effort to keep the Taliban from power in Afghanistan were reminders that military superiority had lost its historical agency in the post-colonial world. Such a recognition by Washington while long overdue, yet not forthcoming, which means the likelihood of future failures of a similar kind.

At the same time, the U.S. has been losing out globally, overplaying its geopolitical hand ever since the end of the Cold War. Instead of dissolving NATO when Moscow ended the Warsaw Pact, it sponsored anti-Russian political forces all along the Russian border as well as taking the lead in converting NATO into an expanding offensive alliance to be used anywhere in the world, defying its European founding mission as specified in the underlying treaty arrangement. Since the Soviet collapse the alliance was being illegitimately used by Washington as a global policy tool to provide a collective cover somewhat obscuring the unilateral lawlessness of controversial U.S. foreign policy undertakings that involve uses of military force. 

The U.S. would have much to gain by shifting the emphasis from a pro-active level 2 strategy to a level 1 diplomatic approach. By this is meant that instead of inflicting pain on Russia and demonizing Putin and Russia, the U.S. should be seeking to solve the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine by opting for diplomacy and political compromise, stopping the killing as the highest policy priority, and also moving to ease the nuclear dangers associated with escalation and prolonging the Ukrainian ordeal of this Level1 war. Such a behavioral abandonment by the U.S. of its Level 2 irresponsible geopolitical tactics of confrontation and incitement would also have the great national advantage of minimizing the adverse spillover effects outside of Ukraine on food, energy, trade, and political stability.

This seems an opportune moment to renounce the triumphalist unipolar pretensions that took over in Washington at the end of the Cold War. It is time to take account of the self-inflicted wounds of a disastrous record of U.S. over-investment in the military (currently more than the combined expenditures of the next eleven countries) and under-investment in humane state-building at home. Those who seek peace, justice, and economic stability in the political sphere should explore further the restorative potentialities of a UN/international law centered geopolitics of multipolarity.

At present, neither side seems ready to move in such constructive directions. Biden articulates the Level 2 strategy of the U.S. as based on bolstering Ukraine’s military capabilities to carry on a successful war of resistance, while seeking to pressure Russia to the point of acknowledging that their leader should be replaced and Moscow renounce all security claims justifying action beyond its borders. Backing Putin into such a corner is a recipe for geopolitical retaliation, likely giving rise to an escalation spiral that comes ever closer to the nuclear threshold, which as it unfolds would lead to a Western response that was more prone to engage in the active defense of the Ukraine. Escalation along these lines would heighten the nuclear danger, amounts to starting a menacing second cold war, and seems oblivious to the risks of World War III. In the interim, climate change challenges, despite their urgency are placed once more on the back burner of international attention where they were temporarily relocated during the COVID pandemic since 2020. Put simply the opposed geopolitical postures draw on competing visions of world order: the U.S. seeks to police a unipolar world without opposition, while Russia and China in different ways are insisting on establishing geopolitical norms of multipolarity, which include the restoration of geographically proximate spheres of influence for geopolitical actors.

I find it extremely disturbing that the venerable Economist articulates support for Biden’s geopolitical approach, framed as Western support for a Ukrainian victory in a form that inflicts a humiliating defeat upon Russia: “Unfortunately, Ukraine’s Western backers are dragging their feet–reluctant, it seems, to provoke Russia or bear the cost of sanctions. That is reprehensibly short-sighted. A decisive Ukrainian victory is more likely to lead to a stable peace. And by dealing what may be a terminal blow to three centuries of Russian imperialism, it could also transform the security of Europe.” [March 31, 2022] Such a logic is oblivious to Ukrainian suffering arising from a prolonged war, the severity of severe spillover costs to Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the world economy, as well as dangerously stressing geopolitics with high probabilities of escalation in the short-run including heightened risks of breaching nuclear red lines and in the longer run of stimulating a resurgent militarism experienced as a new cold war that diverts the world from climate change and other global challenges. Never has it seemed more beneficial ‘to give peace a chance’ not by such militarist thinking, but by a turn to imaginatively flexible diplomacy. If the The Economist editorial is a reflection of a consensus prevailing in Western political elite circles, we are all in for a dismal future.  

  

These concerns are aggravated by other factors in the broader international context. The UN has been sidelined, international law is flouted, and the killing goes on. Only transnational civil society in the form of public pressure from within the main geopolitical antagonists can bring these two governments to their senses and end this terrible two-level struggle. A few countries, among them Turkey, could offer to mediate peace negotiations to end the Level 1 Ukrainian War but the Level 2 antagonists seem stubbornly entrapped in their lose/lose war paradigm. As long as this is so, Ukrainians will continue to die and the peoples of the world suffer from the immediate and more deferred consequence of dysfunctional geopolitics.

 

A Peacemaker for Ukraine: Turkey?

20 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This short post is my response to Michael Klare’s helpfully clarifying article that appeared in the March 17 The Nation:

https://www.thenation.com/article/world/ceasefire-peace-negotiations-ukraine/

I limit my response to the question as to whether Turkey, specifically its controversial Pressident, Recep Teyyip Erdogan, could perform effectively as a mediating third-party between Ukraine and Russia in negotiations for a long-term peace arrangement.]

A Response to Michael Klare: Choosing Diplomacy in Ukraine

I share Michael Klare’s typically lucid analysis of the situation in Ukraine condemning the Russian aggression, calling for prudent geopolitics from Washington, and according priority to stopping the killing as both a humanitarian priority and a necessary recognition of taking all possible steps to avoid escalation cycles that pose dire threats of a wider war, including a rising risk that nuclear weapons will be used. I appreciate Klare’s attempt to propose a concrete framework for implementing his approach by calling on Erdogan, Xi, and Bennett to mediate either singly or in combination. There is informed reason justifying the identification of these suggested three mediators rather than others, although the very plausibility of the proposal and the paucity of alternative calls attention to the woeful absence of constructive leadership at the global level.

On balance, I favor Erdogan over either Xi (whom I doubt would be acceptable to either the U.S. or Ukraine) or Bennett (who leads a state that has been

recently rather authoritatively declared by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to be guilty of the continuing crime of apartheid and, as well, bears responsibility for the prolonged plight of the Palestinian people, which resembles in many of its features the Ukrainian ordeal. To be sure Erdogan does not have clean hands, having regrettably pursued autocratic policies and practices, but not nearly as compromising as those relied upon by Israel or China. As a result, Erdogan seems best suited to play the essential role of presiding over a diplomacy that seeks an immediate ceasefire accompanied by efforts to achieve an agreed framework of political compromise on the underlying conflict. 

If such an approach is successful, the region and the world will relleasse a huge sigh of relief. If international negotiations led by Erdogan achieve an end to the Ukraine Crisis it will, along the way, greatly enhance the international prestige of Turkey, which would have an unavoidably demoralizing effect on the increasingly formidable democracy-oriented opposition within the country the strength of which will be tested in national elections next year. This seems a price worth paying if it is the best option for shifting the combat zone from lethal battlefields and devastated cities in Ukraine to a neutral international negotiating venue. Looking around the world there are no better alternative mediating leaders than the three individuals proposed by Michael. 

A further related peacemaking  approach would be to explore whether the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with its 57 members, could be induced to play a part in establishing a complementary process aiming at a more durable and comprehensive system of European security than currently exists, recognizing that the tragic ordeal faced by the Ukrainian people is in part a consequence of the inadequacies of U.S. led post-Cold War geopolitics, which sought to impose a unipolar security order orchestrated from Washington on the whole world rather than seize the initiative to encourage and enact a demilitarization of geopolitics, which might have been inspirationally begun by the disbanding NATO, or at the very least, declare that with the Cold War over, the sole purpose of NATO is keeping the peace.

In the end, the search is for a peacemaking and peacekeeping framework that is perceived as sensitive to the concerns of both Russia and Ukraine, and facilitates finding common ground on an impartial basis. Such an ideal framework should be contrasted to the failed Oslo ‘peace process’ in which the mediating party was the highly partisan United States.