Tag Archives: United States

Ukraine: War, Statecraft, and Geopolitical Conflict —the nuclear danger

14 Sep

[Prefatory NoteThe following interview was previously published in September by the online Global Governance Forum. My responses to the questions posed by Aslı Bâli have been somewhat updated to take account of intervening developments. Aslı was my last PhD student at Princeton, has emerged as a star of the UCLA School of Law in recent years, and just now has joined the faculty of Yale Law School. Although her brilliance as a Princeton student both stimulated and challenged me, it as a cherished friend that Aslı has most impacted my life.]

Ukraine: War, Statecraft, and Geopolitical Conflict — a focus on the return of the nuclear question

Introduction: The risk of nuclear escalation in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a subject of considerable debate in the United States among scholars, policy analysts and media commentators. These debates reveal a broad spectrum of views from those who dismiss Russian references to nuclear capabilities as mere saber rattling to those who worry that if Russian President Vladimir Putin finds his back to the wall in Ukraine, he may resort to tactical nuclear strikes. Whatever the assessment of the risks in Ukraine, it is clear that questions of nuclear deterrence are back on the table after nearly a generation in which most American analysts viewed non-proliferation as the sole U.S. foreign policy objective regarding nuclear arsenals. 

For those who have continued to press concerns about nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War, the return of the nuclear question may raise awareness among new audiences about the existential threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. Richard Falk has for decades been an outspoken authority calling for denuclearization. In this interview, Aslı Bâli invites Richard to reflect on whether the Ukraine conflict risks becoming a military confrontation that tips the world into further nuclear escalation or whether there remains an opportunity to move the world away from the nuclear precipice.

Richard Falk is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus at Princeton University and Chair of Global Law at Queen Mary University London, Faculty of Law. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books, and editor or co-editor of numerous others. A collection of his selected writings on nuclear disarmament was published in an edited volume from Cambridge University Press titled On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019). Aslı Bâli is Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law and Founding Faculty Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights. She interviewed Falk in May 2022.

Aslı Bâli: To begin our conversation, it would be useful to provide some context as to why nuclear disarmament was largely sidelined as an urgent international question in the post-Cold War period. How might we think about the last two decades in particular, during which the possibility of the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal was deemed so much more threatening than the existence of extensive nuclear arsenals in the hands of other states? 

Richard Falk: I think the last two decades since the Soviet collapse reflect a period in which the nuclear weapons states, particularly the US, have felt comfortable with the nuclear status quo. Their preference was to organize this arrangement—in which they maintain nuclear arsenals and other states forego that option—as a permanent regime anchored in the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) interpreted in such a way as to drop the disarmament requirements of that treaty. Article VI of the NPT contains the good faith nuclear disarmament obligation, which was supposedly the bargain offered to induce non-nuclear states to become parties to the treaty. The attempt by nuclear weapons states to drop this element from the treaty arrangement creates an interesting international law situation: There’s a breach of an essential provision of the NPT, yet this treaty regime is regarded by the US and NATO countries as a great achievement of international law in relation to nuclear threat reduction. The existential scope of the NPT is reduced to a hegemonic arrangement that imposes limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, while keeping the development and control of the weapons restricted to a small group of nuclear weapons states. This includes the discretion to develop and threaten their use, as well as determining how and whether they would be used, and to what extent, in crisis or combat situations. This is a regulatory framework that neither reflects the NPT as a negotiated text, nor is prudent and equitable, and it certainly violates the major premise of the rule of law—treating equals equally.

I participated in a Council on Foreign Relations webinar event a year or so ago about the future of national security, and one of the participants introduced the idea that Article VI of the NPT is best understood as ‘a useful fiction.’ That is, Article VI was included in the treaty as a way of satisfying non-nuclear countries that they were being offered an equitable bargaining framework by becoming parties to the NPT. Whereas in fact there was a tacit understanding from the beginning that disarmament, despite the treaty language of commitment, was not viewed by political elites of the nuclear weapons states as a realistic, or even a desirable goal, to be pursued by the nuclear weapons states, and most especially it was so viewed by the United States.

In considering the broader context that has, as you put it, sidelined the issues of nuclear disarmament, the other thing to be emphasized is that there had crept in a kind of complacency about this weaponry. There are thousands of nuclear weapons, preponderately in the US and Russia, and very little public understanding of existing constraints on their threat or use or under what circumstances these arsenals might be introduced into diplomacy or even combat situations. The U.S. in particular, and some other countries like Israel, have been developing combat roles for certain types nuclear weapons—styled as tactical nuclear arms or so-called “mini-nukes”—that strongly implied that such weapons might actually be introduced into local or regional conflicts. Given the array of bilateral conflicts that have the risk of nuclear escalation including in Ukraine, if confrontation escalates in relation to Taiwan, on the Korean peninsula, in India/Pakistan, perhaps if Israel’s security is under pressure in the Middle East. Despite these possibilities being widely feared, there has been so far no concerted or consistent international response exhibiting opposition or even anxiety. 

The risks of the overall situation are well-reflected for those who follow the nuclear issue by the fact that the Doomsday clock—maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and often relied upon as a reliable assessment of nuclear danger at a given time—has moved ever closer in this period to midnight. Prior to the Ukraine crisis I think it was already only one hundred seconds away from midnight. In the words of the editors, “the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.” The UN Secretary General has recently warned that the world is but ‘one miscalculation’ away from nuclear catastrophe.

There is another worrisome aspect of the manner in which the three NATO nuclear weapons states have assumed the authority to enforce the NPT regime as it applies to non-nuclear states. There is nothing about enforcement in the treaty, and Article X grants non-nuclear states a right of withdrawal if facing severe security threats. And yet the U.S. and Israel have made unlawful claims to use force if they believe Iran intends or achieves a nuclear weapons capability. This is hegemonic geopolitics, which not be confused with the implementation of international law.

The complacency toward this weaponry and the satisfaction with the NPT regime that has allowed powerful states to retain a hierarchical and hegemonic relationship to non-nuclear states are important dimensions of this doomsday risk. Thus, the situation prior to Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran require urgent action to avoid existential dangers, but global complacency and the diversionary priority given to containing proliferation threats posed by non-nuclear states rather than addressing the risks of existing arsenals has kept the nuclear agenda from any serious engagement with disarmament and war threats for many decades. This must stop or disaster is virtually assured.

Aslı Bâli: Your response raises one further question: why, in your view, have the non-nuclear states acquiesced in the violation of the core bargained-for agreement they had negotiated in the NPT?  

Richard Falk: I think the non-nuclear weapons states, too, have adapted to this complacent atmosphere when it comes to nuclear weapons, although this may be changing, and not primarily because of Ukraine. It may reflect a sense of a lack of leverage over global nuclear policy in a post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, there had been some willingness on the part of the Soviet Union and then China to engage in a disarmament process on negotiating arsenal reductions, and this seemed realistic to the rest of the world. But in the post-Cold War period, the U.S. shifted away from even the pretense of disarmament priorities and there has been an absence of powerful states pushing back against this trajectory. That said, I do think there is now emerging a critical outlook on the part of the Global South that may alter course back in manner more supportive of the views of disarmament advocates. This ‘new look’ of the Global South has been most clearly expressed in the negotiation and adoption a new treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), signed in 2017 and coming into force with over sixty ratifications in 2021. The treaty itself was originally supported by as many as 120 countries, though it has only garnered signatures from about two-thirds of that number and been ratified so far by half. 

Another indication of renewed Global South resistance to overlooking the nuclear weapons states disarmament obligations is evident in the twice delayed review conference called for by the NPT. Such a review conference is supposed to take place every five years and the pivotal Tenth Review Conference was scheduled for 2020. Originally postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was supposed to be rescheduled for 2021 and was postponed again to 2022 and finally took place in August 2022. But in addition to pandemic-related reasons, it is understood that the deferrals have been prompted by the concern among nuclear weapons states that there may encounter friction with the Global South over disarmament. Although the failure to produce a consensus outcome document was blamed on Russia, there were also present signs of resentment about the continuing refusal of the nuclear weapons states to implement their Article VI obligations.

In short, even prior to Ukraine and Taiwan there was reason to think that there is a new international mood at the intergovernmental level concerning the threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. I think the Ukraine and Taiwan encounters have now added momentum to this shift by a reawakening at the civil society level of palpable apprehensions over the threat or use of nuclear weapons, and in Ukraine the additional risk that nuclear power facilities will be accidentally, or even deliberately, attacked. I believe this is a time when I am hoping for a revival of pressure from below to put nuclear disarmament back on the global policy agenda, and this time with greatly increased participation of non-Western civil society and governments. 

Aslı Bâli: Some have characterized the Ukraine conflict as illustrating the degree to which global powers might stumble blindly into a nuclear confrontation. Is it your sense that there are opportunities to contain this risk today whether through intergovernmental diplomacy or global civil society mobilization?

Richard Falk: Well, I think at the civil society level there is a definite concern though it is not too well-focused at this point. There is sort of a free-floating anxiety about the possibility that nuclear weapons use might occur on the European continent and this may have a galvanizing effect that leads to forms of domestic pressure in some European states to take action to offset such a risk. I also think that some high officials in the Biden inner circle have changed their views of the Ukraine conflict as the potential nuclear dimensions of the conflict have come into clearer focus. At an earlier stage of the Ukraine war, it seemed as if the Biden administration didn’t consider very seriously the nuclear risk, though they were always present fortunately to some degree wider war dangers of escalation. This sensitivity was evident, for example, in Biden’s early resistance to calls, especially from Congress and right-wing think tanks, to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and in his original hesitancy to supply offensive weaponry to the Ukrainians. Similarly, the early posture of not interfering with Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky’s efforts at seeking some sort of negotiated compromise further confirmed that the Biden administration was wary of escalation, and willing to allow Ukraine to control its own future. But in a second phase of the conflict, when the Ukrainian resistance turned out to be more successful than anticipated, and strategic defeat or weakening of Russia seemed possible and strategically attractive, the Biden administration’s priorities visibly shifted and they manifestly treated the Ukraine war as an opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and at the same time, and perhaps of greater significance, to signal China that if they tried anything similar with Taiwan, they would face an even worse outcome. This latter point was provocatively underscored by Biden during his recent trip to Asia that featured a strong public statement committing the US to the defense of Taiwan, followed by an irresponsibly provocative visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi that violated the spirit of the One China Policy that represented the core of the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which has kept peace and stability for 50 years. 

With respect to the Ukraine conflict, I have drawn a distinction between two levels. First, there is the Russia-Ukraine confrontation over issues that pertain to their bilateral conflict. But secondly, there is the geopolitical level of interaction between the US and Russia, which entails a confrontation whose stakes exceed the question of Ukraine. Here, escalation was stimulated by what I view as the quite irresponsible rhetoric from the Biden administration that demonized Putin from the outset of the crisis in February 2022. To be sure, Putin is not an attractive political leader, but even during the Cold War American leaders sensibly refrained from demonizing Stalin or other Soviet leaders, and vice versa. Some public officials, congresspeople, did demonize Soviet officials and policies but leaders in the executive branch refrained from such behavior because it would create such an evident obstacle to keeping open necessary diplomatic channels between the US and the Soviets, and significantly the Soviets did the same even during such encroachments on sovereign rights as in the Vietnam War. 

Regrettably, in the second phase of the current conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. became a source of escalation. American influence was directed also at more or less discouraging President Zelensky from further seeking a negotiated ending of the war on the ground. Instead, the U.S. position seemed to harden around pursuit of strategic victory. This was made explicit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who commented on the opportunity to weaken Russia after a visit to Ukraine in which they pledged increased economic and military support. I think that now we have passed a third phase of the Ukraine conflict where there was some recognition in Washington and elsewhere that the Biden administration went too far in an escalatory direction from the perspective of prudence and with regard to the spillover harm from prolonged warfare. Now in a fourth phase where once more a Ukrainian victory together with a Russian/Putin defeat has changed Washington tactics once more, with such favorable results seemingly within reach at what are viewed as acceptable costs. The tragic result, already partly consummated, will be a prolonged war in Ukraine, with terrible adverse consequences for the world economy  and the wellbeing of poorer people in a series of countries in the Global South. It will hardest those countries most dependent on affordable access to food and energy, and this includes European countries. It is not only the continuation of Ukraine warfare and China tensions, but the unintended consequences of anti-Russian sanctions that will result in harmful impacts in many parts of the planet. 

Aslı Bâli: Given your analysis of the U.S. role in escalating the conflict in Ukraine, what in your view is the current risk of either nuclear confrontation or further erosions of the possibility of promoting U.S.-Russian arms control and nuclear disarmament?

Richard Falk: The discouraging thing about the third phase is that the Biden administration still hasn’t clearly opened wide the door to a diplomatic resolution or emphasized the importance of a cease fire that might stop the immediate killing and enable de-escalation, and now in the midst of the fourth stage it seems too late. What this suggests is that there will be either of two bad scenarios unfolding as the Ukraine Crisis continues: the first is that the risk and costs of a long war in Ukraine results in the U.S. further escalating in order to try to bring the war to a faster conclusion by making Moscow give in, or withdraw, or do something that allows Ukraine and the U.S. to claim victory. That approach really would put maximum pressure on Putin who, in turn, might determine that facing such a serious existential danger to Russian security justifies a robust response that includes the threat and possibly even the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a way, and maybe the only way, to avoid impression of strategic defeat to be the beginning of the end of his leadership. 

The second scenario is that the U.S. might be prepared to live with a prolonged war and hope that it at some point Moscow will tire of the experience, the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan and that the US did in Vietnam. But recent experience suggests just how destructive this course would be for Ukraine and the world. It took the U.S. twenty years to extricate itself from Afghanistan, leaving that country as receptive to the Taliban as was twenty years earlier before driven from power, millions permanently displaced and millions more wandering the world as refugees, while those who stay home face famine and extreme gender discrimination, and untold hundreds of thousands of Afghanis have been maimed or worse. Equally depressing, as others have pointed out, the likely outcome from the Ukrainian point of view will not change very much because of what happens on the bloody battlefields, whether the war is ended next week or ten years from now except that a longer war will result in more casualties, greater devastation, and enduring embitterment.

Aslı Bâli: Could you say more about what you would expect at the end of the Ukraine conflict whether it happens through early negotiations or at the end of a protracted war?

Richard Falk: Well, I expect that the most likely scenario for an end to the conflict will entail some concessions by Ukraine in relation to the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, together with a pledge of neutrality for the country as a whole, and non-membership in NATO. In exchange for such concessions, Russia would likely be expected to pledge in turn that it would heretofore respect the sovereign rights and political independence of the Ukraine. In all likelihood the question of Crimea will not be addressed in the course of ending the current conflict. The contours of such a negotiated end to the conflict had already emerged in talks between the Russian and Ukrainian sides in March of 2022 and there is little reason to think these parameters will change substantially, although if the Ukrainian battlefield successes in the fourth phase hold up, it may alter a future peace process. Yet the probability still remains that such a compromised political outcome could have been achieved earlier, certainly in the first phase of the conflict if not prior to the Russian attack, before early Ukrainian victories led to the second, and then, a fourth geopolitical phase of escalation. It has become clearer as the conflict has persisted that the U.S. is prepared to go to extreme lengths, if necessary to retain its post-Cold War status as sole manager of a unipolar configuration of power in the world.

Asli Bali: Given this assessment, what opportunities, if any, do you see for reviving calls for nuclear disarmament in response to the nuclear risks made evident by the Ukraine conflict?

Richard Falk: Of course, there is a very dark form of opportunity that might emerge if there is indeed a nuclear confrontation and the use of tactical or other nuclear weapons. Such a development would undoubtedly generate a widespread call for disarmament—one hopes that doesn’t occur, of course. Beyond this apocalyptic scenario, it is a little unpredictable whether there will emerge a recognition that the pursuit of permanent stability via the non-proliferation approach should be superseded by a new effort at nuclear disarmament. I think it would be very globally popular to explore that possibility, and I would imagine the Chinese at least would be quite open to that. 

In the background of such speculation is the question of whether the US is prepared to live in a multipolar world. Certainly, the post-Cold War period afforded the U.S. the opportunity to nurture illusions that the collapse of the Soviet Union might usher in a durable era in which it was the only global geopolitical actor. In a sense this is what Secretary Blinken presumably meant when he says in speeches that the idea of spheres of influence should have been discarded after World War II.[1] The thought is that after WWII, or at the very least following the Cold War, the U.S. prefers to preside over a system in which its own influence is confined by no sphere and extends in a truly global fashion. Of course, had the US adopted this posture in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as Secretary Blinken suggests, it would have amounted to a declaration of a third world war. This is because ruling out spheres of influence would have mean blocking Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, whether in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Moreover, what Blinken is suggesting today is not a world without spheres of influence but rather an adaptation of a Monroe Doctrine for the world in which the US regards the global order as its singular sphere of influence. And, of course, the Monroe Doctrine in its narrower hemispheric form is also alive and well as the US continues to assert its prerogative to dictate policies and interfere with internal politics in countries throughout Latin America from Cuba to Venezuela to Nicaragua and beyond. We can hardly imagine the bellicosity of the U.S. response if Russia had dared meddle in Mexico for a decade in the manner that Washington did in Ukraine.


Against this backdrop, it is worth noting that the ongoing US effort at global supremacy does put it at a massive asymmetric advantage over all other actors in exerting influence without geographic bounds. With some 800 foreign bases—and a context in which 97% of all foreign bases globally are American—and troops stationed in every continent the US has spread its influence globally, on land, in the air, on the sea, and is investing heavily to be sure it will control space. Meanwhile, of course, alongside this enormous investment in militarism is profound disinvestment in the infrastructure and social services needed to sustain its own population domestically. In short, the US effort to prevent a multipolar order from challenging its own claim to global supremacy is coming at an enormous cost at home and is currently faltering abroad. The risk is that this strategy is increasingly tied to an investment in ensuring strategic weakness for the Russians in Ukraine, which, in turn, raises temptations to engage in nuclear brinksmanship.

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Aslı Bâli: There is something distressing about the way in which the Ukraine conflict has reset the domestic debate, which at the end of the Trump years and in the 2020 presidential election had begun to converge around the idea of restraining American militarism and ending endless wars. Today, bipartisan consensus around an enhanced defense budget and massive military aid to Ukraine may be eclipsing those earlier commitments. Do you consider the Ukraine conflict as providing a new lease on life for the project of American primacy?

Richard Falk: I’m afraid that might be right. Biden was so committed to unifying the country as part of his presidential campaign—the image of projecting himself as someone who is able to “cross the aisle” and generate bipartisan consensus, profoundly believing that a unified America remains a country capable of doing unlimited good at home and internationally. In fact, however, this unity project failed miserably with the Republican side converging around Trump’s constituencies. The Ukraine war has somewhat reshuffled the deck and Biden seems keen to embrace this opportunity to forge bipartisan consensus around war, but with a belated recognition that currently seeking unity at home is not only a lost cause but exhibits his lost sense of the realities of the country. His popularity level remains surprisingly low, but the surge of Cold War bipartisanship in relation to appropriating billions of dollars for Ukraine is undeniable. From a global perspective, however, this great show of empathy for Ukrainian suffering and civilian damage and refugees, and so on, sets a stark contrast to the ways in which the US and the West responded to other humanitarian crises. Thus one price of this partial unity at home may be an increasingly divided world in which US standing declines further. The specific comparisons between the Western response to Ukraine and their indifference and callous disregard for the plight of Palestinians, the consequences of the Iraq War, and the displacement generated by the Syrian conflict is difficult to explain without taking into account an element of racism. This reality has hardly escaped the attention of governments and communities in the Global South.

Aslı Bâli: Returning to the nuclear question, you have suggested that the Ukraine war has awakened a new generation to the real risks of the nuclear arsenals retained by global powers. Do you believe that this awareness alongside concerns about the double standards attached to American hegemony might mobilize new global social movements calling for disarmament and a more equitable international order?

Richard Falk: I certainly hope that might be the case. I think it would be premature to expect the Ukraine conflict alone to rekindle a vibrant anti-nuclear movement at this point. But there may be further developments that do have such a galvanizing effect, something that unfortunately cannot be discounted as the Russians engage in nuclear drills to remind Western states of the risks of escalation in Ukraine. There are also other nuclear dangers that are looming in the world. I think the Israel-Iran relationship is very unstable and may produce some renewed awareness of nuclear risk; the same is also true of the conflicts in India-Pakistan, the Korean peninsula, and above all the looming conflict involving Taiwan. In the latter instance Pentagon war games have achieved results showing that unless the U.S. is prepared itself to abandon the nuclear taboo it loses in the event of a naval confrontation in the Taiwan Straights. So new generations may come to understand that the idea of achieving stability with nuclear weapons is a dangerous and unstable illusion. This brings me back to the cynical idea that I encountered at the Council on Foreign Relations about disarmament being a useful fiction to appease publics in the Global South. At the time, and there was no pushback against such an assertion at the meeting. The response of the audience was to simply acknowledge that this is how realist elites talks about national security. It is this kind of acquiescence and complacency that poses the greatest obstacle to global social organizing around disarmament and, thus, the greatest risk that we may stumble into crises where one side is prepared to risk nuclear war to avoid a strategic defeat. I hope that the threats that are now manifest in Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran, and beyond might spark new forms of awareness among the now more mobilized younger generations leading social movements for environmental and racial justice. Nuclear arsenals pose an existential threat to our planet alongside the reckless climate policies, massive wealth disparities, and the virulent structural racism that plague the global order. There is much work to do if we are to address all of these challenges, and there might be no better place to launch a new phase of transformative global politics by championing nuclear abolition.


[1]           

The Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA, 2015) Should be Renewed

25 Aug

[Prefatory Note: Richard Falk Responses to Questions posed by Mohamadreza Farahzadi, of the international desk of Farhikhtegan Daily pertaining to long process of rejoining this agreement limited Iran to the development of civilian nuclear power technology; the text of my responses and the title has been modified. It is one more example that undoing the human and diplomatic harm of Trump’s international legacy is a complex matter that not only exhibits the persisting influence of unrepentant Trumpists but the passivity of the Democratic Party leadership, particularly when it dares to disagree with Israel on a matter of foreign policy concern.]

1. According to the reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for monitoring Iran’s nuclear commitments, Tehran was fully fulfilling its obligations according to the JCPOA until the US withdrew from it. However, even after the withdrawal of the USA from the JCPOA, these approvals continued and were accepted by the existing members as well.

It seems that Iran, which started adjusting its nuclear commitments a year after the withdrawal of the USA from the JCPOA, has no problem with returning to its previous commitments. In the meantime, the only problem that is the main reason for the existence of JCPOA revival negotiations is the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement during the Trump era and its not returning during the Biden administration. Accordingly, Iran in general is only seeking guarantees so that it will not be deprived of the economic benefits of fulfilling its obligations. Why has the USA refused to return to the JCPOA?

Response: I share the view that the 2018 U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA was the sole explanation for the breakdown of the 2015 agreement, which as you suggest, was working well, with the IAEA confirming Iran’s compliance. This compliance was impressive insofar as Israel continuing to violate Iranian sovereignty by engaging unlawful and provocative ways involving further efforts to disrupt Iran’s legitimate nuclear program, including the assassination of nuclear scientists and acts of sabotage directed at nuclear facilities..

It is correct to point out that Biden would encounter political difficulties in providing a meaningful guaranty to Iran that a future president of the United States would not again withdraw as Trump would almost certainly do should he be reelected in 2024. Biden is also under pressure from Israel and from domestic politics with an mid-term election scheduled for November 2022, not to rejoin the JCPOA, at least not without additional constraints on Iran relating to non-nuclear armaments and regional political activity and a green light to Israel’s unilateral efforts to violate Iran’s sovereignty for purposes associated with alleged security concerns..

If fairness were to prevail, the. U.S. would repudiate Israeli efforts to shape U.S. foreign policy and rejoin JCPOA without any new preconditions, and accompanied by certain conciliatory acts that were in effect an apologetic acknowledgement of the harm endured by Iran and its people due to the wrongful withdrawal in 2018.

2. In recent weeks, the European Union has presented a final proposal package to Iran and the United States to revive the agreement. Iran quickly responded to the package of the European Union. Citing sources in Europe who had access to the text, some media have called Iran’s text “constructive”. However, the United States has so far refused to respond to the package proposed by Europe and maintains that it is still examining the package and Iran’s response to it. Does the fact that Iran’s speed in responding and its content which has been called “constructive” by European sources, have been faced by the delay of USA, imply Democrats’ unwillingness to revive JCPOA? The conjecture is intensified having in mind the notion that the mid-term elections of the Congress are near and returning to Iran nuclear deal can have negative results for the Democrats.

Response: I would suspect that the major explanation for the delay on the U.S, side is its search for a formula that will lessen Israeli and domestic public criticism for moving toward an acceptance of this latest proposal package table by the EU. Unlike the U.S., Iran does not need to consult with other governmental or political entities before fashioning its response. The European sources asserting that Iran’s proposals are ‘constructive’ undoubtedly is intended to influence Washington to respond in a similar favorable manner to that of Iran, and hence close to consummating a new deal.

This outlook reflects overwhelming sentiments that JCPOA is a positive framework for tension reduction and war avoidance in the Middle East that deserves widespread support to overcome these unfortunate pockets of continuing opposition to any agreement with Iran, and persisting demands to renew and even intensify the coercive approach to Iran by way of sanctions that lasted almost 25 years. Israel has attacked the proposed renewal of JCPOA on three unconvincing grounds: first,, that it will not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry, posing severe threats to the security of countries in the region; that sanctions relief will provide the Iranian government with $100 billion per year to fund ‘terrorist’ organizations’ (specifically, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jirhad); and by agreeing to such an arrangement the U.S. signals a lack of resolve to oppose Iranian expansionism .

3. Iran is strongly seeking to receive a guarantee from the United States that Washington will not withdraw from the nuclear agreement. However, the United States ignores Iran’s request on the pretext that it is not able to make such a promise based on the structures of the United States. Although Washington’s argument may seem correct at first glance, in any case, countries have international and bilateral obligations that all their administrations must respect.

On the other hand, as the Iranian authorities have announced, it seems that they want to increase the moral cost of the USA withdrawal, because in practice, if Washington or even another country wants to withdraw from the agreement, it is impossible to force it to stay. Having in mind the fact that the provision of such assurances only increases the moral constraints of the agreement and may not have any practical value, why is Washington resisting their provision? Does Washington want another unjustified exit?

Response: My assessment is that as weak an American president as Biden will be very reluctant to generate critical reactions contending that he is giving assurances to a hostile foreign government that exceed his constitutional authority, based on the doctrine separation of legislative and executive authority that is invoked as an integral part of the foundation of legitimate governance in the U.S. The normal path to a long-range irreversible national commitments takes the form of an international treaty requiring ratification by 2/3s of the U.S. Senate. This would not be unobtainable in relation to the JCPOA. given Israel’s and Republican right-wing’s opposition to concluding any agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. In any event, to follow treaty ratification procedures would require years of effort even if the political atmosphere made ratification a practical option.

It is also probably useful for Biden to have the freedom to assure Israel and critics of a diplomatic approach coupled with an assurance that if Iran behaves in a manner that is regarded as unacceptable, then a second withdrawal is an option that has not been foreclosed, even morally. The issue is on both sides one of appearances, For Iran the appearance that JCPOA is this time a durable arrangement not subject to changes in political leadership in signatory countries. For the U.S. the appearance of flexibility are assurances to opponents and critics that JCPOA does not constrain American leaders from once more withdrawing and opting once more for a totally coercive approach to relations with Iran.

As matters now stand, the U.S. has virtually admitted that it needs time to consult with the E3 countries (France, UK, Germany), and most of all Israel to make sure that the terms agreed upon for the renewal of the JCPOA take maximum account of their national security interests. Whether the text subject to these consultations ends up in a deal probably depends on whether Washington is willing to ignore opposition by Israel and to moderate criticism by promising a strong U.S. future military and diplomatic engagement in securing the region. If an agreement does result it may also include an expressed willingness to refrain from Israeli unilateral moves against Iran even uses of aggressive force in total disregard of international law and the UN Charter.

Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age

24 May

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in a somewhat modified form in COUTERPUNCH, May 20, 2022. Its main theme is the contrasting normative logics derived from law (Westphalian logic)  on one side, and power politics (geopolitical logic) on the other side. The regulatory guidance of law derives from agreement and interpretation, and that of power politics, from what the Quincy Institute calls ‘responsible statecraft’ and I refer to as ‘responsible statecraft’ that under contemporary circumstances should involve voluntary compliance with international law, that is, in the nuclear age law and geopolitics often converge in their commitments to regulatory rationality.] 

Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age

The Ukraine War, its complexities and global spillover effects, have not been adequately

depicted by either political leaders or the more influential media. Most commonly, the Ukraine War has been narrowly and reductively depicted as a simple matter of defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. Sometimes this standard portrayal is somewhat enlarged by demonizing Putin as criminally committed to the grandiose project of restoring the full spectrum of Soviet boundaries of post-1994 Russia by force as necessary. What tends to be excluded from almost all presentations of the Ukrainian struggle is the rather distinct U.S. Government policy  agenda of inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia which purports to be related to the defense and in the interests of Ukraine yet is unfolding in a quite separate manner that seems to depart from the best interest of Ukraine and the wellbeing of its people. 

This geopolitical agenda replicates Cold War confrontations, and in the global setting, seeks to remind China as well as Russia, that only the United States possesses the will, authority, and capabilities to act as the guardian of global security with respect to the maintenance or modification of international boundaries of sovereign states anywhere on the planet. Illustratively, Israel has been given a tacit green light by Washington to annex the Golan Heights, an integral part of Syria until the 1967 War, while Russia remains sanctioned for its annexation of Crimea and its current claims to incorporate parts of the Dombas region of Ukraine have been met with harsh punitive sanctions and allegations of war crimes by the U.S. president, Joe Biden. Additionally, Biden has officially and publicly committed the United States to the military defense of Taiwan in the event of an attack by China.

The most influential Western media platforms, including CNN, BBC, NY Times, The Economist, with few exceptions, have largely supported one-dimensional governmental narrative accounts of the Ukraine War, which leaves the misleading impression that U.S./NATO involvement is strictly responsive to the Russian attack on Ukraine with no broader policy objective in play. The views of progressive and anti-war critics of the manner that American foreign policy has handled the Ukraine crisis are almost totally unrepresented. At the same time, some elements of the extremist right is castigated for daring to oppose the national consensus as if only the only dissenters are conspiracy inclined fascists or those motivated by treasonous sentiments. Almost no attention given by these powerful media outlets to understanding either the buildup of tensions relating to Ukraine in the years preceding the Russian attack or the wider security rationale that could partially explain (although not justify) Putin’s resolve to reassert its former authority in the Ukraine. Similarly, there was virtually no mainstream discussion of or support for ceasefire/diplomatic options, favored by many peace and religious groups, that sought to give priority to ending the killing, coupled with a search for possible reconciling formulas that combined Ukrainian sovereign entitlements with some adjustments taking account of Russian security concerns. 

The most trusted and influential media in the West functioned largely as a war-mongering propaganda machine that was only slightly more nuanced in its support for the official line of the government than what one would expect from unambiguously autocratic regimes. Coverage highlighted visual portrayals of the daily brutalities of the war coupled with a steady stream of condemnations of Russian behavior, detailed reportage on the devastation and civilian suffering endured by Ukrainians in the combat zone, and a tactical overview of how the fighting was proceeding in various parts of the country. These bellicose narratives were repeatedly reinforced by expert commentary from retired generals and intelligence officials, and never subjected to challenge from peace advocates, much less political dissenters and critics. I have yet to hear the voice or read texts on these mainstream media platforms from the most celebrated public intellectuals, Noam Chomsky or Daniel Ellsberg, or even from independent minded high-level former diplomats like Chas Freeman. Of course, these individuals are talking and writing but to learn their views you generally have

to navigate the internet in search of such online websites as COUNTERPUNCH and Common Dreams.

The fog of war has been replaced by a war fever while making the transition from helping Ukraine defend itself against aggression to pursuing a victory over Russia increasingly heedless of nuclear dangers and worldwide economic dislocations that threatened many millions with famine, acute insecurity, and destitution. The shrill assured voices of generals and think tank security gurus dominated commentary, while pleas for peace from the UN Secretary General, the Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis, if reported ed at all, were confined to the outer margins of public awareness.

This unfortunate absence of reasoned and responsible debate was further distorted by dangerously misleading statements made by the highest public official responsible for the formation and explanation of American foreign policy, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Whether out of ignorance or the convenience of the moment, Secretary Blinken has been widely quoted as explaining to the public here and abroad in prime time that the U.S. does not recognize ‘spheres of influence,’ an idea “that should have been retired after World War II.” Really! Without mutual respect for spheres of influence throughout the Cold War it is probable that World War III would have been ignited by Soviet interventions in East Europe, most notoriously in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Similar deference was exhibited by Moscow. U.S. interferences in Western Europe as well as the Soviet Bloc defection of Yugoslavia were tolerated by the Kremlin. Some of the most dangerous armed confrontations occurred during the Cold War Era were revealingly located  in the three divided country of Germany, Korea, and Vietnam where norms of self-determination exerted continuous pressures on boundaries artificially imposed on these countries for reasons of geopolitical convenience. 

Since the end of the Cold War, Blinken should be embarrassed about telling the peoples of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela that the idea of spheres of influence is no longer descriptive of how the U.S. shapes its policy in the Western Hemisphere. Decades age Octavio Paz, the Mexican author found vivid words to express the reality of such spheres: “The tragedy of Mexico is to be so far from God and so near to the United States.”  As has been observed, the Russian assertion of a traditional spheres of influence has more continuity with the past than does respect for territorial sovereignty of the countries that have regained statehood within such spheres after the Soviet collapse. This recognition is not meant to express approval of such spheres, serving only as a realization of geopolitical practice that has persisted through the whole of modernity and a further sense that mounting a challenge in light of this practice is almost certain to produce friction and heighten risks of major warfare., which in relations among states armed with nuclear weapons should induce extreme caution on the part of prudent actors. To pretend that spheres of influence are a thing of the past, as Blinken seems to be doing in relation to Ukraine, is doubly unfortunate—it is mindless about the relevance of geopolitical prudence in the nuclear age and it either ignorantly or maliciously condemns behavior of others while overlooking the analogous behavior of his own country, thereby adopting a U.S. posture of geopolitical hubris ill-suited to human survival in the nuclear age.

In the months before it became politically convenient to throw spheres of influence into the dustbin of history, Blinken was lecturing the Chinese about adhering to a ‘rule-governed’ international order that he contended was descriptive of U.S. behavior. Such an invidious comparison was a cover for confronting the quite different Chinese challenge to unipolarity being mounted as a result of China’s growing competitive edge in economic and diplomatic influence and technological breakthroughs. A puzzle for Washington arose because it could not complain that the Chinese ascent was due to posing a security threat due to its military capabilities and its aggressive uses of force (except, interestingly, within its traditional coastal and territorial spheres of influence). And so, the claim centered on the rather original allegation that China was not playing the game of power with respect to intellectual property rights by the ‘rules,’ but what are these rules and where does their authority derive from? Blinken was careful in his complaints about Chinese violations not to identify the rules with international law or decisions of the United Nations. Wherefrom then? Most probably Blinken has in mind a self-serving interpretation of the Breton Woods neoliberal framework associated with the operations of the World Bank and IMF, but refrained from saying so.

There is, to be sure, a subtle complexity about rules of order in international relations, especially on matters bearing on the use of force in international relations. A normative dividing line can be identified as 1928 when many leading governments, including the U.S., signed on to the Pact of Paris outlawing war as an instrument of national policy, [see Oona A. Hathaway & Scott Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (2017)]. This ambitious norm, was then turned into the formulation of a Crime Against Peace in the London Agreement of 1945 by the victorious powers in World War II that set forth the War Crimes Charter that provided the jurisprudential foundation for the Nuremberg and Tokyo criminal prosecutions of surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders. These legal innovations, although treated as major milestones in the development of international law, were never meant to constitute new rules of order and accountability that would bind sovereign states enjoying geopolitical stature as made plain in the UN Charter. Probably that should have been evident given the supreme irony of the London Agreement being formally signed by these governments on August 8, 1945, two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima and one day prior to the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Otherwise, how could one explain the conferral of a right of veto on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which can only be viewed as a geopolitical right of exception, at the very least within the UN context. Apologists for this seeming repudiation of a law-oriented approach when it came to the most dangerous states at the time point to the need to give the Soviet Union assurances that it would not be outvoted by the West, or otherwise it would be unwilling to participate in the UN, and the Organization would wither on the vine in the manner of the League of Nations. But if this was truly the dominant reason for the veto, a less obtrusive could have been chosen as the way of providing reassurance, such as requiring decisions of the Security Council opposed by the Soviet Union to be supported by all non-permanent members. There would be no comparable need to give the four other states the veto unless there was an overriding motive to entrench in the UN Charter the prerogatives of geopolitical leverage as measured by being on the winning side in World War II.

Such an observation makes us aware that there exists more than one source of normative authority in the sphere of international relations. and at least two. There is the fundamental idea deriving from the origins of the modern states system identified with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which accorded equality to sovereign states. And then there is a second source of largely unwritten and rarely spoken about normative authority that regulates those few states that are freed from the constraints of international law and enjoy impunity for their actions. These are the states given the veto power, and among these states are those that seek the added discretion of being non-accountable for their acts. This deference to power and national supremacy, undermines fidelity to law where it seems most needed, and has long been a fundamental deficiency of sustaining peace in a nuclear-armed world. Yet geopolitics, like international law itself, possesses a normative order that is designed to impose certain limits on these geopolitical actors that if responsibly applied serves the public good. The Quincy Institute recognizes this vital feature of international relations by its positive emphasis on ‘responsible statecraft,’ which is roughly equivalent to my call for ‘geopolitical prudence.’

A crucial geopolitical prescription along these lines was the appreciation of spheres of influence as delimiting extraterritorial zones of exclusive influence, which might include ‘unlawful’ interventions and exploitations of weaker states (e.g. ‘banana republics’). As abusive as the diplomacy of spheres has been for targeted societies it has also been a way of discouraging competitive interventions that might otherwise lead to intensive wars between the Great Powers, and as mentioned, plays an indispensable role in reducing the prospect of dangerous escalations in the nuclear age. How Blinken can be so myopic in addressing this essential feature of world order is stunning, and is paralleled by the failure of the media to expose such dangerous and self-serving nonsense.

To be sure international law is itself subject to geopolitical influence in the formation and interpretation of its rules and their unequal implementation, and is far from serving justice or even public order in many critical circumstances, including its validation of settler colonialism. [See Noura Erakat, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine(2019)] Yet when it comes to upholding the prohibition on non-defensive uses of force and accountability for war crimes, it has sought to uphold the norms unless violated by major geopolitical actors and their special friends. The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, established by the UN, did not distinguish between winners and losers in the manner of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals or for that matter the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (2005-06), which imposed a death sentence on Saddam Hussein while ignoring the U.S./UK crimes of aggression in the Iraq War of 2003.

In conclusion, it is important to recognize the interplay of international law and the geopolitical normative order. The former rests on agreement of juridically equal states as to norms and customary practice. International law also increasingly rests on voluntary compliance as illustrated by the World Court being confined in its law-declaring role to issuing ‘Advisory Opinion’ that states and international institution are permitted to disregard. Or more substantively, in relation to compliance with carbon emission pledges of parties to the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015.

The geopolitical normative order depends on prudence along the lines of the precautionary principle, its norms being self-interpreted, best guided by past experience, tradition, mutuality, and common sense. It should be understood that geopolitical status of the Permanent Members of the Security Council is not reflective of their de facto role in international relations. At present, only the United States, China, and Russia enjoy an existential geopolitical status; France and the UK do not, and perhaps, India, Nigeria/South Africa, Brazil possess some de facto geopolitical attributes, but lack a corresponding de jure recognition.

In the context of the Ukraine War Russia is to be faulted for its flagrant violation of the prohibition of aggressive war and its war crimes in Ukrainian combat zones, and for intimating

a willingness to have recourse to nuclear weapons if its vital interests are threatened. The United States is to be faulted for irresponsible statecraft or imprudent geopolitics by its replacement of a defensive role of support for Ukrainian resistance by more recently pushing for the defeat of Russia through the massive increases of aid, encouragement of enlarged Ukrainian goals, supplying offensive weaponry, continuation of demonizing Putin, absence of advocacy of ceasefire and peace diplomacy, inattentiveness to escalation risks especially in relation to nuclear dangers, and overall manipulation of Ukraine Crisis as part of its strategic commitment to the sort of unipolar geopolitics that has emerged during the aftermath of the Cold War. Unipolarity entails a repudiation of Chinese and Russian efforts to achieve a multipolar management of global governance. It is this latter tension that if not addressed points to a second Cold War more dangerous than its predecessor, feverish arms races, periodic crises, and the diversion of resources and energies from such urgent global challenges as climate change, food security, and humane migration policies.  

Will China Run the World? Should it?

14 Dec

[Prefatory Note: Interview Responses to Questions of Javad Heiran-Nia on world order in the time of COVID-19, with emphasis on China & United States, especially as reflected in the restructuring of the world economy. The underlying issue is whether the Chinese or U.S. approach to global policy and world order will gain the upper hand, and at what costs to humanity. The interview will be published in a forthcoming issue of Age of Reflection, a monthly magazine. (http://www.asreandisheh.com/). This post adds some observations at the end that do not appear in the interview.]

  1. In recent years, and especially with the spread of the Corona virus and the way China and the United States have dealt with this virus, the issue of Chinese and American order has received more and more attention. Do you think it is relevant to talk about Chinese order?

Yes, I think it has become extremely relevant to talk about the comparative approaches of China and the U.S. to problem-solving and political order, both their differences and similarities. There exists a preliminary question relating to the seemingly unusual character of American political leadership during the past four years of the Trump presidency, and the probability that it is about to change in style and substance shortly after Joe Biden is inaugurated as the next president. Trump is the first American leader to reject the authority of science and expert guidance in a period of national crisis, greatly aggravating the harm caused by the Corona-19 virus through the advocacy of behavior that contributes to the spread of the disease rather than to its containment. It is also notable that other illiberal leaders of important states have also acted in extremely irresponsible ways during the crisis, including Bolsonaro, the leader of Brazil, and to some extent, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, among others.

The comparison between China and the United States, current leadership aside, suggests some important differences. The most important difference relates to the role of the central government, and in China’s case, the state. China has more of a unitary system in which policy is set in Beijing for the entire country. In the United States, the reality of federalism means that all 50 internal states enjoy a measure of autonomy, which results in diverse responses to the COVID challenge, some following the approach taken by Trump while others following health guidelines and produce overall better results.

In general, it is possible to suggest that the role of the state is more effectively and efficiently deployed in China in response to COVID, although exhibiting a disturbing disregard for the freedom of citizens and their human rights, especially with regard to political dissent and peaceful opposition. The extraordinary success of the Chinese economy over the course of the past 50 years, confirms the importance of providing centralized guidance in promoting technological innovations and in managing the allocations of capital investment in rapid and sustainable patterns of development. 

The U.S. has long suffered from the effects of massive over-investment in military capabilities, which has led to a series of costly foreign policy failures going back to Vietnam, compounded by a refusal to adapt to a global setting in which the politics of national resistance prevails over the superior weaponry of the United States, producing endless wars with unfavorable political outcomes for the intervening. So far China has avoided this trap, expanding through reliance on a variety of soft power instruments, but whether it can maintain this posture in the face of the U.S. current disposition toward confrontation and the initiation of a second cold war is not clear.

The U.S. also suffers from ideological inhibitions that are leftovers from the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. Any reliance on government to perform roles relating to health, education, and social protection are labeled as ‘socialism,’ which is treated as such an evil mode of governing as to foreclose serious discussion. The result has been disinvestment in the social justice agenda, which is compounded in bad effects by the continuing over-investment in the militarist agenda.  

  • Liberal order after World War II, with Trump coming to power, became more and more threatened, and Trump weakened the institutions and organizations that were the manifestation of economic liberalism; Like the World Trade Organization. China, meanwhile, is currently benefiting from a liberal order in the international arena. What is the reason for this?

This is a crucial question. There is no doubt that neoliberal globalization led to a surge in international trade and investment, fueling sustained economic growth, but it also led to great inequality of benefits from economic development, sharpening class tensions, and in the American case caused acute alienation among workers and rural communities. The Trump phenomenon arose as an ultra-nationalist impassioned backlash to these negative domestic impacts of liberalism. Trump’s insistent call for ‘America First’ coupled with a rejection of all phases of globalism resonated with many Americans. Such a strident outlook struck heavy blows against global cooperation and hospitality to asylum-seekers and refugee, and even immigrants, at the very time these more cosmopolitan behavioral patterns were most needed to address such serious challenges as climate change and migration flows that could not be handled satisfactorily by states acting alone. In some respects, this retreat behind borders worked politically and economically for Trump until the unanticipated COVID pandemic came along. Trump missed no opportunity to boast about the stock market reaching historic highs, low unemployment figures, and somewhat rising wages for workers. The down side of Trump’s approach led to repudiations of the authority of international economic institutions, produced accelerating inequality, and was accompanied by ugly reactions against immigrants and people of color who were denied the full benefits of citizenship and were treated as hostile threats to nationalist identities of supremacy claimed by discontented white Americans who felt understood, energized, and supported by the Trump leadership.

In contrast, China was able to benefit from market forces while simultaneously overcoming the impoverished condition of more than 300,000,000 of its citizens and rapidly building an efficient modern market society on the largest national scale ever known. China’s state-guided public investment policies have seemed very well coordinated to develop an economy that is not only remarkably productive in industrial era manufacturing, but has started to dominate the technological frontiers that have military and reputational implications as threatening to the West as was post-1945 decolonization. China managed to combine taking advantage of liberalism while avoiding most severe forms of domestic alienation, and found win/win ways to help with infrastructure development of less developed countries without seriously interfering with their sovereign rights or political independence, thereby raising its status internationally. From a human rights perspective, China built an impressive record with respect to economic and social rights, while limiting political and civil rights rather severely, and imposing an unacceptably discriminatory regime on the large minority Uighur population in Xinjiang province. 

  • The Biden team is set to amend the World Trade Organization’s constitution to make trade more profitable for the United States. They seem to be looking to make tariff changes and a kind of economic protectionism so that China does not benefit much from free trade. What is your assessment?

The Biden approach to China reflects a bipartisan, and largely mistaken, view that China has taken unfair advantage of world economy through improper subsidies of exports and by way of strict regulation of imports and foreign investment in China, including with respect to technology. I am not equipped to assess the reasonableness of these grievances, nor of the Chinese concerns with unfair responses to their activities in global markets. There is a danger arising from this attempt to control Chinese economic behavior that it will lead China to retaliate and give rise to the sort of protectionism that caused the Great Depression of the 1930s, characterized as a ‘beggar thy neighbor’ ethos in foreign economic policy. There is also present an impression that the United States is neglecting its own economic shortcomings by shifting blame to China rather than making reforms such as a more prudent allocation of resources and a more effective and equitable public allocation of public sector revenues to promote research and development in non-military projects. The U.S. political taboo preventing even discussion of the shrinking the military budget and the worldwide network of overseas bases is more explanatory of American decline than are accusations of improper behavior directed at China. The U.S.’s military budget is larger than the combined military expenditures of the next ten countries, and yet the U.S. has never felt more insecure throughout its entire history. It is these realities that are at the root of the relative world decline in the economic sphere, and the overall crisis confidence, currently besetting  the United States.

  • Fifteen Asia-Pacific economies formed the world’s largest free trade union, an agreement backed by China that does not include the United States. The Economic Partnership brings together the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The pact came as the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The pact that Obama believed would establish the Asian trade order in the 21st century and would not allow China to do so. China is now shaping the Asian order with a new treaty. What is your assessment?

This question points to another major deficiency in the global turn toward economic nationalism and away from economic multinationalism during the Trump presidency. China has taken intelligent advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which incidentally excluded China reflecting Obama’s interest in containing China’s regional outreach. China has helped fill the cooperation vacuum by adopting a multilateral framework designed to facilitate Asian growth of trade and investment. Trump’s preference for ‘transactional’ bilateral deals over negotiated cooperative frameworks seems ‘ is very shortsighted, and is almost certain to be rejected as an approach during the Biden presidency. But it is probably too late to reverse these regional developments by U.S. inclusion unless Biden’s leadership moves away from confrontation and toward accommodation, which seems unlikely. This China-led 10 country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership includes Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and Brunei is off to an impressive start. This arrangement has been under negotiation since 2012, and just now formally endorsed by member governments. India had been expected to become a member, withdrawing recently because the expected lowering of tariffs was thought to harm Indian producers. As it is this Asian bloc comprises 30% of the world’s population, and just under 30% of the world’s GDP. 

  • With Biden coming, it seems that we will see a kind of limited liberalism in the international system. What is your assessment?

I anticipate a double movement with regard to the world economy: one movement would be toward restoring the spirit and substance of market driven transnational agreements and frameworks designed to encourage trade and investment within a rule governed framework that is mutually beneficial and inclusive; the second movement is more ideologically delimited, seeking frameworks that are ideologically and geopolitically more closely aligned, excluding China, and possibly Russia. This post-Cold War restructuring was somewhat anticipated by the Obama ‘Asia reset’ that deliberately excluded China from the TPP, and Biden is likely to go further in Asia, and possibly joining with India in adopting a new containment approach to foreign policy and world order. It is difficult at this stage to know how China will react if it is faced with geopolitical encirclement and a more exclusionary economic atmosphere. It is possible that China, which is more pragmatic and opportunistic than the West, will do its best to encourage a less conflictual new phase of economic globalization, which would spread benefits worldwide, is also responsibly concerned with the global public good, which translates into greater support for clean energy, environmental protection, human rights, denuclearizing initiatives, and a more equitable distribution of benefits of economic growth. 

  • Trump received over 70 million votes. This is almost equal to Biden, especially if Biden’s big margin in California is discounted. That means almost half of American voters like Trump. That is, his views on nationalism in all its dimensions, and his economic protectionism and unilateralism, are popular with the American people and are tied to the interests of the people. How can Biden balance the values of liberalism, of which globalization is a manifestation, with this demand of Trump supporters at the domestic level?

Biden’s efforts to find a consensus on foreign economic policy will definitely pose a crucial test for his presidency. If he seeks to act on the basis of domestic unity, policymaking will likely be paralyzed, especially if Republicans remain able to put roadblocks in the path of Democratic proposed initiatives. If Biden decides to ignore the priorities of this lingering large Trump support he will be confronted by resentment and disruption. It is a dilemma no recent American president has faced. Whether the dilemma can be overcome also depends on whether Trumpist Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate, and that seems to rest on the Georgia reruns of the two senatorial elections, which will be decided in early January. Unless the Democrats win both races, the Republicans will control the Senate, and as they did with Obama’s second term, be in a position to obstruct and block most legislative initiatives that are seen as antagonistic to the Trump approach. Biden’s pledge to be president for all Americans sounds good, but whether it will be a successful governing style remains in doubt. My understanding is that most Trumpists want power not compromise or responsible government. In this regard, restoring civility to the American political scene will be welcomed even by some Trump supporters, but to uphold his policy goals it may well be necessary to confront Republicans and mobilize the support of the citizenry. With the recent election revealing the depth of polarization, further revealed by the Trump refusal to accept the outcome as certified by the long reliable voting schemes operative in the 50 states, including those presided over by Republican officials, there are many signs of domestic trouble ahead for Biden whether he gives way on his policy agenda or tries to have it fulfilled. Biden may have more success in reviving the bilateral consensus on foreign policy that existed during the Cold War, and would be now focus on restoring European alliance relations and challenging China regionally in South and East Asia, and globally with regard to a U.S. oriented revision of rule-governed globalization. Again, much depends on the degree to which the Biden leadership with continues to address global security through a militarist optic. Early indications suggest that the demilitarization of the American political and moral imagination will not be forthcoming in the near future whoever is president. 

  • If Biden wants to deviate from the principles of free trade in order to contain China, he has deviated from one of the main principles of economic liberalism. This means that liberalism has faced a serious challenge in practice, especially at the international level. What is your opinion?

Again, I think the way to consider such a departure from global scale, inclusive liberalism is to reevaluate the operation of the world economy during and after the ending of the Cold War in the early 1990s. On the basis of my prior responses is a return to a modified Cold War orientation toward foreign economic policy. Unlike the Soviet Union, China’s participation in the world economy is indispensable for world stability and sustainable development, which creates a realization of mutual benefits. There is no realistic prospect of resurrecting the ‘Washington consensus’ shaped by the Bretton Woods institutions as projecting American values onto the global stage as the more legitimate future than that projected by Moscow. What might be feasible is some reform within the neoliberal framework that gained certain concessions from China but more or less retained the inclusive structures of neoliberal globalization that have controlled the world economy since the Soviet collapse in 1992. Thinking optimistically, we might even witness an upgrading the quality of Chinese participation. If reform fails and geopolitical confrontation occurs, then a lose/lose future for the entire world looms as the likely outcome, which could work more to the disadvantage of the West than to China. It needs to realized that China has been adapting its public investment priorities in light of expanding the economic performance of its huge domestic market, including satisfying rising consumer demand, as well continuing with the largest international/transnational development in world history, The Road and Belt Initiative or One Belt, One Road (OBOR), a new Silk Road adapted to the circumstances of the present. As Deepak Nayyar has shown in his breakthrough book, Asian Resurgence (2019), China is no longer dependent on Silicon Valley and Europe for technological progress, but the West, including the United States, may increasingly look to China for the latest technological innovations. Undoubtedly, part of the rising tension with China reflects the threatening reality that the country has graduated from its non-threatening role as ‘the factory of the world’ to becoming dominant on some of the most dynamic technological frontiers, which is a symbolic as well as a substantive blow to America’s reputation and leadership credentials, and possibly even to its dominance with respect to innovations in military technology.  

8. Given that liberalism is not in America’s best interests internationally, and theorists such as Prof. John Mearsheimer warn the US government against pursuing liberalism globally, what do you think will replace the current liberal order?

John Mearsheimer has long intelligently stressed the geopolitical dimensions of world order, which inevitably emphasizes patterns of conflict between major actors. As an extreme realist he regards ‘liberalism’ as naïve, and a sign of weakness, which invites cynical adversaries to take advantage economically and diplomatically. Mearsheimer is convinced that history is shaped by those political actors that prevail militarily, and as adjusted for present realities, the first priority of foreign policy should not be cooperation with rivals but their deterrence. He has gone so far as to credit nuclear weapons with the avoidance of World War III during the Cold War.

A complementary view to that of Mearsheimer has been influentially formulated by Graham Allison in his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ (2017), which puts forward the thesis that high risks of war occur when the hegemonic hierarchy is challenged by an ascending actor in international relations. The present ascendant political actor that perceived a rising challenge from below is likely to provoke war rather than give way, which according to Allison is what has almost happened throughout world history.

Whether such abstractions should be given much weight considering several factors:

–the globalizing adaptations in the post-COVID world, giving increased role to WHO, and UN

Generally, as offset by persisting ultra-nationalist governance trends, despite defeat of Trump;

–a growing anxiety about global warming producing climate change with many harmful effects, including dangerous erosions of biodiversity;

–the Chinese challenge to American global primacy arising in a manner unlike earlier geopolitical confrontations, most notable with respect to economic performance, technological ascendancy, and soft power expansionism rather than by way of military challenge and territorial ambitions;

–U.S. relative decline globally, reflecting a continuing over-investment in military capabilities, a militarized permanent bureaucracy entrapped in an outmoded political imagination with a disposition that exaggerates security threats and under-invests in domestic infrastructure and social protection of its citizenry;

–a resulting intensification of uncertainty about the future of world order, some recovery of functional multilateralism under Biden leadership accompanied by increased reliance on coercive geopolitics involving relying on military ‘solutions’ for political problems. 

The End of Democracy?

8 May

[Prefatory Note: This post is an expanded and somewhat modified version of an opinion piece published by the online publication, global-e on May 1, 2018. It seeks to raise questions and suggest different ways of conceiving of democratic governance.]

 

The End of Democracy?

As demagogic leaders with popular approval or at least acquiescence now dominate the political process of several important ‘democratic’ states, questions about the core or indispensable content of democracy are more appropriate than ever. How should we understand the meaning of democracy in a variety of national circumstances? Is democracy, as properly defined, the best mode of governance under all conditions for every society enjoying sovereign rights? Or in the more reserved spirit of Churchill’s quip, is democracy just ‘the least bad?” Do China or Singapore offer the world, or at least certain societies, a preferred alternative compared to democracy as it evolved and perceived in the West?

 

Many states seek the imprimatur of ‘democracy’ but limit drastically the choices open to the citizenry or proclaim themselves ‘a Jewish state’ or ‘an Islamic Republic,’ which means they are more accurately regarded as an ethnocracy(Israel) or theocracy(Iran). The legitimating imprimatur of democracy should be based on something more objective than the language of self-identification, that is, claiming to be a democracy because the governing arrangements have a formal appearance that resembles what is expected in a democracy, nothing more, nothing less. Instead, it seems an opportune time to delineate the particular institutions, values, and practices that identify the distinctive features of democratic forms of governance.

 

It is not only a matter of taking note of the weakening of the democratic character of ‘democracies’ in recent decades. It is also the attractiveness of China as an efficient developmental model and functional problem-solving mechanism. This Chinese political system is recently being identified as ‘pragmatic authoritatianism.’ Such a comparison of political systems is currently of particular interest because of the disturbing behavior of the United States in this period, both its repudiation of liberalism at home when it comes to the protection of human rights and a kind of blustering militarism abroad that is accentuated by Trump’s retreat from responsible global leadership that had previously given American foreign policy a certain legitimacy despite being the first ‘global state’ in world history. In this regard it is notable that China has shaped its ascendancy in recent decades by mastering soft power diplomacy while the U.S. decline has been accompanied by costly demonstrations of the growing deficiencies of continued reliance on the hard power geopolitics, unsuccessfully defying the realities of the post-colonial world in the early 21stcentury.

 

Against this background, the remainder of this essay explores the notion of democracy from a number of perspectives, seeking to distinguish between political arrangements that serve their citizens normatively as well as materially. There are also historical questions about whether democracy can flourish in an atmosphere in which intense stresses are generated by wide inequalities in circumstances that produce hardships and resentments, creating a susceptibility to opportunistic politicians who scapegoat outsiders and vulnerable groups. Such a pattern has surfaced in the West, increasingly so after the declaration of ‘the war on terror’ that has contributed to the massive generation of refugees, especially as a consequence of prolonged warfare and chaos in the Middle East. This has itself exerted pressures on humane governance by pushing political parties and publics further and further to the right, creating a populist base for fascism if the system becomes further stressed by economic crisis or through fears of terrorism, whether real or contrived.

 

Procedural and Republican Democracy

The idea of ‘free elections’ is certainly a prerequisite of a governing process in which the leadership is somehow accountable to the citizenry. It is not possible to think of a political system as democratic if it does not allow its citizens to select, without fear or interference, among a wide range of candidates of their choice, even if the process is filtered through political parties or primaries or otherwise. What qualifies as a free election can be debated endlessly, but it seems enough to suggest that candidates should represent significantly divergent societal viewpoints on major issues that compete for support, that votes are counted honestly, and no obstacles are intentionally placed in the path of those in the electorate who are poor, less educated, and not fluent in the native language.

 

The relationship of money to the electoral process is increasingly problematic, and abetted by well-funded lobbying. As might be expected, the configuration of these issues varies from state to state. A crisis of democracy in the United States has highlighted these issues. On the one side, many, perhaps most, qualified candidates are discouraged from taking part in the political process or are subjected to defamatory treatment if they do. On the other side, NGOs such as the NRA and AIPAC distort the political process, making it politically impossible to serve the public interest, for instance, by rendering unlawful the sale and possession of assault weaponry and in the case of AIPAC making it as difficult for the United States to pursue foreign policies in the Middle East that reflect the national interest of the country and the global interest of people due to the overwhelming and often mindless pressures to follow Israel’s policy priorities no matter where they might lead. The pressure exerted to repudiate the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 illustrates the way lobbying obstructs the implementation of the public interest. In some sense, it is this interplay of money, influence, and regressive policies that raise fundamental questions about the political and moral legitimacy of governing process. A clouding of public interest in democratic practiceresults from this lethal mixture of private sector money and a frustrated public that poses fundamental threats to American democracy as it formerly operated, and in different ways, to other political systems that purport to retain a democratic system jiust because they hold periodic, free elections. 

 

Looked at from a different angle, a state should not necessarily jeopardize its democratic credentials if it disqualifies candidates and parties that deny basic human rights to segments of the citizenry on some principled basis or espouse fascist agendas, or if rights are somewhat abridged during periods of national emergency as during wartime. This contingent dimension of democratic governance is almost always controversial. It can be discussed in relation to specific instances by reference to the acceptable limits that can be imposed on the practice of procedural democracy. Such a form of government is sensitive to the dangers of abuses and corruptions when power becomes too concentrated, invoking ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers’ as institutional bulwarks of restraint on ‘the tyranny of the mob’ or the predatory behavior of the tyrant. To the extent that such restraints are regularized the governmental form is more precisely identified if labeled asrepublican democracy.’ There is some concern that minorities with strong agendas can encroach on free speech by overreaching by suppressing dissident views of contested historical happenings, as with the Holocaust denial laws of several European countries and in relation to the effort by Armenian communities to make it a hate crime to question the description of the 1915 massacres in turkey as ‘genocide.’

 

Such restraints on the capricious exercise of power tend to be challenged, however, by technological legerdemain and excessive government classification procedures that seriously undermine political transparency and the constitutional constraints on war making by leaders if present, leaving weighty decisions in the hands of an unaccountable few. Without democratic accountability in such instances, democracies lose legitimacy, especially considering the risks and dangers of the nuclear age. Whistleblowers, although often subjected to a criminalizing backlash, are an indispensable resource of contemporary democracy.

 

It may be that only the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals ofallcountries can restore a semblance of substantive reality to a procedural or republican understanding of democracy, and the primacy that could then be again accorded ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers.’ There is growing concern that what Bruce Franklin and Chas Freeman call ‘the forever war’ can be reconciled with the political freedom of the citizenry. Security concerns are now associated with the behavior of persons not necessarily associated with formal military or intel activities, putting the whole society perpetually under suspicion, a condition that provides pretexts for pervasive intrusions on privacy and technically feasible totalizing surveillance.

 

Liberal versions of democracy—especially in their republican form—almost always includes a guaranty of intra-governmental friction and judicial protection of civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression and the right of assembly, but not necessarily (and likely not at all) social and economic rights. In this sense, these seemingly unresolvable tensions between neoliberal versions of capitalism and political democracy are of paramount importance in many societies widely regarded as ‘democratic.’

 

Normative Democracy

To achieve an inclusive political order a substantive commitment to deal with basic social and economic rights is essential, although infrequently acknowledged. This raises questions about the potential compatibility of real democracy with contemporary forms of capitalism. The protection of social and economic rights are necessary so as to satisfy the material needs of all people under sovereign control, especially with respect to food, health, shelter, education, environmental protection, responsibility to future generations. Yet a market-driven ethos has not been effectively challenged in ideologically or behaviorally even by large-scale homelessness or extreme poverty so long as the gates of opportunity pretend to be available to all. This dimension of democratic governance is rarely analyzed, and is best considered by reference to values-driven, inclusive, andnormative democracy. A society should also be protected against war-prone leadership that defies transparency by relying on claims of secrecy and national security, and authorizes leaders to engage in reckless coercive diplomacy and even to make war on their own without the participation of other branches of government.

 

Somewhere in between selecting leaders, upholding rights, and ensuring a minimal standard of living that entrenches human dignity and enables a humane society are considerations of internal and external security. Meeting the threats from within and without while avoiding hysteria, paranoia, and different forms of suppression is a fundamental responsibility of every legitimate state, and especially of those that claim a democratic pedigree. There is no satisfactory label, but since a state unable to protect sovereign rights and internal political order loses the respect and allegiance of its citizenry, the security dimension of governance can be associated witheffective democracy. For without political order, and a capability to address external threats and internal disorder, no form of governance can avoid chaos, foreign penetration, and a hostile backlash from its own citizenry, although specific assessments of this kind involve subjective appreciations of capabilities and political will.

 

There are increasing critiques of democratic states for having weakened the bonds between what citizens seek and what the government does. In the United States, for instance, special interests inflate the prices of pharmaceutical products to astronomical heights, insulate gun control from public opinion to a grotesque degree, and allow corporations, banks, and billionaires to contribute unlimited amounts to (mis)shape political campaigns. Markets are further distorted by corruption of various kinds that undermine the capabilities of government to serve the people. This dimension of democratic governance can be considered under the rubric ofresponsive democracy. Without a high degree of responsiveness on central policy issues, a governing process will steadily lose legitimacy, especially if seen as deferring to special interests.

 

Majoritarian Democracy

It becomes increasingly evident that in some political systems free elections occur, demagogues participate—and sometimes prevail—and a majority of the citizenry is either submissive or supportive. In this kind of atmosphere toxic, win/lose polarizations develop, with extremist and paranoid rhetoric justifying suppression and demonization of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and even asylum seekers. Walls are proposed and built; borders are militarized; and exclusionary ideas of political community gain traction in the marketplace of ideas. One result is that the values, views, and security of vulnerable and oppositional populations are ignored or even condemned. Genuine news is dismissed as fake news, and vice versa, creating fact-free political leadership. This kind of political order can be termedmajoritarian democracy, and contains worrisome attitudes that are pre-fascist in character.It also generates a mirror-image opposition that demonizes the leadership, as in Turkey, in ways that grossly exaggerate wrongdoing, generating a vicious circle of denunciation and abuse.

 

This majoritarian form of democracy tends to rest its claims on passion and a perversion of Rousseau’s ‘general will’ rather than on reason and evidence, and is contemptuous of limits on the exercise of state power on behalf of the nation, especially if directed against foreign or domestic ‘enemies.’ As a result, the rule of law and, especially, respect for international law and the authority of the United Nations are weakened, while deference to the ruler increases in conjunction with claims of indefinite tenure atop the political pyramid, ratified by periodic votes of approval in which the opposition is ineffectual, being demoralized, split, suppressed, and disfavored by most of the mainstream media. Such leaders as Putin, Xi, Trump, Erdoğan, Sisi, Modi, and Abe manifest the trend, remaining popular while often treating ‘citizens’ as if they were ‘subjects’, thereby blurring the distinction between democracy and authoritarianism when it comes to state/society relations.

 

Aspirational Democracy

In opposition to these disturbing trends are more humanistic and spiritual concerns that focus attention on the protection of human rights, especially of those who are vulnerable and poor. The idea of ‘democracy to come’ as depicted by the deceased French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and recently developed further by Fred Dallmayr, is being taken more seriously by those dedicated to achieving genuine democratic forms of governance.

 

This idea centers on the belief that democracy in all its manifestations, even at its best, remains an unfinished project with unfulfilled normative potential. It represents a call to work toward an inclusive democracy based on the serious implementation of ‘the spirit of equality’ (Dallmayr), the goal of humane governance best articulated by Montesquieu. Such a political order goes beyond upholding the rule of law by seeking to promote justice within and beyond sovereign borders. Such a democratic political order would now subordinatenationalinterests tohumanandglobalinterests as necessary in relation to climate change, nuclear weaponry, migration, disease control, peace and security, and the regulation of the world economy. No democracy of this kind has so far existed, but as a goal and ideal this political vision of democratic fulfillment can be understood asaspirational democracy, and might take different forms depending on the societal context and civilizational orientation.

 

Concluding Comments

These different forms of democracy overlap and are matters of degree, but do call attention to the various and variable features of political life that rest on the shared proposition that ‘the people,’ or their representatives, should be regarded as the proper source and validation of political authority and legitimacy. Yet such a mandate for democracy as flowing upwards from the people, superseding God-given or self-anointed authority figures legitimized by ritual and reinforced by claims of a monarchical or divine aura of absolutism, is in many societies again being scrutinized, and under all conditions, is precarious and must be safeguarded and periodically revitalized. Many informed and concerned persons are asking whether democracy is any longer the least bad system of governance for the challenges confronting their societies, yet these critics seem at a loss to propose an alternative. In this setting, the question posed for many of us is whether democracy, as now practiced and constituted, can be restored and extended by legitimating reforms. As engaged citizens we must accept this challenge in ways that are sensitive to the particularities of time, place, traditions, challenge, and opportunities.

 

Because of globalization in its manifest forms, it is no longer tenable to confine the ambitions of democracy to national spaces. Global democracy has become, is becoming, a matter of ultimate concern. Issues raised concern transparency, accountability, participation, and responsiveness of global policy processes, and of course, how the global is to be linked to the regional and national so as to pursue the goal of global humane governance: equitable, stable, sustainable, peaceful, compassionate, and attentive to threats, challenges, and policy choices.

 

 

 

 

Peace and Justice for the Palestinian People: a Conversation

4 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a modified text of an interview conversation with Khourosh Ziabari, initially published on the website of the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence on February 4, 2018, <info@odvv.org>] </info@odvv.org>

 

 

Peace and Justice for the Palestinian People: a conversation

 

Khourosh Ziabari: Humanitarian crisis in Gaza has entered its 11th year as the crippling siege by Israel is making the living conditions of Palestinians more complicated with time. The blockade in what is popularly referred to as the world’s “largest open-air prison” means growing unemployment, people having intermittent access to pure water, the economy is almost dysfunctional and poor infrastructure and lack of funding make the two-million population vulnerable to heavy rains and extreme weather. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories believes Israel is not doing enough to make the living conditions of Gaza Palestinians better, and the United States is also failing to play a constructive role.

 

Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, who has published and co-edited some 40 books on human rights, international humanitarian law and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an interview with the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof Falk shared his views on the recent controversy surrounding President Trump’s proposal to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the ongoing humanitarian emergency in the Palestinian territories.

 

Q: In a piece recently published on Foreign Policy Journal, you talked of Palestine as being a hugely discriminated against nation, which in the recent decades has undergone major hardships due to the inability or reluctance of the United Nations to take steps to balance the needs of the Palestinian people against the political leverage of Israel and its allies. The improvement of the living conditions of the Palestinians depends on a logical and justifiable way out being found to end the conflict. Is the international community really unable to come up with a sustainable and all-encompassing solution?

 

A: The failure of the international community with respect to the Palestinian people and their legitimate grievances is due to several special circumstances; most importantly, the underlying determination of the Zionist movement to control most of Palestine as delimited by the British mandate. In this respect, assertions by Israeli leaders of their desire for a political compromise should never been accepted at face value, and are patently insincere, public relations gestures seeking to influence international public opinion, and convey the false impression that Israel is seeking a political compromise with Palestine.

 

Secondly, this Zionist ambition is now strongly supported by the United States despite not being clearly articulated by the government of Israel. This obscurity, essentially a deception, allows the international community to act as if a peace process is capable of producing a solution for the conflict even though Israel’s actions on the ground point ever more clearly toward an imposed unilateral outcome, which essentially is a unilateral insistence that the conflict has been resolved in favor of Israel.

 

Thirdly, the ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the U.S. translates into a geopolitical protection arrangement encompassing security issues and even extending to insulating Israel from censure at the UN, especially by the Security Council, and making sanctions impossible to impose. In such a setting, the Israelis are able to pursue their goals, while ignoring Palestinian grievances, which results in tragedy and suffering for the Palestinian people. Given the balance of forces, there is no end in sight that might end the conflict in a fair way.

 

Q: President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his plan to move the U.S. embassy to this city met a big resistance at the United Nations, both on the General Assembly and Security Council levels. Why do you think the international community and even the major U.S. allies didn’t say yes to this proposal?

 

A: Trump’s initiative on Jerusalem ruptured whatever fragile basis existed for seeking a diplomatic solution for relations between Israel and Palestine. There had been a clear understanding, respected by prior American leaders, that the disposition of Jerusalem was a matter that was to be settled only through negotiations between the parties. This understanding was broken by the Trump initiative for no apparent reasons beyond pleasing Netanyahu and some wealthy Zionist donors in the U.S. Beyond this, for Trump to side with Israel on such a sensitive issue, which deeply matters symbolically and substantively, not only for Palestinians, but for Muslims everywhere, and even for Christians, damaged beyond repair the credibility of the United States to act an acceptable intermediary in any future peace process.

 

American credibility was at a low level anyway, but this latest step relating to Jerusalem, removed, at least for the foreseeable future, any doubt about the American partisan approach, and more dramatically, made it evident that diplomacy based on the two-state solution had reached a point of no return.

 

In one respect, the Trump move on Jerusalem lifted the scales from the eyes of the world. It should have been clear for some years that the size of the settlement phenomenon and the influence of the settlers, now numbering about 800,000, had made it impractical to contemplate the establishment of a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state. As well, the U.S. had long ceased to be an honest broker in the diplomatic settings that were described by reference to ‘the peace process,’ and probably never was partisan from the outset of the international search for an outcome that was a genuine political compromise. If there is to be an effective diplomacy with respect to the relations between the two peoples, it must, in any event, be preceded by dismantling the apartheid structures that were developed by Israel over the decades to subjugate the Palestinian people as a whole and the United States must be replaced by a credible third party intermediary. Israel feels no pressure to accept such changes, and so there is no current alternative to exerting pressure on this untenable status quo through support for militant nonviolent forms of Palestinian resistance and the global solidarity movement, with a special recognition of the contributions of the BDS campaign. It may be relevant to note that the BDS Campaign has been nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.

 

Q: In the recent years, many resolutions and statements have been issued in condemnation of the expansion of Israel’s settlements in the Palestinian territories occupied following the Six-Day War in 1967 by the UN General Assembly and its affiliated human rights bodies. Even the UNSC Resolution 2334 (2016) declares Israel’s settlement activity a “flagrant violation” of international law. Is the publication of statements and condemning a state, while the state itself doesn’t recognize the demands and considers them invalid, a viable solution? If the international community is convinced that Israel should stop the illegal settlements, then how is it possible to make it happen?

 

A: The continued expansion of the settlements despite their flagrant violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention is both an expression of Israel’s contempt for international law and for world public opinion. It also reveals the impotence of the UN to do anything effective to impose its will that is any more consequential than the issuance of complaints. When geopolitical realities shield the behavior of a state from international pressures, the UN is helpless to implement its resolutions, and international law is put to one side. The UN is an organization of states, and limited in its capacity to shape behavior, especially by the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council. As such, the UN was never expected to have the constitutional capacity to overcome the strongly held views and commitments of the five states given permanent membership and the right of veto in the Security Council in the UN Charter. The Security Council is the only organ of the UN System with clear authority to reach and implement decisions, as distinct from advisory opinions and recommendations. The Israel/Palestine conflict is an extreme version of the Faustian Bargain struck between the geopolitical power structure and global justice, which was written into the UN Charter and the constitutional framework of the UN, as well as exhibited in UN practice over the years.

 

Q: News reports and figures show that the living standards and the economic conditions in the Gaza Strip are getting worse as time goes by. The unemployment rate has climbed to 46%. Research organizations and local media say 65% of the population is grappling with poverty and the food insecurity rate is roughly 50%. How do you think the perturbing humanitarian crisis in Gaza can be alleviated?

 

A: It is difficult to comprehend accurately the Israeli approach to Gaza as its motivations are very different from its stated justifications. Israeli policy often appears cruel and vindictive, with security rationales sounding more like pretexts than explanations. Excessive force has been repeatedly used by Israel in Gaza, and little effort to achieve some kind of tolerable stability has been made.

 

Israel has rejected a series of proposals for long-term ceasefires put forward by Hamas during the past decade. Israel has periodically attacked Gaza, inflicting heavy damage on a helpless and impoverished civilian society in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014 while the international community condemned these excessive uses of force. Now that the economic squeeze is pushing Gaza once again toward the brink of a humanitarian disaster the ordeal of the nearly two million Palestinians entrapped and utterly vulnerable. The situation in Gaza is once again a matter of grave concern, with humanitarian alarms being sounded by those with knowledge of the precarious health and subsistence crisis facing the population.

 

It is unclear what Israel actually wants to have happen in Gaza. Unlike the West Bank and Jerusalem, Gaza is not part of the Zionist territorial game plan, and is not considered part of biblical Israel. To the extent that Israel is pursuing a one-state solution imposed on the Palestinians, Gaza would be likely excluded as adding its population to that of Israel would risk exploding ‘the demographic bomb’ that has for so long worried Israelis because of endangering the artificially generated Jewish majority population, and supposed ‘democratic’ control of this ethnocratic polity.

 

The Zionist project has long resorted to extreme measures to achieve and then sustain the democratic pretension of its governing process, initially dispossessing as many as 700,000 Palestinians from the territory that became Israel in 1948. This coerced dispossession during combat was combined with a post-conflict refusal to allow those who left their homes and villages during wartime any right of return. Such ethnic cleansing was reinforce by completely destroying hundreds of Palestinian villages with bulldozers. This pattern of controlling the population ratio between Jews and non-Jews has been a persistent issue ever since the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917 when the Jewish population of Palestine was about 5%. In the early period, the Zionist effort was focused on overcoming the Jewish demographic minority status by stimulating and subsidizing Jewish immigration. Yet even after the surge in immigration prompted by the rise of Nazism and European anti-Semitism, the Jewish population of Palestine was only about 30% at the start of the 1947-48 War.

 

Israel would probably like to have Gaza disappear. If that is not going to happen, then the second best solution is to entrust Jordan or Egypt with administrative control, security responsibility, and sovereign authority. So far neither Arab government wants to assume control over Gaza. With these considerations in mind, Israel seems determined to maintain instense pressure on Gaza, allowing the population to hover around the subsistence threshold, and to signal Israeli aggressiveness to the rest of the region, asserting a military presence from time to time that seems both punitive and designed to remind Gazans that resistance on their part would be met with overwhelming lethal force causing devastation and heavy casualties, including imposing a condition of enduring despair on the civilian population.

 

 

 

Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam and Turkey

17 Dec

 

 

More than 25 years ago I took part in a major conference in Kuala Lumpur affirming the importance of human rights. At the end of the second day, the convener of the conference, Chandra Muzaffar, a leading advocate of human rights and democracy in Malaysia, arranged for a few of the speakers to meet with the controversial leader of the country, Prime Minister, Mahathir. I was the only Westerner among the 4 or 5 of us given this opportunity. As soon as we entered the room Mahathir looked straight at me while posing a rhetorical question: “Why do Western human rights NGOs and experts look only at our performance with respect to civil and political rights when our natural preoccupation is the promotion of economic and social rights?” Of course, his assertion was meant to challenge the complacent Orientalizing conventional wisdom, reducing the practice of human rights to whether or not a government is doing well or poorly on such issues as free elections and freedom of expression. No one denies the relevance and core vitality of rights, but not more so than whether the bottom strata of the citizenry, as measured by standard of living, can meet their basic material needs. This outlook remains dominant in the West, coloring condescending comments on non-Western human rights failures,, and persisting despite the West’s own downward spiral into the dark domains of illiberalism.

 

I was reminded of this meeting while in Vietnam for two weeks recently. Several Vietnamese intellectuals as well as the rather large Western expat community contended that the government of Vietnam had become repressive in the period since its extraordinarily victory in the Vietnam War. It was accused of harshly punishing critics and dissenters as if more scared of domestic protest than they had been of American B-52 carpet bombing. Such critics were right, of course, to lament this fall from grace on the part of Vietnam’s leaders, who also lacked the charisma and inspirational leadership of their wartime predecessors. At the same time it was unfortunate to fall into the Western trap of focusing on the failures of glasnost, while overlooking the achievements of perestroika, that is, judging political performance as the ACLU might rather than by reference to the overall wellbeing of the Vietnamese people.

 

What I am trying to draw attention to is the remarkable story of Vietnamese economic and social achievements, which center on drastically reducing extreme poverty and stimulating agricultural growth to such a level that Vietnam, previously frequently at the edge of massive famine, had become the third leading rice exporter in the world (after the U.S. and Thailand). In effect, the government of Vietnam, while failing to live up to expectations when it comes to such liberal ideals as transparency, participation, and accountability of their citizenry, was nevertheless successfully building a needs based economy in which there were relatively few below the poverty line and where almost everyone had their health, education, and housing needs met by the state. Not only was this an impressive profile of current Vietnamese society, but it represented a trajectory of steadily improving achievement. Since the 1990s, Vietnamese poverty rate had fallen from about 50% to 7% in 2015 in a period during which roughly 1/3 of the population overcame conditions of food insecurity, according to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.

 

These Vietnamese national accomplishments are the normative realities obscured or ignored by the regressive kinds of thinking that validates and invalidates performance in leading capitalist societies of the West—selective quantitative indicators of economic growth and stock market performance. Let us remember that rich countries in the West are at ease living with large pockets of extreme poverty in their own affluent societies as measured by homelessness and extreme poverty, including the absence of health care, educational opportunity, and even food and housing necessities. Shocking figures of inequality are hardly ever taken into serious account. For example, the fact that the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet—possess wealth that exceeds the earnings of the entire American working class should occasion revolutionary incitement, but actually it is put to one side as a neutral outcome of moving beyond industrial capitalism.

 

The same one-sidedness is present in the discussion of another of my favorite countries in the world: Turkey—where I have spent several months each year for the last twenty. Of course, the dynamics are very adifferent within each national setting. The discourse in Turkey resembles that of Vietnam far more than that of the United States. The critical focus of anti-government forces has been the democratic failings of AKP since it assumed power in 2002; this criticism has sharpened since a drift toward more authoritarian rule in 2011, the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, and spiked sharply, especially in international circles, after the failed FETO coup of 2016 and the often crude and often cruelly implemented overreactions of the Erdogan government to threats that it was entitled to perceive as dangerous. The purge in universities and media of those whose views and activities were deemed unacceptable by the Turkish government, as well as the moves against specific journalists and politicians, especially those associated with supporting the struggle of the Kurdish people, are deeply troubling developments, should worry the society as a whole, and do warrant international criticism.

 

But these negative developments should not be presented as the whole story about Turkey and the AKP/Erdogan leadership. Part of the Turkish problem of perception and accuracy is a tendency of debate toward polarizations of good and evil, secular and religious, and even truth and falsity. This has led negative criticism of Turkish governmental behavior to be misleadingly expressed in the form of unbalanced criticism. In the early phase of AKP governance of the country the standard complaints of an unrelenting opposition were directed at Erdogan as dictatorial and leading the country away from Ataturk secular legacy and toward a religious polity similar to that in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, this line of attack was totally wrong. The early policy priority of the AKP consisted of satisfying European Union criteria for membership, which was actually a major step in the Ataturk direction of Europeanizing the country as the best path to economic modernization. During these early AKP years, the government in Ankara made a parallel effort to get the military out of politics and back in their barracks. Fairly considered, the first decade of AKP leadership dating from say 2002 was notable for achieving fundamental democratizing reforms that many knowledgeable observers of the country could never happen in Turkey. For example, Eric Rouleau, the eminent French journalist of Middle Eastern politics and later French ambassador to Turkey believed that the Turkish military would never give up its tutelage role that was not only well entrenched in the government bureaucracy, but also considered part of the hallowed legacy of Ataturk, as to be unchallengeable. Erdogan’s leadership achieved the impossible. Additionally in this period Turkey managed to break free of its Cold War straight jacket as a NATO pawn pursuing an independent and sensibly assertive foreign policy throughout the Middle East and beyond. The country also achieved a series of successes in trade and investment that led Turkey to be considered one of the most promising of emerging economies.

 

As things got worse from the perspective of political and civil rights, it was difficult for critics to express accurately these disappointments and criticism because the earlier negative comments of the opposition had earlier been so exaggerated. Some of the harshest critics, claiming with varying degrees of accuracy that they had applauded ed what the Erdogan leadership achieved in its early years, but in recent years the management of the Turkish state had fallen from grace. Recent exaggerations claim ‘there are no longer any newspapers in Turkey worth reading’ and the like. I would argue that there has been some decline in the range of media coverage and some lessening of criticism, yet several English language newspapers, including Sabah and Daily Hurryiet remain well worth reading, have useful critical commentaries on government policies and are informative about the major issues of domestic and international policy facing the country.

 

If international assessments were more balanced and less polarized, the AKP leadership would receive considerable credit in domestic and foreign policy from better educated and informed observers of the political scene in Turkey. Criticisms of Turkey’s failed Syrian policies would be set off against the success of Ankara’s African diplomacy, the vitality of its economy despite the obstacles created by the anti-Turkish international campaign, the robustness of its foreign assistance program (second only to that of the U.S., and highest in per capita terms), the care it has accorded over 3 million Syrian (and some Iraqi) refugees, the global attention it has brought to the plight of the Rohingya, and its various regional efforts at conflict resolution (including Cyprus; Israel/Syria; Iran’s nuclear program; Balkan and Caucuses internal relations within their respective regions). Turkey, unlike either Saudi Arabia or Iran, has mostly promoted a politics of reconciliation in the region, and unlike Egypt has done a great deal to help raise the standard of living of its most disadvantaged citizenry. The Turkish government has made Istanbul a global city in many respects, a center for inter-civilizational dialogue and alliance, and a sponsor of conferences dedicated to a more peaceful, prosperous, and humane global future. The TRT World Forum a couple of months ago in Istanbul featured presentations at the opening by the Turkish Prime Minister and at the closing by Erdogan, and in between panels on a variety of world order issues with a fairly wide range of speakers (including myself).

 

My most basic criticism of the anti-government discourse in and about Turkey is along the lines of my sense of what is right in Vietnam. For the bottom 50% or so of Turks the policies of the government have enhanced greatly their material life circumstances when it comes to health, security, housing, public transportation, as well as improved participatory rights of those outside the Western urban sectors. Talking with ‘ordinary’ Turkish workers during this period, such as private car drivers, apartment managers, barbers, fruit sellers, suggest that since the AKP has governed, their lives and that of their families has steadily improved, especially with respect to basic material needs, daily life, and enjoyment of what a modern society has to offer. Often ‘secularists’ deride these AKP supporters, and Erdogan enthusiasts, as uneducated and stupid. Their response when asked why they vote Erdogan adopts the opposite line: ‘Are we stupid?’ Many of these persons actually dislike the Islamic edge of the government identity or think the Syrian policies were a huge mistake, but for what is important for them, the AKP is far superior to alternatives. In effect, there’s nothing the matter with Anatolia, unlike Kansas!

 

It is not at all like the Trump base in America where the policies adopt by the elected leaders are in general materially harmful to much of this angry and alienated American underclass, and what they get from Trump are signals encouraging racism, xenophobia, and nativist patriotism, which seem to generate strong feelings of cultural satisfaction, especially when he punctures political balloons, many of which in any event were filled                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        with liberal hot air as suggested by the many glaring human rights failures during the long period of secular hegemony.

 

In the end we would all like to live in humane societies but in the interim it would diminish polarization and enhance understanding to balance strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced manner, especially with respect to class interests. The weakening of free expression, especially by punishing dissent and

treating criticism as subversion, has horrible effects for the intellectual and creative life that affects especially the sense of wellbeing of the upper echelons of society, but also weakens the innovativeness of those working in the private sector. The material neglect of the underclass causes fundamental deprivations in the daily life of the most economically marginalized portions of societies, hitting minorities especially hard. What I am objecting to is the invisibility of the suffering of the very poor (as in America) and the refusals to acknowledge the public achievement of their improved circumstances (as in Turkey or Vietnam).

 

My argument is not meant to be a reworking of the Huntington argument in the 1970s that developmental priorities tend to make authoritarian rule a palatable prelude to democratically oriented modes of governance. I am not suggesting that it makes sense to defer concerns with democratic practices and human rights, but that normative backsliding should not be the occasion for overlooking how well or badly a government behaves in other spheres of activity. In a sense, this is a search for balance and moderation, and a plea against using ideological brickbats to tear down legitimate governing processes, which undoubtedly need reforms, but do not deserve to be blacklisted except in the most extreme cases, and this is not happening. For instance, the human rights record of Turkey and Vietnam is the target of far more insistent criticism and attack than is the far worse records of Saudi Arabia or Sisi’s Egypt. Again, it is not that being worse elsewhere does not excuse being bad, but it does raise questions about motivation and geopolitical motivation. Vietnam is in a more fortunate position that Turkey because it is valued as part of the U.S. effort to contain Chinese influence, while Turkey is increasingly seen as a thorn in the side of such American allies in the region as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In effect, bashing countries for their poor human rights records needs to be geopolitically decoded if it is to be taken seriously.    

 

End of Nuclearism or the End of the World: Utopian Dreams, Dystopian Nightmares

9 Aug

 

We are living amid contradictions whether we like it or not, driving expectations about the future toward opposite extremes. Increasingly plausible are fears that the ‘sixth extinction’ will encompass the human species, or at least, throw human society back to a technology of sticks and stones, with a habitat limited to caves and forests. This dark vision is countered by gene editing designer promises of virtual immortality and super-wise beings programming super-intelligent machines, enabling a life of leisure, luxury, and security for all. Whether the reality of such a scientistic future would be also dark is a matter of conjecture, but from a survival perspective, it offers an optimistic scenario.

 

On political levels, a similar set of polar scenarios are gaining ground in the moral imagination, producing national leaders who seem comfortable embracing an apocalyptic telos without a second thought. The peoples of the world, entrapped in a predatory phase of global capitalism, are using their democratic prerogative to shut down dissent, rationality, and science. On one side, 122 governments pledge a legal commitment to the prohibition of nuclear weapons as an unprecedented prelude to the abolition of the weaponry; on the other side, all nine nuclear weapons states, and their closest allies, oppose the prohibition and opt for modernizing their nuclear weapons arsenals even devising strategic plans for their possible use, prompting an urgent search for counter measures.

 

John Pilger issues a solemn reminder that Nevile Shute’s On the Beach depicting a post-nuclear human future that is now more resonant than when it was published in 1957. Leaders that could bluff their way to shared catastrophe bellow forth in Washington and Pyongyang, each deluded by the belief that military options even with nuclear weapons are the only geopolitical security blanket worth relying upon, projecting a reckless obliviousness to the risk of losing their balance while engaging in inflammatory rhetorical posturing alarmingly close to the nuclear precipice.

 

As Pilger also points out, the liberal opposition to this right wing populism in the West is also dangerously disposed toward warmongering. Donald Trump is being pilloried by a bipartisan anti-Russian hysteria that imposes harsh sanctions, seemingly intent on driving Putin’s Kremlin into a corner from which there is no retreat except by way of confrontation, and possibly war.

 

We read of record heat waves, extreme weather events, extended droughts, and wild fires as common as clouds in the sky without blinking. The newspapers report that climate scientists are ready to push the panic button in reaction to the latest studies of grim global warning trends, while the Trump factor renews coal mining and treats denial a political virtue.

 

While these alarming realities dim the light of hope for many of us, the American stock market, a barometer of capitalist expectations by the shrewdest investors, achieves record heights. At the same time famine warnings have been officially endorsed for a series of long suffering populations: Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Gaza. The entire Middle East is being turned into a war and conflict zone, with an anti-Iran warmongering coalition pressuring Iran to choose between nuclear deterrence and sectarian warfare inflamed by militarist Israeli/U.S. grand strategy that appears to be motivated by a regional vision of geopolitical pacification.

 

How best to endure in the face of such fatalistic dualisms? That may be the question of our time, dodged for the sake of sanity by almost all of us, at least most of the time. Business as usual, while living with therapeutic forms of cultural blindness, the opioids of those fortunate enough to live for now in gated communities, whether on the scale of private dwellings or walled off countries.

 

Recently a lively young woman told me that many of her friends had decided not to have children because they are so fearful of the storm clouds of the future, and refuse to wait around for liberating rainbows. At the other extreme, today’s International Edition of the New York Times contains a front page ad of enticement encouraging attendance at an International Luxury Conference to be held in Brussels, November 13-14, on the demeaning theme of “What’s Next: Luxury in a Turbulent World.” My somewhat impatient response—‘whatever turns out to be next, it will not be and should not be luxury!’ More likely, those grown accustomed to luxury will shift their residences to those underground homes built by Silicon Valley billionaires on vast tracts of lands in the New Zealand countryside as the ultimate hedge against an imminent global catastrophe. It could be that the NYT conference will devote its attention to this form of post-apocalyptic luxury living! Yet that assumes a quite unlikely focus on how the world of luxury is adapting to the unpleasant realities of the Sixth Extinction. 

OVERCOMING NUCLEAR CRISES: North Korea and Beyond

15 Jun

 

[Prefatory Note: This jointly authored essay was initially published in The Hill on May 30, 2017 under the title, “Averting the Ticking Time Bomb of Nukes in North Korea.” We did not choose such a title that is doubly misleading: our contention is not that North Korea is the core of the problem, but rather the retention of nuclear weapons by all of the states pose both crises in the context of counter-proliferation geopolitics and with respect to the possession, deployment, and development of the weaponry itself; a second objection is with the title given the piece by editors at The Hill. While acknowledging the practice of media outlets to decide on titles without seeking prior approval from authors, this title is particularly objectionable to me. The term ‘nukes’ gives an almost friendly shorthand to these most horrific of weapons, and strikes a tone that trivializes what should be regarded at all times with solemnity.]

 

 

 

OVERCOMING NUCLEAR CRISES

 

Richard Falk* & David Krieger**

 

Alarmingly, tensions between the United States and North Korea have again reached crisis proportions. The United States wants North Korea to curtail any further development of its nuclear weapons program, as well as to stop testing its missiles. North Korea evidently seeks to bolster its security by acquiring a sufficiently robust deterrent capability to discourage an attack by the United States. The unpredictable leaders of both countries are pursuing extremely provocative and destabilizing patterns of behavior. Where such a dangerous interaction leads no one can now foresee. The risk of this tense situation spiraling out of control should not be minimized.

 

It is urgent that all governments concerned make a sober reassessment in a timely manner. The following questions need to be addressed: What can be done to defuse this escalating crisis? What should be done to prevent further crises in the future? What could be learned from recurrent crises involving nuclear weapons states?

 

It is discouraging that the White House continues to rely mainly on threat diplomacy. It has not worked in responding to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions for the past few decades, and it is crucial to try a different approach. Currently, there are mixed signals that such a shift may be underway. President Trump has turned to China, imploring that it use its leverage to induce Kim Jong-un to back down, and has even mentioned the possibility of inviting Kim for crisis-resolving talks. Also relevant and hopeful is the election of Moon Jae-in as the new president of South Korea, and his insistent calls for improved relations with the North.

 

In the end, no reasonable person would opt for another war on the Korean Peninsula. The only rational alternative is diplomacy. But what kind of diplomacy? American reliance on threat and punitive diplomacy has never succeeded in the past and is almost certain to fail now. We assuredly need diplomacy, but of a different character.

 

It is time to abandon coercive diplomacy and develop an approach that can be described as restorative diplomacy. Coercive diplomacy relies on a zero/sum calculus consisting of military threats, sanctions, and a variety of punitive measures. Restorative diplomacy adopts a win/win approach that seeks to find mutual benefits for both sides, restructuring the relationship so as to provide security for the weaker side and stability for the stronger side. The challenge to the political imagination is to find the concrete formula for translating this abstract goal into viable policy options.

 

The basic shift is a mental recognition that in the context of the Korean Peninsula any military encounter, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, is a recipe for catastrophe. It is not a win or lose situation. It is lose/lose in terms of human suffering, devastation, and likely political outcome. If nuclear weapons are used by either or both sides, millions of casualties could occur and the wider consequences an unprecedented disaster.

 

While there have been suggestions from the Trump administration that the time for talk with North Korea is over, actually the opposite is true. A solution to the present Korean crisis would involve an immediate return to the negotiating table with positive inducements made by the U.S. in exchange for North Korea halting its development of nuclear weapons and missile testing. Such incentives could include, first and foremost, bilateral and regional security guarantees to the North Korean government, ensuring that the country would not be attacked and its sovereignty respected. This could be coupled with confidence-building measures. The U.S. and South Korea should halt their joint annual military exercises in the vicinity of North Korea, as well as forego provocative weapons deployments. In addition, the U.S. and possibly Japan could offer North Korea additional benefits: food, medicine, and clean energy technology. China could play a positive role by hosting the negotiations, including possibly inviting the new leader of South Korea to participate.

 

Beyond resolving the current crisis is the deeper challenge to prevent recurrent crises that pit nuclear weapons states against one another. There is no way to achieve this result so long as some countries retain, develop, and deploy nuclear weapons, and other countries are prohibited from acquiring such weaponry even if their security is under threat. Iraq and Libya arguably suffered from the consequences of not having nuclear weapons to deter attacks against them.

 

The only way out of this trap is to recognize that the nuclear nonproliferation regime has failed. The treaty provisions calling for nuclear as well as general and complete disarmament negotiations have been neglected for nearly a half century. Outside the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States has acted as an enforcer of a nuclear nonproliferation regime. Such a role motivated the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003 with its disastrous impacts on the country and the entire Middle East. It also underlies the current crisis pitting Washington’s demands against Pyongyang’s provocations. Hard power approaches to such dangerous developments have a dismal record, and pose unacceptable risks of regional and global havoc.

 

To prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons epitomizes prudence in the Nuclear Age. It is the only way to prevent a crisis between nuclear-armed opponents turning into a nuclear catastrophe. Such behavior would constitute an act of sanity for humanity and its future given the extreme dangers of nuclear weapons, the periodic crises that erupt among nuclear-armed countries, and the growing odds of nuclear weapons being used at some point. Yet for smaller, weaker nuclear weapons states to go along with this approach, the United Nations Charter and international law must be respected to the point that regime-changing geopolitical interventions by dominant states are convincingly rejected as a reasonable policy option.

 

Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic.. Depending upon the extent of the nuclear exchange, cities, countries, civilization, and even all complex life, including the human species, would be at risk. Experts anticipate that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons were used against cities would likely cause a nuclear famine taking two billion lives globally. An all-out nuclear war could be an extinction event for complex life, including humanity.

 

Nine countries currently possess nuclear weapons (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). Nine leaders could initiate nuclear war by mistake, miscalculation or malice. The future rests precariously in the hands of this small number of individuals. Such an unprecedented concentration of power and authority undermines democracy, as well as being extremely reckless.and irresponsible.

 

It is essential to maintain our focus on the challenges posed by the development of North Korean nuclear capabilities. At the same time, while struggling to defuse this crisis hanging over the Korean Peninsula, we should not lose sight of its connection with the questionable wider structure of reliance on nuclear weapons by the other eight nuclear-armed countries. Until this structure of nuclearism is itself overcome, crises will almost certainly continue to occur in the future. It is foolhardy to suppose that nuclear catastrophes can be indefinitely averted without addressing these deeper challenges that have existed ever since the original atomic attack on Hiroshima.

 

Richard Falk

 

*Senior Vice President, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and Albert G. Milbank Professor

of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University

 

**David Krieger

President, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OVERCOMING NUCLEAR CRISES

 

Richard Falk* & David Krieger**

 

Alarmingly, tensions between the United States and North Korea have again reached crisis proportions. The United States wants North Korea to curtail any further development of its nuclear weapons program, as well as to stop testing its missiles. North Korea evidently seeks to bolster its security by acquiring a sufficiently robust deterrent capability to discourage an attack by the United States. The unpredictable leaders of both countries are pursuing extremely provocative and destabilizing patterns of behavior. Where such a dangerous interaction leads no one can now foresee. The risk of this tense situation spiraling out of control should not be minimized.

 

It is urgent that all governments concerned make a sober reassessment in a timely manner. The following questions need to be addressed: What can be done to defuse this escalating crisis? What should be done to prevent further crises in the future? What could be learned from recurrent crises involving nuclear weapons states?

 

It is discouraging that the White House continues to rely mainly on threat diplomacy. It has not worked in responding to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions for the past few decades, and it is crucial to try a different approach. Currently, there are mixed signals that such a shift may be underway. President Trump has turned to China, imploring that it use its leverage to induce Kim Jong-un to back down, and has even mentioned the possibility of inviting Kim for crisis-resolving talks. Also relevant and hopeful is the election of Moon Jae-in as the new president of South Korea, and his insistent calls for improved relations with the North.

 

In the end, no reasonable person would opt for another war on the Korean Peninsula. The only rational alternative is diplomacy. But what kind of diplomacy? American reliance on threat and punitive diplomacy has never succeeded in the past and is almost certain to fail now. We assuredly need diplomacy, but of a different character.

 

It is time to abandon coercive diplomacy and develop an approach that can be described as restorative diplomacy. Coercive diplomacy relies on a zero/sum calculus consisting of military threats, sanctions, and a variety of punitive measures. Restorative diplomacy adopts a win/win approach that seeks to find mutual benefits for both sides, restructuring the relationship so as to provide security for the weaker side and stability for the stronger side. The challenge to the political imagination is to find the concrete formula for translating this abstract goal into viable policy options.

 

The basic shift is a mental recognition that in the context of the Korean Peninsula any military encounter, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, is a recipe for catastrophe. It is not a win or lose situation. It is lose/lose in terms of human suffering, devastation, and likely political outcome. If nuclear weapons are used by either or both sides, millions of casualties could occur and the wider consequences an unprecedented disaster.

 

While there have been suggestions from the Trump administration that the time for talk with North Korea is over, actually the opposite is true. A solution to the present Korean crisis would involve an immediate return to the negotiating table with positive inducements made by the U.S. in exchange for North Korea halting its development of nuclear weapons and missile testing. Such incentives could include, first and foremost, bilateral and regional security guarantees to the North Korean government, ensuring that the country would not be attacked and its sovereignty respected. This could be coupled with confidence-building measures. The U.S. and South Korea should halt their joint annual military exercises in the vicinity of North Korea, as well as forego provocative weapons deployments. In addition, the U.S. and possibly Japan could offer North Korea additional benefits: food, medicine, and clean energy technology. China could play a positive role by hosting the negotiations, including possibly inviting the new leader of South Korea to participate.

 

Beyond resolving the current crisis is the deeper challenge to prevent recurrent crises that pit nuclear weapons states against one another. There is no way to achieve this result so long as some countries retain, develop, and deploy nuclear weapons, and other countries are prohibited from acquiring such weaponry even if their security is under threat. Iraq and Libya arguably suffered from the consequences of not having nuclear weapons to deter attacks against them.

 

The only way out of this trap is to recognize that the nuclear nonproliferation regime has failed. The treaty provisions calling for nuclear as well as general and complete disarmament negotiations have been neglected for nearly a half century. Outside the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States has acted as an enforcer of a nuclear nonproliferation regime. Such a role motivated the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003 with its disastrous impacts on the country and the entire Middle East. It also underlies the current crisis pitting Washington’s demands against Pyongyang’s provocations. Hard power approaches to such dangerous developments have a dismal record, and pose unacceptable risks of regional and global havoc.

 

To prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons epitomizes prudence in the Nuclear Age. It is the only way to prevent a crisis between nuclear-armed opponents turning into a nuclear catastrophe. Such behavior would constitute an act of sanity for humanity and its future given the extreme dangers of nuclear weapons, the periodic crises that erupt among nuclear-armed countries, and the growing odds of nuclear weapons being used at some point. Yet for smaller, weaker nuclear weapons states to go along with this approach, the United Nations Charter and international law must be respected to the point that regime-changing geopolitical interventions by dominant states are convincingly rejected as a reasonable policy option.

 

Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic.. Depending upon the extent of the nuclear exchange, cities, countries, civilization, and even all complex life, including the human species, would be at risk. Experts anticipate that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons were used against cities would likely cause a nuclear famine taking two billion lives globally. An all-out nuclear war could be an extinction event for complex life, including humanity.

 

Nine countries currently possess nuclear weapons (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). Nine leaders could initiate nuclear war by mistake, miscalculation or malice. The future rests precariously in the hands of this small number of individuals. Such an unprecedented concentration of power and authority undermines democracy, as well as being extremely reckless.and irresponsible.

 

It is essential to maintain our focus on the challenges posed by the development of North Korean nuclear capabilities. At the same time, while struggling to defuse this crisis hanging over the Korean Peninsula, we should not lose sight of its connection with the questionable wider structure of reliance on nuclear weapons by the other eight nuclear-armed countries. Until this structure of nuclearism is itself overcome, crises will almost certainly continue to occur in the future. It is foolhardy to suppose that nuclear catastrophes can be indefinitely averted without addressing these deeper challenges that have existed ever since the original atomic attack on Hiroshima.

 

Richard Falk

 

*Senior Vice President, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and Albert G. Milbank Professor

of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University

 

**David Krieger

President, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

 

On the Death of Fidel Castro

10 Dec

 

 

I have been bemused by the captious tone and condescending assessments of mainstream media in the West reacting to Fidel Castro’s death on November 25, 2016. Typical was coverage in The Economist, which while acknowledging Castro’s epic historical role, and even grudgingly admitting that he achieved world class health care and universal education in his impoverished country, reached the ‘politically correct’ conclusion that these achievements were “outweighed by his drab legacy. Much of the human capital was wasted by his one-party system, police state, and stagnant centrally planned economy.” The lead editorial in The Economist went on even to mock the reverence ordinary Cubans felt for Castro: “Cubans say Mr. Castro was ‘like a father” to them. They are right: he infantilized a nation. Anyone with initiative found ways to leave for exile abroad.” [The Economist, “After Fidel,” Dec. 3-9, 2016]

 

In contrast to generally condescending appraisals in the West, I call attention to two extraordinary essays of appreciation written by cherished friends. One by Sri Lanka’s lead diplomat and cultural critic, Dayan Jayatilleka, published as an opinion piece in the Colombo Telegraph beneath a suitable headline, “A Farewell to Fidel: The Last of Epic Heroes,” Nov. 26, 2016. Dayan not only celebrates Castro’s heroic revolutionary achievement in transforming Cuba from its gangster state identity in the Batista period to a vital outpost of Third World progressive ideals. He also underscores the admirable ethics of liberation violence that guided Castro’s revolutionary practice in ways that exhibited disciplined respect for the innocence of civilian life. For greater detail see Jayatilleka fine appreciative study, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro (London: Pluto Press, 2007). This conception of the ethics of political violence has been essentially absent from the manner in which the struggle between terrorist groups and sovereign states has been waged in various combat zones, especially since the 9/11 attacks. Jayatilleka’s assessments have been confirmed and extended in the recently published book by Nick Hewlett entitled Blood and Progress: Violence in the Pursuit of Emancipation (Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh Press, 2016).

 

The other tribute to Castro’s legacy that is deeply informed and resonates strongly with my own perceptions is that of Marjorie Cohn, a lead progressive commentator on national and international issues who writes with knowledgeable passion. In her “The Remarkable Legacy of Fidel Castro,” Huffington Post, Dec. 4, 2016, she contextualizes the Cuban experience during the Castro years, especially lauding the exceptional leadership provided by Castro and the memorable resilience of the Cuban people in withstanding the determined, persistent, and criminal efforts of the United States to reverse the Cuban Revolution and restore the old dictatorial gang to power in Havana. It is truly one of the political miracles of the past century that Cuba was able to withstand this sustained and vicious superpower challenge to its right of self-determination, and as a result Castro’s Cuba served as both inspiration and engaged partner to peoples around the world in their various liberation struggles to free themselves from various forms of colonialism and hegemonic exploitation. Marjorie reminds us of the words of gratitude spoken by Nelson Mandela to Castro in recognition of the help given by Cuba to the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Castro was a genuine internationalist, as well as an ardent nationalist, a combination that is both necessary and rare among statesmen of the last hundred years. Perhaps, it is best to appreciate Castro as a progressive humanist, devoted to improving the human condition throughout the world, and not just in his home country.

 

Even these tributes do not credit Castro’s leadership with its innovative responses to economic isolation and punitive sanctions, which entailed Cuba moving toward ‘a green economy’ (well depicted by Stephen Zunes in an excellent article published on December 9, 2016 by the National Catholic Reporter under the title, “Fidel Castro Left Cuba a Green Legacy”), a vivid instance of necessity serving as the mother of invention. Cuba moved away from monoculture (sugar and tobacco), and concentrated on small scale ecological farming (with greatly reduced reliance on pesticides, fertilizers, and oil consuming machinery) that produced healthier foods in sufficient quantities to meet Cuba’s food security requirements. Now with the opening of the country to a flood of visitors, especially from the United States, there are renewed reports of food scarcities confronting the Cuban people. Paradoxically, it might turn out that the Cuban people benefit more from external pressure than they do from its welcome removal.

 

 

Personal Notes of Remembrance

 

When I was a teenager I visited Cuba with my father, a lawyer with close friends in Havana. We were there during the height of the Batista period, and I remember being at a nightclub where other guests at neighboring tables placed their guns on the table in full view. At that time, Havana possessed Spanish colonial charm, with a small elite doing well while the mass of the people were impoverished and ignored, if not abused. Cuba as a country had no international presence beyond being known as a pawn on Washington’s Caribbean chessboard. It was against such a political background that Castro emerged, and was led to mount his historic challenge a decade or so later.

 

As with so many others, I found Castro to be an inspirational figure whose basic energies were directed at establishing a progressive and proud state in Cuba that stood its ground against the intense geopolitical pressures mounted by the United States under the banner of anti-Communism and in light of the ideological divide that defined the Cold War. How many poor countries, including those not subject to sanctions by its powerful neighbor to the North, would have been able under these conditions to provide universal health care and education for the whole of its population, with resulting high literacy rates and low levels of infant mortality? And not only this, that despite the massive pressures arrayed against Cuba, the government still lent material and invaluable psychological support in solidarity with progressive nationalist movements throughout Latin America and Africa that were in the midst of struggles against colonialist and oppressive forces.

 

No wonder the Cuban people en masse and many millions throughout the Global South deeply mourn with genuine displays of sorrow the passing of this great man, whose warm, vital, and lofty spirit, survived numerous assassination plots and terrorist initiatives launched by CIA operatives and Cuban exiles. As confirmed by declassified official documents, US Government went so far as to enlist notorious Mafia (Cosa Nostra) figures such as Salvatore Giancana and Santos Trafficante in its undertaking to decapitate this Cuban leader as beloved by the great majority of his people as any political figure anywhere in modern times. What an objective media should have focused upon was the degree to which the economic and political deformations in Cuba that so obstructed its political and economic development were largely attributable to the unwillingness of those who governed in the United States to live in peace with the outcome of the Cuban Revolution.

 

While a student at Harvard in 1959 I had a brief experience of the Castro magic. During Castro’s visit to the United States and UN shortly after his revolutionary victory, prior to the split with Washington occasioned by the nationalization of American owned properties in Cuba, he stopped at Princeton to make a guest appearance at a famous seminar on revolution taught by the celebrated historian, R.R. Palmer, and then came to Harvard to speak in the evening at an outdoor sports facility, introduced by the then Dean of the Faculty, McGeorge Bundy (later the National Security Advisor of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson). I found Castro to be a colorful revolutionary figure who spoke eloquently and in a conciliatory tone expressing fervent hopes for friendship between Cuba and the United States. These hopes were immediately permanently crushed after Castro proceeded to nationalize foreign owned investments in Cuba, especially in the vital sugar industry, offering compensation based on the fraudulently low valuations used by these companies to determine their tax responsibilities during the years when the corrupt Batista regime made a variety of ‘crony capitalist’ arrangements beneficial to foreign investors and damaging to Cuban society.

 

Decades later I again felt a connection with Cuba through the efforts of my son, Dimitri, who made a documentary film depicting life under Castro as affected by crippling American sanctions and assorted other disruptive tactics. I was very proud of Dimitri’s efforts, resulting after years of dedicated work that included overcoming a variety of obstacles to complete this difficult project during a period when all forms of travel to Cuba were forbidden for Americans. Dimitri’s commitment resulted in a fine film, Media Noche in Cuba (Midnight in Cuba) that was completed in 1998, shown in the Berlin Film Festival as well as other cinema venues. The film captures the vitality and confining impacts of Cuba’s isolation by tracing the lives of four ordinary Cubans, a dancer, boxer, rock musician, and a prostitute through their ups and downs, conveying a positive image of Cuba that at the same time avoids sentimentality.

 

Fifteen years after watching Dimitri’s film I finally got a second touristic chance to visit Cuba with my wife, Hilal Elver while spending a semester at McGill University in Canada. Travel at that time to Cuba from Canada was easy to arrange, and as long as Americans didn’t spend dollars in the country it was quite legal to visit. Although I fell hard on a concrete tennis court on the day of our arrival due to strong winds, causing a bad gash above my left eye, we had a wonderful exposure to Cuban life, experiencing the warmth of the people and the lyrical grace of its vibrant popular culture. My injury also gave me direct contact with the Cuban health system. After the fall I was immediately driven to a nearby hospital in an ambulance, receiving seven stitches, and daily treatment for our week of residence at a clinic linked to the hotel without ever being asked to pay a single dollar for this exceptional health care. I wonder if it take a second American Revolution to be able to have a comparable experience if a Cuban visiting the United States suffered an accidental injury.

 

 

A Final Word

 

As suggested, there are many reasons to celebrate the life of Castro and numerous reasons to lament the severe hardships imposed on the Cuban people by the long American unseemly campaign to undo the Cuban Revolution, and turn the country back to the malicious mercies of what would likely be a corrupt and dictatorial replay of the Batista years. True, Castro imposed one-party rule and limited the freedoms of Cubans in various ways, but could the revolution have survived if a more permissive approach to governance had been adopted? The United States tried every dirty trick in the book to get rid of Castro, with a range of macabre assassination schemes involving poisoning his food and infiltrating toxic and exploding cigars. When we look at more ‘democratic’ attempts to recover control of a nation and its resources on behalf of its people throughout Latin America, we are confronted by a series of progressive assertions of national political will followed quickly by counterrevolutionary seizures of powers encouraged and abetted by the US Government (e.g. Guatemala 1954 or Chile 1973, and many others over the years). Castro seems to have been enough of a realist to take the measures needed to safeguard the revolution from repeated efforts to overthrow the Cuban government by intervention or achieve the same results by imposing sanctions intended to strangle the country and cause the collapse of its government. Americans should never forget the Bay of Pigs (1961) failure of a CIA backed intervention that might have succeeded had not Jack Kennedy withheld air support from the invading Cuban exiles or the closeness to World War III that produced a confrontation with the Soviet Union known as the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ of 1962. In this regard, American paid a large reputational cost by its embrace of the Cuban counterrevolutionary cause, and actually risked the catastrophe of nuclear war as an indirect result of challenging Castro’s legitimacy as the head of the Cuban state.

 

Barack Obama deserves credit for breaking the anachronistic logjam, and taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba over the course of the last year. But even Obama could not let go of economic sanctions altogether, and endured another near unanimous resolution of censure of the US economic embargo of Cuba by the UN General Assembly. Nor would he send a formal delegation to attend Castro’s funeral, which would have subtly signaled a willingness to acknowledge how wrong had been the US policy toward Cuba over the years. Now with Trump posturing about reconsidering Obama’s normalization moves, the Cuban people are being made newly aware that their sovereign reality is cruelly subject to the arbitrary political whims of the American presidency.

 

The perversity of the American policy toward Cuba is underscored by its persistence for more than 25 years after the end of the Cold War. This hostility, fueled by the reactionary Cuban community in Miami, has survived even a Cuban post-Castro turn toward market economics and a willingness to turn a blind eye toward the suffering inflicted on the Cuban people as a result

of U.S. policies designed to isolate, punish, and destabilize. Now it is entirely possible for the nightmare to be extended even beyond Fidel Castro’s death. It would take only one more midnight tweet from the fertile imagination of Donald Trump.

 

And finally, it is sad that the media coverage of Castro’s death, while acknowledging his significance, contented itself with platitudes about the failures of freedom in Cuba without ever seriously exploring the degree to

which the alleged regressive patterns of Cuban governance were necessary responses, the prudent price paid for the revolutionary survival of the Cuban political experiment. Of course, domestic politics played its part in pushing American hostility to such an irrational extreme, and may continue to do so. The location of a large, activist anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Florida, a swing state in American national elections, made political leaders in Washington reluctant to challenge Cuban policy even after the end of the Cold War. Just as with Palestine, there is no political upside for such a challenge, and the adverse practical consequences of challenging the anti-Castro consensus in Washington were understandably inhibiting, and sadly, maybe still are. Unfortunately, the moral upside of challenging these regressive policies doesn’t pay dividends in domestic politics.