Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Polarization Doomed Egyptian Democracy (Revised)

5 Aug

Prefatory Note: I realize that some of the readers of this blog are unhappy with long blogs, and so I offer an apology for this one in advance. My attempt is to deal with a difficult set of issues afflicting the Middle East, especially the seemingly disastrous Egyptian experiment with democracy that has resulted in a bloody coup followed by violent repression of those elected to lead the country in free elections. The essay that follows discusses the degree to which anti-Muslim Brotherhood polarization in Egypt doomed the transition to democracy that was the hope and dream of the January 25th revolutionary moment in Tahrir Square that had sent shock waves of admiration around the world! This has been revised and corrected since its original posting to take account of comments from readers, and my own further reflections. These themes in a rapidly unfolding series of political dramas require an openness to acknowledging failures of assessment. 

**************************************************************************

When Polarization Becomes Worse than Authoritarianism Defer Democracy

Doubting  Democracy

We are living at a time when tensions within societies seem far more disruptive and inhumane than the rivalries of sovereign states that have in the past fueled international wars. More provocatively, we may be living at a historical moment when democracy as the government of choice gives rise to horrifying spectacles of violence and abuse. These difficulties with the practice of democracy are indirectly, and with a heavy dose of irony, legitimizing moderate forms of authoritarian government. After years of assuming that ‘democracy’ was ‘the least bad form of government’ for every national setting, there are ample reasons to raise doubts. I make such an observation with the greatest reluctance.

There is no doubt that authoritarian forms of rule generally constrain the freedom of everyone, and especially the politically inclined. Beyond this, there is a kind of stagnant cultural atmosphere that usually accompanies autocracy, but not always. Consider Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare and his cohort of contemporary literary giants. There have been critical moments of crisis in the past when society’s most respected thinkers blamed democracy for the political failings. In ancient Greece, the cradle of Western democracy, Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides came to prefer non-democratic forms of government, more fearful of the politics of the mob than that led Athens into imprudent and costly foreign adventures.

Of course, there are times when the established order is fearful of democracy even in countries that pride themselves on their democratic character. Influential voices in the United States were raised during the latter stages of the Vietnam War in opposition to what were perceived by conservatives to be the excesses of democracy. Infamously, Samuel Huntington in an essay published by the influential Trilateral Commission compared the anti-war movement in the United States to the canine disorder known as ‘distemper,’ clearly expressing the view that the people should leave the matter of war and peace in the hands of the government, and not expect to change policy by demonstrating in the streets.

It was only twenty years ago that the collapse of the Soviet Union was hailed throughout the West as an ideological triumph of liberal democracy over autocratic socialism. Prospects for world peace during this interval in the 1990s were directly linked to the spread of democracy, while such other reformist projects as the strengthening of the UN or respecting international law were put aside. European and American universities were then much taken with the theory and practice of ‘democratic peace,’ documenting and exploring its central claim that democracies never go to war against one another. If such a thesis is sustained, it has significant policy implications. It would follow, then, that if more and more countries become ‘democratic’ the zone of peaceful international relations becomes enlarged. This encouraging byproduct of democracy for sovereign states was reinforced by the internal experience of the European Union, which while nurturing democracy established a culture of peace in what had for centuries been the world’s worst war zone.

This positive assessment of democratization at the national level is offset by the extent to which Western liberal democracies have recourse to war to promote regime change in illiberal societies. The motivations for such wars is not purely political, but needs to be linked to the imperatives of neoliberal globalization, and to the class interests of the 1%.

In the post-9/11 period the Bush presidency embraced ‘democracy promotion’ as a major component of a neoconservative foreign policy for the United States in the Middle East. Skepticism about the nature such an endorsement of democracy was widespread, especially in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Harsh criticism was directed U.S. Government self-appointed role as the agent of democratization in the region, especially considering the unacknowledged motivations: oil, regional hegemony, and Israeli security. By basing democracy promotion on military intervention, as in relation to Iraq, the American approach was completely discredited even without the admitted failure resulting from prolonged occupation of the country. The supposed antii-authoritarian interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have not implanted a robust democracy in any of these places, but rather corruption, chaos, massive displacement, and persisting violent conflict. Beyond this disillusioning experience, foreign leaders and world public opinion refused to accept Washington’s arrogant claim that it provided the world with the only acceptable political model of legitimate government.

Despite this pushback, there remains an almost universal acceptance of the desirability of some variation democracy as the only desirable form of national governance. Of course, there were profound disagreements when it comes to specific cases. There were some partial exceptions to the embrace of democracy. For instance, there was support in the Middle East for monarchies as sources of stability and unity, but even these monarchs purported to be ‘democratic’ in their sympathies unless directly challenged by their subjects/citizens.  Democracies maintained their positive reputation by protecting citizens from abuse by the state, by empowering the people to confer authority on the national government, generally through periodic elections, and by developing a governing process that was respectful of the rule of law and human rights.

Issues during the last decade in the Middle East have brought these issues to the fore: the Green Revolution against theocratic democracy in Iran, the secular de facto rejection of majoritarian democracy in Turkey, and the various transitional scenarios that have unfolded in the Arab countries, especially Egypt, after the anti-authoritarian uprisings of 2011. The torments of the region, especially connected with the Anglo-French colonialist aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, followed by an American hegemonic regime tempered by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, and aggravated since the middle of the last century by the emergence of Israel, along with the ensuing conflict with the dispossessed Palestinian people, have made the struggle for what might be called ‘good governance’ a losing battle, at least until 2011. Against such a background it was only natural that the democratizing moment labeled ‘the Arab Spring’ generated such excitement throughout the region, and indeed in the world. Two years later, in light of developments in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere it is an occasion that calls for sympathetic, yet critical, reflection.

In the last several years, there has emerged in the region the explosive idea that the citizenry enjoys an ultimate right to hold governments accountable, and if even a democratic government misplays its hand too badly, then it can be removed from power even without awaiting of elections, and without relying on formal impeachment procedures. What makes this populist veto so controversial in recent experience is its tendency to enter a coalition with the most regressive elements of the governmental bureaucracy, especially the armed forces, police, and intelligence bureaucracies. Such coalitions are on their surface odd, bringing together the spontaneous rising of the often downtrodden multitude with the most coercive and privileged elements of state and private sector power.

The self-legitimizing claim heard in Tahrir Square 2013 was that only a military coup could save the revolution of 2011, but critics would draw a sharp distinction between the earlier populist uprising against a hated dictator and this latter movement orchestrated from above to dislodge from power a democratically elected leadership identified as Islamic, accused of being non-inclusive, and hence illegitimate.

 

The Arab Upheavals

The great movements of revolt in the Arab world in 2011 were justly celebrated as exhibiting an unexpected surge of brave anti-authoritarian populist politics that achieved relatively bloodless triumphs in Tunisia and Egypt, and shook the foundations of authoritarian rule throughout the region. Democracy seemed to be on the march in a region that had been written off by most Western experts as incapable of any form of governance that was not authoritarian, which was not displeasing to the West so long as oil flowed to the world market, Israel was secure, and radical tendencies kept in check. Arab political culture was interpreted through an Orientalizing lens that affirmed passivity of the citizenry and elite corruption backed up, if necessary, by a militarized state. In the background was the fear that if the people were able to give voice to their preferences, the end result might be the theocratic spread of Iranian style Islamism.

It is a sad commentary on the state of the world that only two years later a gloomy political atmosphere is creating severe doubts about the workability of democracy, and not only in the Arab world, but more widely. What has emerged is the realization that deep cleavages exist in the political culture that give rise to crises of legitimacy and governability that can be managed, if at all, only by the application of repressive force. These conflicts are destroying the prospects of effective and humane government in a series of countries throughout the world.

The dramatic and bloody atrocities in Egypt since the military takeover on July 3rd have brought these realities to the forefront of global political consciousness. But Egypt is not alone in experiencing toxic fallout from severe polarization that pits antagonistic religious, ethnic, and political forces against one another in ‘winner take all’ struggles. Daily sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ia in Iraq make it evident that after an anguishing decade of occupation the American crusade to liberate the country from dictatorship has failed miserably. Instead of a fledging democracy America has left behind a legacy of chaos, the threat of civil war, and a growing belief that only a return to authoritarianism can bring stability to the country. Turkey, too, is enduring the destabilizing impact of polarization, which has persisted in the face of eleven years of extraordinary AKP success and energetic and extremely capable leadership periodically endorsed by the voting public: strengthening and civilianizing political institutions, weakening the military, improving the economy, and greatly enhancing the regional and international standing of the country. Polarization should not be treated as just a Middle Eastern phenomenon. The United States, too, is increasingly afflicted by a polarizing struggle between its two main political parties that has made democratic government that humanely serves the citizenry and the national public good a thing of the past. Of course, this disturbing de-democratizing trend in America owes much to the monetizing machinations of Wall Street and the spinning of 9/11 as a continuing security challenge that requires the government to view everyone, everywhere, including its own citizens, as potential terrorist suspects.

The nature of polarization is diverse and complex, reflecting context. It can be socially constructed around the split between religion and secularism as in Egypt or Turkey or in relation to divisions internal to a religion as in Iraq or as between classes, ethnicities, political parties, geographic regions. In the concreteness of history each case of polarization has its own defining set of circumstances, often highlighting minority fears of discrimination and marginalization, class warfare, ethnic and religious rivalry (e.g. Kurdish self-determination), and conflicting claims about natural resources. Also, as in the Middle East, polarization is not merely the play domestic forces struggling for ascendancy. Polarization is also being manipulated by powerful external political actors, to what precise extent and to what ends is unknowable. It is revealing that in the demonstrations in Cairo during the past month both pro- and anti-Morsi protesters have been chanting anti-American slogans, while the government invites a series of Western dignitaries with the aim of persuading the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood to accept the outcome of the coup.

Egypt and Turkey

The circumstances of polarization in Egypt and Turkey, although vastly different, share the experience of Islamic oriented political forces emerging from the shadow land of society after years of marginalization, and in Egypt’s case brutal suppression. In both countries the armed forces had long played an important role in keeping the state under the rigid control of secular elites that served Western strategic and neoliberal economic interests. Up to now, despite periodic trials and tribulations, Turkey seems to have solved the riddle of modernity much more persuasively than Egypt.

In both countries electoral politics mandated radical power shifts unacceptable to displaced secular elites. Opposition forces in the two countries after enjoying decades of power and influence suddenly saw themselves displaced by democratic means with no credible prospect of regaining political dominance by success in future elections, having ceded power and influence to those who had previously been subjugated and exploited. Those displaced were unwilling to accept their diminished role, including this lowered status in relation to societal forces whose values were scorned as anti-modern and threatening to preferred life styles that were identified with ‘freedom.’ They complained bitterly, organized feverishly, and mobilized energetically to cancel the verdict of the political majority by whatever means possible.

Recourse to extra-democratic means to regain power, wealth, and influence seemed to many in the opposition, although not all, the only viable political option, but it had to be done in such a way that it seemed to be a ‘democratic’ outcry of the citizenry against the state. Of course, the state has its own share of responsibility for the traumas of polarization. The elected leadership often over-reacts, becomes intoxicated with its own majoritarian mandate, acts toward the opposition on the basis of worst case scenarios, adopts paranoid styles of response to legitimate grievances and criticisms, and contributes its part to a downward spiral of distrust and animosity. The media, either to accentuate the drama of conflict or because is itself often aligned with the secular opposition, tends to heighten tensions, creating a fatalist atmosphere of ‘no return’ for which the only possible solution is ‘us’ or ‘them.’ Such a mentality of war is an anathema for genuine democracy in which losers at any given moment still have a large stake in the viability and success of the governing process. When that faith in the justice and legitimacy of the prevailing political system is shattered democracy cannot generate good governance.

The Politics of Polarization

The opposition waits for some mistake by the governing leadership to launch its campaign of escalating demands. Polarization intensifies. The opposition is unwilling to treat the verdict of free elections as the final word as to an entitlement to govern. At first, such unwillingness is exhibited by extreme alienation and embittered fears. Later on, as opportunities for obstruction arise, this unwillingness is translated into political action, and if it gathers enough momentum, the desired crises of legitimacy and governability bring the country to the brink of collapse. Much depends on material conditions. If the economy is doing reasonably well, calmer heads usually prevail, which may help explain why the impact of severe polarization has been so much greater in Egypt than Turkey. Morsi has succumbed to the challenge, while Erdogan has survived. Reverse the economic conditions, and the political outcomes would also likely have been reversed, although such a possibility is purely conjectural.

The Egyptian experience also reflects the extraordinary sequence of recent happenings. The Tahrir Square upheavals of January 25th came after 30 years of Mubarak rule. A political vacuum was created by the removal of Mubarak that was quickly filled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP), but accompanied by the promise that a transition to democracy was the consensus goal binding all Egyptians, and once reached the generals would retire from the political scene. The popular sentiment then favored an inclusive democracy, which in 2011, was a coded way of saying that the Muslim Brotherhood should henceforth participate in the political process, finally being allowed to compete for a place in the governing process after decades of exclusion. There were from the beginning anxieties about this prospect among many in the anti-Mubarak ranks, and the Brotherhood seemed at first sensitive to secular and Coptic concerns even pledging that it had no intention of competing for the presidency of Egypt. All seemed well and good, with popular expectations wrongly assuming that the next president of Egypt would be a familiar secular figure, almost certainly drawn from the renegade membership of the fuloul, that is, a former beneficiary of the regime who joined the anti-Mubarak forces during the uprising. In the spring of 2011 the expectations were that Amr Moussa (former Secretary General of the Arab League and Mubarak Foreign Minister) would become Egypt’s first democratically elected president and that the Muslim Brotherhood would function as a strong, but minority, force in the Egyptian parliament. As the parliament would draft a new constitution for the country, this was likely to be the first show of strength between the secular and religious poles of Egyptian political opinion.

Several unforeseen developments made this initial set of expectations about Egypt’s political future unrealizable. Above all, the Muslim Brotherhood was far more successful in the parliamentary elections than had been anticipated. These results stoked the fears of the secularists and Copts, especially when account was taken of the previously unappreciated political strength of several Salafi parties that had not previously shown any interest in participating in the government. Religiously oriented political parties won more than 70% of the contested seats, creating control over the constitution-making process. This situation was further stressed when the Brotherhood withdrew its pledge not to seek control of the government by fielding its own candidate for the presidency. This whole transition process after January 2011 was presided over by administrative entities answerable to SCAP. Several popular candidates were disqualified, and a two-stage presidential election was organized in 2012 in which Mohamed Morsi narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafik in the runoff election between the two top candidates in the initial vote. Shafik, an air force commander and the last Mubarak prime minister, epitomizing the persisting influence of the fuloul. In a sense, the electoral choice given to the Egyptian people involved none of the Egyptian revolutionary forces that were most responsible for the overthrow of Mubarak or representing the ideals that seemed to inspire most of those who filled Tahrir Square in the revolutionary days of January 2011.  The Brotherhood supported the anti-Mubarak movement only belatedly when its victory was in sight, and seemed ideologically inclined to doubt the benefits of inclusive democratization, while Shafik, epitomizing the fuloul resurgent remnant of Mubarakism, never supported the upheaval, and did not even pretend to be a democrat, premising his appeal on promises to restore law and order, which would then supposedly allow Egypt to experience a rapid much needed economic recovery.

It was during the single year of Morsi’s presidency that the politics of extreme polarization took center stage. It is widely agreed that Morsi was neither experienced nor adept as a political leader in what was a very challenging situation even if polarization had not been present to aggravate the situation. The Egyptian people anxiously expected the new leadership to restore economic normalcy after the recent period of prolonged disorder and decline. He was a disappointment, even to many of those who had voted for him, in all of these regards. Many Egyptians who said that they had voted for Morsi expressed their disenchantment by alleging the ‘nothing had changed for the better since the Mubarak period,’ and so they joined the opposition.

It was also expected that Morsi would immediately signal a strong commitment to social justice and to addressing the plight of Egyptian unemployed youth and subsistence masses, but no such promise was forthcoming. In fairness, it seemed doubtful that anyone could have succeeded in fulfilling the role of president of Egypt in a manner that would have satisfied the majority of Egyptians.  The challenges were too obdurate, the citizenry too impatient, and the old Mubarak bureaucracy remained strategically in place and determined to oppose any change that might enhance the reputation of the Morsi leadership. Mubarak and some close advisors had been eliminated from the government, but the judiciary, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Interior were fuloul activist strongholds. In effect, the old secularized elites were still powerful, unaccountable, and capable of undermining the elected government that officially reflected the political will of the Egyptian majority. Morsi, a candidate with admittedly mediocre credentials, was elected to the presidency by an ominously narrow margin, and to make matters worse he inherited a mission impossible. Yet to unseat him by a coup was to upend Egypt’s fledgling democracy, with currently no hopeful tomorrow in view.

The Authoritarian Temptation

What was surprising, and disturbing, was the degree to which the protest movement so quickly and submissively linked the future of Egypt to the good faith and prudent judgment of the armed forces. All protest forces have received in exchange was the forcible removal of Morsi, the renewal of a suppressive approach to the Brotherhood, and some rather worthless reassurances about the short-term nature of military rule. General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi from the start made it clear that he was in charge, although designating an interim president, Adly Mansour, a Mubarak careerist, who had only days before the coup been made chief judge of the Supreme Constitutional Court by Morsi’s own appointment. Mansour has picked a new prime minister who selected a cabinet, supposedly consisting of technocrats, who will serve until a new government is elected. Already, several members of this civilian gloss on a military takeover of the governing process in Egypt have registered meek complaints about the excessive force being used against pro-Morsi demonstrations, itself a euphemism for crimes against humanity and police atrocities.

Better Mubarakism than Morsiism was the underlying sentiment relied upon to fan the flames of discontent throughout the country, climaxing with the petition campaign organized by Tamarod, a newly formed youth-led opposition, that played a major role in organizing the June 30th demonstrations of millions that were underpinned in the final days by a Sisi ultamatum from the armed forces that led to the detention and arrest of Morsi,. This was followed by the rise to political dominance of a menacing figure, General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi, who has led a military coup that talks of compromise and inclusive democracy while acting to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, and its leadership, using an onslaught of violence against those who peacefully refuse to fall into line. This military leadership is already responsible for the deliberate slaughter of Morsi loyalists in coldblooded tactics designed to terrorize the Muslim Brotherhood, and warn the Egyptian people that further opposition will not be tolerated.

I am certainly not suggesting that such a return to authoritarianism in this form is better for Egypt than the democracy established by Morsi, or favored by such secular liberals as Mohamed ElBaradei, who is now serving as Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately, this challenge directed at a freely elected democracy by a massive popular mobilization to be effective required an alliance with the coercive elements drawn from the deep state and private sector entrepreneurs. Such a dependency relationship involved a Faustian Bargain, getting rid of the hated Morsi presidency, but doing so with an eyes closed acceptance of state terror: large-scale shooting of unarmed pro-Morsi demonstrators, double standards dramatized by General Sisi’s call to the anti-Morsi forces to give him a populist mandate to crush the Brotherhood by coming into the streets aggressively and massively. Egypt is well along a path that leads to demonic autocratic rule that will likely be needed to keep the Brotherhood from preventing the reestablishment of order. General Sisi’s coup will be written off as a failure if there continues to be substantial street challenges and bloody incidents, which would surely interfere with restoring the kind of economic stability that Egypt desperately needs in coming months if it is to escape the dire destiny of being ‘a failed state.’ The legitimating test for the Sisi coup is ‘order’ not ‘democracy,’ and so the authoritarian ethos prevails, yet if this means a continuing series of atrocities, it will surely lead to yet another crisis of legitimacy for the country that is likely to provoke a further crisis of governability.

The controversial side of my argument is that Egypt currently lacks the political preconditions for the establishment of democracy, and in such circumstances, the premature attempt to democratize the political life of the country leads not only to disappointment, but to political regression. At this stage, Egypt will be fortunate if it can return to the relatively stable authoritarianism of the Mubarak dictatorship. Because of changed expectations, and the unlawful displacement of the Morsi leadership, it has now become respectable for the Tamarod, self-appointed guardians of the Tahrir Square revolution to support the ‘cleansing’ the Muslim Brotherhood. It is sad to take note of these noxious odors of fascism and genocide now contaminating the political atmosphere in Egypt.

The very different experience in Iraq, too, suggests that ill-advised moves to install democracy can unleash polarization in a destructive form. Despite his crimes, polarization had been kept in check during the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein, The attempted transition to democracy was deeply compromised by coinciding with the American occupation and proconsular rule. It produced sectarian polarization in such drastic forms that it will likely either lead to a new authoritarianism that is even more oppressive than what Saddam Hussein had imposed or resolved by a civil war in which the victor rules with an iron hand and the loser is relegated to the silent margins of Iraqi political life.

In the post-colonial world it is up to the people of each country to shape their own destiny (realizing the ethos of self-determination), and outsiders should rarely interfere however terrible the civil strife. Hopefully, the peoples of the Middle East will learn from these polarization experiences to be wary of entrusting the future of their country to the vagaries of majoritarian democracy, but also resistant to moves by politically displaced minorities to plot their return to power by a reliance on anti-democratic tactics, coalitions with the military, and the complicity of the deep state. There is no single template. Turkey, although threatened by polarization, has been able so far to contain its most dire threats to political democracy. Egypt has not been so lucky. For simplistic comparison, Turkey has had the benefits of a largely evolutionary process that allows for a democratic political culture to take hold gradually at societal and governmental levels. Egypt has, in contrast, experienced abrupt changes in a setting of widespread economic distress, and a radical form of polarization that denied all legitimacy to the antagonist, transforming the armed forces from foe to friend of the opposition because it was the enemy of their enemy. If this is the predictable outcome of moves to establish democracy, then authoritarian leadership may not be the worst of all possible worlds in every circumstance. It depends on context. In the Middle East this may require a comparison of the risks of democratization with the costs of authoritarianism, and this may depend on the degree and nature of polarization.

The presence of the oil reserves in the Gulf, as well as Iran, Iraq, and Libya, along with Israel’s interest in avoiding the emergence of strong unified democratic states in the region makes the Middle East particularly vulnerable to the perils of polarization. In other regions similar structures of antagonism exist, but generally with less disastrous results. The dynamics of economic globalization cannot be divorced from the ways in which nominally independent sovereign states are subjected to the manipulative storms of geopolitics.

##

Istanbul: A Modest Proposal

2 Nov

 

            An earlier version of this short essay was published a few days ago in Al Jazeera English online as an opinion piece. My most trusted Turkish friends felt that it grossly exaggerated Istanbul’s credentials as a possible future world capital, and in deference, I will tone down some of the language, and call attention to some problematic features of the Turkish political landscape that should not be ignored in proposing such a status for Istanbul. At the same time in the Swiftian nature of ‘modest proposals’ to be immodest! I think it was an American comedian who said “if you haven’t gone too far, you haven’t gone far enough.” Or when Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of his life was asked about what he regretted most about his overall public role, he responded, to the effect that he had sometimes been too cautious, not sufficiently extreme. Norman O. Brown, who did much in the 1960s to inspire the study of human consciousness, once said in the course of a lecture that in psychoanalysis “only the exaggerations are valuable.” It is in this spirit that I continue to believe that Istanbul has the most to offer the peoples of the world as a global capital, but I would welcome a debate on whether the idea of a global capital is a sensible idea given the nature of globalization and if it is, whether there are preferable alternatives to Istanbul. Of course, one idea would be to neuter the idea of a global capital by choosing an uninhabited island mid-ocean, but I would imagine that almost no one would feel connected to such a place, any more than they do to such existing sterile national capital startups as Brasilia and Canberra.            

 

            The idea of a global city has a long lineage with deep roots in the pre-modern world. Indeed it seems correct to observe that global cities existed before national cities, preceding the formation of the modern state. A global city is most often associated with being a center of world trade and finance, but usually such a city also possesses strong cultural and touristic resources that attract visitors. Thinking in this manner explains the persisting tendencies is to view the hierarchy of global cities from a West-centric perspective: London, New York, and Paris placed in the first rank, with cities such as Tokyo, Geneva, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Berlin, Rome, Shanghai, Istanbul, and Los Angeles treated as forming a second tier. Of course, such rankings are quite arbitrary, shift over time, reflecting new patterns of economic and political relationships that exhibit the ebb and flow of world history. Such urban centers as Rome, London, Alexandria, Baghdad, Vienna, Venice, and Athens were definitely primary global cities during their respective heydays.

 

            But there is a new phenomenon that is especially associated with economic globalization and the main technological innovations of the past century that has given rise to such designations as ‘the digital age’ or ‘the networked society.’ This radical compression of space and time in the world creates a natural inclination to find, designate, and establish someplace as ‘the center of the world,’ as the ‘world capital.’ Of course, the claim and perception of being ‘the world capital’ is both a social and political construction that is connected with the realities of global leadership, sometimes reinforced by cultural preeminence, and normally narrated in an inherently subjective and self-centered interpretation of the flow of history, however the self is defined. In the end such a designation is bound to be controversial, and likely contested.

 

            Of course, from a mainstream realist international relations perspective we can think geopolitically of the world capital as a reflection of the prevailing distribution of hard power at a give time. Thus in the bipolar world of the Cold War it was Washington and Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became Washington alone. Some are now insisting that a new bipolarity is or will shortly be upon us, and even anticipate a new cold war, designating Beijing to be a world capital more or less equivalent in status to Washington. And for those who believe, and hope, that a more polycentric world is emerging, and would be desirable, then perhaps, in addition to Washington and Beijing, one might add Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and even Jakarta, if the European Union moves forward, maybe Brussels, and possibly Cairo as well but only if Egypt is able to find stability and regain its former regional stature.

 

            Of course, all existing cities in the 21st century are contained within a particular state, and are subject to its authority, and share its destiny. In the past there have been some ‘international cities’ without any national affiliation, and there are today in our world several successful city-states, and many states smaller in population and area than the largest cities. Proposals have been made in recent decades to establish Jerusalem as an international city, not only because such a step would contribute to a sustainable and just peace between Israel and Palestine, but because of its sacred and historical belonging to all three of the Abrahamic religions.

 

Most globally ambitious cities in the modern world, then, have this dual identity, as situated within a territorial state and yet striving for a measure of internal autonomy. As a result, cities often develop a split national personality that combines loyalty and antagonism, the latter often fueled by the deep-seated tensions between cosmopolitan urban space and the more provincial hinterland, as well as by national politicians who shift resources from the city to the countryside in their quest for votes, or sometimes, to reduce gaps in standards of living. These tensions on occasion give rise to frivolous suggestions of secession for cities that seem at odds with the ethos of the country as seems to many to be the case for New York City. It is called by its fiercest critics ‘Sodom-and-Gomorrah-on-Hudson’ and by its most loving devotees as simply ‘The Big Apple.’ Some New Yorkers have daydreams of being a city-state, and many Midwesterners would be happy if the dream came true. It is much more common for secessionist movements to become serious political projects for territorial communities comprising a minority ethnicity or religion that claims a political and legal right of self-determination. Restive urban minorities may riot on occasion and vent their dissatisfaction, but their imaginary rarely includes a scenario of formal disaffiliation. Singapore is a rare exception to this pattern, split off from the British colony of Malaya at the moment of independence. More common is the experience of Hong Kong, being reabsorbed by its powerful Chinese neighbor.

 

            A focus on cities is one way of circumventing the tendency to view sovereign states as the only political actors worth theorizing about in international life. It is true that states have an identity based on governance over a defined space that is recognized in diplomatic circles, as well as enjoying the prerogative of granting or withholding citizenship. The primacy of states as international actors is reinforced by membership rules and procedures for international institutions, especially the United Nations, that confer special and often exclusive status on a political community that qualifies as a sovereign state. In contrast, the terminology of ‘global cities’ is assigned without any agreed criteria or conferred status, lacks diplomatic relevance from the perspective of international law, and the idea that there exists one or more ‘global capital’ is no where referenced on standard world maps and remains a completely constructed category of status, identity, and desire. No government would be foolish enough to proclaim its main city as the capital of the world, although the United States came close to doing so during the springtime grandiosity of George W. Bush’s presidency. Proponents of a certain leadership role for a given state may for a variety of reasons be tempted to put forward the claim of providing the world with a capital city. It would follow from the very real geopolitical ambition to be at the ‘center’ of global policy formation and implementation, to have control over a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and to boast of offering visitors the most exciting cultural and touristic experiences.

 

            Part of the appeal of the global capital is precisely this separation of status from statehood, and more specifically from the calculus of hard power. Cities, unlike states, have police forces but no armies, although some cities have local guard or militia units, none in modern times possess or aspire to possess force capabilities to project hard power beyond city limits. Cities generally lack an arsenal of heavy weapons, do not have foreign policies, and enjoy only secondary diplomatic representation. Embassies are in capital cities however remote and small, while consulates are in cities no matter how large and influential. In Brazil, for instance, foreign ambassadors resent being posted to Brasilia, the planned and somewhat isolated and artificial capital city, and greatly prefer living in such stimulating urban environments as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Cities are simply places where lots of people live, work, enjoy nightlife, have access to extensive financial services, and engage in a range of cultural and economic activities. What, then, motivates a city to be treated, even symbolically, as a political actor, and more grandly, to put forward the claim to be the potential or actual global capital?

 

Some assertions along these lines are deliberately extravagant or are merely intended to call attention to past glories, without any serious political intention to project power. The interior Chinese secondary city of Dengfeng, for instance, claims not only to be the center of the world but the center of heaven, as well, and indeed in past times it has served as the national capital for nine Chinese dynasties. Dengfeng’s self-assertion as a city whose provenance extends beyond China and beyond any given time period, is part of its charm, and lends traditional and spiritual significance to the very metaphorical idea of there being such a reality as the center of the world, much less heaven. Such an idea resembles in certain respects the geographical seats of the great world religions that do indeed possess a centrality for the more devout among the faithful as illustrated by the great pilgrimages to Rome to visit the Vatican or the haj as the obligatory journey taken by devout Muslims to their most holy site of worship.

 

            In my view, such a claim on behalf of cities should be understood as partly a site of struggle between two types of adherents. On one side, those who adhere to the old geopolitics that continues to believe, always somewhat misleadingly, but recently more grotesquely so, that history is principally made by those who prevail in warfare, and little else. Such a belief is usually coupled with the Weberian insistence that it is the sovereign state that establishes its identity by its possession over a monopoly of legitimate force. On the other side, are those who view history through a soft power rainbow optic in which culture, political vitality, religious identity, and ethics shapes and forms what unfolds, and eventually yields a cosmopolitan urban outcome despite being out gunned on the battlefield, or succumbs and endures the tragedy of alien domination. Cities, more than countries, can be analogized to magnets or force fields where people go to strike deals, to be entertained and well fed, to add pleasure, cultural enjoyment, and to enjoy greater privacy in their lives, to discuss their problems and receive guidance, chase dreams, and entertain hopes about the future, to be educated, to be inspired by art and artists, and of course, to be protected by municipal government against violent crime and natural disasters.

 

            There was a period not many years ago where there was a notable interest in cities as independent political actors on the global stage. There were many conferences organized around the theme ‘x city and the world.’ I attended a series of annual gatherings bearing the title ‘Yokohama and the World’ that brought together thinkers and civil society actors from many foreign countries and regions. These meetings were a pet project of the governor of the Japanese prefecture, and the discussions were vibrant and suggestive, blending wishful thinking, advocacy, and an assessment of trends. The underlying perspective was one in which it was presupposed that what was good for Japan was not necessarily good for Yokohama, that cities might have separate interests and different priorities from those of national political leaders, and that especially the national capital was subject to many distorting pressures divorced from service to the human interest or the wellbeing of Yokohama’s citizenry. The global city as distinct actor, complicated by its formal subjugation to the territorial order of sovereign states, suggests that people living in a particular city might not share the postulates of territorial nationalism, and were not nearly as inclined to include hard power in their political imaginary. The idea of a world order that was basically constituted by the principal cities of the world depicts an alternate pathway to peace, sustainability, justice, and world order that is at fundamental variance from the preoccupation of sovereign states with national security. In the Yokohama setting, for instance, there was a much greater willingness to engage positively with China than was then the case for the Japanese government located in Tokyo, reflecting a web of national and international considerations. Should we not favor a network of global cities as creating a non-territorial approach to global policy that might be much more attuned to global needs and desires, especially if cities could gain wealth and prestige while contributing to the further intermingling of civilizations and thereby laying the foundations for a more peaceful and sustainable human future.

 

            In the pre-modern world cities were much more prominent than in modern times when sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, bounded territoriality, and statehood organized political life. Socrates felt that death was preferable to being exiled from Athens the city that he loved, and exile was often seen as the worst punishment that could be inflicted. Even Machiavelli centuries later, rarely celebrated for his tenderness, expressed a romantic attachment to his native Florence: “I love my city more than myself.” In the course of the transition to modernity there were many instances of resistance on the part of cities that did not want to get swallowed by these larger political communities established in every instance by conquest. Most of us remain unaware of the deep connections in the past between political violence and the constituting of larger ‘legitimate’ political communities. The relationship between state-building and war that is so fundamental to the securitization of world politics is, in other words, neither new nor without deep roots in the histories of every sovereign state and all major cities.

 

            But with the revival of city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the success of several micro states, we can observe a far weaker linkage between security and hard power, as well as the rebirth of the medieval idea of community viability. These political entities become secure by being useful to others, viable and vibrant for themselves, and generally enjoying ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but not by being able to extend territory and control of resources by conquest. Although this portrayal must be expanded to admit that most modern states did originate with cities that did expand for the sake of food security and wealth or to provide their city with security against marauding neighbors or the vagaries of weather. Nevertheless, this experience of the past is suggestive of how it might be possible to transform the political imaginary of states with respect to their most fundamental reason for existence, inducing more dedication to the security of people (‘human security’) less to the security of governments (‘national security’).

 

 

            I believe that the idea of proposing a global capital is a defensible endeavor, even if seen only as laying the groundwork for the future, if we take into account the degree of integration that has been achieved by markets, by globally constituted battlefields, by changing geopolitical patterns, by struggles to generate global policy that is commensurate with such collective goods problems as climate change and nuclear weaponry, by global travel and globalization of political identity and the dispersion of families throughout the planet by migration and forced displacement.  Of course the choice of this city rather than that one is political, economic, ethical, and even aesthetic and hedonistic.

 

 

            My initial sense of which candidate cities offer the most plausible site of the global capital is rather pluralist. For instance, if our outlook is  geopolitically oriented according to the logic of hard power realists, then the argument for choosing Washington to play that role seems rather obvious despite its recent experiences of relative decline. Yet if the speculation is more normative, connected with human values, then we would probably pick New York, especially because aside from the being the headquarters of the United Nations, it is a most notable global city from the perspective of ethnic diversity, finance, and cosmopolitan culture, although its short lifespan, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and Westcentric orientation limits the quality of its candidacy given 21st century post-colonial realities. New York and Washington also suffer from the role of the United States as the gatekeeper for access, which in the post-9/11 world has made entry problematic for many of those invited to perform culturally or participatein political or academic conferences.

 

            London also could be considered, having the advantage of a long lineage, rich tradition, as well as finance and culture, and the birthplace of the English language. Until very recently a case could be made for Brussels as the hub city for the European Union, as well as NATO, and giving expression to the idea that the world we live in is mainly responsive to economic and military power (an inversion of the 9/11 attacks that targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as the two pillars of the American world role). Brussels could also be championed as a precursor of a post-statist world order that is constituted by regional groupings, but its Western identity and association with the extensive European overseas empires and colonial crimes are fatal handicaps in our post-colonial world that bases notions of legitimacy more and more on de-Westernizing claims of civilizational identity.

 

            I find none of these candidate cities as sufficiently endowed with the combination of features that might justify christening its as the capital of the world. But I do have a promising candidate provided it can overcome some present obstacles: Istanbul. This may seem surprising, because although achieving a much higher profile in the last decade, Turkey as a state is not viewed as belonging to the top tier of countries in the world, including among emerging states, its currency is not much valued beyond its borders, and its language spoken only in its own country, among a few nearby Turcoman minorities, and some central Asian countries that gained independence a couple of decades ago when the Soviet Union fell apart. As well, Turkey has some severely troublesome domestic problems for which no near-term solution seems forthcoming, especially its inability to accommodate the grievances of 12-15 million Kurdish minority, important international unresolved issues such as its relationship to the Armenian diaspora, its various tensions with Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, and Iran, and its dysfunctional, yet abiding and severe, internal polarization between those who governed during the Republican Era, and those who have run the country since 2002.

 

            There are more serious issues as well that make Istanbul’s candidacy problematic in many quarters precisely because it is such an integral part of the Turkish state. The central question is raised: ‘Should the sins of the state be visited upon the city?’ It is not an easy question. And what of the sins of the city? Istanbul has had a spectacular building boom in recent years, with shopping malls and upper income restaurants and hotels, and an overall atmosphere that may not be conducive to a fulfilled life for the majority of inhabitants that must struggle with the ordeals of living and working in a city of rising living costs, unhealthy air, and limited resources for human satisfaction unless one is the recipient of a large salary.

 

            How then can Istanbul be seriously considered in our search for a global capital? I would point to several factors. Increasingly, Istanbul is a city of choice for those international travelers in search of touristic fulfillment, and it rarely disappoints visitors despite its awesome traffic that clogs streets well past midnight and its polluted air. It has also become a secure and acceptable place to hold the most delicate diplomatic discussions, whether involving such regional issues as Syria and Iran, or wider concerns about Afghanistan and Africa. Istanbul has without fanfare also taken steps to emphasize its rising importance: with Spain it jointly administers the UN project on ‘Alliance of Civilizations’; it held recently a very high profile inaugural session of the World Economic Forum; and it also has become a favorite non-European meeting ground for a variety of UN sponsored events.

            Istanbul is convenient to reach for global gatherings, Turkey is a permissive gatekeeper with respect to visitor access automatically issuing visas for a small charge, and Turkish Airlines was recently selected as the best in Europe. Important, also, is the fact that Turkey is not Europe psychologically, even if a small part of its territory is treated as being in Europe. Turkey’s Asian identity is not just a geographic description, but is far more a cultural and religious imprimatur. It has been given greater recent authority by the European Union’s rejectionist response to the Turkish application for membership. Many comment that Turkey has been fortunate to remain outside the EU during the current Euro-crisis, but more than this, if Turkey had become a member it would no long be perceived as favorably by many non-Western constituencies. Turkey also has gained economic and political credibility at a time when so many important states have either been treading water so as to remain afloat. It has also pioneered in achieving a stable interface between secular principles and religious freedom, moving away from the ‘over-secularization’, to borrow the designation from Ibrahim Kalin. This rigid version of being secular dominated the Turkish political scene during the long period of Kemalist ascendancy that ended in 2002 with the control of the Turkish government shifting to the AKP as a result of electoral victories. It is necessary to account of such factors as Istanbul can not be separated from its embeddedness in the Turkish reality.

 

            But is not such acclaim for Turkey irrelevant to the advancement of Istanbul as global capital? One of the distinguishing features of the Erdogan leadership has been to shift the attention of the country and the world to Istanbul, just as Ataturk had strongly believed that a truly modern Turkey would need to repudiate its Ottoman past and so deliberately moved the capital city to Ankara as part of a fresh break with history for the young republic. For the AKP the re-glorification of Istanbul is a way of reviving pride and the traditions associated with the pre-republican era. This is not a crude form of neo-Ottomanism, but a realization that Istanbul was a treasure trove of cultural and religious eminence unmatched elsewhere, and a subtle reminder, through its extraordinary mosque architecture, of its former stature as the home of the Islamic Caliphate. As well, Turkey geopolitically and geographically provides a unique set of linkages between Europe and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and offers the world a more cosmopolitan understanding of the Mediterranean world. I would also mention the degree to which Turkey’s most celebrated author, the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, has been inspired by the imaginative excesses of Istanbul as a city. Pamuk is sometimes referred to as ‘the biographer of Istanbul’ because his great The Black Book and his memoir of growing up in the city so brilliantly capture the magic and mysteries of Istanbul, which has attracted millions of hearts and minds around the world, endowing the city with an almost mystical identity for many of us. Tell me a city other than Istanbul that has exerted such an influence on our collective imaginations? Some might answer feebly ‘Venice,’ recalling Thomas Mann’s great story ‘Death in Venice’ as well as the haunting novel, The Comfort of Strangers, set in Venice by Ian McEwan, but the charisma of Venice is as a place of menace and degeneracy, although its exotic beauty is unquestionably one of the urban wonders of the world.

 

            What enhances Istanbul’s candidacy, in my judgment, is the degree to which this Turkish worldview has been recently articulated in a clear manner. More than any other current political leaders, those who have spoken for Turkey during the last several years have understood and expressed the need to bring a change about the way in which security and power have been achieved in modern international relations, while at the same time not losing an appreciation of the resilience of the old ways, however anachronistic, during this agonizing period of global transition. This innovative renewal of Turkish influence has been rooted, to an unparalleled extent, in soft power geopolitics stressing the mutual benefits of peace, trade, cultural achievement, ciilizational pride, and dialogue.

 

            True, Turkey’s preferred orientation has recently been significantly readjusted to take account of a series of unexpected developments arising from the aftermath of the Arab upheavals, especially in neighboring Syria.  Despite Turkish foreign policy being confronted by hard power challenges within its borders and region, Ankara’s underlying commitment to a new paradigm of world order has not been abandoned. The Kurdish challenge, the Syrian internal struggle, tensions with Iran have led to a dramatic modification of the earlier flagship promise of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but even this seemingly unrealistic goal, if sensitively and contextually considered, retains its essential wisdom, which combines principle associated with maximizing peaceful relations with states and their peoples and promoting mutually beneficial interests. As Foreign Minister Davutoglu has repeatedly stressed, when a neighboring government commits atrocities against its own people, then Turkey sides with the people, not the government that has discredited itself. When the zero problems approach was first proclaimed, it might have prevented future confusion, if this qualification had been made explicit.

 

AKP detractors, whether Kemalists within or Israelis without, have done their best to discredit the Turkish approach to foreign policy. Undoubtedly the new challenge is complex and difficult: How to strike a new balance amid the turmoil of the region that has so far made fools of us all! Yet I am convinced that Turkey continues to do its best to increase the prospects for soft power geopolitics while undertaking the necessary prudent steps to avoid dangerous vulnerability to those political forces that continue to rely on hard power solutions for conflict, including the perpetration of mass violence against their own people.

 

            Considering Istanbul as a possible future capital of the world can be interpreted as a side-effect of the advocacy of soft power geopolitics. It also responds to the receptivity of Turkey as a state willing to provide the peoples of the world with a safe haven for dialogue, negotiation, empathy, and the satisfactions of a post-Western world civilization. We are also recognizing the geographical and geopolitical location of Istanbul as a crossroads connecting several civilizations and religious traditions. Such a proposal can be dismissed as a wild exaggeration of the Turkish role in the world or as a perverse instance of wishful thinking, but it is put forward partly in response to an interpretation of integrative trends in our globalizing world, and also as an expression of the kind of flourishing future that will most likely be of most benefit the peoples of the world.

 

   

Toward a New Geopolitics?

15 Aug

 

             During the Cold War the main geopolitical optic relied upon by policymakers and diplomats was associated with a bipolar structure of hard power. There were supposedly two superpowers with overwhelming military capabilities compared to all other sovereign states, and each controlled an alliance of subordinate states that staked their survival on global crisis management and territorial containment skills of either the United States or the Soviet Union. This framework was an extreme version of the balance of power system that had sustained global order in the West with mixed results during prior centuries. The Cold War nuclear version of the balance of power was frighteningly vulnerable to accident or miscalculation creating a lingering illusion that the current possession of nuclear weaponry on the part of nine sovereign states is a tolerable and stable situation in global affairs.. This statist framework, evolving from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, was partly based on the juridical idea of the equality of sovereign states while being fully responsive to the geopolitical facts of life that placed stress on the gross inequality of states. This dimension of inequality produced an historical succession of hierarchies in the relations among sovereign states,  quite often taking the form of regional and globe-girdling empires.

 

            The UN from its outset was a constitutional reflection of the Old Geopolitics, with the General Assembly organized according to the logic of sovereign equality while the Security Council incorporated inequality via the veto power conferred upon its five permanent members, who incidentally achieved this status because they were regarded as the main winners in World War II. These state soon justified their status by passing the new litmus test of hard power—that is, becoming the first five countries to acquire and stockpile nuclear weapons. The Old Geopolitics was built around the institutions pratices of warfare: victory on the battlefield, superior weaponry and military capabilities relative to others, levels of industrialization as a prime indicator of war fighting potential.

 

            After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later, the bipolar construction of world order no longer provided a summary description of world order in hard power currency. Still, the idea and behavioral patterns of the Old Geopolitics persisted, but the new structure of power was redescribed by security specialists as ‘unipolar’ with the organizing authority in the world now concentrated in the government of ‘the sole surviving superpower,’ which Michael Mandelbaum, a respected international relations scholar, glorified as a virtual and benevolent ‘world government.’  It was a romanticized way of acknowledging that America’s hard power dominance of global scope and its projection of hard power to the far corners of the planet, on and under the oceans, and into space, was truly the first world state of global proportions, but it was not a Westphalian state as its boundaries were geopolitically delimited rather than fixed territorially.

 

            When Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, a collective response successfully was organized by the United States at the UN, and its character reflected the operating procedures of this post-Cold War situation of unipolarity. At the time this undertaking was rendered feasible by what the American president at the time inappropriately called the ‘New World Order.’ What George H.W. Bush clearly meant by the phrase was the capacity of the UN to act collectively in peace and security situations in accordance with Washington’s wishes, and was no longer gridlocked by the Cold War standoff. But this was not a genuine shift in the direction of collective security, the global rule of law, and an empowered United Nations. It became very clear as the response to the Iraqi aggression unfolded that it was nothing more dramatic than an enactment of a new phase of the Old Geopolitics, that is, interpreting world order priorities and security policy almost exclusively as an expression of the current distribution of hard power capabilities among states. In the 1990s the Old Geopolitics was dominated by the United States, and operationally administered from Washington, continued despite the collapse of colonialism to be West-centric when it comes to the shaping of global security policy. In effect, the Old Geopolitics did not immediately register the momentous historical consequences for world order of the collapse of the colonial order that irreversibly weakened the relative position of the West.

 

 

 

 

THE EMERGENT NEW GEOPOLITICS

 

            A number of developments on the global stage are suggesting that a New Geopolitics is indeed struggling to be born, although unable at this stage to challenge seriously the reign of the Old Geopolitics. The New Geopolitics is premised on the primacy of soft power criteria of influence and status, and is more universalistic and less statist in the composition of actors providing global leadership and influencing policy. The prominence accorded to the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China is one expression of a shift in the understanding of a more multi-polar structure of world order. The claims of these states to such an acknowledgement of first tier influence is not based on their military capabilites or the potency of their alliance affiliations, but is primarily associated with their economic rise that consists of their astonishing recent record of growing achievements in GNP, trade, investment, and financial settings. Such a trend is also being institutionally recognized in relation to economic globalization and a network of the industrialized leading states, with notable shifts from a Cold War Group of Seven, to an enlarged Group of Eight to accommodate Russia, and finally to the present Group of Twenty to incorporate into the dynamics of global economic policy formation a more globally representative group of states.  

 

            Parallel to this evolution in relations among states has been efforts by private sector actors and civil society representatives to establish their own institutional arenas so as to put forward alternative policy agendas, promote interests and values, and indirectly erode the Westphalian notion that states, and only states, can be fully participating members of world order. The Davos World Economic Forum is one influential expression of a private sector initiative to shape global economic policy in a manner responsive to corporate and banking wish lists. In contrast the World Social Forum, held annually in a city somewhere in the global South, asserts people-oriented visions of a post-Westphalian world order and mounts sharp critiques of capital-oriented globalization.  

 

            A striking example of New Geopolitics was the ad hoc realignment that took center stage in the closing days of the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change. It was there that the United States sought to circumvent unwieldy and uncongenial procedures involving 193 states by selecting the participants in a hegemonic coalition that consisted of itself, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. It mission was to put before the conference a proposed consensual agreement to deal with the challenge of global warming. There was widespread resistance to this approach at Copenhagen, especially from the states that felt excluded by this maneuver and resented the clumsy effort to circumvent the agreed procedures that had been relied upon to prepare the negotiating documents for the Copenhagen conference. This statist backlash was centered in that part of the Old Geopolitics associated with the idea of the equality of states as the basis of legitimate multilateral lawmaking in the 21st century.

 

            In effect, this wider community of states, essentially the membership of the UN General Assembly, were unwilling to give their assent to such a geopolitical coalition formed without their authorization and behind their back, despite the fact that for once it was not West-centric. Partly of the objection was to a perception of shifty backroom politics that demeaned the hard work of a UN inclusive statist effort to find global common ground on climate change, and partly it was an unwillingness to go along with the proposed shift in climate change policy from the mandatory emission reductions associated with the Kyoto Protocol to the proposed voluntary system of governmental pledges that was contained in the Copenhagen Accord presented to the Copenhagen Conference by the American president. At the same time, the hierarchical side of the Old Geopolitics was strong enough to avoid a direct repudiation of the Copenhagen Accord, which was presented to the assembled delegates at the last minute as a matter of ‘this or nothing.’ Clearly, these governmental representatives preferred to go home with the Accord, however annoyed they were by its process and content, than to return to their capitals empty handed.

 

            There is much graffiti on the walls of the Old Geopolitics, and it signals a gradual and partial loss of historical control. The successful challenge of the colonial order by various movements of liberation throughout Asia and Africa strongly established a trend in conflict resolution in which the West, although the militarily superior side, was being compelled in the end to accept political defeat. This amounted to a radical reversal of the experience of conflict during the colonial era in which hard power realities shaped, usually with minimal effort, the outcomes of political conflict to the advantage of Europe. This enhancement of soft power stature was reinforced up to the present moment by a series of failed wars undertaken by the United States in particular. From the outcome of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s to the recent winless withdrawals of the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan it is evident that hard power superiority, even total military dominance, is no longer able to reach desired political outcomes in violent conflicts at acceptable costs. In other words, relying on the staple currency of the Old Geopolitics, military power, seems recently to bring frustration and defeat, not victory as of old. These outcomes discredit and infuriate the geopolitical leaders, but rather than adapt to changed circumstances, these governments struggle to find new battlefield tactics and weaponry to satisfy their traditions strategic ambitions and somehow demonstrate anew that military superiority (rather than law or justice) serves the world as the arbiter of international conflicts. The aged architects of the Old Geopolitics for a variety of reasons are unable to learn from failure, and so the cycle of war and frustration goes on and on with disastrous human results.

 

            Reinforcing these developments, and their interpretation, was the earlier impact of nuclear war on the conduct of international relations. Nuclear weaponry, the Omega point in the Old Geopolitics, actually had the paradoxical effect of excluding hard power solutions from political struggles between principal geopolitical rivals, radically modifying the emphasis of grand strategy in the direction of war prevention and deterrence so as to avoid the mutual disaster of nuclear warfare. Even in military conflicts waged in non-Western settings on the geographic periphery of the Old Geopolitics, which constituted the proxy wars between East and West during the Cold War, there was a restraining fear. There were worries that such conflicts as the Korean War and Vietnam War might unintentionally escalate if it was allowed to approach the nuclear threshold. Such concerns interfered with entrenched belligerent habits of the Old Geopolitics that had long been preoccupied with winning wars rather than settling for stalemates and ceasefires. 

 

            As a telling sign of the emergence of the New Geopolitcs as now defining contemporary strategic goals, Brazil is far more interested in acquiring a permanent seat in the Security Council than becoming a member of the nuclear weapons club. Such a shift in great power aspirations has long characterized the global ambitions of the main losers in World War II. Germany and Japan were enabled by their defeat and destruction to learn the lessons of a transformed world setting far better than did the winners. Perhaps it was enforced learning as their post-war policy options were restricted by coercive occupations that installed governments that would not revive their past militarist behavior. At present such rising political actors as Turkey and Indonesia, seem more concerned with gaining recognition by winning diplomatic battles to land prestigious posts in the United Nations System than they do in acquiring the latest weapons systems or embarking on expansionist military adventures. Turkey, in particular, has gained greatly enhanced stature by pioneering what might be called ‘compassionate geopolitics,’ by engaging with Somalia at a time when it was discarded as ‘a failed state’ by the United States. Turkey has stepped in to a chaotic internal situation, and embarking on a major joint state-building venture that seems to have made unexpected and significant gains to date. Turkey has also come in difficult circumstances to the economic and diplomatic rescue of the abused Muslim Arakan minority in distant Myanmar.

 

SOFT POWER AND THE NEW GEOPOLITICS

 

            Two crucial tendencies are evident: soft power achieves the most important gains for a society seeking to accelerate its development and raise its status on the global stage of diplomacy; hard power is increasingly frustrated when tested by determined nationalist forces, even those with seemingly modest military capabilities. These factors are given greater historical weight by several other considerations. The greater complexity associated with globalization has created new political spaces that are being filled in various ways by both civil society representatives and private sector actors.  Such patterns of participation exert strong pressure to move the New Geopolitics toward more peaceful and less war oriented standard operating procedures. The civil society vision of the New Geopolitics inclines strongly in the transformative direction of Global Democracy, making all institutions of governance subject to the imperatives of transparency, accountability, stakeholder participation, rule of law, and attention to the human interest/global justice/climate change diplomacy. A first institutional step toward Global Democracy could involve the establishment of a Global Parliament that would directly represent people, not governments.

 

            In effect, we have two models of the New Geopolitics:

 

                        –Minimal Model envisions the persistence of a state-centric world order that is deWesternized and more inclusive, determining status by  a greater reliance on soft power criteria of status and influence, trending toward nonviolent geopolitics, but at the same time continuing to be dominated by a few state actors and remains responsive to the prescriptions and values of neoliberal globalization;

                        –Maximal Model is dedicated to institutions and practices that rely upon nonviolent geopolitics, establishing by stages Global Democracy, while reorienting Economic Globalization in relation to sustainable development by putting people and earth first, and giving an equitable priority to those most vulnerable and deprived when it comes to the allocation of public resources.

 

            At this point, global politics is in a transitional phase. The Old Geopolitics has certainly not disappeared as is evident from the war dangers that remain in the world’s main conflict zones, but it is also rarely capable of translating its preferences into desired outcomes. At some point, hopefully short of global catastrophe, strategic failure in warfare will produce a turn, even in Washington, toward the New Geopolitics. In the interim the prospects are not encouraging, including perhaps the menacing last hurrah of global militarism, its practices and technological innovations that are rapidly turning the world into a borderless and terrorized war zone. The Old Geopolitics fashioned a dysfunctional set of responses to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. These devastating attacks posed a problem that could not be effectively addressed in the customary manner of the Old Geopolitics, that is, by a reliance on hard power–waging wars against distant countries as if the adversary was a series of territorial sovereign states rather than a non-territorial network of political extremists.  In this regard, the threats posed by such anti-system forces of resistance can only be successfully neutralized if a primary reliance is placed upon soft power methods of response. These methods must include the identification of legitimate grievances that induced recourse to such desperate violent political behavior in the first place. To harden territorial boundaries to protect the homeland against hostile encroachment while engaging in a series of failing and bankrupting wars around the world is an almost certain recipe for authoritarian rule at home and intensifying intensifying insecurity elsewhere.

 

 

THE OLD GEOPOLITICS PERSISTS

 

            In this regard, we live at a perilous historical moment. The Old Geopolitics is relying on hard power regardless of cost or risk, and unable and unwilling to heed experience, while the New Geopolitics is struggling with the torments of infancy and growing pains. The minimal model of the New Geopolitics is itself not yet sufficiently clear about how to reconcile national interests with human interests, and so does little to arrest the drift toward ecological catastrophe, systemic shock by systemic shock. The maximal model of the New Geopolitics has not established deep enough political roots to set forth, much less enact, its agenda of Global Democracy, and thus cannot challenge the Old Geopolitics or shape the New Geopolitics. At this point, we need to encourage the utopian imagination, and begin the hard work of initiating the hard political project of transition to the New Geopolitics.

 

            The aftermath of the Arab Spring illustrates this clash between the old and the new. The rise of the people in country after country in the region reflected an attachment to the ideals and practices of substantive democracy. The unexpected regionalization of this challenge gave a glimpse of a new transformative politics, including distrust of military and police methods of sustaining public order and opposition to Western manipulations to control from without and within. The bloodthirsty backlash of regimes, as in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and to some extent, Egypt, manifested the resilience and cruel harshness of hard power tactics of governance, and their purpose of ensuring the counter-revolutionary restoration of the Old Geopolitics.

 

            Whether the Libyan intervention should be seen primarily as a Western reversion to Old Geopolitics or some kind of amalgam of Old and New, with the Gulf countries and the UN enlisted as partners in liberating a people from cruel tyranny, will remain a matter of controversy and uncertainty for years to come. Similarly, with Syria, whether to consider the external moves for and against the Assad regime in Damascus as expressions of the New Geopolitics or some toxic blend of new and old is difficult to discern given the complexities and unknowns of this ongoing bloody struggle that is a blend of a cynical proxy war and bitter internal struggle for state power. Popular support for the idea of protecting a vulnerable people against the crimes against humanity of a vicious governmental regime can be understood from the perspective of human solidarity, an aspect of the maximal model of the New Geopolitics. In contrast, military intervention by external actors with a variety of suspect strategic motives and the use of interventionary weaponry that is likely to magnify the violence, is clearly in the spirit of the Old Geopolitics.

 

            There are no signs at present that the New Geopolitics in either of its main variants will soon replace the Old Geopolitics, but there is plenty of evidence of a sharpening tension between these two main modes of sustaining security and development in the early 21st century. We can expect a gradual discrediting from within of the main centers of Old Geopolitics, but as such a process gains leverage, it is almost certain to produce the opposite effect—a tightening of control at home, and an intensification of military operations abroad, exactly the pattern being enacted in the United States by successive presidents from both main political parties in response to the 9/11 attacks. And within the domain of the New Geopolitics it is likely that there will be a parallel intensification of tension as the minimalists seek realignment without attending to social and economic inequities, while the maximalists insist on the long march to Global Democracy but lack sufficient transnational mobilizing traction to move their endeavor very far.

 

            The Chinese proverb is correct in its chilling reminder that ‘it is a curse to live in interesting times,’ but given the changing historical experiences with warfare, the growing sense of great ecological hazard, and the strengthening attachment to global justice agendas, maybe just this once, the fascinations of our age will turn out to be ‘a blessing.’

A Stronger ‘Political Europe’ might save a Stumbling ‘Economic Europe’

11 Jun


 

            It was only a few years ago that Europe was being praised as the savior of world order, and heralded as the hope for the future of world order. Books with such titles as The European Superpower and Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century were widely read. They celebrated the realities of a European post-colonial recovery, even a new type of ascendancy, results that were welcomed by many who hoped for a more peaceful and equitable world. I shared much of this enthusiasm, believing that the European Union was a bold and generally progressive experiment in regionalism that was better suited to our era of intensifying globalization than a state-centric world of sovereign territorial communities habituated to the dynamics of warfare. This statist world order had been evolving through the centuries, but always with the premise that the sovereign state was not subject to external authorities and law if its fundamental security interests were at stake. The origins of this state system are conveniently associated with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that brought to an end the bloody Thirty Years War, a struggle between Catholics and Protestants to determine primacy within Christendom. 

 

            A world of regions provided a structural vision that seemed an attractive sequel to a world of sovereign states. It seemed more attainable than a quixotic leap in the direction of world government, which neither political nor business leaders took seriously. Populist forces were also suspicious of any advocacy of world government, generally fearing it was intended as or would turn out to be a scheme for Western dominance. From these perspectives the EU seemed to be the most interesting world order game in town!  It was an exciting experiment in world order that had grown through the years far beyond its early modest post-1945 beginnings as an instrument for limited economic cooperation on matters of coal and steel among a small number of European countries. By stages the EU had become the most impressive supranational presence in modern times, seemingly a far more significant alternative to state-centricism than the UN or even the international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, WTO).

 

            European regionalism was mainly applauded in mainstream circles because of its achievements associated with economic integration that produced benefits in trade and investment, as well as overall economic growth. EU was not only a clever adjustment to European participation in a globalizing world economy that featured the expanding role of such major actors as the United States, Japan, and China, it also seemed to facilitate a positive European future . Perhaps, most notably, Europe had become a culture of peace, not a small accomplishment on a continent long ravaged by devastating wars, particularly in the 20th century. In a stimulating book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone, its author James Sheehan informs us that “[t]he eclipse of the willingness and ability to use violence that was once so central to statehood has created a new kind of European state, firmly rooted in new forms of public and private identity.” (p. 221) Most especially, this new European outlook, while certainly not pacifist, was generally seemed disinclined to endorse global militarism.

 

            Such a shift in Europe was not without ambiguities. Europe’s habits of obedience to Washington acquired during the long Cold War often led European governments to give priority to their alliance relations with the United States rather than give expression to this altered political consciousness. Some skeptics suggested that Europe had not really adopted a culture of peace, but rather found it expedient to concentrate their collective energies on meeting the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union. NATO waged war in 1999 to end the oppressive Serb occupation of Kosovo in a situation in which there did exist credible dangers of ethnic cleansing and the encouragement of an Albanian majority population that welcomed the intervention. Although European governments were split on backing the Iraq War in 2003, the public opinion in every European country was strongly opposed to the war. NATO had been a defensive regional alliance generated by concerns about Soviet expansionist ambitions and anchored in the military capabilities of the United States that seemed dedicated to the defense of Europe even if meant enduring the onslaught of a third world war.

 

            Above all, the EU evolution confirmed the view that intra-European relations were now insulated from war, that open borders did not pose security threats, and that a common European foreign policy was likely to be achieved in the near future. To some extent, the EU reinforced this positive image by taking the lead in efforts to shape a responsible global policy on climate change.

Their efforts were so successful that the United States at the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change tried to build a new coalition of pro-growth economies with the intention of marginalizing the European insistence on cutting back drastically on greenhouse gas emissions.

 

            Europe veered in a wrong direction after the 9/11 attacks when it allowed NATO to express solidarity with the United States decision to respond by way of launching a global war on terror that persists. This implicated Europe in the dubious approach by the neoconservatives in Washington to pursue a worldwide grand strategy aimed at global domination. It completely transformed NATO into an instrument of post-colonial Western interventionary diplomacy, having nothing to do with the defense of Europe, and engaged in warfare in such non-European battlefields as Afghanistan and Libya. The claims to achieve a culture of peace were deeply compromised by this participation in these non-defensive wars, and as a result the idea of an emergent progressive European alternative to state-centricism has almost vanished from the imaginary of a preferred future for humanity.

 

            But more than peace, Europe also showcased the realities of a humane form of capitalism in which the mass of society could enjoy a secure and satisfying life, a welfare state in which high quality education and health care was provided, human rights upheld and implemented by a regional judicial process that had the mandate to override national policy, and an economic space that combined robust growth with the free flow of capital, goods, and labor. This 21st century social contract between the state and its citizenry that emerged in Europe seemed to provide a model for others to follow, or at least to be challenged by. Other nearby countries seemed eager to join the EU to benefit economically and politically from such an association of states in which the whole seemed definitely to exceed the value of the parts, and extremist politics of either left or right seemed precluded.

 

            Disappointment with developments pertaining to Europe can be expressed schematically. The preoccupation with economic Europe produced an accommodation with populist insistence on a decent life to produce advances in ‘social Europe’ and this produced a climate of opinion that allowed the radical step of monetary integration. This process proceeded but without corresponding political integration needed to establish a strong European identity. Political Europe, while enjoying some governmental presence in the form of the European Court of Justice, European Court of Human Rights, and the European Parliament, never generated a sense of Europeanness that extended beyond market ambitions, and perhaps the aggrandizing moves that prompted the enlargement of the EU to encompass the countries formerly part of the Soviet Bloc. As the great French Europeanist, Jacques Delors, well understood, without congruence between economic and political integration, the onset of a crisis affecting money and markets will revive fierce nationalist sentiments and accompanying blame games. Instead of a bold experiment in regional identity politics, we seem faced once again with Europe as a collection of separate sovereignties.

 

            All is not yet lost, but there is a message beyond that of the obsessive bailout/default dialogue. It is that Europe to ensure its future must renovate its political architecture. This means overcoming the peculiar capitalist brand of economic materialism that seems perversely convinced that if money and banks are the problem, then money and banks must be the solution. No, the solution a political, ethical, and psychological leap of faith that a European sense of community is necessary to save the EU and the constraints of obsolete nationalism, and therefore it is possible.   

 

Why Europe is not yet ‘A Culture of Peace’

5 Apr


             It is undoubtedly true that the greatest unacknowledged achievement of the European Union (EU) is to establish ‘a culture of peace’ within its regional enclosure for the 68 years since 1944. This has meant not only the absence of war in Europe, but also the absence of ‘war talk,’ threats, crises, and sanctions, with the single important exception of the NATO War of 1999 that was part of the fallout from the breakup of former Yugoslavia. This was undertaken by the American-led alliance both to accomplish the de facto independence of Kosovo from Serbian rule, to ensure the post-Cold War viability of NATO, to reinforce the lesson of the Gulf War (1991) that the West could win wars at low costs due to their military superiority, and to rescue Albanian Kosovars from a possible humanitarian catastrophe at the hands of their Serb oppressors.  The contrast with the first half of the 20th century is stark when Europe seemed definitely the global cockpit of the war system in the East-West struggle for global supremacy.  Millions of soldiers and civilian died in response to the two German attempts by force of arms to gain a bigger role within this European core of West-centric geopolitics. Germany challenged the established order not only by recourse to massive aggressive wars in the form of World War I and II, but also by establishing a diabolical political infrastructure that gave rise in the 1930s to the violently genocidal ideologies of Nazism and fascism.

 

Even during the Cold War decades, Europe was not really at peace, but always at the edge of yet another devastating. For the four decades of the Cold War there existed a constant threat of a war fought with nuclear weapons, a conflict that could have produced totally devastating warfare at any point resulting from provocative American-led deployments of nuclear weapons or inflammatory Soviet interventions in Eastern Europe, or from the periodically tense relations in the divided city of Berlin. Also, to some extent the Soviet Union, with its totalitarian variant of state socialism, was as much European as it was Asian, and thus to a degree the Cold War was being fought within Europe, although its violent dimensions were prudently limited to the global periphery. Despite the current plans to surround Russia with defensive missile systems, supposedly to construct a shield to stop Iranian missiles, there seems little threat of any war being fought within European space, and even a diplomatic confrontation seems improbable at this point. In many respects, the EU culture of peace, although partial and precarious, has been transformative for Europeans even if this most daring post-Westphalia experiment in regional integration and sovereignty has been wrongly assessed almost exclusively from an economistic perspective as measured by trade and investment statistics, and the strength of the Euro and the rate of economic growth. The deep financial crises afflicting its Mediterranean members captures the public imagination without any appreciation of this European contribution to peaceful regional governance.

 

Many foreign policy experts are tend to discount this claim of an internally peaceful Europe. First because it had the benefit of an external Soviet adversary that made a political consensus among European elites appear to be a condition of physical and ideological survival. Secondly, because it could count on the American military presence, hegemonically instrumentalized via NATO, to protect Europe and to soften the edges of any intra-European disagreements. This latter role helps us understand the deployment in Europe of American forces so long after the fighting stopped, even if gradually reduced from troop levels of over 300,000 to the present 50,000. Even this smaller military presence is maintained at high cost to the United States, but it is widely seen in Washington as both a guarantor of peace in Europe and as an expression of America’s global engagement and permanent repudiation of its earlier geopolitical stance toward Europe of what was called ‘isolationism.’ Such a stance was never truly descriptive of American foreign policy, which was almost from its time of independence was expansionist and disposed toward intervention in hemispheric affairs.

 

            While I would with some qualifications affirm the European experience with regionalism as a step forward from the perspective of global governance, there are some darker features of European behavior that need to be taken into account. The colonial powers did not give up their empires without a fight. While the EU was emerging from the wreckage of World War II, European powers fought some dirty wars in futile efforts to hold onto their overseas empires in such countries as Malaya, Indonesia, Indochina, and Algeria. In a sense, the European culture of violence toward non-Europeans was taken over by the United States in its almost continuous engagement in counterinsurgency warfare against the peoples and nations of the South, a mode of one-sided warfare that reached its climate during the Cold War in Vietnam and has risen to alarming levels of destructiveness in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

            There are also some broader matters of global policy involved.  After the end of the Cold War, the Western security priorities shifted from the defense of Europe against a Soviet threat to an ongoing campaign led by the United States to control the geopolitics of energy. This refocusing shifted the fulcrum of world conflict from Europe to the Middle East, a process strongly reinforced by Washington’s willingness to follow Israel’s lead on most matter of regional security. In such settings external to the territorial domain of the EU, the approach adopted under American leadership has been premised on discretionary recourse to violence under NATO banners, as in Afghanistan and Libya, especially following the American resecuritization of world politics along liberal internationalist lines since the NATO War in Kosovo, and even more so after the 9/11 attacks. The recent buildup toward war against Iran, allegedly because it is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, is a further demonstration of the contrast between the EU as a European regional arrangement based on the rejection of war as a foreign policy option and NATO as a Western hierarchal alliance that performs as a discretionary mechanism of military intervention in the non-Western world, especially in the energy-rich countries of the Muslim Middle East.

 

Iran is the poster child of such separation of Europe as a zone of peace and the Islamic world as a zone of war. It is notable that the threats to attack Iran in the coming months and the imposition of four stages of crippling sanctions are premised on the unacceptability of Iran’s nuclear program, which is allegedly moving close to the threshold of nuclear weaponry. It could certainly be doubted whether if Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and thereby violating its pledge under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it would be grounds for recourse to force.  If the issue were to be more reasonably contextualized it would make us more aware of the relevance of Israel’s stealth acquisition and development of nuclear weapons, accumulating an arsenal estimated to exceed 300 warheads. The exclusions of geopolitical discourse, facilitated by a compliant media, allow Israel to lead the charge against Iran’s supposed quest for nuclear weapons without even an acknowledgement that in light of the overall realities the most prudent and equitable approach would be for all states in the region to unconditionally renounce their intention to acquire or possess this infernal weaponry of mass destruction.

 

But the situation is even more distressing than this shocking embrace of double standards. The available evidence makes it doubtful that Iran is even trying to become a nuclear weapons state. This conclusion is supported by an apparent agreement of all 16 American intelligence agencies that share the view that a high probability exists that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and has not resumed it. This intelligence consensus corresponds with the Iranian contention that it is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. The moves toward war against Iran have been amplified by repeated threats of attack in violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, as well as by deliberately imposing punitive sanctions of intensifying severity and by engaging in provocative destabilizing intrusions on Iranian sovereignty taking the form of targeted killings of nuclear scientists and the encouragement of anti-regime violence. Europe is a willing junior partner of the United States in this post-colonial reassertion of Western interests in the oil-rich Middle East, and thus complements its imperfect regional culture of peace with a dangerous global culture of war and hegemony.

 

            As might be expected, this kind of European role external to Europe has sparked a variety of anti-European acts of violent opposition. In turn, Europe has turned in an Islamophobic direction, giving rise to anti-immigrant reactionary politics that are mainly directed against Islamic minorities living within its midst, to a reluctance to move down the road leading to Turkish accession to EU membership, and to various restrictions of religious freedom associated with the practice of religious Islamic women such as wearing a headscarf or burka.

 

            What is striking here is the dedication by the West to sustain by relying on its military superiority the colonial hierarchy of North/South relations in the post-colonial world order. The state system has been universalized since 1945, but the countries of the North, under American leadership, have continuously intervened to promote Western interests at the cost of millions of lives, first as an aspect of worldwide anti-Soviet and anti-Chinese geopolitics, and more recently, to secure oil reserves and to counter Islamic political moves to control national governance structures, as in Afghanistan. The West no longer seeks to fly its flag over the governmental buildings of non-Western countries, but it as hungry as ever for their resources, as well as to ensure receptivity to Western foreign investment and trade interests. Whether to slay the dragons of Communism or Islam, or to satisfy the bloodthirsty appetites of liberal internationalists that champion ‘humanitarian interventions,’ the dogs of war are still howling in the West. The doctrinal masks of law and a UN mandate obscure the realities of aggressive war making, but should not be allowed to deceive those genuinely dedicated to a peaceful and just world.  For one thing, we should not be fooled by belligerent governments relying on legitimizing imprimatur of the Responsibility to Protect—R2P—norm, as in Libya or Syria, to mount their military operations, while at the same time adhering to a non-interventionary ethos when it comes to Gaza, Kashmir, Chechnya, Kurdistan, Tibet). Of course, consistency is not the whole story, but it does penetrate the thick haze of geopolitical hypocrisy. More basic is the renunciation of violent geopolitics and reliance for social and political change on the dynamics of self-determination. Let us appreciate the biggest successes in the Arab Spring took place where the uprising were essentially non-violent and there was minimal external interference, and the most dubious outcomes have occurred where the anti-regime movement was violent and received decisive military assistance from without.

 

            Unfortunately, despite the complexities involved we cannot count on the United Nations partly because the veto creates a possibility to preclude appropriate responses (as in relation to Israeli abuses of Palestinians) or its failure to be used due to geopolitical pressures authorizes essentially unlawful warfare (as in relation to the Libyan intervention where opponents abstained rather than block military action). True, the UN can sometimes withhold its certification for aggression, as it did in 2003 when it rejected the American appeal for a mandate to invade and occupy Iraq, but even then it stood aside when the aggression took place, and even entered Iraq to take part in consolidating the outcome of the unlawful attacks. The UN can be useful in certain peacemaking and peacekeeping settings, but when it comes to war prevention it has lost credibility because tied too closely to the lingering dominance of Western geopolitics.

            These critical assessments highlight the need of persons seeking peace and justice to work within and beyond the established channels of institutional governance. And more specifically, to take note of what Europe has achieved, and might yet achieve, without overlooking past and present colonial and colonialist wrongdoing. In this respect, we need both a UN that becomes as detached as possible from its geopolitical minders and a robust global Occupy Movement that works to provide the peoples of the world with a democratic public order that protects our lives and is respectful of nature’s limits.  

Toward A Jurisprudence of Conscience

26 Nov

Ever since German and Japanese surviving leaders were prosecuted after World War II at Nuremberg and Tokyo, there has been a wide abyss separating the drive for criminal accountability on the part of those who commit crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, war crimes from the realities of world politics. The law is supposed to push toward consistency of application, with the greatest importance attached to holding accountable those with the greatest power and wealth. The realities of world politics move in the opposite direction, exempting from criminal accountability those political actors that play dominant roles. In a sense the pattern was encoded in the seminal undertakings at Nuremberg and Tokyo that assumed the partially discrediting form of ‘victors’ justice.’ Surely the indiscriminate bombings of German and Japanese cities by Allied bomber fleets and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ‘crimes’ that should have been investigated and punished if the tribunals had been fully ‘legal’ in their operations. It was the case, especially in Tokyo, that the tribunal allowed defendants to be represented by competent lawyers and that the judges assessed fairly the evidence alleging criminality, producing dissenting opinions in the Japanese proceedings and there was an acquittal at Nuremberg. In effect, there was a measure of procedural fairness in these trials. Without doubt those who were accused of crimes did engage in activity that was legally permissible and important for the future of world order to criminalize through findings of guilt and impositions of punishment, but this outcome was flawed to the extent that victors were not subject to comparable standards of accountability.

There was a second message arising from these trials: that winning side by conducting trials of this kind takes advantage of the opportunity to reinforce claims as to the justice of historical verdicts by pronouncing on the criminality of losers while overlooking the criminality of victors.  There was also a third message that tries to overcome the flaw of double standards. It has been called ‘the Nuremberg promise,’ and involves a commitment by the victors in the future to abide by the norms and procedures used to punish the German and Japanese surviving military and political leaders. In effect, to correct this flaw associated with victors’ justice by making criminal accountability in the future a matter of law applicable to all rather than a consequence of the outcome of wars or a reflection of geopolitical hierarchy.

The Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Robert Jackson (excused temporarily from serving as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court), gave this promise an enduring relevance in his official statement to the court: “If certain acts and violations of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United  States does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” These words are repeatedly quoted by peace activists, yet ignored by political leaders who took no notice of either the original flaw at Nuremberg or the obligation to remove it. Since 1945 crimes by the victors in conflict have continued to be overlooked by international criminal law, while prosecutions reflecting geopolitical leverage have kept happening without any concerted intergovernmental or UN effort to correct the imbalance. Since the end of the Cold War implementation of criminal responsibility has been increasingly imposed on losers in world politics, including such leaders as Slobadan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi each of whom were deposed by Western military force, and either summarily executed or prosecuted.

This dual pattern of criminal accountability that cannot be fully reconciled with law or legitimacy has given rise to several reformist efforts. Civil society and some governments have favored a less imperfect legalization of criminal accountability, and raised liberal hopes by unexpectedly achieving the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 through the extraordinary efforts of a global coalition of NGOs and the commitment of a group of middle powers. Fearful of losing their impunity geopolitical heavyweights such as the United States, China, India, and Russia have refused to sign on to the ICC. Yet this and other formal initiatives have not yet seriously impinged on the hierarchal realities of world politics, which continue to exhibit an embrace of the Melian ethos when it comes to criminal accountability: “the strong do what they will, the weak do what they must.” Such an ethos marked, for Thucydides, unmistakeable evidence of Athenian decline, but for contemporary realists a different reading has been prevalent, underpinning political realism, contending that hard power calls the shots in history, and the losers have no choice but to cope as best they can. Double standards persist: the evildoers in Africa are targets of prosecutors, but those in the West that wage aggressive war or mandate torture as national policies continue to enjoy impunity as far as formal legal proceedings are concerned.

The existence of double standards is part of the deep structure of world politics. It was even given constitutional status by being written into the Charter of the United Nations that permits the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, that is the winners in 1945, to exercise a veto over any decision affecting the peace and security of the world, thereby exempting the world’s most dangerous states, being the most militarily powerful and expansionist, from any obligation to uphold international law. Such a veto power, while sounding the death knell for the UN in its core role of war prevention based on law rather than geopolitics, is probably responsible for keeping the Organization together through times of intense geopolitical conflict. Without the veto, undoubtedly the West would

have managed to push the Soviet Union and China out the door during the Cold War years, and the UN would have disintegrated in the manner of the League of Nations, which after the end of World War I converted Woodrow Wilson’s dream into a nightmare.  Beyond this, even seen through a geopolitical optic, the anachronistic character of the West-centric Security Council is a remnant of the colonial era. 2011 is not 1945, but the difficulty of achieving constitutional reform means that India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and South Africa seem destined to remain permanent ladies in waiting as the UN goes about its serious male business. What this means for UN authority, including its sponsorship of the politics of individual criminal accountability, is that all that is ‘legal’ is not necessarily ‘legitimate.’

My argument seeks to make two main points: first, double standards pervade the application of international criminal law eroding its authority and legitimacy; and secondly, those geopolitical hierarchies that are embedded in the UN framework lose their authority and legitimacy by not adapting to changing times and conditions, especially the collapse of the colonial order and the rise of non-Western centers of soft and hard power.

There are different kinds of efforts to close this gap between the legal and the legitimate in relation to the criminality of political leaders and military commanders. One move is at the level of the sovereign state, which is to encourage the domestic criminal law to extend its reach to cover international crimes. Such authority is known as Universal Jurisdiction (UJ), a hallowed effort by states to overcome the enforcement weaknesses of international law, initially developed to deal with the crime of piracy, interpreted as a crime against the whole world. Many liberal democracies in particular have regarded themselves as agents of the international legal order, endowing their judicial system with the authority to apprehend and prosecute those viewed as criminally responsible for crimes of state. The legislating of UJ represented a strong tendency during the latter half of the twentieth century in the liberal democracies, especially in Western Europe. This development reached public awareness in relation to the dramatic 1998 detention in Britain of Augusto Pinochet, former ruler of Chile, in response to an extradition request from Spain where criminal charges had been judicially approved. The ambit of UJ is wider than its formal implementation as its mere threat is intimidating, leading those prominent individuals who might be detained and charged to avoid visits to countries where such claims might be plausibly made. As might be expected, UJ gave rise to a vigorous geopolitical campaign of pushback, especially by the governments of the United States and Israel reacted with most fear to this prospect of criminal apprehension by foreign national courts. As a result of intense pressures, several of the European UJ states have rolled back their legislation so as to calm the worries of travelers with tainted records of public service!

There is another approach to spreading the net of criminal accountability that has been taken, remains controversial, and yet seems responsive to the current global atmosphere of populist discontent. It involves claims by civil society, by the peoples of the world, to establish institutions and procedures designed to close the gap between law and legitimacy in relation to the application of international criminal law. Such initiatives are appropriately traced back to the 1966-67 establishment of the Bertrand Russell International Criminal Tribunal that examined charges of aggression and war crimes associated with the American role in the Vietnam War. The charges were weighed by a distinguished jury composed of moral and cultural authority figures chaired by Jean-Paul Sartre. The Russell Tribunal was derided at the time as a ‘kangeroo court’ or a ‘circus’ because its conclusions could be accurately anticipated in advance, its authority was self-proclaimed and without governmental approval, it had no control over those accused, and its capabilities fell far short of enforcement. What was overlooked in such criticism was the degree to which this dismissal of the Russell experiment reflected the monopolistic and self-serving claims of the state and state system to control the administration of law, ignoring the contrary claims of society to have law administered fairly in accord with justice, at least symbolically. Also ignored by critics was the fact that only such initiatives could overcome the blackout of truth achieved by the geopolitics of impunity. The Russell Tribunal may not have been ‘legal’ as understood from conventional governmental perspectives, but it was ‘legitimate’ in responding to double standards, by calling attention to massive crimes and dangerous criminals who otherwise enjoy a free pass, and by providing a reliable and comprehensive narrative account of criminal patterns of wrongdoing that destroy or disrupt the lives of entire societies and millions of people. As it happens, these societal initiatives require a great effort, and only occur where the criminality seems severe and extreme, and where a geopolitical mobilization precludes inquiry by established institutions of criminal law.

It is against this background that we understand a steady stream of initiatives that build upon the Russell experience. Starting in 1979, the Basso Foundation in Rome sponsored a series of such proceedings under the rubric of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal that explored a wide variety of unattended criminal wrongs, including dispossession of indigenous peoples, the Marcos dictatorship, Armenian massacres, self-determination claims of oppressed peoples.  In 2005 the Istanbul World Tribunal on Iraq inquired into the claims of aggression, crimes against humanity, and war crimes associated with the U.S./UK invasion and occupation of Iraq, commencing in 2003, causing as many as one million Iraqis to lose their lives, and several million to be permanently displaced from home and country. In the last several weeks the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a direct institutional descendant of the original undertaking, held a session in South Africa to investigate charges of apartheid, as a crime against humanity, being made against Israel. In a few days, the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal will launch an inquiry into charges of criminality made against George W. Bush and Tony Blair for their roles in planning, initiating, and prosecuting the Iraq War, to be followed a year later by a subsequent inquiry into torture charges made against Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Alberto Gonzales. I intend to write subsequently about each of these proceedings.

Without doubt such societal efforts to bring at large war criminals to symbolic justice should become a feature of the growing demand around the world for real democracy sustained by a rule of law that does not exempt from responsibility the rich and powerful whether they are acting internally or internationally.

Rejecting Neoliberalism, Renewing the Utopian Imagination

8 Nov


            When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 two dismal consequences followed that have been rarely acknowledged:

                         –neoliberal orthodoxy became unchallenged and unchallengeable in the formation of global economic policy; the World Economic Forum, convening annually in Davos, became the true capital of world order after the ending of the Cold War. Global policy priorities were set at Davos as capitalist materialism infused what became known as ‘globalization,’ a predatory consumerist that was capital driven rather than people-oriented. The Occupy movement is seeking to reverse this ordering of priorities, insisting on an economy for the 99%, insisting on governance that is accountable, participatory, transparent, and ecologically and ethically responsible, insisting on ‘real democracy.’

 

                        –the utopian imagination was repudiated as inevitably leading to the sorts of demonic politics that was associated with Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union. Not only was utopian politics linked to Stalinism but also to any promise of social and economic justice premised on human equality, and specifically, of course, to the socialist tradition. Instead, what emerged as dominant was a new brand of realism that encouraged accommodation with injustice, a delegitimation of any politics of aspiration, and an extremely alienating and demoralizing political atmosphere that rewarded the ethics of the casino and punished the energies of the workplace. The Occupy movement, whether consciously or not, is restoring the utopian imagination to its rightful role as the patron goddess of desire, the essential spiritual core of any restorative planetary politics of sufficient gravitas. Such a goddess has contempt for what ‘realists’ call realism, and aligns herself with a militant politics of impossibility.

 

            This is not meant to be a lament for the end of the Cold War or the collapse of the Soviet internal and external empire. After the historical achievement of overcoming colonialism, the greatest advance in the struggle for a more humane world was ending Communist rule in Eastern Europe and freeing the various subjugated republics and nationalities that made up the Soviet Union. Two further positive legacies also can be connected with this ending of the Cold War: the lessening of the threat of a major nuclear war and the emergence of a new geopolitical landscape that was the scene of the gradual dismantling of the Western architecture of world order in the early years of the 21st century.

             Critique and reshuffling the relations among states and regions, while necessary is hardly sufficient. The adjustments that have been made are hemmed in by the statist preoccupation with horizons of feasibility that lack will and capacity to meet such globally constituted challenges as climate change, nuclear weapons, global disease and poverty, governmental criminality, and militarism. These fundamental deficiencies of our current circumstance are only perceived in their fullness of menace if we indulge the utopian imagination that alone is able to illuminate distant horizons of necessity and desire.

 

             

Warfare Without Limits: A Darkening Human Horizon

27 Jul images-4


There are several pressures that push war in the direction of the absolute, and imperil the human future. Perhaps, the foremost of these is emergence, use, retention, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as the development of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki there have been several close calls involving heightened dangers of wars fought with nuclear weapons, especially associated with the Cold War rivalry, none more serious than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. To entrust such weaponry to the vagaries of political leadership and the whims governmental institutions seems like a Mt. Everest of human folly, and yet the present challenges to nuclearism remain modest and marginal despite the collapse of the deterrence rationale that seemed plausible to many during the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

 

Underneath the tendency to develop for use whatever weapons and tactics that technology can provide is the fragmented political identities of a world divided into sovereign states. The inhabitants of these states of greatly varying size, capabilities, and vulnerabilities, have long been indoctrinated to view their own state through the idolatrous eyes of nationalism that view the extermination of the enemy as acceptable if necessary for national security or even desirable to satisfy national ambitions. The ideology of nationalism, nurturing the values of unquestioning patriotism, have led to an orientation that can be described as secular fundamentalism, vindicating militarist worldviews however dysfunctional given the risks and limits associated with gaining desired political ends by relying on military superiority. The crime of treason reinforces the absolutist claims of the secular state by disallowing defenses based on conscience, law, and belief.  

 

As I have pointed out in other contexts, the militarily superior side has rarely prevailed in an armed conflict since the end of World War II unless also able to command the moral and legal heights wherein are located the symbols of legitimacy. The political failures of the colonial powers despite their military dominance provides many bloody illustrations of this trend of miltarist frustration that did not exist until the middle of the last century. Because of entrenched bureaucratic and economic interests (‘the military-industrial-media complex’), the experience is denied, military solutions for conflicts continue to be preferred, and futile recourse to war goes on and on.

 

One further check on the excesses of warfare is supposedly provided by the inhibiting role of conscience, the ethical component of the human sensibility. This sentiment was powerfully and memorably expressed by some lines in the Bertolt Brecht poem, “A German War Primer”:

 

                        General, your bomber is powerful

                        It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men

                        But it has one defect:

                        It needs a driver.

 

This ‘defect,’ a driver is both a human cost, and maybe a brake on excess, as Brecht suggests a few lines later:

 

                        General, man is very useful

                        He can fly and he can kill

                        But he has one defect:

                        He can think.

 

Of course, military training and discipline are generally effective in overcoming this defect, especially as backed up by the nationalist ideology discussed above, while international humanitarian law vainly tries to give support to thinking and respecting limits. The Nuremberg Trials of Nazi surviving leaders even went so far as to decide that ‘superior orders’ were no excuse if war crimes were committed.

 

In the nuclear age this process went further as the stakes were so high. I recall visiting the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the height of the Cold War. SAC was responsible for the missile force that then targeted many cities in the Soviet Union. What struck me at the time was the seeming technocratic indifference of those entrusted with operating the computers that would fire the missiles in contrast to the ideological zeal of the commanding generals who would give the orders to annihilate millions of civilians at a distant locations. I was told at the time that the lower ranked technical personnel had been tested to ensure that moral scruples would not interfere with their readiness to follow orders. I found this mix of commanders politically convinced that the enemy was evil and apolitical and amoral subordinates a frightening mix at the time, and still do, although I have not been invited back to SAC to see whether similar conditions now prevail. I suspect that they do, considering the differing requirements of the two roles. This view seems confirms by the enthusiasm expressed for carrying on the ‘war on terror’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

 

In this period new technological innovations in war making accentuate my earlier concerns. The reliance on drone attacks in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) removes the human person altogether from the war experience, except as in the role of programmer, and even here reliance on algorithms for targeting, removes any shred of responsibility. When mistakes are made, and innocent civilians are killed, the event is neutralized by being labeled ‘collateral damage,’ and an apology is issued but the practice goes on and is even extended.  More important is the chilling effect of removing that human presence, both as a person of one’s own nation being at risk and as a source of potential questioning and even refusal. It should be recalled that the anti-war opposition of American soldiers in Vietnam exerted a powerful influence that helped over time finally to bring this failed war to an end.

 

What is at stake ultimately is the human spirit squeezed to near death by technological momentum, corporate greed, militarism, and secular fundamentalism. This web of historical forces continues to entrap major political actors in the world, and dims hopes for a sustainable future even without taking into account the dismal effects of the gathering clouds of climate change. Scenarios of future cyber warfare are also part of this overall process of destroying societies without risking lives directly. The cumulative effect of these developments is to make irrelevant the moral compass that alone provides acceptable guidance for a progressive human future.

    

Learning from Disaster? After Sendai

15 Mar

Learning from Disaster? After Sendai

After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was in the West, especially the United States, a short triumphal moment, crediting American science and military prowess with bringing victory over Japan and the avoidance of what was anticipated at the time to be a long and bloody conquest of the Japanese homeland. This official narrative of the devastating attacks on these Japanese cities has been contested by numerous reputable historians who argued that Japan had conveyed its readiness to surrender well before the bombs had been dropped, that the U.S. Government needed to launch the attacks to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that it had this super-weapon at its disposal, and that the attacks would help establish American supremacy in the Pacific without any need to share power with Moscow. But whatever historical interpretation is believed, the horror and indecency of the attacks is beyond controversy. This use of atomic bombs against defenseless densely populated cities remains the greatest single act of state terror in human history, and had it been committed by the losers in World War II surely the perpetrators would have been held criminally accountable and the weaponry forever prohibited. But history gives the winners in big wars considerable latitude to shape the future according to their own wishes, sometimes for the better, often for the worse.

Not only were these two cities of little military significance devastated beyond recognition, but additionally, inhabitants in a wide surrounding area were exposed to lethal doses of radioactivity causing for decades death, disease, acute anxiety, and birth defects. Beyond this, it was clear that such a technology would change the face of war and power, and would either be eliminated from the planet or others than the United States would insist on possession of the weaponry, and in fact, the five permanent member of the UN Security Council became the first five states to develop and possess nuclear weapons, and in later years, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have developed nuclear warheads of their own. As well, the technology was constantly improved at great cost, allowing long-distance delivery of nuclear warheads by guided missiles and payloads hundreds times greater than those primitive bombs used against Japan.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki there were widespread expressions of concern about the future issued by political leaders and an array of moral authority figures.  Statesmen in the West talked about the necessity of nuclear disarmament as the only alternative to a future war that would destroy industrial civilization. Scientists and others in society spoke in apocalyptic terms about the future. It was a mood of ‘utopia or else,’ and ‘on the beach,’  a sense that unless a new form of governance emerged rapidly there would be no way to avoid a catastrophic future for the human species and for the earth itself.

But what happened? The bellicose realists prevailed, warning of the distrust of ‘the other,’ insisting that it would be ‘better to be dead than red,’ and that nothing fundamental changed, that as in the past, only a balance of power could prevent war and catastrophe. The new name for balance in the nuclear age was ‘deterrence,’ and it evolved into an innovative, yet dangerous, semi-cooperative security posture that was given the formal doctrinal label of ‘mutual assured destruction.’ This reality was more popularly, and sanely, known by its expressive acronym, MAD, or sometimes this reality was identified as ‘a balance of terror,’ both a precursor of 9/11 language and a reminded that states have always been the supreme terrorist actors.  The main form of learning that took place after the disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to normalize the weaponry, banish the memories, hope for the best, and try to prevent other states from acquiring it. The same realists, perhaps most prominently, John Mearsheimer, have even gone so far as to give their thanks to nuclear weaponry as ‘keepers of the peace’ during the Cold War.  With some plausibility these nuclearists insisted that best explanation for why the Soviet Union-United States rivalry did not result in World War III was their shared fear of nuclear devastation.  Such nuclear complacency was again in evidence when in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a refusal to propose at that time the elimination of nuclear weaponry, and there were reliable reports that the U.S. Government actually used its diplomatic leverage to discourage any Russian disarmament initiatives that might expose the embarrassing extent of this post-deterrence, post-Cold War American attachment to nuclearism. This attachment has persisted, enjoys wide and deep bipartisan support in the United States, is shared with the leadership and citizenry of the other nuclear weapons states to varying degrees, and is joined at the hip to an anti-proliferation regime that hypocritically treats most states (Israel was a notable exception, and India a partial one) that aspire to have nuclear weapons of their own as criminal outlaws subject to military intervention. The counter-proliferation geopolitical regime has been superimposed upon the legal regime, and currently being used to threaten and coerce Iran in a manner that violates fundamental postulates of international law and the UN Charter.

Here is the lesson that applies to the present: the shock of the atomic attacks wears off in a few years, is unequivocally superseded by a restoration of normalcy surrounding the role of hard power whether nuclear or not. Because of evolving technology, this meant creating the conditions for repetition of the potential use of such weaponry at greater magnitudes of death and destruction. Such a pattern is accentuated, as here, if the subject-matter of disaster is clouded by the politics of the day that obscured the gross immorality and criminality of the historical use of the weapon, that ignored the fact that there are governmental forces associated with the military establishment that seek maximal hard power as an unconditional goal, and overlooked the extent to which these professional militarists are reinforced by paid cadres of scientists, defense intellectuals, and bureaucrats who build careers around the weaponry. This structure is, in turn, strongly reinforced in various ways by private sector profit-making opportunities, including a globally influential corporatized media. These conditions also apply with even less restraint across, undergirding the dirty business of international arms sales. At least with nuclear weapons the main political actors are much more prudent in their relations with one another than was the case in the pre-nuclear era of international relations, and have a shared and high priority incentive to keep the weaponry from falling into hostile hands.

We should also take account of the incredible ‘Faustian Bargain’ sold to the non-nuclear world: give up a nuclear weapons option and in exchange get an unlimited ‘pass’ to the ‘benefits’ of nuclear energy, and besides, the nuclear weapons states, while furtively winking to one another when negotiating the notorious Nonproliferation Treaty (1963) promised in good faith to pursue nuclear disarmament, and indeed general and complete disarmament. Of course, the bad half of the bargain has been fulfilled, although selectively, even in the face of the dire experiences of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), while the good half of the bargain (getting rid of the weaponry) never gave rise to even halfhearted nuclear disarmament proposals and negotiations (and instead the world settled irresponsibly for managerial fixes from time to time, negotiated arrangements known as ‘arms control’ measures that were designed to stabilize the nuclear rivalry of the U.S. and Soviet Union (now Russia) in mutually beneficial ways relating to financial burdens and risks. Such a contention has been recently confirmed by the presidential commitment to devote an additional $80 billion for the development of nuclear weapons before the U.S.  Senate could be persuaded to ratify the New START Treaty in late 2010, the latest arms control ruse that was falsely promoted by Washington as a step toward disarmament and denuclearization. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with arms control, it may usefully reduce risks and costs under certain circumstances, but it is definitely not disarmament, and should not presented as if it is.

It is with this background in mind that the unfolding Japanese multidimensional mega-tragedy must be understood and its effects on future policy discussed in a preliminary manner. This extraordinary disaster originated in a natural event that was itself beyond human reckoning and control. An earthquake of unimaginable fury, measuring an unprecedented 9.0 on the Richter Scale, unleashing a deadly tsunami that reached a height of 30 feet, and swept inland in the Sendai area of northern Japan to an incredible distance up to 6 kilometers. It is still too early to count finally the number of the dead, the injured, the property damage, and the overall human costs, but we know enough by now to realize that the impact is already colossal, and will continue to grow, that this is a terrible happening that will be permanently seared into the collective imagination of humanity, perhaps the more so, because it is the most visually recorded epic occurrence in all of history, with real time video recordings of its catastrophic  ‘moments of truth’ and sensationalist media reportage, especially via TV.

But this natural disaster that has been responsible for massive human suffering has been compounded by its nuclear dimension, the full measure of which remains uncertain at this point, although generating a deepening foreboding that is perhaps magnified by calming reassurances by the corporate managers of nuclear power in Japan (Tokyo Electric Power Company or TEPCO) who already had many blemishes on their safety record, as well as by political leaders, including Prime Minister Naoto Kan who understandably wants to avoid causing the Japanese public to shift from its impressive posture of traumatized, yet composed, witnessing to one of outright panic. There is also a lack of credibility based, especially, on a long record of false reassurances and cover ups by the Japanese nuclear industry, hiding and minimizing the effects of a 2007 earthquake in Japan, and actually lying about the extent of damage to a reactor at that time and on other occasions. What we need to understand is that the vulnerabilities of modern industrial society accentuate vulnerabilities that arise from extreme events in nature. There is no doubt that the huge earthquake/tsunami constellation of forces was responsible for great damage and societal distress, but the overall impact has been geometrically increased by this buying into the Faustian Bargain of nuclear energy, whose risks, if objectively assessed, were widely known for many years, yet effectively put to one side. It is the greedy profit-seekers, who minimize and suppress these risks, whether in the Gulf of Mexico or Fukushima or on Wall Street, and then scurry madly at the time of disaster to shift responsibilities to the victims that make me tremble as I contemplate the human future. These predatory forces are made more formidable because they have cajoled most politicians into complicity and have many allies in the media that overwhelm the publics of the world with steady doses of misinformation and tranquilizing promises of greater future care and protestations of societal need.

The reality of current nuclear dangers in Japan are far stronger than these words of reassurance that claim the risks to health are minimal because the radioactivity can even now be contained to avoid dangerous levels of contamination, although the latest reports indicate that already in nearby regions milk and spinach have tested as containing radiation above safe levels. A more trustworthy measure of the perceived rising dangers can be gathered from the continual official expansions of the evacuation zone around the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors from 3 km to 10 km, and more recently to 18 km, and more, coupled with the instructions to everyone caught in the region to stay indoors indefinitely, with windows and doors sealed. We can hope and pray that the four explosions that have so far taken place in the Fukushima Daiichi complex of reactors will not lead to further explosions or fires, and that a full meltdown in one or more of the reactors will not occur. Even without a meltdown the near certain venting of highly toxic radioactive steam to prevent unmanageable pressure from building up due to the boiling water in the reactor cores and spent fuel rods is likely to spread risks and harmful effects.  It is a policy dilemma that has become a living nightmare: either allow the heat to rise and confront the high probability of reactor meltdowns or vent the steam and subject large numbers of persons in the vicinity and beyond to radioactivity, especially should the wind shift southwards carrying the steam toward Tokyo or westward toward northern Japan or Korea.  In reactors 1, 2, and 3 are at risk of meltdowns, while with the shutdown reactors 4,5, and 6 pose the threat of fire releasing radioactive steam from the spent fuel rods.

We know that throughout Asia alone some 500 new reactors are either being built or have been planned and approved in the pre-Fukushima mood of energy worries, with as many as 150 destined for China alone. We know that nuclear power has been touted in the last several years as a major source of energy that is needed to deal with future energy requirements, a way of overcoming the challenge of ‘peak oil’ and of combating global warming by some decrease in carbon emissions. We know that the nuclear industry will contend that it knows how to build safe reactors in the future that will withstand even such ‘impossible’ events that have wrought such havoc in the Sendai region of Japan, while at the same time lobbying for insurance schemes to avoid such risks. Some critics of nuclear energy facilities in Japan and elsewhere had warned that these Fukushima reactors some built more than 40 years ago had become accident-prone and should no longer have been kept operational. Similar reactors are still operating around the world, including in the United States, with several near earthquake zones and close to large cities.And we know that governments will be under great pressure to renew the Faustian Bargain despite what should have been clear from the moment the bombs fell in 1945: This technology is far too unforgiving and lethal to be managed safely over time by human institutions, even if they were operated responsibly, which they are not. It is folly to persist, but it is foolhardy to expect the elites of the world to change course, despite this dramatic delivery of vivid reminders of human fallibility and culpability. We cannot hope to control the savageries of nature, although even these are being intensified by our refusal to take responsible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we can, if the will existed, learn to live within prudent limits even if this comes to mean a less materially abundant and an altered and less consumerist life style. The failure to take seriously the precautionary principle as a guide to social planning is a gathering dark cloud menacing all of our futures. Some specialists, including Amory Lovins and Jeremy Rifkin have argued that a blend of conservation, energy efficiency, and safe energy sources would satisfy the energy cravings of modern society without life style adjustments. Others, including Thomas Homer-Dixon, advocate the development of new major energy sources, in his case, deep geothermal drilling to tap into the heated core deep below the surface of the earth. [Globe and Mail, March 17, 2011, Canada]

Let us fervently hope that this Sendai disaster will not take further turns for the worse, but that the warnings already embedded in such happenings, will awaken enough people to the dangers on this path of hyper-modernity so that a politics of limits can arise to challenge the prevailing politics of limitless growth and consumerist profligacy. Such a challenge must include the repudiation of a neoliberal worldview, insisting without compromise on an economics and a human-centered vision of development based on needs and people rather than on profit margins, capital efficiency, and macro-economic indicators. Advocacy of such a course is admittedly a long shot, but so is the deadly collectivized utopian realism of staying on the nuclear course, whether it be with weapons or reactors. This is what Sendai should teach all of us!  But will it?

III..15…2011 (updated III..20…2011)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,932 other followers