Nonviolent Geopolitics: Law, Politics, and 21st Century Security*
In this short essay, my attempt will be to articulate a conception of a world order premised on nonviolent geopolitics, as well as to consider some obstacles to its realization. By focusing on the interplay of “law” and “geopolitics” the intention is to consider the role played both by normative traditions of law and morality and the “geopolitical” orientation that continue to guide dominant political actors on the global stage. Such an approach challenges the major premise of realism that security, leadership, stability, and influence in the 21st century continue to rest primarily on military power, or what is sometimes described as “hard power” capabilities. From such a perspective international law plays a marginal role, useful for challenging the behavior of adversaries, but not to be relied upon in calculating the national interest of one’s own country. As such, the principal contribution of international law, aside from its utility in facilitating cooperation in situations where national interests converge, is to provide rhetoric that rationalizes controversial foreign policy initiatives undertaken by one’s own country and to demonize comparable behavior by an enemy state. This discursive role is not to be minimized, but neither should it be confused with exerting norms of restraint in a consistent and fair manner.
In this chapter my intention is to do three things:
- to show the degree to which the victors in World War II crafted via the UN Charter essentially a world order, which if behaviorally implemented, would have marginalized war, and encoded by indirection a system of nonviolent geopolitics; in other words, the constitutional and institutional foundations already exist, but inert form;
- to [criticize] [provide a critique of] the realist paradigm that never relinquished its hold over the imagination of dominant political elites, and an approach has not acknowledged the obsolescence and dangers associated with the war system;
- and, finally, to consider some trends in international life that make it rational to work toward the embodiment of nonviolent geopolitics in practice and belief, as well as in the formalities of international law.
I. The UN Charter and a Legalistic Approach to Nonviolent Geopolitics
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, particularly in light of the horrendous atomic bombings of Japanese cities, even those of realist disposition were deeply worried by what it might portend for the future, and without much reflection agreed to a constitutional framing of world politics that contained most of the elements of nonviolent geopolitics. In one respect, this was a continuation of a trend that started after World War I with the establishment of the League of Nations, reflecting a half-hearted endorsement of the Woodrow Wilson sentiment that such a conflagration amounted to ‘a war to end all wars.’ Yet the European colonial governments humored Wilson, and continued to believe that the war system was viable and integral to maintaining Western hegemony, and the League of Nations proved to be irrelevant in avoiding the onset of World War II. But World War II was different because it offered the political leaders both a grim warning of what a future war among major states would likely entail and it seemed to be entrusting the future to a coalition of victorious powers that had cooperated against the menace posed by Fascism, and in the view of the American leader Franklin Roosevelt, could just as well cooperate to maintain the peace. Beyond this, the memories of the Great Depression and the realization that the punitive peace imposed on Germany in the Versailles Treaty had encouraged the rise of Hitler, gave the global leadership in the world at that time an incentive to facilitate cooperation in trade and investment, and to see the importance of restoring the economies of defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan so as to avoid the recurrence of another cataclysmic depression.
It was in this atmosphere that the UN Charter was agreed upon with its cardinal principles based on the following: (1) the unconditional prohibition of recourse to force in international relations except in self-defense against a prior armed attack, which meant the outlawry of war as an instrument of national policy; (2) the reinforcement of this prohibition with a collective commitment of the UN membership to support any state that was the target of non-defensive force, including acting forcibly under UN auspices to restore the territorial integrity and political independence of such a violated state; under no conditions was it to be legally acceptable for a state to acquire territory by recourse to force; (3) the further reinforcement of this attitude by the precedents set at Nuremberg and Tokyo that held leaders who engage in aggressive warfare criminally responsible on an individual basis, and by ‘the Nuremberg promise’ that made the pledge that in the future all political leaders would be subject to criminal accountability, and not those who lost wars (‘victors’ justice); (4) the commitment to respect the internal sovereignty of all states whether large or small, via the acceptance of an unconditional obligation to refrain from any interference in matters essentially within domestic jurisdiction.
Such a legal framework, if implemented, would have effectively eliminated international warfare and military intervention, preserved the statist structure of world order, and created a robust set of collective security mechanisms to inhibit aggression and defeat and punish any government and its leaders who engaged in aggressive warfare. It is important to realize that this legalistic vision of world order assumed that it was politically possible to establish such a warless world, and that rationality would prevail in the nuclear age to redefine the approach taken to security by ‘realists.’ It is also relevant to observe that the nonviolent geopolitics embedded in the UN Charter never involved an overall embrace of nonviolence as a precondition of political life. It was understood that within states violent insurgent politics and various forms of civil strife would occur, without violating international norms. By the Charter scheme internal wars were beyond the writ of the social contract made by states to renounce recourse to international violence. In this respect even an internal war, unless it spilled over boundaries to become a species of international warfare, was not to be addressed by the UN.
Even within this legalistic conception of nonviolent geopolitics there are significant difficulties. First of all, the conferral of a right of veto on the five permanent members of the Security Council, which meant that no decision adverse to the vital interests of the most dangerous political actors in the world could be reached, and that this de facto exemption from the commitment to nonviolent geopolitics greatly compromised the value of the legal framing, making the optimistic assumption of an enduring alliance for peace absolutely crucial to achieving the security claims being posited by the UN. Secondly, the acceptance of internal sovereignty as legally absolute meant that there would be no legal basis for effectively challenging the recurrence of genocide, or severe crimes against humanity and other catastrophic circumstances confronting a society caught in civil strife of the sort currently afflicting Syria.
Of course, these legal shortcomings seem almost irrelevant in view of the lack of political will to implement the Charter vision of nonviolent geopolitics. In retrospect, it seems clear that before the Charter had even been ratified governing elites in the United States and the Soviet Union reaffirmed their reliance on their military capabilities, political alliances, and deterrent doctrines to ground their security on the logic of countervailing hard power. Also, the anti-fascist alliance so effective in wartime, collapsed quickly in the absence of a common enemy, and the long Cold War ensued, which ensured that the collective security dimensions of the Charter vision would remain a dead letter, although this is not meant to imply that the UN was a failure overall. Actually, its positive contributions were associated with facilitating international cooperation whenever a political consensus was present and working at the normative margins of the prevailing hard power worldview.
These legal gaps could have been overcome if the worldview of the leading political actors truly embraced nonviolent geopolitics as more than a kind of vague aspirational framing of security that must never be allowed to interfere with the realist faith in deterrence and military strength once the initial shock of the dawning of the nuclear age subsided. There was a historical factor that worked against any serious effort to curtail this realist approach to security: the so-called ‘lesson of Munich’ to the effect that German aggression was encouraged by the appeasement policies of the European liberal democracies, which in turn reflected military weakness due to substantial disarmament after World War I. Such a view of the recent past translated into an almost irresistible argument supportive of a militarist approach to world order, which was reinforced by the ideological and geopolitical challenge attributed to the Soviet Union.
What this meant in relation to the position advocated here is that violent or war-prone geopolitics was fully restored, arguably universalized, and restrained only by a quality of enhanced prudence in relation to great power confrontations, as during the various Berlin crises and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Prudence had always been a cardinal political virtue of the classical realist approach, but was not elevated to a central role in balancing the pursuit of vital interests against the risks of catastrophic warfare. (Aron 1966 best articulates this realist approach).
II. The Political/Ethical Argument for Nonviolent Geopolitcs
The contrasting argument presented here is that political outcomes since the end of World War II have been primarily shaped by soft power ingenuity that has rather consistently overcome a condition of military inferiority to achieve its desired political outcomes. The United States completely controlled land, air, and sea throughout the Vietnam war, winning every battle, and yet eventually losing the war, killing as many as 5 million Vietnamese on the road to the failure of its military intervention. Ironically, the US government went on to engage the victorious Vietnam government, and currently enjoys a friendly and productive diplomatic and economic relationship. In this sense, the strategic difference between defeat and victory is almost unnoticeable, making the wartime casualties and devastation even more tragic, as being pointless from every perspective.
Nevertheless, US militarists refused to learn from the outcome, treating the impact of this defeat as a kind of geopolitical disease, the “Vietnam Syndrome,” rather than as a reflection of a historical trend supportive of the legitimate claims of self-determination despite the military vulnerability of such nationalist movements. The mainstream realists drew the wrong lesson, insisting that the outcome was an exception rather than the rule, a case of demoralizing the domestic support for the war, not a matter of losing to a stronger adversar. In effect, overcoming the Vietnam Syndrome meant restoring confidence in hard power geopolitics and thereby neutralizing domestic opposition to war making. This militarist revived control over the shaping of American foreign policy was proclaimed as an achievement of the Gulf War in 1991, which revealingly prompted the American president at the time George H.W. Bush to utter these memorable words in the immediate aftermath of this military victory on desert battlefield of Kuwait: “We finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.” Meaning of course that the United States demonstrated it could wage and win wars at acceptable costs, not pausing to notice that such victories were obtained only where the terrain was suited for a purely military encounter or the capability and will of the enemy to resist was minimal or non-existent. It is not that hard power is obsolete, but rather that it is not able to shape the outcomes in the most characteristic conflicts of the period since 1945, namely, the political struggle to expel oppressive forces that represent a foreign imperial power or to resist military intervention. Hard power is still decisive in encounters with hard power, or in situations where the weaker side is defenseless, and the stronger side is prepared to carry its military dominance to genocidal extremes.
It is hardly surprising that the excessive and anachronistic reliance on hard power solutions in situations of conflict has led to a series of failures, both acknowledged (Iraq War) and unacknowledged (Afghanistan War; Libyan War). As long as the United States invests so much more heavily in military capabilities than any other state it is bound to respond to threats or pursue its interests along a hard power path, thereby refusing to reckon with clear historical trends favoring soft power dominance in conflict situations.
Israel also has adopted a similar approach, relying on its military superiority to destroy and kill, but not being able to control the political results of the wars it embarks upon (e.g. Lebanon War of 2006, Gaza Attacks of 2008-09). One other cost of hard power or violent geopolitics is to undermine respect for the rule of law in global politics and for the authority of the United Nations.
A second demonstration of the anachronistic reliance on a violence-based system of security was associated with the response to the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the dual symbols of the US imperium. A feature of this event was the exposure of the extreme vulnerability of the most militarily dominant state in the whole of human history to attack by a non-state actor without significant weaponry and lacking in major resources. In the aftermath it became clear that the enormous US investment in achieving “full spectrum dominance” had not brought enhanced security, but the most acute sense of insecurity in the history of the country. Once again the wrong lesson was drawn, namely, that the way to restore security was to wage war regardless of the distinctive nature of this new kind of threat, to make mindless use of the military machine abroad and the curtailment of liberties at home despite the absence of a territorial adversary or any plausible means/ends relationship between recourse to war and reduction of the threat. The appropriate lesson, borne out by experience, is that such a security threat can best be addressed by a combination of transnational law enforcement and through addressing the legitimate grievances of the political extremists who launched the attacks. The Spanish response to the Madrid attacks of March 11, 2004 seemed sensitive to these new realities: withdrawal from involvement in the Iraq war while enhancing police efforts to identify and arrest violent extremists, and joining in the dialogic attempts to lessen tension between Islam and the West. In another setting, the former British prime minister, John Major, observed that he only began to make progress in ending the violence in Northern Ireland when he stopped thinking of the IRA as a terrorist organisation and began treating it a political actor with real grievances and its own motivations in reaching accommodation and peace.
The right lesson is to recognise the extremely limited utility of military power in conflict situations within the postcolonial world, grasping the extent to which popular struggle has exerted historical agency during the last 60 years. It has shaped numerous outcomes of conflicts that could not be understood if assessed only through a hard power lens that interprets history as almost always determined by wars being won by the stronger military side that then gets to shape the peace. Every anti-colonial war in the latter half of the 20th century was won by the militarily weaker side, which prevailed in the end despite suffering disproportionate losses along its way to victory. It won because the people were mobilised on behalf of independence against foreign colonial forces, and their resistance included gaining complete control of the high moral ground. It won because of the political truth embodied in the Afghan saying: “You have the watches, we have the time.” Gaining the high moral ground both delegitimised colonial rule and legitimised anti-colonial struggle; in the end even the state-centric and initially empire-friendly UN was induced to endorse anticolonial struggles by reference to the right of self-determination, which was proclaimed to be an inalienable right of all peoples.
This ascendancy of soft power capabilities in political struggles was not always the case. Throughout the colonial era, and until the mid-20th century, hard power was generally effective and efficient, as expressed by the colonial conquests of the Western hemisphere with small numbers of well-armed troops, British control of India with a few thousand soldiers or the success of “gunboat diplomacy” in supporting US economic imperialism in Central America and the Caribbean. What turned the historical tide against militarism was the rise of national and cultural self-consciousness in the countries of the South, most dramatically in India under the inspired leadership of Gandhi, where coercive nonviolent forms of soft power first revealed their potency. More recently, abetted by the communications revolution, resistance to oppressive regimes based on human rights has demonstrated the limits of hard power governance in a globalised world. The anti-apartheid campaign extended the struggle against the racist regime that governed South Africa to a symbolic global battlefield where the weapons were coercive nonviolent reliance on boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. The collapse of apartheid in South Africa was largely achieved by developments outside of the sovereign territory, a pattern that is now being repeated in the Palestinian “legitimacy war” being waged against Israel. The outcome is not assured, and it is possible for the legitimacy war to be won, and yet the oppressive conditions sustained, as seems to be currently the case with respect to Tibet.
Against this background, it is notable, and even bewildering, that geopolitics continues to be driven by a realist consensus that ahistorically believes that history continues to be determined by the grand strategy of hard power dominant state actors. In effect, realists have lost touch with reality. It seems correct to acknowledge that there remains a rational role for hard power, as a defensive hedge against residual statist militarism, but even here the economic and political gains of demilitarisation would seem to far outweigh the benefits of an anachronistic dependence on hard power forms of self-defence, especially those that risk wars fought with weaponry of mass destruction. With respect to non-state political violence, hard power capabilities are of little or no relevance, and security can be best achieved by accommodation, intelligence and transnational law enforcement. The US recourse to war in addressing the Al Qaeda threat, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, has proved to be costly, and misdirected.  Just as the US defeat in Vietnam reproduced the French defeats in their colonial wars waged in Indochina and Algeria, the cycle of failure is being renewed in the post-9/11 global setting. Why do such lessons bearing on the changing balance between hard and soft power remain unlearned in the imperial centre of geopolitical manoeuvre?
It is of great importance to pose this question even if no definitive answer can be forthcoming at this time. There are some suggestive leads that relate to both material and ideological explanations. On the materialist side, there are deeply embedded governmental and societal structures whose identity and narrow self-interests are bound up with a maximal reliance upon and projection of hard power. These structures have been identified in various ways in the US setting: “national security state”, “military-industrial complex”, “military Keynesianism”, and “the war system”. It was Dwight Eisenhower who more than 50 years ago warned of the military-industrial complex in his farewell speech, notably making the observation after he no longer was able to exert influence on governmental policy. In 2010 there seems to be a more deeply rooted structure of support for militarism that extends to the mainstream media, conservative think tanks, an army of highly paid lobbyists, and a deeply compromised Congress whose majority of members have substituted money for conscience. This politically entrenched paradigm linking realism and militarism makes it virtually impossible to challenge a military budget even at a time of fiscal deficits that are acknowledged by conservative observers to endanger the viability of the US empire (Ferguson 2010). The scale of the military budget, combined with navies in every ocean, more than 700 foreign military bases, and a huge investment in the militarisation of space exhibit the self-fulfilling inability to acknowledge the dysfunctionality of such a global posture. The US spends almost as much as the entire world put together on its military machine, and more than double what the next 10 leading states spend. And for what benefit to either the national or global interest?
The most that can be expected by way of adjustment of the realist consensus under these conditions is a certain softening of the hard power emphasis. In this respect, one notes that several influential adherents of the realist consensus have recently called attention to the rising importance of non-military elements of power in the rational pursuit of a grand strategy that continues to frame geopolitics by reference to presumed hard power “realities”, but are at the same time critical of arch militarism attributed to neoconservatives (see Nye 1990; Gelb 2009; Walt 2005). This same tone pervades the speech of Barack Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. This realist refusal to comprehend a largely post-militarist global setting is exceedingly dangerous given the continuing hold of realism on the shaping of policy by governmental and market/finance forces. Such an outmoded realism not only engages in imprudent military undertakings; it tends also to overlook a range of deeper issues bearing on security, survival and human wellbeing, including climate change, peak oil, water scarcities, fiscal fragility and market freefall. As such, this kind of policy orientation is incapable of formulating the priorities associated with sustainable and benevolent forms of global governance.
In addition, to the structural rigidity that results from the entrenched militarist paradigm, there arises a systemic learning disability that is incapable of analysing the main causes of past failures. As a practical matter, this leads policy options to be too often shaped by unimaginative thinking trapped within a militarist box. In recent international policy experience, thinking mainly confined to the military box has led the Obama administration to escalate US involvement in an internal struggle for the future of Afghanistan and to leave the so-called military option on the table for dealing with the prospect of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. An attractive alternative policy approach in Afghanistan would be based on the recognition that the Taliban is a movement seeking nationalist objectives amid raging ethnic conflict. As a result it would tend towards a conclusion that the US security interests would benefit from an end of combat operations, followed by the phased withdrawal of NATO forces, a major increase in developmental assistance that avoids channelling funds through a corrupted Kabul government, and a genuine shift in US foreign policy towards respect for the politics of self-determination. Similarly, in relation to Iran, instead of threatening a military strike and advocating punitive measures, a call for regional denuclearisation, which insisted on the inclusion of Israel, would be expressive of both thinking outside the militarist box, and the existence of more hopeful non-military responses to admittedly genuine security concerns.
III. Concluding Observations: Opportunities, Challenges, Tendencies
In conclusion, some form of geopolitics is almost bound to occur, given the gross inequality of states and the weakness of the United Nations as the institutional expression of unified governance for the planet. Especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union the primacy of the United States has resulted inevitably in its geopolitical ascendancy. Unfortunately, this position has been premised upon an unreconstructed confidence in the hard power paradigm, which combines militarism and realism, producing violent geopolitics in relation to critical unresolved conflicts. The experience of the past 60 years shows clearly that this paradigm is untenable from both pragmatic and principled perspectives. It fails to achieve its goals at acceptable costs, if at all. It relies on immoral practices that involve massive killing of innocent persons and colossal waste of resources.
Perhaps the leading test of the thesis of this essay is the ongoing struggle for self-determination of the Palestinian people, whether in the form of a single secular state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine or an independent and viable state of their own existing alongside the Israeli state. As matters now stand, after decades of occupation, the Palestinian struggle is relying mainly on a legitimacy war relying on an array of soft power instruments, including diplomacy and lawfare, a non-violent coercive boycott and divestment campaign, and a variety of civil society initiatives challenging Israeli policies. Uncertainty exists as to the future outcome. The whole soft power orientation has taken a giant leap forward as a result of ‘the Arab spring’ in which unarmed popular movements challenged dictatorial and oppressive regimes with some notable successes, especially Egypt and Tunisia, but elsewhere at least achieving promises of extensive reforms. Increasingly, I think the potentialities of constructing a world order on the basis of soft power principles is gaining support, moving the idea of nonviolent geopolitics from the domain of utopianism to become a genuine political project. Of course, there is resistance, most especially from the hard power holdouts led by the United States and Israel.
Those political forces relying on the alternative of nonviolent practices and principles, in contrast, have shown the capacity to achieve political goals and a willingness to pursue their goals by ethical means, sometimes at great personal risk. The Gandhi movement resulting in Indian independence, the Mandela-led transformation of apartheid South Africa, people power in the Philippines and the soft revolutions of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s are exemplary instances of domestic transformations based on nonviolent struggle that entailed dangers for militants and resulted in some high profile bloody sacrifices. None of these soft power victories has produced entirely just societies or addressed the entire agenda of social and political concerns, often leaving untouched exploitative class relations and bitter societal tensions, but they have managed to overcome immediate situations of oppressive state/society relations without significant reliance on violence.
Turning to the global setting, there exist analogous opportunities for the application of nonviolent geopolitics. There is a widespread recognition that war between large states is not a rational option as it is almost certain to involve huge costs in blood and treasure, and reach mutual destructive results rather as in former times of a clear winner and loser. The opportunities for a nonviolent geopolitics are also grounded in the willingness of government to accept of the increasingly practical self-constraining discipline of international law as reinforced by widely endorsed moral principles embodied in the great religions and world civilizations. A further step in this direction would be a repudiation by the nine nuclear weapons states of weaponry of mass destruction, starting with an announced declaration of no first use of nuclear weaponry, and moving on to an immediate and urgent negotiation of a nuclear disarmament treaty that posits as a non-utopian goal “a world without nuclear weapons” (Krieger 2009). The essential second step is liberating the moral and political imagination from the confines of militarism, and consequent thinking within that dysfunctional box that still remains a staple component of the realist mindset among the leading countries in the West, especially the United States. This psycho-political challenge to move away from reliance on war making capabilities as the cornerstone of security is made more difficult by the bureaucratic and private sector entrenched interests in a militarist framing of security policy.
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* Some of the ideas in sections II and III of the article have been earlier developed in “Renouncing Wars of Choice: Toward a Geopolitics of Nonviolence” in Griffin and others, 2006, 69-85 and “Nonviolent Geopolitics,” Johansen & Jones, eds., 2010, 33-40.
 A mainstream exception is Rosecrance 2002.
 Significantly, every US leader after Nixon did his best to eliminate the Vietnam syndrome, which was perceived by the Pentagon as an unwanted inhibitor of the use of aggressive force in world politics. After the end of the Gulf war in 2001, the first words of President George H. W. Bush were “We have finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome,” meaning, of course, that the United States was again able to fight ‘wars of choice’.
 Well depicted in Cole and Lobel 2007; see also my own attempt, Falk 2003.
 This comparison is analysed in a similar manner by Galtung 2008.
 Significantly documented in Schell 2003.
 It is notable that the changes in the global geopolitical landscape associated with the rise of China, India, Brazil and Russia are largely to do with their economic rise, and not at all with their military capabilities, which remain trivial compared to those of the United States.
 As interventionary struggles go on year after year with inconclusive results, but mounting costs in lives and resources, the intervening sides contradicts their own war rationale, searching for compromises, and even inviting the participation of the enemy
in the governing process. This has been attempted in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but
only after inflicting huge damage, and enduring major loss of life among their own troops and incurring great expense.
 Among the valuable studies are Barnet 1972 and Lewin 1968.
 Most convincingly demonstrated in a series of books by Chalmers Johnson. See especially the first of his three books on the theme (2004).
 For a progressive critique of American imperial militarism see Kolko 2006.
 Several leading scholars have long been sensitive to the disconnect that separates even relatively prudent realists from reality. For a still relevant major work see Galtung 1980. For other recent perceptive studies along these lines see Booth 2007, especially the section on ‘emancipatory realism’, pp. 87-91; Camilleri and Falk 2009; Mittelman 2010.