Archive | April, 2017

Trump versus International Liberalism: Should We Care?

28 Apr

 

 

The pre-Trump establishment is anxiously discussing among themselves such questions as ‘is this the end game of liberalism’ and ‘how best to revive liberalism under present conditions?’ The contrary question I pose is the one assumed by the Washington/New York elites, that is, whether liberalism in its present and recent forms is worth saving. There is an embedded language problem. The mainstream arbiters of ‘political correctness’ here in the United States treat being liberal as a kind of leftist orientation associated with Democrats, being soft of crime, beholden to minorities, and friendly toward gay marriage and trans people, but such a designation is highly misleading when used to depict international policy positions. In these contexts, liberal is used synonymously with contemporary capitalism as currently ideologized as neoliberal globalization. True, ‘liberal’ in American political discourse is often used domestically to identify those who support civil liberties, a suspicion of state power, rights of suspected criminals, regulation of the police, the abolition of capital punishment, are suspicious of the military industrial complex, pro-UN and pro-human rights, and sometimes dislike military adventures abroad, but far from always. These ‘liberal’ positions tends to be situated left of center. These kinds of liberals overlap to a considerable degree with those on the right who champion market forces as protected by the American global state as the foundation of world order, and laud the achievements and benefits of international liberalism. That is, many Republican conservatives have long been collaborated international liberals, while decrying the social damage that they attribute to domestic liberalism.

 

Almost twenty years ago I published a small book, Predatory Globalization: A Critique (Polity, 1999), and although it needs updating, its central argument about the failings of international liberalism continue to seem relevant, perhaps, more so than when published. In the interim, these failings have given rise to an angry backlash that currently imperils the post-Cold War rule-based liberal international order, more popularly known as ‘the Washington consensus.’ The defining feature of this approach is its economistic view of the world, which contrasts with the outlook associated with old-fashioned European-schooled realists such as Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, and such American-oriented counterparts as George Kennan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Samuel Huntington who interpret the world through a predominantly geopolitical optic.

 

Perhaps, John Ikenberry is the most articulate, informed, and humane exponent of international liberalism, initially emergent after 1945 at the end of World War II, and then revamped significantly, in the Reagan/Thatcher years in the 1980s in ways that accentuated the autonomy of transnational capital flows in the 1990s in the triumphalist period after the end of the Cold War. [For a full presentation of Ikenberry’s views see his Liberal Leviathan (2011)] In two recent issues of Foreign Affairs several articles set forth the normative case for liberalism, insisting that compared to all past “imperial and anarchic systems..the liberal order stands alone.” [G. John Ikenberry, “The Plot Against American Foreign Policy: Can the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs 96:2-9 (2017). Ikenberry goes on to explain his affirmation: “..in terms of wealth creation, the provision of physical security and economic stability, and the promotion of human rights and political protections, no other order in history comes close.” In other words, so far as human experience is concerned, the world has never had as good as under liberalism. Gideon Rose, editor of this prestigious and influential organ of the American liberal establishment, echoes this mood of liberalism under imminent siege due to Trumpism, by observing that “if the new administration tries to put [its anti-liberal] vision into practice, it will call into question the crucial role of the United States as the defender of the liberal international order as a whole, not just the country’s own national interests.” [Foreign Affairs 96:1 (2017)] One doesn’t need to be a cryptographer to read such an admonition as celebrating the marriage of capitalism and militarism under the banner of the liberal internatonal order, which could be more transparently labeled as the American ‘global domination project.’ Rose is hopeful that once Trump starts governing he will see the light, and avoid a damaging retreat from its global leadership role. Some commentators regard Trump’s retreat from his most confrontational campaign positions on trade and economic nationalism as already vindicating this expectation.

 

For Ikenberry also, the demonic forces threatening the downfall of this best of all possible worlds are associated with the worldview of Donald Trump as he articulated it throughout his presidential campaign and in inaugural address, further reinforced by his extremist cabinet appointments and the issuance of several early policy directives emanating from the White House. In sum, Ikenberry regards early Trumpism as “a frontal attack on the core convictions of the postwar U.S. global project,” although after 100 days seems to be moving toward an embrace of the national security consensus, although it is too soon to tell which way the tree will fall.

 

Ikenberry explains what he means by setting forth the beneficial elements of the liberal economic order that he believes threatened by Trump’s feared nationalist approach. First, comes ‘internationalism,’ the commitment to a robust international engagement based on “rules, institutions, partners, and relationships,” and concretized in the form of security alliances. Trump clearly draws this bedrock approach into question by his ‘America First’ rhetoric and his apparent demand that close allies begin to pay their fair share or even act to uphold their security by developing their own needed military capabilities, even possibly nuclear weapons, without hovering any longer under America’s nuclear umbrella. Again, the evidence of whether Trump really intends to follow through on such departures from American foreign policy orthodoxy is difficult to assess at this point.

 

A second feature of international liberalism is the dependence upon a closely related open international trading and investment framework, including mechanisms for involving disputes with foreign governments arising over contested economic policies. Trump is criticized by liberals for adopting a transactional approach to trade and investment issues, an approach that looks for favorable deals rather than for the establishment of mutual beneficial cooperative frameworks, and capriciously risks the revival of protectionist regimes, imposing high tariffs, border taxes, and other burdens on imports that would invite retaliation by adversely affected trading partners.

 

The third pillar of Ikenberry’s version of liberalism is the network of institutions and rules that allegedly lent stability to a market-based world economy. It remains anchored in the so-called Bretton Woods institutions established after World War II, as well as the World Trade Organization and the UN. For Ikenberry this was a system that bound states together in mutually beneficial webs of interdependence and cooperation designed to deal effectively with both routine and crisis situations as these arose in the world economy. Ikenberry regards Trump’s stress on nationalist priorities as a serious threat to multilateralism in general, and thus as undermining America’s credibility as global leader.

 

The fourth pillar of the liberal edifice endangered by Trump is the challenge directed as America’s traditional support for receptivity to immigrants and societal openness. The crusade against illegal immigrants, constructing a massive wall on the Mexican border, and a general espousal of nationalist priorities adds up to an embrace of exclusionary nationalism, which again weakens the legitimacy of American global leadership, giving a nationalist edge to hostile populist backlashes against globalization already evident around the world.

 

Fifth and finally, Trump is derided by international liberals because he is seen as abandoning the bonding of likeminded liberal democracies as the basis for an extra-national ‘security community.’ Ikenberry notes with derision that Trump “trusts Merkel and Putin equally,” which implicitly repudiates the relationship between domestic liberalism and international cooperation. It is contended that such a leveling of relationship tempts America’s former closest friends to hedge their bets by forging more diverse alignments that could be better trusted to uphold their security and contribute to their prosperity under conditions of diplomatic uncertainty.

 

In the end Ikenberry is convinced that Trump, unless restrained (or self-restrained), will damage the liberal approach to world order, but Trump is not able to destroy the liberal edifice all by himself. Ikenberry hopes that other forces at home and abroad will create sufficient resistance to lead Trump to revise his policy agenda in ways compatible with the liberal agenda. He ends his article with these words: “If the liberal democratic world is to survive, its champions will have to find their voice and act with more conviction.” Such an expectation is rather opaque with respect to specifics as we do not know exactly who are these ‘champions’ or what they might do unless Ikenberry is hoping for the mobilization and intervention of the ‘deep state.’ If this is the case he should be mildly reassured by recent developments, the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield and the bellicose diplomatic response to North Korea’s nuclear program.

 

Joseph Nye, the doyen of celebrants of the benign effects of US global leadership also exhibits similar concerns about the Trump threat to the postwar global liberal order that Ikenberry seeks to sustain. [See Nye, “Will the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs 96:10-16 (2017)] For Nye “[t]he liberal international order that emerged after 1945 was a loose array of multilateral institutions in which the United States provided global public goods such as freer trade and freedom of the seas and weaker states were given access to the exercise of American power.”[11] This strikes me as a peculiarly elliptical formulation, which presupposes that it is beneficial for weaker states to be given “access’’ to American power, whatever that access might mean as a practical matter! And we know what it meant for countries whose governments were perceived as moving left such as Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), and Vietnam (1963-1975). Nye does acknowledge that in the past there were “bitter debates and partisan differences over military interventions” but concludes by affirming “the demonstrable success of the order in helping to secure and stabilize the world over the past seven decades has led to a strong consensus that defending, deepening, and extending this system has been and continues to be the central task of U.S. foreign policy.”[12] There is revealingly no reference to the various failed American interventions in Muslim majority states or the rise of Islamophobia in the West. Nye considers the threat to international liberalism posed by the rise of China, the general diffusion of power internationally, and the rise of non-state transnational forces, yet he exhibits confidence that the liberal order can effectively cope with these challenges. What worries Nye most are not these challenges from without, but the challenge from within.

 

In this regard, Nye like Ikenberry, and the American national security establishment worry most about the rise of an illiberal populism within the United States that is hostile to economic globalization and its frameworks of multilateral rules and institution. Without mentioning Trump by name, Nye believes that polarization at home will diminish the effectiveness of a liberal order that he believes depends upon a continuation of a central American role in global policymaking and security arenas with respect to both hard and soft power. Nye believes that this role is imperiled by “[p]olitical fragmentation and demagoguery,” which undermine the ability of the U.S. “to provide responsible political leadership.”[16] Nye ends his essay on a forlorn note, suggesting that “Americans and others may not notice the security and prosperity that the liberal order provides until they are gone—but by then it may be too late.”[16] In effect, Nye is of the opinion that a danger is the tendency for Americans to take the benefits of liberalism for granted, and thus be complacent about its protection.

 

A more European perspective, more nuanced and less U.S.-centric, is provided by Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House (the British counterpart to the Council on Foreign Relations) [Niblett, “Liberalism in Retreat: The Demise of a Dream,” Foreign Affairs 96:17-24(2017). Although agreeing with Nye that the main threat is internal as well as sharing the view of both Ikenberry and Nye that populism is challenging the liberal order, Niblett points out that the limitations of American-led global leadership preceded Trump. Niblett believes that the effort to spread the values and institutions of liberalism in the post-colonial world were not generally successful, failing most spectacularly in the Middle East, exemplified by the tragic fate of Syria. Niblett also stresses the innovative contributions to liberalism by way of the pooled sovereignty that characterized the European Union, which he believed to be the cutting edge of “a new liberalism” exhibiting many capabilities that exceeded those of states acting on their own, but he regards this promising past to be in deep trouble in the post-Brexit era. In this regard, Niblett is implicitly critical of those American intellectuals who think that liberalism is essentially an American contribution to world order, and do not properly acknowledge the co-equal European role.

 

Niblett is not optimistic about restoring the kind of liberalism that Ikenberry and Nye believe produced a long period of relative security and rapid economic growth and stability. Instead he sees things falling apart: “..over the past decade, buffeted by financial crises, populist insurgencies, and the resurgence of authoritarian powers, the liberal international order has stumbled.”[18] He attributes this downward spiral to “deep unease with globalization,” which is not likely to be soon reversed, and certainly not merely by reining in Trump. In Niblett’s view the liberal order has been decisively weakened in the West and can no longer serve as the basis of a coherent world order. Despite Niblett’s sensitivity to the weakness of liberalism his hopes for the future rest on the willingness to work out a kind of pragmatic coexistence between liberal and illiberal states reinforced by a continued realization that “a liberal international economic order” is indispensable for the maintenance of the “prosperity and internal security of both types of states.”[24] Note that this kind of diversely constituted community of states challenges the Ikenberry/Nye emphasis on domestic constitutionalism as an essential element of the international liberal approach to world order. In effect, Niblett detaches domestic public order considerations from the viability of international liberalism.

 

Despite this, Niblett sees the future as shaped by a new phase of ideological competition for hearts and minds, this time between liberalism and authoritarianism (fueled by right-wing populism and ultra-nationalism) as alternative internal public order systems. He concludes by observing “[i]f history is any guide, liberal democracy is the best bet.”[24]

 

I can only wonder whether history is a trustworthy guide in the twenty-first century, given the radical and unprecedented challenges confronting a state-centric system with very little capacity to generate global public goods, or to promote global interests as distinct from aggregating national interests. It is questionable whether the affirmation of the past American role as global leader during a period when the liberal consensus prevailed internally, at least in the West, can withstand critical scrutiny, given the degrees of inequality, persisting poverty, refusals to work toward nuclear disarmament, marginalization of the UN and international law with respect to war/peace issues, and patterns of militarism and interventionary diplomacy. What seems beyond serious question is that the collapse of this internal liberal consensus here in the United States, which long preceded Trump’s shattering of any illusions about the continuity of American foreign policy, makes impossible any reasonable expectation of responsible U.S. leadership in the near future. Although Obama was a dedicated domestic and international liberal, efforts to promote his policy agenda were increasingly stymied by a right-leaning Republican Congress, and when it came to counter-terrorism, his approach did not depart very significantly from the preferences of his illiberal critics. Whether it is any longer even accurate to locate the United States on the liberal side of the geopolitical balance sheet is an open question.

 

Other liberal heavyweights were also participants in this debate about the future of world order, which centered on offering prescriptive suggestions to offset the advent of Trump. For instance, Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, the publisher of Foreign Affairs, has his own way of trying to adapt to the challenges of the present. [Haass, “World Order 2.0: The Case for Soverign Obligation,” Foreign Affairs 96:2-9] He accurately avoids putting all the blame on Trump, and considers the problem of change in the global policy agenda to be at the root of the challenge to international liberalism, and seems to suggest that a response requires recasting the Westphalian state in rather fundamental ways. He rests his hopes for the future on states accepting a new identity that gives central importance to what he calls ‘sovereign obligation,’ the responsibility that each state should accept to gear its policies toward the provision of global public goods, a move so fundamental as to give rise to ‘World Order 2.0.’ We are never told how at a time of resurgent and inward looking nationalism almost everywhere, the political energy will come for such a deep change in the approach of governments to the balancing of national interests against the wider claims of global wellbeing. Underneath this call by Haass for reform is an affirmation similar to that of Ikenberry, regarding globalization, benign U.S. leadership, and mutually beneficial international cooperation as indispensable.

 

What is most missing from this debate, aside from self-scrutiny, is the failure to appreciate that Trump and the populist surge, are trivial distractions from addressing the more fundamental challenges to the very survival of the human species. There seemed absent from the Foreign Affairs symposium any awareness that nuclear weaponry and climate change are generating a biopolitical moment that is testing whether the human species has a sufficient collective will to survive to surmount the current array of global challenges. Whether we realize it or not, we may be living in end-times, meaning that the christening of this age as ‘the anthropocene’ is nothing more than an indirect acknowledgement of human responsibility for the ascendance of negativity.

 

Liberalism is an intergovernmental structure maintained and enforced by geopolitical actors, chiefly the United States. What is required to address the challenges of the biopolitical moment are globally constituted problem-solving mechanisms. Such mechanisms can alone provide enough support to achieve global public goods under current conditions, but are prevented from coming into being by the interacting resistance of global market forces and state-centrism. Only civil society militancy on an unprecedented scale can create a mandate for the kind of global transformation in ideas and structures are necessary to enable a sustainable future resting on the values of eco-humanism. If this analysis is correct, Trumpism and liberalism are nothing but sideshows.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife: Reflections on Past and Present

19 Apr

 

I found “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the 2017 film version of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 non-fiction construction of a tale of heroic resistance to Nazi brutality in Warsaw, deeply moving for several reasons. Although familiar from other films, this renewed exposure to the mentality that informed the Nazi Holocaust powerfully and sensitively rendered, especially through the medium of concrete details (e.g. smuggling Jews from the Warsaw ghetto by hiding them beneath garbage collected to feed pigs, so as elude inspecting guards; or the non-Jewish pediatrician who insisted on accompanying his Jewish students on the train carrying them to the Treblinka death camp; or the contrast between the eco-humanist tenderness toward all kinds of animals and a variety of vulnerable people of the zookeeper and his wife—the real life Żabińskis, Antonina and Jan—and the violent loutishness of the Nazi soldiers and ghetto guards).

 

The originality of the film arises from the relationship between the zookeeper couple, their love of and intimacy with animals, and their brave double undertaking to save 300 Jews from certain death as the ghetto was closed and destroyed with its inhabitants sent off to die in gas chambers as well as their loving dedication to what animals remained alive in the zoo after Nazis carted the most exotic creatures off to German zoos and killed for sport most of the rest in the manner of homicidal hunters. The fact that the story was true, reconstructed from the diary of the zookeeper’s wife, Antonina Żabiński, added moral and psychopolitical weight to the narrative. And, finally, the terrifying experience of the animals, loved by the zookeepers, desecrated by the Nazis, was very affecting, especially the impact of the bombing of the zoo during the German attack and siege of the city of Warsaw in 1939 that killed some of the wild animals and sent others scurrying in frenzied shock beyond their cages onto the zoo grounds and even into the city. Of course, any zoo, however benign the zookeepers, is a kind of prison for its totally innocent and vulnerable inhabitants, and so this experience of war was an experience of double jeopardy so far as the imprisoned animals were concerned.

 

What struck me most intensely, and prompted this reflection, was the extreme victimization of Warsaw Jews. It made me wonder at the time whether, as a Jew myself and had I been born in Warsaw an obvious target of this genocidal fury. I realized that I was spared only because I happened to be born beyond the Nazi reach. From a metaphysical perspective, this seemed a very arbitrary dividing line between a normal life and an unseemly death. Sharing this identity with the millions of victims, should I not at least respect the post-Nazi Jewish effort to achieve security and survival in the form of Israel and refrain from further criticism? Should I not withdraw from my commitments to Palestinian solidarity, and not further interfere with Israel’s efforts to find its path as a state among states? Have I any right to pass judgment?

 

I realized that this reaction was testing my political identity in fundamental ways, especially raising issues about how to connect this unexpected and strangely belated responsiveness to my ethnic reality with my more cosmopolitan wish to give priority to human and species identity, and to respond empathetically to existential suffering and vulnerability. These further musings reminded me of the present Palestinian ordeal. It led me to ask myself whether such a double vision was at all manageable.

 

In the foreground of these reflections was undoubtedly a spate of recent high visibility attacks on my person and character as joint author of a report commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission of West Asia (ESCWA), and released with the title “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.” I was smeared by Ambassador Nikki Haley, UN Watch, and by an assortment of media outlets as an anti-Semitic Israeli-basher. Although such attacks were maliciously motivated, and sufficiently far from my actual beliefs or deeds to be personally unthreatening, their repetition was bound to take its toll in terms of my public reputation. As Joseph Goebbels, and modern advertising taught the world, a lie or defamatory smear repeated often and loudly enough, especially in prominent places, will eventually gain credibility, and even the most convincing refutations will be largely ignored.

 

Recovering my moral compass, allowed me to reaffirm the hierarchy of my commitments. I do honor the memory of the Holocaust as a prime experience of unrestrained evil, forever a source of mourning and foreboding, and acknowledge that I have a certain degree of ‘survivor guilt’ having been so arbitrarily spared despite my ethnic eligibility for the gas chamber. At the same time, I refuse to defer to that past by disregarding present evil, no matter the perpetrator. The Palestinian experience of victimization is severe, prolonged, ongoing, without an end in sight. Israel’s refusal to seek a reasonable compromise is connected with expansionist territorial ambitions, a lofty sense of biblical entitlement, a defiant attitude toward international law and widely shared moral beliefs, and an uncritical militarism as the foundation of the security of the Israeli state. The persistence of the Palestinian order is one of the great moral scandals of our time, and there is no credible emancipatory future on the political horizon. As a Jew, and even more as a human being, I feel morally comfortable and politically responsible about joining with others of good will and strong faith around the world in calling upon Israel to dismantle its apartheid regime, restore the state of Israel to a condition of political legitimacy, and in the interim to endure the indignities and pressures mounted by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign.

Irish Recollections: After the Cork Conference on ‘International Law and the State of Israel’

14 Apr

 

 

Having recently spent several days at a very intense academic conference held in seductive Cork gave me the opportunity to reflect upon earlier experiences in Ireland, admittedly an unabashedly self-indulgent diversion. I realize that this will probably disappoint most regular blog readers who subscribe either to vent their strong disagreement with my views, often accompanied by harsh assaults on my character or personality, or by those likeminded persons who share enough of a common understanding of what it means for our species to exist in biopolitical end time to find this website congenial enough to stay connected. On this occasion I am admittedly exploring the depths of autobiographical banality to take advantage of the relationship between Ireland and my own highly individual end time, as well as an earlier period of my life when dark cosmic thoughts rarely clouded my inner space.

This reflective mood was further stimulated a few days ago by an interview to be broadcast sometime soon on a Cork radio station. The interview was conducted by the kind of personable Irish young woman with dancing eyes that we dream about: She seems to dwell in realms of gleeful immediacy as imprudently as a wayward leprechaun. After a longish exchange about the visit and the visitor she poses questions of more current interest, in this instance, about the conference that brought me to the city of Cork for the first time ever. This academic event was indeed a rather unusual occurrence for this serene and magical place, one of the oldest, yet small scale, urban habitats in all of Europe. The conference [“International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Exceptionalism, and Repsponsibility”] that brought me to Cork was treated as sufficiently controversial to have been cancelled the two prior years in England, specifically at the University of Southampton whose administrators yielded to heavy pressures exerted by pro-Israeli Jewish groups. With exceptional perseverance, the Southampton conveners, determined not to be silenced, teamed up with colleagues at the University of Cork, and despite some minor friction with Irish university administrators, went ahead with the conference. It took place between March 31 and April 2 without a single disruptive glitch, three long days of serious discussion exemplifying the highest ideals and spirit of academic freedom. I will comment further about this happy outcome toward the end of this post, but in the meantime, I will without further wimpish evasion, walk softly upon the thin ice of my Irish past.

 

My earliest contact with Irish sensibility was undoubtedly my most profound. From the ages of two or three until eleven or twelve, my almost continuous companion was a young Irish woman, Bridie Horan, a recent immigrant to the U.S. from County Kerry, who became more of a mother to me than my biological mother who was supremely unmotherly, a quality undoubtedly accentuated by a strained marriage with my father that led to their separation, which was quickly followed by a Nevada divorce well before I was seven. During this period we moved twice, once to the countryside from mid-Manhattan, and then a year or two later back to an adjacent apartment building in New York City half a block away. Both buildings fronted Central Park, between 64th and 65th streets, and both had good views of the park. The earlier apartment building, 50 Central Park West, was the setting for the film “Four Men and a Baby.”

 

From this childhood experience, I remember particularly being taken quite often by Bridie to the neighborhood Catholic Church, absorbed by the ritual of the Mass, but performed in Latin, I didn’t grasp the religious symbolism. I did develop an appreciation of religious mystery and the power of communities of faith. In these years this was my only exposure to religious practice. My parents were totally assimilated Jews who never bothered to explain what that meant, nor did they exhibit any ethnic consciousness associated with Jewish tradition, Yiddish language, and a cultural understanding of what it meant to be a Jew in American society in the 1930s.

 

I was especially impressed by the devoutness of those devotees who daily approached the altar to receive communion. Bridie was among those who stood in line to receive a wafer and a sip of wine from a silver chalice, but she never explained why or what. It was clearly an organic part of her fragile identity, which was torn from its deep Irish roots. She retained strong nationalist feelings for Ireland, but I do not recall her speaking of her Irish life or family. She expressed hostility toward the British who terrorized her community, sending notorious colonial troops known as ‘the black and tans’ tasked with subduing the rebellious Irish.

 

I didn’t realize until now that this was my first exposure to anti-colonial struggle, but at the time it seemed to me something distant and unreal. As a somewhat loutish child I teased Bridie until tears came to her eyes by praising Winston Churchill, who as colonial overlord personified for her British cruelty to the Irish. Bridie also daily escorted me back and forth to the Ethical Cultural School a half block away where I was enrolled in pre-kindergarten from the age of three. She was very Irish in her temperament and way of speaking, and remains a vivid remembrance brought to life while in Cork.

 

Bridie would also take me to visit friends of hers, presenting me as if her own child, a feeling that I remember enjoying at the time without much thought about what this meant. After the divorce of my parents and my mother’s departure, first for NYC, and later California, I lived briefly with my father in Pound Ridge, NY, near Stamford, Connecticut, for a year or so, before we returned to New York. We lived in a rather modern house far from the nearest neighbor, representing it seemed a final effort to save a doomed marriage. What I remember most from this period of rural isolation was acute loneliness, a fear of snakes, affection for snowscapes, wiling away hours hitting a jai-lai ball against the garage wall, and an early minor talent in basement table tennis. I was so alone that I even listened to news broadcasts, recalling now the excited voice of network commentators describing the the onset of World War II, signaled by the attack of Germany and the Soviet Union on Poland, followed by the German attack on the Soviet Union. I had the most minimal comprehension of what was transpiring beyond a vague realization that something historically significant was unfolding. What this war meant was completely unreal to me at the time, and Bridie was probably as confused as I was, doing little to help me grasp this epochal turn of events. When the American entry into war occurred in 1941, I recall listening to a radio broadcast a few days after the war started that warned of an expected German air attack against New York reported as being only hours away. Before realizing that it was a false alarm, I felt no fear, and a kind of ill-defined disappointment that the attack never happened, disclosing my perverse ignorance of the horrors of warfare. At this time, maybe a result of wartime tensions, Bridie later ran afoul of my father for reasons that were never clear, and likely were connected with personal feelings gone astray. My father insisted that Bridie had built up an obsessive desire for a close relationship with him, but I never heard her version. His story was that it became impossible to juggle a responsible childrearing framework with an intimate connection that he denied wanting. I mourned the loss of this original Irish connection, and for weeks suffered from the loss of the only female that touched me deeply during those childhood years. It was a broken connection never to be restored.

 

Long before I went to Ireland or ever read a serious book I had a short adolescent acquaintance with Stephen Joyce, grandson of the great James Joyce, son of Helen Joyce married to the author’s son, and the sister of one of my father’s closest and most unconventional friends, Robert Kastor. I recall being told that Helen would read to the famous Irish writer as he was losing his eyesight. I remember Stephen as a congenial boy, but later lost touch with him. I was told by an Irish diplomat at Cork that Stephen grew to be a wily adult who pursued business interests linked to his grandfather’s legacy, which may or may not have been true. Perhaps, my visit to the Dublin home of Joyce twenty-five years ago and a devotional reading of Ullyses, as well as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, allowed me to see Ireland through the impassioned prose, flow of consciousness, and extraordinary literary rendering of the Irish imaginary by Joyce.

 

Then came Yeats and Sean MacBride, each imparting distinctive dimensions of the Irish experience, and linked through the mystery of Sean’s mother, Maud Gonne, who seemed to provide Yeats with romantic inspiration tempered by his impassioned rejection of her political alignments and aspirations. As a young adult I came to regard Yeats as the greatest poetic voice of our time, and the one that resonates most with my own somewhat pathetic strivings that persist to this day.

 

I had three significant contacts with Sean MacBride (winner of Nobel Peace Prize in 1974; Lenin Peace Prize in 1975) each of which seemed peculiarly relevant to the substantive side of this recent visit to Ireland. The first of these occurred early in 1968 when Sean was Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists, a widely respected NGO with headquarters in Geneva. There was an impending trial of 35 political and cultural leaders of what was then called South West Africa, a territory held as a Mandate by South Africa, since independence known as Namibia. I had been asked by defense counsel to be an expert witness, an invitation that probably resulted from my role as part of the defense team that represented Liberia and Ethiopia in the International Court of Justice in a 1964-65 case focused on whether the extension of apartheid to South West Africa violated the trust relationship between South Africa as mandatory power and these two former members of the League of Nations who had the authority to raise such legal questions. The decision rendered in 1965 shocked the UN, actually supporting the basic claim of South Africa that it was acting in accord with its obligations under the mandate in good faith by doing in South West Africa what it did with respect to race relations in its own country under the heading of ‘separate development’ of distinct races. The General Assembly reacted to this decision that flaunted the moral and political anti-apartheid consensus by revoking the South African mandate, and granting independence to South West Aftrica, since known as Namibia.

 

The South African Government obviously didn’t want my participation in the trial in Pretoria as an expert witness, delaying indefinitely a decision on whether or not issue a visa. Assuming that the visa would not be issued, the defense shifted tactics, requesting that the International Commission of Jurists (a respected NGO supportive of the rule of law) designate me as an official observer of what was anticipated to be a political trial. Sean’s father, Major John MacBride, who fought on the Afrikaaner side in the Boer War, and later executed by the British due to his activist role in support of Irish revolutionary nationalism, used family connections with South African leaders to arrange my visa. It was a memorable experience, especially as the trial coincided with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that reshaped the mainstream approach to the Vietnam War in the United States, but would be a diversion to discuss here. What was relevant to my time at Cork was this earlier exposure to apartheid as a system of discriminatory oppression in the South African context, as well as the recollection of Sean MacBride’s unlikely facilitative link that enabled me to observe and report upon the trial. My report to the International Commission of Jurists on the various horrors of the trial and the heroics of the defendants was condemned by a South African government spokesperson, observing that I wrote with ‘a poison pen’ making me subject to criminal prosecution if I dared to return to South Africa. I took this criticism as a compliment, some sense that my reportage was on target.

 

My second link to MacBride was associated with a fact-finding commission set up in Britain to investigate Israeli war crimes associated with the 1982 attack on Lebanon, including the siege of Beirut. I was invited to be Vice Chair of the Commission, and became acting Chair when Sean’s health made it impossible for him to make the trip to Lebanon and Israel to assess the evidence. The rest of us came to the Lebanese port of Jounieh by ship from Cyprus, and as we entered the harbor, there were young Lebanese women water skiing, while we could hear gunfire from the other side of the hills in the Beirut area. Again the experience was quite extraordinary as Beirut was under Israeli siege, the Maronite leader then President-elect of Lebanon, Bachir Geymayel, was assassinated, and several days later the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps occurred with guidance and support of Israeli invading forces headed by Ariel Sharon. Returning to London, Sean took charge of the discussions leading up to the submission of our report that found Israel responsible for a series of major violations of the laws of war. Our initiative came to be known as the MacBride Commission, the report was a collective effort, with the initial draft prepared by Kader Asmal, who was living in Dublin in exile from South Africa at the time, dean of the faculty at the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, a prominent figure in the Irish anti-apartheid campaign, and later a principal author of the South African Constitution. [published under title Report of the International Commission to enquire into reported violations of International Law by Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon (London: Ithaca Press, 1983)] Kader became the only Indian member of the cabinet formed by Nelson Mandela after his election at President of South Africa. I became a lifelong friend of Kader as a result of sharing this experience, and maintained close contact until his death a few years ago, a tragic loss on many levels of personal and public engagement.

 

The third and final link with MacBride was to serve under his chairmanship as a participant in a civil society initiative known as the London Nuclear War Tribunal held in London, 1985. In addition to Sean and myself, Dorothy Hodgkin (Nobel Prize, chemistry, 1964) and Maurice Wilkins (Nobel Prize, medicine, 1962). The proceedings involved a comprehensive inquiry into the status of nuclear weapons in relation to customary international law, and produced a declaration and series of findings and recommendations that remain relevant at present. [For the full account see Geoffrey Darnton, ed., Nuclear Weapons and International Law: From the London Nuclear Warfare Tribunal (Bournesmouth, UK: Peace Analytics, 2nd ed. 2015)].

 

There are other recollections of Ireland based on several visits to Dublin. Perhaps, the most memorable was participation with the late Fred Halliday at a conference in 1996 on the sociology and politics of terrorism that was partly held under the auspices of the army of the Republic of Ireland. After the conference there was a dinner at the army headquarters, and I was greeted on my entry to the building by a full-length portrait of William Butler Yeats. Although an ardent cultural nationalist, Yeats was a relatively conservative figure in the Irish struggle for independence, and is celebrated around the world for the lyric universality of spirit embodied so enduringly in his poetry. I continue to feel that only in Ireland would that sense of nationalism and national security become merged with reverence for a poet of global stature so displayed by the country’s armed forces.

 

Actually, the most memorable part of the experience came during dinner. I was seated next to the commander-in-chief of the army of Ireland. Midway through the dinner a waiter handed the general a note, which reported the major IRA bomb exploded in the city center of Manchester, England. His only words at the time were “I guess I won’t be going home this weekend.” Apparently, military officers could normally spend weekends with their families.

 

All of this as background to my days in Cork, culminating in the conference partly held in the City Hall of Cork (due to a compromise with university officials under Zionist pro-Israeli pressures of the sort that had led to University of Southampton cancellations), with the third and final day held on the new campus of the University of Cork, one of Europe’s most venerable universities. The extraordinary perseverance and good will of Oren Ben-Dor, a historian on the faculty at Southampton, and the willingness of the Irish organizing team at Cork to withstand the usual pressures, allowed the conference to go forward without incident.

 

The conference consisted of three long days of high quality academic presentations that were organized as panels with ample time for audience participation. It was a lively participatory audience whose member posed challenging and probing questions. I was the first of two keynote speakers (the other was Ugo Mattei, a very imaginative Italian legal scholar who insisted that there was no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict without taking account of the broader context of neoliberal capitalism and geopolitical militarism, a position I regarded as extremely important). My talk focused on the significance of the recently released UN report, co-authored with Virginia Tilley, on Israel as an apartheid state. The basic policy contention derived from the report, which can be found on the website of this blog, is that 50 years after the 1967 War it is more appropriate to call for ‘ending apartheid’ rather than continue to mouth the slogan ‘end the occupation.’ This conceptual move is significant for at least two reasons: as signifying a shift from ‘territory’ to ‘people,’ and as a belated acknowledgement that the Palestinians as a whole (including those in refugee camps and exile, minority in Israel, and those residing in Jerusalem) are being subjugated by an Israel regime or structure of apartheid that fragments, discriminates, and dominates on the basis of race, and violates relevant international legal norms.

 

There is much more that could be said about this conference, rich in ideas and devoted to a search for a sustainable peace for both peoples on the basis of equality in form and substance. Although there was considerable attention paid to the illegitimacy of Israeli state formation, the emphasis of the conference was on finding a just peace for the future rather than dwelling upon the necessity to redress past grievances. At the same time, the past could and should not be ignored. Palestinian wounds will not heal until there a credible reconciliation process is established that includes Israeli official acknowledgements of historic wrongdoing centered on the nakba, conceived of as a process of dispossession, displacement, and domination.

 

The U.S. Attack on al-Shayrat Airfield

8 Apr

 

 

In early morning darkness on April 7th the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian al-Shayrat Airfield from two American destroyers stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean. It described the targets as Syrian fighter jets, radar, fuel facilities used for the aircraft. It asserted prior notification of Russian authorities, and offered the assurance that precautions were taken to avoid risks to Russian or Syrian military personnel. Pentagon spokespersons suggested that in addition to doing damage to the airfield, the attack had the intended effect of “reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.”

 

President Donald Trump in a short public statement justified the attack as a proportionate response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons against the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the western Syrian province of Idlib a few days earlier, which killed an estimated 80 persons, wounding hundreds more. Although there were denials of Syrian responsibility for the attack from Damascus and Moscow, a strong international consensus supported the U.S. view that Bashar al-Assad had ordered the attack allegedly as a means of convincing opposition forces concentrated in Idlib that it was time to surrender.

 

In the background, is the conviction among the more militaristic policy advisors and political figures, including Trump, that President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his 2012 ‘red line’ warning to Syria emboldened Assad to launch this latest attack with chemical weapons. Of course, this is all hawkish speculation that can be neither proven nor disproven, but it undoubtedly influenced the Trump entourage to suppose that it was presented with an opportunity to exhibit a greater readiness to use American military force in the Syrian conflict, incidentally, an outlook long advocated by Hillary Clinton and many of her advisors and foreign policy supporters. To do so, abandoned one of Trump’s signature pledges, to avoid military engagement in the conflicts raging throughout the Middle East, which he portrayed as a costly failure of prior American political leaders. Trump under pressure due to the growing evidence of ties with Russian political leaders during the 2016 presidential campaign may have welcomed an occasion on which to demonstrate his independence from Moscow and Putin. The departure from the Trump campaign agenda is particularly pointed as there were no American casualties resulting from the attack on Khan Sheikhoun 60 hours earlier than the Tomahawk response.

 

In Trump’s brief public rationale, the red line argument was not relied upon, but rather the combination of humanitarian outrage and grief with an assertion of the “national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” This geopolitical purpose was reinforced by a cursory appeal to international law and even the UN Security Council: “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.” Yet identifying Syria’s evident violation of international law should not be confused with an international law justification for the use of retaliatory force. In using this language Trump was evidently seeking to weaken the impression of an irresponsible unilateral American recourse to non-defensive force without bothering to seek an endorsement from the U.S. Congress or the UN. Not surprisingly Moscow and Damascus both condemned the attack as an act of ‘aggression’ and ‘a flagrant violation of international law.’

 

Trump used some additional words designed to draw attention away from the unilateral nature of the attack by contending that it fulfilled the common goals of “civilized nations” to deter Assad and defeat terrorism, thereby linking the American initiative to what he called ‘justice’ rather than basing legitimacy exclusively on an appeal to ‘law’ or ‘order.’ Trump expressed this sentiment as follows: “And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” This is very different in tone, substance, and policy from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which stridently stressed ‘America first,’ clarified as a call to act with reinvigorated resolve to devote military capabilities exclusively to promoting U.S. material national interests, and to stop wasting resources and energy by trying to address the larger concerns of the world, especially in the Middle East. This abrupt affinity with an internationalist spirit is made explicit in Trump’s final words—“Good night, and God bless America and the entire world.” As far as I know, this ritualistic invocation of God so much associated with George W. Bush and mimicked by Barack Obama never was extended to include “the entire world,” which is such an unfamiliar wording as to suggest that it was deliberately inserted to stake a quite unexpected and renewed claim to American moral leadership in world affairs. As with the attack itself, it seems likely to be a one/off embrace of cosmopolitan sentiments, but it is still worth noting. After all, language matters.

 

As has been suggested, bombing a Syrian airfield is unlikely to help Syrian children exposed to the terrible ravages of this war, that is, unless it does create a new momentum for a sustainable ceasefire. Already, the Russian reaction signals a worsening of relations with the United States in Syria and generally, and may end up producing the kind of confrontation that had led Republicans in the national security establishment to abandon Trump during the presidential campaign a year ago. With the removal of Bannon from the National Security Council it may not be premature to suggest that the deep state has found ways to reestablish its influence on national security policy after all seemed lost due to Trump’s electoral victory and vindictive attitude toward ‘the intelligence community.’ It is far too early to say that bureaucratic wars are over, but there is at the very least clear movement evident toward the restoration of the pre-Trump established order in Washington.

 

The Khan Sheikhoun attack raises more fundamental questions that are neither raised nor resolved by Trump’s speech. Despite making a gesture in the direction of international law by reference to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Security Council directives, the strike against al-Shayrat Airfield was a non-defensive use of force by the United States that violates the core UN Charter prohibition unless carried out on the basis of an explicit Security Council authorization. It is precisely the sort of unilateralism that the Charter, and post-1945 international law, made unlawful. In this context there was no urgency or necessity to strike immediately that might have made the departure from Charter norms seem more reasonable. Of course, Security Council authorization would not have been forthcoming, given the near certainty that Russia would use its veto. In that sense, assuming the attribution of responsibility for the chemical weapons attack to the Assad regime holds up, which is by no means assured, there is a dilemma presented when the moral and political case for action is strong, but lacks an ample justification in international law.

 

Of course, international law has for more three decades given way to the dictates of counterterrorism policies, which have featured retaliatory strikes ordered by American presidents without international authorization. Has this pattern of essentially unchallenged practice by the U.S. Government done away with the legal constraints of the UN Charter? Some jurists suggest that state practice of this character creates new expectations about the scope of legality of international uses of force by states in addressing security threats posed by non-state actors or by internal threats of state/society atrocities as here and in the Kosovo War of 1999. In a decentralized world, lacking governmental authority at regional and global levels, it seems regressive to endorse this return to a state of affairs where warfare is discretionary, and international law and respect for the authority of the United Nations are reduced to considerations of convenience and self-interest, and thus, as here, when inconvenient, a powerful state can use force with unconditional impunity in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.

 

There are also accompanying prudential questions about recourse to a military response in this instance where the intended target is the internationally recognized government of a sovereign state that is engaged in a protracted civil war. Is this a further challenge to state-centric world order? Will the attack magnify the conflict still further rather than deter Assad and make a political compromise more likely? Will the antagonism of Russia and Iran make it more difficult to bring the conflict to an end by reliance on diplomacy? There is no way to answer such questions beyond the observation that where, as here, international law opposes recourse to force, the risks of further escalation are considerable, and the rise of geopolitical tensions inevitable, the presumption should be strongly against a military response.

 

Then there are domestic questions about whether it is okay for an American president to resort to an international use of force without some sort of Congressional debate and authorization (short of a Declaration of War). Again Trump has plenty of precedents for acting without a specific Congressional authorization from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Executive warmaking authority was definitely increased after the 9/11 attacks, and given a limited, although broad, legislative imprimatur in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) statute of 2001. AUMF is limited to those forces responsible for the 9/11 attacks and ‘associated forces,’ which the Obama presidency interpreted to extend to Al Qaeda wherever located, and without any time horizon. It seems beyond doubt that constitutionalism in the war/peace context has been severely weakened over the course of the last 70 years, and this latest episode just continues the trend. It would seem that where there is no necessity to act instantly and where there is no formal UN authorization, the underlying republican commitment to checks and balances to avoid abuses of power, should have led Trump to seek authorization from Congress, and in light of his failure to do so, a critical reaction from Congress.

 

There are two clusters of serious questions raised. Is this a new turn toward belligerent internationalism by the Trump presidency that will shape the near future of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and possibly elsewhere? Does the reversion to unilateralism with respect to international uses of force heighten the risks of geopolitical escalation and large-scale warfare, including possibly the threat or use of nuclear weapons?