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In Praise of Kamila Shamsie Home Fire

13 Oct

In Praise of Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire

 

It took the withdrawal of the Nelly Sachs Prize to make me familiar with the fine literary achievements and compassionate politics of Kamila Shamsie. Selfishly, I cannot thank the Dortmund City Council enough for its outrageous behavior, evidently canceling the award because a right-wing newspaper outed Shamsie as a supporter of the BDS Campaign. I can imagine Shamsie’s feeling of hurt as well as disappointment as this incident unfolded. In her novels, she has manifested an uncannny awareness, more so than any writer I have encountered, of the precarious existence of ethnic, gender, and civilizational outsiders, especially Muslims, if they happen to reside in the supposedly once more tolerant West. Her words of eloquent response to the Dortmund about face express both her magnetic literary personality and moral intelligence: “It is a matter of great sadness to me that a jury should bow to pressure and withdraw a prize from a writer who is exercising her freedom of conscience and freedom of expression; and it is a matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the South African boycott) that campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust.”

  

Germany seems particularly susceptible these days to Islamophobic tropes, especially those given traction at the expense of Muslims, Palestinians, and immigrants. It seems that even 75 years after the Holocaust the German political establishment is still attempting to convince themselves, as well as the State of Israel, that the Holocaust was a national anomaly. Seeking to prove the unprovable, Germany and Germans have chosen to fall in love with Israel precisely because it is the nation state of the Jewish people, and for this reason alone it can do no wrong as we all know that love is blind. In their vain effort to make such a surreal posture credible, Germany insists on going even further, as if to drive the point home to any doubters, by converting Israel’s critics into Germany’s adversaries, somehow forgetting that the locus of the anti-Semitic gene present in the German body politic is situated on its far right, and is definitely not to be found even among the most uncompromising supporters of the BDS Campaign. To suggest otherwise, as is the inescapable implication of the Dortmund action, is to slander a writer of exquisite moral sensitivity. Her actions as a citizen exhibits a strong bond between her sense of right and wrong that infuses her novels and her nonviolent engagements on the side of justice for the Palestinian people. Bonds of this nature are what keep democracy alive, and should be celebrated now more than ever, not condemned.   

 

Evaluated from a more humanistic perspective, this incident confirms the impression that Germany as a nation has learned nothing from its past. To side with Israel is to side with an apartheid government that imposes a regime of daily victimization upon the Palestinian people (treating them as enemy aliens in what once Palestine!). To regard those who oppose this Israeli behavior as if they are the miscreants is to learn nothing from the rightly repudiated German past. It is to be complicit in its repetition.

 

Under these circumstances, my expression of personal gratitude to Dortmund may seem odd, yet it is quite easy to explain. If it had not been for the withdrawal of the prize, I would not have become an avid reader of Shamsie. The prize might have caught my wandering eye, as should earlier some of the dazzling reviews of Home Fire, but with a busy life along with an array of self-indulgent distractions, I would almost certainly not have taken such a drastic step as to acquire the novel, and then find myself so overwhelmed by its literary quality and brilliant commentaries on the human condition that I immediately obtained, and then read with uncharacteristic concentration, Burnt Shadows in two ten hour days of uninterrupted reading. Reflecting on this experience, which I wish is being replicated by others shocked into a similar response to mine, I became appreciative that, depending on circumstances, we sometimes become more intellectually and culturally indebted to acts of negation than to those of affirmation. It may be that those favoring the Dortmund jury reversal supposed that withdrawing the prize would have the valued added of lessening interest in Shamsie’s writing, and instead it seems to be spreading the word that she is a great writer!

 

Perhaps, if writers in Britain had not organized a joint letter of solidarity with Shamies to the London Review of Books, the abstraction of learning about a cancelled prize would not have overcome my habitual sloth, and I would have moved on. I was also drawn to look for myself at the work in question by Shameis’ unrepentant response,  defending her BDS support as something she did as a citizen, which in any event should have had no bearing on whether her novel was more deserving of recognition than were the other short listed competitors for the prize. Until this happened, I would have thought the Nelly Sachs Prize honored literature, rather than kneeling at the altar of political correctness. From now on whenever Germany does something similar, I will do my best to make them pay, not only by joining the protest, but by embracing the work that they repudiated. Let these prizes remain noteworthy, but only if future cancellations serve more as magnets than as repellents. My fear is that foundations and selection groups that give such prizes will in the future become more wary, do their homework better, and bypass candidates whose sympathies with the Palestinian struggle might stir the waters of controversy. It is worth realizing that much of the evil in the world is what is done off camera, behind closed doors, and we who wish for other realities, never get wind of what is going on. Self-censorship may be more destructive of freedom of expression than censorship. Dortmond’s rationale for retraction can be discussed, rejected, overcome. If Home Fire had been quietly put aside by the jurors in their deliberations, it would have aroused no protest, enlisted no new circle of admirers, and no positive voices reminding us that BDS is dedicated to nonviolent liberation, nothing more, nothing less. 

 

Yet before touching on the qualities that make me so admiring of Home Fire, I would comment a bit more on what seems like a panic attack. We need to ask what made the folks in Dortmund act so inappropriately as to make themselves appear both craven and foolish? At first glance, it seems that these days right-wing pressure works more often than it should, although ironically, it is the far right that is the incubator of real anti-Semitism.  The true face of Jew hatred revealed itself in the very recent Halle incident in which a right-winger aimed to slaughter Jews at a German synagogue on the Yon Kippur holiday. Further, even granting the Zionist feverish campaign to brand BDS as expressive of the so-called ‘new anti-Semitism,’ to treat Shameis’ support of a cultural boycott as enough to induce the city of Dortmund to withdraw the prize seems to signal societal panic, maybe a reaction to the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim AfD (Alternative for Germany). It is of more than passing interest that the AfD was not content as were the mainstream German parties in the Bundestag with calling BDS ‘anti-Semitic’ but wanted the non-violent movement formally banned altogether. The resolution adopted in May 2019 by a rare cross-alliance of political parties was itself a lamentable response to pressures being exerted by Zionist groups may have set the stage for the Dortmund retreat. It was followed shortly by a similar action in Aachen where an award was withdrawn from Walid Raad, an Lebanese innovative artist with a world reputation because he reportedly refused to denounce BDS, carrying the imperative of political correctness a menacing step further.

 

 

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

 

Part of the dark charm of Home Fire is a tribute to Shameis’ ‘see it all eyes’ that illuminate the complexities of Islamic jihadism, how it appeals to those ‘out of place’ around the world, wounding and rupturing the flow of life for those burdened and blessed with a hybrid ethnic, religious, and class identity. Shamsie tells us that her narrative inspiration for Home Fire is the Greek play of Antigone where a heartbroken sister defies her uncle, Creon, the king of Thebes, by burying her rebellious brother who died on a field of battle, and thus declared a traitor by Creon; by law he was denied the right of burial and his body left to rot on the battlefield until he was restored to dignity by the defiant Antigone. Sophocles depicted this classic instance of overriding the law of the land by acting in obedience to the transcendent law of the human heart, given concreteness over the centuries by natural law jurisprudence and more recently, by the universal principles of human rights. Shamsei imparts her meaning by choosing a tag line from Sophocles that appears alone on a page preceding the novel: “The ones we love.. are enemies of the state.”

 

Reading Shamsei made me recall my experience 30 years ago when I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The novel made me realize, although growing up in the racially self-righteous, self-segregated liberal confines of Manhattan, that until I read Beloved, I had never grasped the existential horrors of post-slavery racism in the United States, especially throughout the South, and more subtly in the rest of the country. Similarly, until I read Home Fire I never thought empathetically about the intimate lives of terrorists and their loved ones, pitting love within a family against what the state decrees as the limit of acceptable conduct and the moral ambiguities arising from the dreadful harm done to innocent others by terrorist violence, whether by the state or its enemies.  The perpetrators are also victims, and the victims can become perpetrators propelled by a vicious retaliatory logic that finds words to justify even beheadings; a jihadist in Home Fire says this: “..what you do to ours we will do to yours..” In other words, when we free ourselves from liberal forms of political indoctrination to experience the radical and reactive otherness that produces delicate negotiations between love and law the simple verities of moral truisms evaporate before our eyes. If we nurture our spiritual selves, a formidable challenge, those brave enough would almost always choose the path cleared by the heart rather than mechanically adhering to the cold logic of those who insist on observing the law however unjust. A signal achievement of Home Fire is to weave a credible tale of such nurturing through the selfless passions of Aneeka, a luminous being, compelled by sibling love to respond to her hapless terrorist twin brother, Pervais. The fact that Aneeka is studying in London to become a lawyer, while Pervais is enchanted by digital mysteries of recorded sounds, somehow heightens the tension between law and love, with a romanticized forgetfulness when it comes to prudence in a public domain of discriminatory vigilance in the world after the 9/11 attacks.

 

Shameis’ has produced a moral fable for our times. It is given novelistic and societal complexity by the apparent innocence of the twins, Pervais killed by a colleague in the course seeking to come home to Britain because after becoming disillusioned by his exposure to ISIS, and Aneeka herself defying a vindictive British law denying any right of return even to British citizens if officially declared to be terrorist suspects. With deep symbolic resonance, the corpse of Pervais was sent to his ‘ethnic home,’ Pakistan, where Aneeka traveled to perform her own version of a sacred burial ritual. We are told in a sprightly Note of Acknowledgement at the very end of the book, in case it did not earlier cross our minds, that Shameis’s work was foreshadowed by the exploration of these themes in Sophocles’ most memorable play, Antigone. Even though I studied Greek theater literature as a student some decades ago, I admit that I never on my own drew the connections between Home Fire and Antigone, and when instructed, I found it worth knowing, but quite irrelevant to my intense enjoyment of this extraordinary novel. The idea of loyalty to love by performing a proper burial may retain a certain symbolic relevance in our world, but it is less inscribed in the modern sensibility than it was in ancient times when such ritual matters were regarded as concerns of ultimate significance, although Shameis brings it to life because the characters and plot are so emotionally enveloping.

 

I found Shameis’s electric feel for language, including the radiance of the conversational dialogue and the creation of vivid and sympathetic characters interacting in the course of an ingenious plot that addressed several distinctive themes of this particular historical moment are some of the elements that make this novel so exciting as a de-Orientalizing work of fictive art. By reading Home Fire we learn what is excluded from reading newspapers or listening to politicians. Shameis has a special talent for conveying the wonderfully non-conformist dimensions of human lives struggling for meaning and love in our chaotic, confused, and violent world. Even the older sensible sister of the twins, Isma, burdened with parenting  them from their childhood, gives principled prudence its due, and yet the book opens ironically with Isma’s own interrogation ordeal at Heathrow as she departs Britain to earn a graduate degree at an American university. Her extremely unpleasant exit experience results from nothing more incriminating than her racial and religious identity, and more plausibly, by her being marked for special attention at immigration portals due to their awareness that her abandoning father died an al Qaeda militant en route to Guantanamo.

 

This novel was for me an experience of adult education at its best as well as an absorbing artistic reading pleasure. What we learn, above all, is that judging and assessing others from their outside appearances and external criteria produces false impressions that often lead to tragic outcomes. We also learn that grief, forgiveness, and empathy are among the most powerful private emotions that contrast favorably with the cruel opportunism of those who hitch their wagon to the conventional wisdom of state power as intrusively enacted in ways that disrupt the lives of gentle people.

 

Dortmund was quite right to select Home Fire for a literary award, which also informs us deeply about the vulnerability and fragile live of those at the Muslim edge of Western societies, especially if they are unwilling or unable to compromise beliefs and identity. Kamila Shamsie teaches us by her artistry to understand better the worlds we so unknowingly inhabit. We should also pause long enough to notice her way of living, feeling, and acting as if humanity was her true native country. 

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Iran’s Gulf Peace Proposal: HOPE

7 Oct

[Prefatory Note: My interveiw on the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE); Gulf Peace & Security—Javad Heiran-Nia (Oct 6, 2019), to be published in Farsi.]

 

1-President Rouhani, President of Iran, in his speech at the UN General Assembly depicts Iran’s plan for Persian Gulf security and sub-regional order. What is your assessment of this plan?

As I understand President Hassan Rouhani’s plan it concentrates upon regionalizing the protection of navigation and safeguarding of energy flows in the Persian Gulf with a particular emphasis on providing security for oil tanker traffic. The proposal comes against a background of months of warmongering threats, harsh sanctions, and dangerous incidents that pose unacceptable risks of provoking violent incidents, and even war. The Hormuz Peace Endeavor as set forth by Rouhani, with the brilliantly appropriate acronym of HOPE, relies upon, and proposes a regionalization of responsibility as the recommended method for upholding future peace and security, vesting exclusive authority for this new undertaking in countries with territories neighboring the Persian Gulf. To make the plan operative, and contribute to a broader stability, the Rouhani plan insists on the prior removal of U.S. military forces from the Gulf countries as a vital precondition. This is an understandable, and constructive, vital element in this innovative approach, yet it is likely to be such a major stumbling block as to make HOPE a non-starter. Such an outcome would be sad and discouraging, and it would be up to enlightened governments and an aroused public opinion to prevent this from happening.

In its most fundamental features, HOPE should be perceived as an initiative that contrasts with the American backed Alliance for Safety and Protection of Maritime Navigation (MESA). The suggested initial membership of MESA consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Australia, UK, and of course the US. MESA is an undisguised geopolitical alliance structure that presupposes the perpetuation, and even the aggravation, of present conflict patterns rather than proposing a scheme that looks toward reconciliation. The dominant members of MESA are global actors that have a colonial past in the Middle East, while its regional members are central players in the anti-Iran coalition. The contrasting visions of HOPE and MESA security for the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz could not be more divergent.

I agree with the motivations for the arrangement as outlined by President Rouhani in his speech to the General Assembly. It is structured in a manner that identifies security with peace, regional presence, and territorial proximity, and seeks both the exclusion of global geopolitics and a sidelining of sectarian tensions, which is to be achieved by the inclusion of the Sunni-led Gulf Cooperation Council GCC) in the administration of the plan. HOPE also favors giving the UN a supervisory and backup role, while showing respect for international law. As would be expected, MESA conspicuously ignores the UN and international law. I wish that political conditions allowed HOPE could become the framework for reducing tensions and establishing a Gulf peace system, which if successfully implemented would likely have additional stabilizing effects throughout the Middle East. HOPE could also set a valuable precedent for resolving other intra-regional conflicts non-violently, especially those rooted in legacies of colonial exploitatiion.

 Unfortunately, the initiative seems unrealistic at this time given the way geopolitics is being practiced in the region as epitomized by the ‘maximum pressure’ approach adopted by the Trump presidency, which includes unlawful sanctions inflicting severe hardships on the Iranian people. This shift to coercive diplomacy is also leading to the total breakdown of the 2015 JCPOA, which while operational, had met regional nonproliferation concerns until the provocative Trump unilateral withdrawal from the agreement in 2018.

The United States will doubtless refuse to remove its military presence from the Gulf, and will almost certainly be supported in that posture by several Arab governments, most notably Saudi Arabia, and by the non-Gulf state of Israel whose leverage in Washington should never be overlooked. In justification for this refusal it would be argued that without the military capabilities of the U.S. there could be a breakdown of internal order in several Gulf countries. This prospect point both to the crippling lack of self-confidence on the part of the monarchies on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. It calls attention to the awkward reality that several of these government would likely collapse if not propped up by the American military presence.

The wider concern surrounds the widely held view that such an American disengagement from the Gulf would alter the regional balance of power throughout the Middle East. Further, it would be assumed that the new balance would swing in favor of Iran if the event U.S. agrees to end its military presence in the Gulf sub-region even if it does so gradually, and in a manner coordinated with the effective implementation of HOPE. Overall, such a process would undoubtedly contribute to peace and stability throughout the entire Middle East.

 

 2- The important point of this plan is to give the United Nations a supervisory role. This role did not exist in Iran’s earlier plans for the Persian Gulf. Why is such a role justified for the UN?

The UN role is essential and highly desirable, but would only become feasible in the event that it enjoyed the passive backing, that is, at least the absence of active resistance,  on the part of the United States and Saudi Arabia. For reasons set forth in the prior response, it seems wildly improbable to expect any acceptance of a UN role in relation to any proposal of the sort that Rouhani outlined so long as Donald Trump is the U.S. President. Even without Trump, there would likely be strong resistance in Washington, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv to the removal of American military forces. The UN could not undertake such a delicate mission without the genuine political backing of the Arab Gulf countries, and this cannot be obtained under current conditions without encouragement by the United States.

 

3-While the United States seeks to link Persian Gulf security to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the Shamat region, Iran believe that the security 0f Persian Gulf region is belong to this region. Linking Persian Gulf Security to Other Areas Doesn’t it complicate the region’s security issues?

 

The agreement is only understandable and constructive if limited in its scope to the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Introducing other areas within the scope of the plan makes it even more unlikely to be seriously considered, much less politically capable of realization. An expanded ambition for HOPE introduces several complications into a setting that is already an almost impossible diplomatic impasse. Such broadening would also make opposition to the initiative seem more reasonable. Iran should maintain its advocacy of HOPE as the alternative to the kind of precarious situation that exists presently, which would likely deteriorate further if the counter-plan of MESA becomes operational.

 

4-The United States is working to make the issue of Persian Gulf security more international in the form of a maritime coalition and more countries entering the Persian Gulf. Iran, however, believes that regional security should be provided by regional countries, including the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, along with Iran and Iraq. Which perspective will find the dominant aspect?

The underlying conceptual issue is whether to entrust the security of the Persian Gulf to an arrangement that relies on an accommodating initiative overseen by regionalgeopolitics rather than to continue the high-tension pressures exerted by globalgeopolitics. In the abstract such reliance makes great sense, but if the proposal is evaluated politically is seems situated more in the realm of utopianism rather than in the domain of pragmatic problem-solving, The political difficulty with a regional approach is the question of whether enough trust exists, or can be brought into being, to embark on a plan that so undermines the intrusive regional role of the United States and requires a highly unlikely show of national self-confidence by the Gulf monarchies. Any removal of the U.S. as military supporter of the conflictual status quo, as already suggested, would be fiercely resisted given the present atmosphere by at least Israel and Saudi Arabia, and maybe by others as well, including the UAE and Egypt.

It should be remembered that ever since World War II, and to some extent earlier, the West regarded control of the Persian Gulf and the region to be a high strategic priority. After World War I the region was effectively subject to the authority and administration the European colonial powers. This European security arrangement persisted until the U.S. displaced Britain and France in 1956 in the aftermath of the Suez Operation, which had the unexpected outcome of shifting global management of regional affairs from Europe to the United States.

The Carter Doctrine, as enunciated in 1980 in the context of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, made it clear that the United States was committing itself to recourse to  a major war, if necessary, to keep the Soviet Union from increasing its regional influence in ways that threatened Western control over access and supply lines associated with energy markets in the Gulf.

After the Cold War ended, the increasingly conservative American foreign policy establishment saw the Middle East as replacing Europe as the core of its global strategic ambitions, and interfered in the internal affairs of several countries believing it could solidify this ambition for regional hegemony in the Middle East by promoting regime change in countries that resisted its geopolitical policies in the region, centering on Gulf oil, Israeli security, and nuclear nonproliferation. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 became another policy rupture that made the American homeland seems vulnerable to extremism that emanated from the Islamic world, although ironically its ally Saudi Arabia with which the U.S. had a Special Relationship was closely and visibly linked to this mega-terrorist while Iran, the supposed adversary, had no connection whatsoever. Nevertheless, the Middle East became a primary combat zone in the new American emphasis on global counterterrorism, which along the way produced the first battlefield without borders in human history, while hostility toward Iran was actually intensified.

The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq shattered the viability of a Washington option to impose its political will on crucial Middle East countries beneath the banner of ‘democracy promotion,’ counter proliferation, and counterterrorism, but it didn’t transform alignments or give rise to any intention to disengage militarily, although there were significant shifts in tactics after the Iraq disaster. The failure in Iraq to produce a stable sequel to the autocratic rule of Saddam Hussein reminds us that the confrontation between Iran and the West can be traced back to the 1953 coup, notoriously engineered by the CIA. This epic instance of a regime changing intervention restored the Shah to power, displaced the democratically elected nationalist leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, from power 25 years later, handed out economic prizes to the largest American oil companies, reasserting colonialist priorities at the expense of Iran’s inalienable right of self-determination.  It also led to Islamic Republic, a total repudiation of both the internal and international goals of what had been hailed by Washington in 1953 as a great strategic victory.

This historical narrative suggests that for the United States to give HOPE a chance it would have to become willing to repudiate its approach to Gulf security maintained over the course of more than 60 years. Yet HOPE offers the region and Washington a new opportunity to realign its foreign policy with peace, justice, international law, and the authority of the UN. The plan outlined by President Rouhani should be further developed by the government in Tehran. It should be presented to the world as a serious and constructive proposal. As such it would constitute a formidable diplomatic challenge to the ways of war, threat, and risk that currently prevail and cannot end well. HOPE needs to win the struggle to convince world public opinion before it can expect to achieve the intended, highly desirable, diplomatic breakthrough. Such a result would be a great victory for those forces dedicated to peace, justice, and law, and not only in the Gulf.

 

 

 

Will Confronting Iran Lead to War or Peace?

1 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified version of an interview published in The Nation on September 25th, following the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. It follows a pattern with respect to Iran of accusations, denials, and public uncertainties. This combination of elements, given the leadership in Washington and Tehran, one blustering, the other inflexible, can easily produce an unintended stumble into war. A second shorter interview is appended, conducted prior to the attacks by an Iranian journalist, M.J. Hassani of Tasnim News Agency. It illustrates the seeming rigidity of Iran’s Supreme Guide, considered as having the final word on government policy, exceeding that of the elected leadership.]

 

Daniel Falcone Introduction to the Interview: After accusations of Iranian drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Iranian officials and authorities indicated that “full-fledged war” with the United States could be imminent, prompting Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, to suspend oil production by nearly 6 million barrels per day. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the purported aggression as an “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” The allegations caused other countries to ostracize Iran at the United Nations General Assembly and significantly complicated the prospects of a multilateral nuclear deal.

 

Falcone: Can you provide some context for this latest series of headlines regarding the “Iranian threat.” Is this just “old wine new bottles?”

 

Falk: The magnitude of this attack on Saudi oil facilities makes the situation more dangerous even if it is considered as nothing more than a quantitative escalation of Iran’s response to US sanctions and other provocations, an Iranian version of Trump’s proclaimed policy of applying ‘maximum pressure’ to bring Iran to its knees. Yet it could be a qualitative escalation if the attack is treated as the biggest test of the US commitment to dominance in the region since 1956 when the US sided with the UN in calling for France, the UK, and Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after the Suez Operation. As Falcone suggests, the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made war-mongering remarks, including calling the attacks ‘an act of war.’ It is hard to deny that such an attack is an act of war, but against whom, by whom, has not been firmly established.

And yet, the hawks in the room clamor for blood, and do not seem to mind if the result is an all out regional war. Stephen A. Cook, the respected Council on Foreign Relations Middle East expert, endorsed this qualitative line of interpretation when he ended his analysis of the attack with some inflammatory words: “If Trump does not respond militarily, the United States should just pack up and go home.” [see Cook, “This is the Moment that Decides the Future of the Middle East,” Flash Points, Sept. 18, 2019]

 

At the same time, Trump seems to be inclined, at least for the present, to regard the attacks on the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field as a big serving of the old wine. Trump in typical fashion has displayed both bluster and restraint. At least verbally Trump has spoken in a muscular vein, insisting that if Iranian responsibility for the attack can be demonstrated, then he will retaliate in some proportionate manner. Even under these circumstances, possibly with his eye on November 2020, Trump seems determined to avoid acts that would start an unwanted war. Although ambiguously, Trump still somewhat surprisingly appears to be keeping the diplomatic door ajar. He has been quoted as saying, probably much to Israel’s chagrin, “I know they [the Iranians] want to make a deal..at some point it will work out.” It will not work out if Trump uses this transactional language when approaching the religious leadership of Iran, even if directed at President Rouhani who leads the moderate forces in Tehran. To talk of ‘a deal’ is to demean the process, and helps explain the deep distrust of any American move toward negotiation that was unreservedly expressed recently by Iran’s supreme guide, Ayatollah Khamenei. U.S. leaders and diplomats should by now have learned that the language of the bazaar does not work if the objective is to find an agreement that serves the interests of both sides.

 

 

Falcone: With Iran, Trump seems to be caught in a pickle. On the one hand, he needs to undo the Obama legacy in the region with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On the other hand, he runs the risk of looking like a neoconservative. What’s going on in your estimation?

 

Falk: I think you are correct in sensing the conflicting pressures on Trump. He cannot go back on his repudiation of the JCPOA agreed upon in 2015 and its Obama approach without seeming to be giving in to Iran’s pressure. At the same time, he evidently does not want to follow the Bolton/neocon/Pompeo path that leads to open military action, and most likely followed by a devastating war. In this sense, Trump’s ideal outcome would be some sort of diplomatic accommodation that he could ‘sell’ as a demonstration that ‘maximum pressure’ has yielded results. Whether he could spin such an outcome as a victory outside of his base seems doubtful as there would be many critics who would insist that any such result, even if it disguised the revival of JCPOA with another round of negotiations and a new name, would be viewed as at best a repetition of what had been achieved by the P5 + 1 Obama diplomacy of 2015. In fact, it now seems that to get any agreement with Iran there would have to be a much more solid commitment by the US and its allies that sanctions could not be again re-imposed on Iran in the future without a collective decision by the parties to the agreement. Such a condtion might possibly also be reinforced requiring a confirming decision on sanctions by the UN Security Council. If I were negotiating on Iran’s behalf, I would certainly insist on ironclad assurances that sanctions could not be renewed by a unilateral decree issued in Washington. Perhaps, Iran could be persuaded to accept some joint arrangements on regional peacekeeping and nonintervention that could be sold in Washington, and maybe even in Jerusalem and Riyadh as curtailing Tehran’s projection of regional power.

 

Falcone: John Bolton was recently fired. Can you talk about his role in the administration to get us to this point. I’m wondering if his dismissal is mere optics and the Bolton-Pompeo foreign policy is firmly in Trump’s hand.


Falk: We should realize by now that Trump’s highly quixotic style is resistant to all attempts at rational analysis. We do not really know whether Trump was reacting to Bolton’s belligerence with respect to foreign policy or to his aggressive, pushy personality that has long offended many prominent persons without achieving promised foreign policy victories. For instance, his advocacy of maximum pressure did not produce the desired regime change in Iran, or even a pullback on its regional involvements as in Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. All it did was to raise regional tensions to dangerous heights.

 

It does not appear that there is any sign of an ideological shift in the White House, although there does seem to be a more complex approach preferred by Trump, which fuses bluster and threats with this resolve to avoid outright combat, war, and any course of action that might lead to American casualties. This zigzag pattern of diplomatic maneuvering has so far seemed capable of absorbing Trump’s drastic mood swings and off the chart impulsiveness. The fact that it drives crazy the rational think tank gurus who dominate the Beltway can be regarded as a plus for Trump. Perhaps, the best explanation of Bolton’s dismissal was his fiery independence, which must have been fundamentally at odds with Trump’s insistence on low-profile deference from his top advisors and the shaping and reshaping of foreign policy on the basis of a constant search for transactional gains (even at the cost of diplomatic setbacks), which treats global policymaking as if it is just a replica of how to succeed in the urban real estate market without trying too hard.

 

It is lamentable that Bolton’s successor as National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, seems to be a milder version of the same hawkish pedigree, although seemingly more bureaucratic, less ascerbic, in style. A few years ago, O’Brien published a book of essays [While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis] that was highly critical of the supposed passivity of Obama’s foreign policy. In recent years, as State Department coordinator of hostage releases O’Brien has proven his value by being a Trump enthusiast, which in the present climate is the best credential a person can have who seeks a promotion to a high-status position in the federal government.

Falcone: How does oil, sanctions, and our relations with the Saudis contribute to the rising tensions in the region and the dangerous possibility of escalations?

 

Falk: There is no doubt that the sanctions imposed on Iran, coupled with the repudiation of the JCPOA, has escalated the conflict, and resulted partly from Washington seeking to please the Saudis and Israelis by adopting a more confrontational approach to Iran. As well, in the background is the dream scenario of toppling the regime, or at least forcing it to plead for mercy. There is no doubt that sanctions have caused great harm as measured by social and economic conditions in Iran, a collective and indiscriminate punishment mainly inflicted on the Iranian civilian population. Such coercion violates the UN Charter and international law. This punitive behavior against Iran resembles what was done to the Iraqi population in the twelve years after the First Gulf War. The frustrations with this reliance on sanctions eventuated in a devastating attack and occupation of Iraq initiated by George W. Bush in 2003. The Iraq War ended in a costly strategic failure given its supposed goals, including a boost to extremism concretely exhibited by the rise of ISIS almost in direct response to the heavy-handed American occupation policies in Iraq.

 

The prolonged strife in Yemen is part of this mindless militarism. It has included strong American backing for a brutal Saudi intervention from the aiir that has caused widespread suffering on the part of a largely helpless society, posing serious threats of massive famine and disease epidemics

Falcone: I’ve noticed whenever Trump wants to avoid delivering a foreign policy message and tone that sounds like Bush or Clinton he trots Pence out there to do the dirty work. Is this, in your view, to promote war with Iran yet try to create an intentional distance from neoliberals and neoconservatives?

 

Falk: As always, it is hard to interpret the logic behind Trump’s moves, or even to believe that a discoverable logic exists. He seems to act without calculating gains and losses unless money is involved, but is focused on trying to achieve immediate results that bring him notoriety if not glory. If there is a policy failure, then Trump does his best to shift the blame to others. Perhaps, because confronting Iran is a risky kind of diplomatic venture, it is best to put Pence out in front as often as possible, and thus seek to distance himself from responsibility if and when policy breakdowns occur. Trump consistently personalizes foreign policy and his leadership role demands above all that media attention is focused on himself. Trump stretches the reality of almost any situation to implausible extremes making it necessary to exonerate himself from distasteful and dysfunctional behavior by inverting and inventing facts, lying when it seems helpful, and disseminating fake news without blushing.

Falcone: Of course Israel will always be pertinent in figuring out the US method to the madness concerning Iran. How can following the US-Israeli alliance help us to get a sense of potential war with Iran. Or has this war already been underway?

 

Falk: The connections with Israel are vital to an understanding of the US role in the Middle East, and especially in the context of Washington’s ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Israeli relationship is more deeply rooted in American politics than is the Saudi connection, which seems interest-based, relating not only to oil but also to its status as the world’s primary arms purchaser. With respect to both countries, it is arguable that these special relationships are contrary to American national interests in the Middle East, and also lead to behavior contrary to America’s professed values. With regard to the Saudis, their huge investment in the dissemination worldwide of a fundamentalist Wahabist doctrine of Islam would seem radically at odds with the US counterterrorist strategy, especially since 9/11. If Iran’s indirect involvement in the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities is established, then it would allow us to make a challenging comparison with the Saudi direct and indirect involvement in the 9/11 attacks, which according to the official version of the events implicated 15 Saudis of the 19 hijackers.

 

Most damaging is the FBI evidence of Saudi support for the attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans that has been withheld all these years until families of victims finally obtained their release. The efforts of the presidency of George W. Bush with inappropriate help from the FBI director at the time who happened to be Robert Mueller, to shield Saudi embassy officials and others close to the royal family from any accountability, or even scrutiny. Only the pressure of survivors and survivor families seems finally to be prying some of this information loose in the course of a law suit charging Saudi complicity in 9/11. Shockingly, yet to be expected, hardly a word appears in the mainstream media, and even now Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, is invoking the state secrets act to justify on national security grounds withholding evidence that evidently would further incriminate Saudi Arabia. These developments coming to light 17 years after 9/11 should give pause to those who still question the primacy of geopolitics and the unacceptable behavor of the deep state when it comes to the conduct of American foreign policy or even the protection of national interests and the wellbeing of American citizens. It also raises haunting questions about the effects of these two special relationships, and reminds us of the ugly connivance and coverup of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty back in 1967 that killed 44 American naval personnel. For those who seek the full exposure of this incident, I urge a reading of Joan Mellen’s Blood in the Water, written with the cooperation of leading officers of the Liberty who survived the attack. In effect, bad as Trump is on these issues, he cannot be blamed for everything. These pernicious special relationships long preceded his presidency, and were bipartisan.

 

As for Israel, the relationship has definitely turned Arab public opinion and popular sentiments strongly against the US, and made the US continued dominance in the region depend on propping up anti-democratic autocratic leaders. The whole policy of confronting Iran has for many years been driven by the Netanyahu leadership, gravely weakening America’s role as a responsible global leader, and risking a war that would be a humanitarian and geopolitical disaster.

 

How far Israel, as a state, and Netanyahu, personally, are to blame for the escalated confrontation with Iran is difficult to assess, but it would seem to be substantial. What stands out for me is how supposed American ‘patriots’ can continue to swallow the toxic kool aid of these two special relationships. It may be time to reconsider what constitutes patriotism and what constitutes treason. In a world where Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning,  and Julian Assange are viewed as criminals but John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Donald Trump are viewed as national patriots there is something terribly wrong with our political language.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tasnim News Agency Interview Questions, M.J. Hassani, 17 Sept 2019

Hassani: On Tuesday, Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei deplored the US’ calls for talks with Iran as a trick and said that Tehran will not negotiate bilaterally or multilaterally with Washington at any level. What do you think about Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks?

Falk: With all due respect, I think that Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks are phrased in too unconditional language. I believe that it is not desirable to shut the door to what I call ‘restorative diplomacy,’ and thereby avoid any further devastation caused by the current reliance on ‘coercive diplomacy’ by the adversaries of Iran and by Iran’s ‘active resistance.’ Trump is unpredictable and impulsive, and should not be challenged so directly as he might act irrationally in ways that could be mutually catastrophic. At the same time, the Iranian religious leader is correct to express the view that Iran will not engage in normalization talks so long as the United States and Israel seek to impose unacceptable restraints on Iran as a sovereign nation, while they engage in unrestrained and unaccountable military action throughout the entire Middle East.

 

Hassani: The reason behind this approach is that Iran sees the US calls for negotiation as a trick aimed at imposing its demands on the Islamic Republic and pretending that the “maximum pressure” policy has worked. This is while Iran has not given in to the US pressures so far. Is the reason justified? How do you assess Iran’s policy of “active resistance” against the US?

I agree with the view that Iran should not be lured into a negotiation that gives the US a public relations victory by claiming the success of its ‘maximum pressure’ approach, but this should be done by Tehran in ways that also expresses Iran’s search for an improved regional and global political atmosphere that is geared toward peace and co-existence rather than war and hostility. I believe Iran has effectively made its point that it will not back down in the face of harsh sanctions and other hostile acts that are contrary to international law. Now it can seize the initiative by proposing a constructive approach that shows that it seeks normalization on the basis of sovereign equality, and is not seeking confrontation for the sake of confrontation.

 

Hassani: Iran has described the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the removal of sanctions against the Islamic Republic as the only way that Washington can hold talks with Iran. How do you see the prospect of open diplomacy between Iran and the US as well as the other parties to the JCPOA?

Falk: Trump has wrongly, and for regressive political reasons, condemned the JCPOA, but would have incredible political difficulty and embarrassment if he now were to affirm it. The motivation for condemning JCPOA had to do with his efforts to repudiate Obama’s diplomacy and to show total solidarity with Israel, and is not really about the 2015 agreement, except incidentally. I think Iran should propose to reconvene the countries that negotiated in 2015, and produce a new agreement based on intervening developments, but making it clear that this would not be an acceptance of any preconditions put forward by Washington, and would not relate to non-nuclear issues.

 

Hassani: Can we regard the Islamic Republic’s strategy of “active resistance” against the US pressures as successful given Ayatollah Khamenei’s assertions?

Falk: I think ‘active resistance,’ depending somewhat on how it is defined has been successful so far, but in some ways a dangerous and high risk policy if adhered to much longer. Iran, having made its point effectively, should move to higher ground by proposing constructive deescalating steps such as reconvening the P5 +1 group to come up with a new framework agreement covering Iran’s nuclear program and the ending of US sanctions. The way forward should not be a continuation of the present, but an effort to occupy this high ground of law, morality, and peaceful conflict resolution. It may also be appropriate at this time to propose an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which likely would be rejected by Trump, but would put Iran in a favorable light internationally as creatively engaging in restorative diplomacy. Taking a longer view, Iran should consider reviving discussion of a nuclear free zone for the entire Middle East, including Israel, a country that acquired nuclear weapons by stealth and covert assistance from those states now most objecting to Iran’s nuclear program.

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Clouds and the Human Condition: Youth to the Rescue!

25 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The post below of my remarks at the opening session of the Maker Majlis Conference, College of Islamic Studies, Hamed Bin Khalif University (HBKU) on 22 Sept 2019. The theme of the three-day conference was on the role of youth in furthering the UN process associated with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs (as further clarified by 169 targets), ambitiously set to be achieved by 2030. The massive Global Climate Strike on 20 September seemed to have similar intentions to conference, that is, how to explain and  overcome the absence of political will on the part of the governments of the world, none more lacking in this respect than the U.S. Government, with respect to the ecological agenda of the world, with particular consideration of climate change threats and harms. This civil society challenge from below, transnationally and inspired and organized by youth, offers us all glimmers of hope. As seemed appropriate, I stressed the amazing role of GretaThunberg. The day after I spoke, Greta Thunberg summarized her assault on the criminal passivity of status quo forces of the adult world with a confrontational challenge delivered to assembled dignitaries at the United Nations Headquarters in New York: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and you can do is talk about money and fairy tales of eternal growth. How dare you.”]

 

Dark Clouds and the Human Condition: Youth to the Rescue!

 

 Excellencies, Dear Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 I feel privileged to participate in this desperately timely event, and at the same time somewhat intimidated by the challenge it presents. My quandary arises because so much has been said about these topics, and yet so little has been done. Words of concern without commensurate action are producing despair and cynicism, and a healthy dose of anger. This Maker Majlis event seems imaginatively conceived and designed to counter such negative feelings, especially among youth. In summary, these is a spreading mood of acute anxiety among youth everywhere that the world is at once burning up and melting away, and that their future is being destroyed while the adult world looks on passively or even looks away. The level of official response is treated by many young activists as a degrading dismissal of their most urgent concerns. It is as if the challenges seen by them as catastrophic threats are being mostly ignored by the older generations, often treated as unwarranted expressions of hysteria and alarmism. It seems that many members of the political class fear that being responsible about carbon emissions would cut into corporate profits and reduce military budgets. Such leaders dismiss urgent calls for global policy reform as politically unacceptable and ecologically unnecessary. They seem to be saying to themselves and to us ‘When and if the time of true urgency arrives, technology will solve whatever problems arise. In the meantime, there is no need to worry about the world your grandchildren will inherit.’

 

I commend the convenors for their brilliant sense of timing, focusing on the role of youth in relation to the attainment of the 17 UN SDGs just a couple of days after the greatest youth global show of transnational activism in all of human history—the Global Climate Strike on Friday: over 4 million participants, 143 countries, and demonstrations in hundreds of cities. It was a memorable occasion of peaceful and dedicated protest by the young and old alike. Almost unbelievably, it had been almost single handedly stimulated by the remarkable charismatic commitment of a 16 year old girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg. Only a year ago Greta started to stay away from school on Fridays, and instead stood before the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, vowing to continue this vigil until the legislators heeded her demand and took bold action to reduce the carbon imprint of Sweden. These developments remind us that the future belongs to the young, but to their regret and our despair, the present still belongs to the supposed grownups. It is we who are being challenged as never before to become responsible in our lives and work. We must be persuaded to give up the pursuit of short-term advantages in markets and government, a deadly form of short-termism that involve a refusal to accept some responsibility for the sake of the future. In this regard, I do not share the spirit of resignation expressed by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, when he responded to Greta Thunberg’s appeal for decisive action by acknowledging that his generation was “not winning the battle against climate change” and hence, “it is up to youth to rescue the planet.” I oppose such an attitude. In my view, it is up to all of us. It is late, but not too late. Despite its dramatic show of concern by way of the Global Climate Strike the youth of the world can not hope to achieve transformative change on it own. They need us almost as much as we need them. What the young people around the world are doing so impressively will hopefully have many beneficial repercussions. I fervently hope that their impact will be catalytic,  awakening the rest of us so that in the future we might walk together in defiant unison until our leaders join this march of renewal to a healthy and sustainable future, and act accordingly so that we can believe their words because we witness their acts.

 

The fact that this week in New York City there will be the first ever Climate Action Summit under UN auspices is one overdue sign of an awakening. In fairness to Mr. Gutteres, I take note of his more helpful response a few days ago, calling on all of us, from the striking young to the world leaders gathering in the city to take part in the Climate Action Summit to recognize that we are being tested by an ecological emergency. We do not know where this encouraging burst of belated activism and concern will lead. It is reasonable to fear that drowsiness, sleep, scapegoating, and escapism will soon again be descriptive of what the media report and what the public mood manifests. There exists this great danger that complacency will renew its grip on our moral and political imagination. We must all do our best to resist such a manipulations and temptations. We should remind ourselves that a consensus among climate change scientists sends us this truly alarming message: the peoples of the earth have at most a twelve year window after which there is no assured road back to ecological sustainability. I am stressing climate change because it is the mega-challenge whose worsening undermines attempts to make progress with respect to every one of the seventeen SDRs.

 

There is no doubt that the constructive preoccupations of this moment will be very, very difficult for a civil society protest surge to maintain. It can only hope to do so only by building a transnational movement that lasts and grows. A cautionary lesson is the sorry spectacle of attempts to achieve sensible gun control in the United States. Only a couple of years ago there existed hope that the struggle led by young people to overcome the insanity of making assault weapons of war available in the U.S. virtually to anyone with the nerve to seek their possession. Tragic killings in American schools, mosques, places of worship, elsewhere have periodically in recent years aroused a strong immediate mass reaction of shock and anger that is reinforced by a generally supportive media, but this sense of societal outrage evaporates almost before the sun rises the next morning. And while reformist energies disappear, the pernicious gun lobbies display their adeptness at playing ‘the long game.’ These special interests that profit from gun manufacture and sales have the money and organization, and most importantly (and disgracefully) they have most politicians at their disposal. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that nothing tangible happens with regard to regulation. Once again, mourning the victims and condemning the killers acts as a substitute for taking appropriate action to prevent repetition of these horrifying incidents. Assault weapons and military scale ammunition clips not only remain available over the counter or at gun shows, but are being sold in record numbers, while the social concern fades away, only to reemerge for another brief interval in response to the next mass shooting incident.

 

We Americans should be ashamed for allowing this to happen with respect to gun control, and we must be resolute in our commitment not let this happen in our pursuit of a better, more sustainable, future for all of humanity. There will be no second chances, ‘no Planet B.’ The cost of such shortsighted failure is far too high, whether the issue is one of soul with respect to gun control or one of survival in relation to global warming. Our civilization is at risk of collapse, and the species faces extinction dangers for the first time in human history.

 

The focus of Maker Majlis on the SDGs is a logical beginning. It is a road to somewhere. The 17 goals are concrete and well-chosen. Their attainment would bring relief to many and a needed sense of accomplishment to the world at large. Merely by their formulation and adoption, these SDGs exhibit an impressive level of consensus that enjoys at least the nominal support of the governments of the world. Yet we all know that such a consensus is not nearly enough to get the job done. A rhetoric of agreement will not do much to alter behavior unless accompanied by the energy, passions, and anger of Greta Thunberg, and the millions of young (and older) people throughout the world who are inspired enough by her activist struggle of all. out effort to reduce the carbon footprint of modern industrial society and its consumerist life style. The SDR agenda is broader and deeper than mobilizing a response to global warming, yet as of now it lacks the animating passion and motivating fear that is needed if the scale and scope of change is to correspond to the magnitude of the challenges confronting our world. Thunberg made this point tellingly when she recently addressed an organ of the EU, insisting that an 80% reduction of carbon emissions was a necessity to keep us safe and healthy in the future even though the Paris Agreement, rightly celebrated at the time as a diplomatic breakthrough, aimed only at 40% reductions. In a similar spirit of talking truthfully to those who should know and do better, she reminded a Congressional hearing in Washington that the U.S. Government should be humiliated to know that it is the only country in the entire world to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, thereby renouncing its pledges to reduce carbon emissions.

 

In putting forward such assessments, Greta Thunberg made a couple of crucial points that bears on the whole issue of global reform as put forward by the SDGs. She reminds us that reformist efforts are worth supporting as steps in the right direction, yet are from enough to overcome the underlying challenges. To address climate change challenges prudently more than reform are definitely needed. It is thus crucial to understand that the SDG agenda offer neither complete solutions nor should these goals be dismissed as nothing more than pious wishes. The pursuit of the SDGs should be strongly encouraged, supported, and strengthened in every available venue where opinions are formed and policies generated. Such a responsible resolve will help stimulate the political energy from popular forces that is needed if our objective is to achieve ambitious positive results, thus raising confidence that it will be possible to do even more.

 

At the same time, the SDGs should be understood as a reformist project that falls short of the kind of transformative steps that must be taken if the prevailing ethos of capitalism and nationalism are to become vehicles, rather than obstacles, to the sort of safe and benign future we should be seeking for all of humanity.

 

Although climate change and global warming are the tip of the apocalyptic iceberg there are a host of other global issues that pose high risks of planetary disaster. These deserve our attention and also depend on the activism of popular movements if their claims and grievances are to find a place on the global policy agenda. Governments including those in world leadership roles have had the opportunity over the last seventy years to find solutions on their own to many of these dangerous problems. They have failed to do so, and mostly have not even tried. These fundamental world order unmet concerns include war, nuclearism, global migration, famine, extreme poverty, ultra-nationalism, and others. Never has humanity as a whole, as distinct from particular societies, nations, even civilizations been subject to converging crises of this magnitude. These crises are recently beginning to confront us with dire scenarios of the extinction of the human species, along with an acceleration of the ongoing mass extinction of a great variety of non-human species, imperiling biodiversity so vital for ecological stability. This extinction threat reflects the multiple impacts of global warming on the natural habitats of animals and plants, causing disharmonies also between the way we live and our natural surroundings.

 

We live at a time when respected scholars produce gloomy books exhibiting their personal anxieties about the future, offering readers book with such scary titles as The Uninhabitable Earth [David Wallace-Wells], Falter: How the Human Game is About to Play Out [Bill McKibben], or The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink [Jeffrey St. Clair & Joshua Frank]. Youth may be the canaries of our time, warning us of imminent disaster, but we are all, not just the young, subject to the risks of succumbing to this dark destiny. Among Greta Thunberg’s many electrifying insights is the observation that unless we feel panic we are not in touch with the reality of our world.

 

In my own language, humanity is faced with a bio-ethical-ecological-spiritual crisis of unprecedented gravity and complexity. This brings me to another motif of our Majlis gathering here in Qatar—the importance of religion and faith. For most of you, the principal expression of these sentiments is conveyed by the spiritual traditions, beliefs, and practices of Islam. In this regard, the emphasis on Islam has been rightly foregrounded in our program. For those of us who live mainly in other civilizational and religious spaces, the underlying message is the same although we must each adapt it creatively in relation to our own faith and spiritual traditions, as well as to our distinctive national and civilizational circumstances. Depending on sensibility and belief this may happen within the frame of an organized religion or quite independently. The concept paper for Maker-Majlis correctly criticizes the SDG approach in these words: “It is precisely this part [that is, the religious part] which is missing from the SDGs.” There is conveyed in many UN documents this false sense that the SDGs and global awakening can occur without the motivating energies supplied by religion and faith. This is one of the most dangerous delusions of secular modernity.

 

In some sense, even Greta Thunberg at first glance seems to be a victim of this mentality, calling herself but ‘a messenger’ for science and scientists. Her words: “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists. I want you to unite behind science and I want you to take real action.” She elaborated on another occasion, “..if the politicians listen to the scientists I could return to my classes..” Of course, taking ‘real action’ is an engagement in political change prompted by values affirming the right to life and a hope that not only is the planet worth saving but it can be saved. While late, it is not yet too late, although a tipping point of no return may be closer than we would like or realize, or can reliably know. I regard these sentiments of deference to science as deriving from her deeply held inner beliefs in the sacredness of life, as expressive of what is more accurately interpreted as a religious sensibility. The action that results from Thunberg’s intense inner convictions, especially if they go against the grain of social convention, is inherently faith-based. Whether this is acknowledged as ‘religion’ is of no special importance. I regard Greta Thunberg as having the character and commitment of a religiously grounded public personality, what we might romanticize by calling her, maybe prematurely, the Joan of Arc of the Ecological Age. The apparent fact that she does not grasp her engagement as ‘religious’ merely means that her understanding of religion and faith are overly identified with institutionalized religion.

 

Thunberg along with many others of all ages and faiths fully comprehend that transformative change is needed and will not occur without a mighty push from below, that is, by people, that will no longer give their consent to business as usual. This means that to wait patiently for the leaders of society, whether they are situated in the public or private sector, to do what is right and what is urgently needed is to wait too long, and is becoming a fool’s errand. Being patient and passive has been relied upon for decades and found fatally wanting. Despite the evidence and warnings, relying on a top down approach for solutions to these deep world order problems seems more than ever before a bridge to futility, and eventually to disaster.

 

Greta Thunberg’s words are again luminous in conveying her understanding of what needs to be done: “..we can’t change the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.” A more sophisticated rendering of this perspective has been formulated by Jeremy Lent, a specialist in problem-solving theory, in an article whose title conveys its message-“As society unravels, the future is up for grabs” [openDemocracy, 17 Sept 2019] Lent’s opening sentence makes his insistence on radical, as opposed to incremental approaches to problem-solving very evident: “Now is the time for radically new ideas to transform society before it is too late.” He elaborates this central thought as follows: “One thing is clear: the visionary ideas that will determine the shape of our future will not be based on incremental thinking within the confines of our current system.” To make the changes that are needed for sustainability as well as for the sake of achieving an ecologically satisfying and spiritually enhanced quality of life for the peoples of the world, we must look above all to the aroused human passions being shaped by ethical values and the inner truths of religion and spirituality. We cannot afford to wait around any longer with the vain expectation that the elites of the world will suddenly do the right thing and put the global house in order. As Lent puts it, maybe too dogmatically, “The simple lesson is that our global leaders have no intention to make even the feeblest steps toward changing the underlying drivers of society.” By ‘drivers of society’ Lent means obsessive profit-seeking as tied to compulsive consumerism. If this is the case, as it seems to be, it may be the most disturbing sign that our species has lost its way. The hubris of Donald Trump, the leader of my country, is one example among many of this failure of leadership at the top. Trump perversely seizes every opportunity to demean internationalism and environmentalism. He has actually gone so far as to dismiss global warming concerns as a species of ‘fake news’ or even ‘a hoax.’

 

I promise all of you that this will be the last time I quote or even refer to Greta Thunberg, but she made an irresistibly relevant interpretation of the civil rights successes of Martin Luther King and the extraordinary American achievement of landing Neil Armstrong safely on the moon back in 1960. She recalled that setting such seemingly out-of-reach goals remain inspiring for people everywhere. Invoking the insight of John F. Kennedy she said, these goals were inspirational “..not because they were easy but because they are hard.” Such a reflection fits with Lent’s rejection of incrementalism that I referred to earlier. Transformation is always hard.

 

My own effort along these lines is to suggest that we as members of societies and of the human species can no longer meet the challenges of the day by conceiving of politics in the standard way as ‘the art of the possible.’ Instead, to have any hope for a brighter future we have to affirm what I call ‘a politics of impossibility.’ To avoid discouragement we need also to be aware that the impossible has happened frequently in the recent past, and is not just another a dream-laden pathway to frustration and defeat. In my lifetime, the collapse of European colonialism underscored by Gandhi’s incredible nonviolent challenge to the British Empire in India, the peaceful dismantling of the South African apartheid regime, the fall of the Soviet internal empire, and even the Arab uprisings of a decade ago were examples of the impossible becoming historical occurrences before our eyes. When the impossible happens, experts who were initially caught by surprise, regain their composure and even dare write scholarly explanations after the fact on why what happened was inevitable.

 

At the same time, as earlier suggested, it is a disastrous mistake to sit around waiting for the impossible to save us from a tragic future. We need to struggle with all our strength for what we believe is right and necessary to give the impossible a fair chance of happening. Beyond this, such struggles are self-vindicating, and do not depend for their value on reaching results. As Gandhi tried to teach the world, the means used to gain desired ends should be their own fulfillment, and remain indistinguishable from the desired end being sought. That is where youth as a catalyst and religion as a source of commitment come to the fore in this historically charged moment.

 

How, then finally, does this outlook shape our attitude toward the program and vision of the SDGs. For me, the SDG effort frames a globally positive and comprehensive agenda. It also should be understood as a transnational process for taking action that seeks the implementation of positive policies. It is encouraging that this process seems more receptive to civil society participation and citizen engagement than has been characteristic of so many past UN undertakings.

 

Even so, the SDR approach needs to be viewed in relation to its shortcomings as well as its promise. We must ask ourselves and each other whether it is possible to achieve these suitably ambitious goals without changing the nature of neoliberal globalization to accord with human rights and a sustainable future. Further, are the SDGs reachable and realistic unless coupled with a challenge of the waste of valuable resources that results from excessive investment in weapons of death nurtured by outmoded militarist views of security, further inflated by the lucrative arms sales market, and artificially inflamed relations among and within states. The current form of economic globalization and militarism are embedded in the top down approach. Only by way of a bottom up approach powered by the mass mobilization of people and the reliance on faith driven action can we have any credible belief in prospects for arresting the current drift toward a catastrophic future.

 

And finally, advocating such a posture of resistance involves a correspondingly radical understanding of citizenship and political participation. From my perspective, ‘world citizens,’ although escaping from the traps of regressive nationalism imply that it is possible to act effectively by assuming that humanity is presently an existing unity, and as if the UN has generated and provided an institutional foundation for an existential global community. I have advocated an alternative way of thinking of citizenship by adopting a terminology centered on the idea of ‘citizen pilgrim,’ that is, of a person with a trusting faith in the unseen yet desired end of human endeavors. Such a person engages in struggle and conceives of his or her life as a spiritual journey or pilgrimage toward a better future. St. Paul points in this direction in his ‘Letter to the Hebrews,’ with a reference to seeking a ‘heavenly’ future as the goal of life. It is only such citizen pilgrims that will have the heart and soul for the struggle needed to create the kind of ‘community of belief’ that can support a UN, which is more than an aggregate of national interests. The UN will serve humanity as a whole only when it is able to establish a venue that is genuinely dedicated to the pursuit of human and global interests. It is this blend of politics and religion that can give us hope that the dark clouds hanging menacingly over us at present can be lifted. When this happens the pursuit of SDGs would become embedded as high priorities for political leaders and will inform and raise the expectations of people throughout the world. Only at that point can a mobilized youth in good conscience consider returning to the classroom with feeling that their future is being protected!

 

I would end by mentioning one way in which Islam offers the world some valuable guidance in doing this indispensable work of citizen pilgrims. The Islamic idea of umma prefigures a post-Westphalian, non-European notion of non-territorial community that joins peoples of various ethnicities in a single community of faith. Such a non-territorial sense of global community, despite the universalizing language of the UN Charter, does not currently inform the important undertakings of the UN, which continue to be dominated by the fragmented interest of individual Member states. Until it does overcome the hegemony of national interests, I fear that the UN will talk grandly, but at its best only act incrementally, that is, without a unity of vision and purpose so urgently needed to make the future safe and sustainable. Islam has done more to explore the benefits of non-territorial community of belief than any of the active political actors currently dominating the world stage, or for that matter, the other great world religions. Without a global community the UN will not be able to serve humanity in an historically resonant manner. It will continue to be unable to transcend the confrontations of nationalist and geopolitical agendas and buffer itself against the clash of rival ideologies. A sense of global community is the keystone for a new world order that serves humanity by its dedication to the realization of human and global interests. Such a UN does not now exist. If the young and old act together this kind of UN can be nurtured. In the meantime, we should resist the temptation to pretend that this UN of the peoples already exists, but we should never forget that we have it within our potential collective power to make it happen, and by doing, to make the sort of difference that youth are rightfully demanding.

Chained to its Past: A German Formula for Injustice toward the People of Palestine

20 Sep

[Re-posting Second Prefatory Note: To allow for prior German online publication I temporarily removed this post after two hours. The text below is identical to what was previously posted. We are eager to encourage debate, discussion, and democracy, and so encourage dissemination through social media, and whatever means you find effective. Hearing a few days ago of the Dortmund City Council’s rescinding of the Nelly Sachs Prize for Literature to the British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamies because it discovered that was a supporter of BDS is a further confirmation of the decline of democracy in Germany, at least in relation to this subject-matter of Israel/Palestine.]

 

[Prefatory Note: The following article written jointly with my longtime cherished friend, Hans von Sponeck, who by family experience and moral disposition is acutely aware of the German policy dilemmas associated with its past. These issues have recently surfaced in the context of suppressing pro-Palestinian nonviolent activism, which we believe are being handled in ways that tend to reproduce rather than transcend the evils of the Nazi Era by taking a variety of steps to shield the criminality of the Israeli Government from pressures exerted by the Palestinian global solidarity movement, and the BDS Campaign in particular. We attempted to publish this opinion piece first in a series of leading German newspapers, but were turned down. Apparently, the media guardians of public opinion in Germany regard silence as preferable to discussion and debate on this crucial issue.

 

As a biographical aside, Hans served for 32 years in the United Nations. In his last posting with  a rank of UN Assistant Secretary General, he headed the Oil for Food Program in Iraq by virtue of his role as Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (1998-2000) that followed the First Gulf War (1991) He resigned on principle because of the UN Security Council’s imposition of punitive sanctions responsible for producing massive casualties in the Iraqi civilian population.]

 

Chained to its Past: A German Recipe for Injustice toward the People of Palestine

 

Richard Falk & Hans von Sponeck

 

The GermanBundestag resolution on May 15ththat condemned the BDS Campaign as contributing to a rising threat of anti-Semitism in Europe is a grave cause of concern. It brands the BDS, a nonviolent Palestinian initiative, anti-Semitic and urges  the German government to refuse support, not only to BDS itself, but to any organization that is supportive of BDS. It takes this stand, pointing out Germany’s special responsibility toward Jews, without any reference at all to  Israel’s prolonged abuse of the most fundamental of human rights, that of self-determination, of the Palestinian people. The German resolution also fails to refer to the important role that an earlier BDS Campaign against South African racism played in bringing about a nonviolent end to the apartheid regime, and that even those who opposed BDS

on strategic or pragmatic ground never sought to demonize its advocates.

 

What particularly disturbs us is the punitive approach to BDS taken by the German legislative branch. It should be remembered that despite lots of opposition to the South African campaign those who were BDS activists were never told that it was legally and morally unacceptable to take part. Objections based on feasibility and effects, as well as specious claims that Africans in South Africa were better off under apartheid than were their brothers and sisters throughout the continent.

 

In essence, we believe this resolution is the wrong way to learn from the German past. Instead of opting for justice, for law, and for human rights, the Bundestag never even mentions the Palestinian people, and the ordeal that they are experiencing, and BDS is challenging. To give a green light to Israeli oppressive and expansionist policies is to endorse implicitly policies of collective punishment and abuse of the weak that were, it should be recalled, the most reprehensible features of the Nazi era.

 

We write as two individuals with very different pasts, yet sharing a commitment to

a strong United Nations and the duty of countries large and small to respect international law and promote global justice

 

We also share a continuing awareness of the Holocaust as a terrible tragedy befalling the Jewish people and others, as well as a horrendous crime by Germany and other countries in the past. We share an overriding commitment to a global order in which such tragedy and criminality do not occur with respect to the Jewish people and to all others everywhere. We are also mindful that such tragedies and crimes have been perpetrated since 1945 against various ethnicities and targeted peoples, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia and more recently, the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

 

Our backgrounds are (also)quite different. One of us is German and Christian (von Sponeck) , the other (Falk) is American and Jewish. Von Sponeck is the son of a general executed by the Nazis in the latter stages of World War II and had gone to Israel in 1957 to work in a moshav and several kibbutzim. He served for 32 years as an international civil servant within the United Nations, rising to the rank of Assistant Secretary General. His UN career ended when he resigned as the UN Coordinator of the Oil-for-Food Programme (1998-2000) in protest over the Iraq sanctions policy of the UN Security Council leading to the death of many innocent Iraqi civilians. Since his resignation von Sponeck has been teaching and lecturing in various venues and publishing on UN topics including The Politics of Sanctions on Iraq and the UN Humanitarian Exception(2017).

 

Falk is American and was a member of the faculty of Princeton University for 40 years, holding the position of Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law. His family background includes paternal German ancestry with both grandparents born in Bavaria. not far from Munich, emigrating to the United States in the middle of the 19thCentury. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. He has published widely on international topics, including recently Power Shift:On the New Global Order (2016) and Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope(2017).

 

We have analyzed the failure of international diplomacy to find a solution for the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We believe that Israel bears the main responsibility for this failure, which has resulted in decades of acute suffering for the Palestinian people. We believe that the root of this failure is the Zionist project to impose a Jewish state on an essentially non-Jewish society. This has inevitably occasioned Palestinian resistance, and an increasingly racist based set of structures designed to keep the Palestinian people as a whole subjugated within their own country. We believe further that peace can only come for bothpeoples when these apartheid structures are dismantled as they were in South Africa over 25 years ago.

 

Against this background we find the reluctance of the German government and the German people to respond to this circumstance of injustice to be unacceptable and its tacit acquiescence in Germany particularly worrisome and extremely regrettable. Both of us and our families are in different senses victims of Nazism. This, however, does not prevent us from insisting that German hesitation to be critical of Israeli ethnocentrism exhibits a dangerous misunderstanding of the relevance of the Nazi past. The Holocaust should above all serve to warn the world against injustice, state crime, and the victimization of a people based on their racial and religious identity. It should not exempt Israel from legal and moral accountability just because its leadership is Jewish and many of its Jewish citizens are related to victims of the Holocaust.

 

Israel claims an identity through the 2018 adoption by the Knesset of a Basic Law as the Nation-State of the Jewish people as if this confers a mandate of impunity. The lesson of the Holocaust has to do with abuse, criminality, and victimization, and should not be perverted by any subversive implication that because Jews endured horrific crimes in the past they are exempt from accountability when they commit present crimes. We recall Albert Einstein’s letter to Chaim Weizmann in 1929 in which he wrote “If we do not succeed in finding the path of honest co-operation  and coming to terms with the Arabs, we will not have learnt anything from our two thousand year old ordeal and will deserve the fate which will beset us!” The Israeli Government must realize that much of the menacing rise in anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiments in Europe and elsewhere has its origin in the very policies it pursues.

 

We expect that our plea will be strongly attacked as anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic. Part of the function of such attacks is to freeze German responses by reminders of the Holocaust, and the false suggestion that criticizing Israel and Zionism is a renewal of an attack on Jews and Judaism. We insist that this is absolutely not the case. It is quite the opposite. It affirms that the core values of the Jewish religion and humanistic values generally are connected with justice, and that this use of anti-Semitic smears is a totally unacceptable tactic to shield Israel from justifiable criticism. This kind of intimidation should be opposed and overcome.

 

From this perspective it is our belief and hope that Germany and the German people have the strength to rid themselves of the moral numbness induced by the bad memories from the past, and can join in the struggle against injustice. Such a dynamic of moral empowerment would be clear if Germany were to show empathy for the Palestinian ordeal, and lend their support to nonviolent initiatives designed to express solidarity with and encouragement for the Palestinian national movement to uphold basic rights, including above all, the inalienable right of self-determination.

 

We are most encouraged that our actions are not occurring in a vacuum here in Germany. We take note of the dedicated efforts by the Humboldt Three to protest Israeli apartheid, and the popular support the action of these young people, two Israelis and one Palestinian, have received. Their inspirational message is similar to ours. It is time for the German government and its citizens to break their silence, recognize that the Nazi past is best overcome by active opposition to the unjust oppression of the Palestinian people. We also feel kinship with the Open Letter widely endorsed by intellectuals around the world, including many in Israel, calling on ‘Individuals and Institutions in Germany’ to end all efforts to conflate criticisms of Israel with Anti-Semitism.

 

We believe that peace between Jews and Arabs in Palestine depends on taking steps to restore equality of relations between these too long embattled peoples. This can only happen if the current apartheid structures are dismantled as a prelude to peace. The South African precedent shows us that this can happen, but only when international pressures combine with national resistance. It seemed impossible in South Africa until the very moment that it happened. It seems impossible at this time with respect to Israel, but the impossible happens when it is aligned with the demands of justice, and mobilizes the support of people of good will from around the world. The flow of history has favored the weaker side militarily in the great anti-colonial movements of the last half of the 20th century, and so we should not lose hope in a just outcome for Israeli and Palestinians despite the fact that the present balance of forces now favors Israeli dominance.

 

It is also important to keep in mind that as long as the Palestinian people are denied their basic rights, there can be no peace. Any agreement reached while apartheid remains will be nothing more than a ceasefire. A sustainable peace depends on recognizing and implementing the equality of the two peoples on the basis of mutual self-determination. Germany and Germans have a great opportunity to promote such a vision, and by doing so, liberating the country  from its past. In a profound sense, whether German, American, or other we each owe the Jewish and Palestinian peoples nothing less.

 

 

 

Temporary Removal of Post on German Past/Present

18 Sep

I will re-post this blog on Friday after it has appeared online in Germany to

accommodate my distinguished co-author. Please forgive any inconvenience.

 

RF

Burning Amazonia, Denying Climate Change, Devastating Syria, Starving Yemen, Ignoring Kashmir

5 Sep

Burning Amazonia, Denying Climate Change, Devastating Syria, Starving Yemen, Ignoring Kashmir

 

The World Order Backdrop

 

Arguably, even before the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, there was a widespread sense that a state-centric form of world order was morally and functionally deficient in certain fundamental respects. Political actors were indifferent to the outbreaks of war, disease, and famine outside of their sovereign territory absent serious extraterritorial reverberations. At the same time lesser states were vulnerable to the manipulations and territorial/imperial ambitions of leading states that generated colonialism, interventions, and sustained an exploitative Europeanization of world order. World War I with massive casualties, closely followed by the Russian Revolution, which posed a normative challenge to the capitalist/market driven organization of national societies, led to some groping toward a new global order taking the institutional form of the League of Nations. It became soon obvious that the League, a project of idealists, was not endowed with the capabilities, independence, and authority needed for success, and its failure to bring peace to the world did not surprise the political leaders of major countries and even less, their realist advisors.

 

Then came World War II with estimated casualties of 60 million and the future gravely menaced by the advent of the nuclear age, and the recognition became more widespread, including among political classes, that global reform was indispensable if catastrophe was to be avoided. The United Nations emerged in this atmosphere of urgency, conceived to correct the shortcomings of the League while recognizing and incorporating the geopolitical realities of inequalities among states when it comes to political and economic power and diplomatic influence. The predominant Western understanding in 1945 was that to make the UN operationally relevant it would be necessary to connect geopolitics to statism in a mutually acceptable manner. This rather incoherent dualistic goal was operationalized by giving the right of veto to the five permanent members of the Security Council and in the Charter and General Assembly affirming the juridical equality of all Members, whether small or large sovereign states. There were also parallel worries n 1945 as serious as the impulse to achieve war prevention. It was widely believed in the West that effective global mechanisms were needed to avoid a new worldwide economic depression, which was translated into political reality through the establishment of the World Bank, IMF, and later, the World Trade Organization that also had a dual mission of regulating and promoting global market forces.

 

The UN lacked sufficient financial independence and political autonomy to fulfill the promise of the idealistic vision of the Preamble to the UN Charter. This vision of war prevention was blocked geopolitically by the political behavior of states enjoying a right of veto and juridically by the primacy accorded nationalinterests of all Members. The result, as evidenced by the failure to remove threats of nuclear weapons, climate change, and global migration, demonstrated the UN’s inability to protect either globalor human(that is, species) interests. In such an atmosphere, the drift toward catastrophe continues, hastened by hyper-nationalism, escapism, denialism, and short-termism. This drift is currently accelerated by the hyper-nationalism of leading states, including the United States, that earlier offered some incidental support for global and human interests, expressive of its hybrid approach to global leadership, which featured both selfish and benevolent motivations. This meant combining the pursuit of self-aggrandizing goals with the pursuit of a somewhat enlightened and pragmatic view of its global leadership role, sometimes called ‘liberal internationalism.’ Such an approach favored mutually beneficial forms of international cooperation, human rights, environmentalism, and disaster relief, while simultaneously accommodating geopolitical goals as achieved by intervention and a selective instrumentalization of international law and the UN, which meant using law and the UN when supportive of foreign policy, while ignoring or opposing when obstructive.

 

In effect, the sovereign territoriality of all states prevailed in the organization of international life so long as the strategic, ideological, corporate, and financial interests of geopolitical actors were not serious threatened adversely affected by internal developments. The UN Charter recognized this in Article 2(7) by prohibiting the Organization from intervening in matters ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction’ of Member states unless international peace and security were affected. In this spirit, environmental issues have never been seen as providing sufficient grounds for intervention by the UN or geopolitical actors. As a matter of international law intervention by states is prohibited by contemporary international law, although opportunistic exceptions exist, and violations and geopolitical interpretatons of the norm occur.

 

There exists a doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and a norm mandating ‘a right to protect’ (R2P), but no claim or practice associated with ‘environmental’ or ‘ecological’ transnatonal intervention, and no norm formulated in light of a ‘right to protect humanity.’ And so the fires in Brazil (and Africa) continue to burn, a rhetoric of widespread disapproval reaches the stars, but no coercive action is even proposed beyond some expressions of reluctance to cooperate economically or halfhearted recommendatios to boycott of certain agricultural exports. The Brazilian response has produced exclamations of ‘national sovereignty’ and some cosmetic reassurances that matters are under control, despite the continuing billowing of clouds of smoke so dark as to obscure the sun as far 1,700 miles away in the huge city of Sao Paulo. Finally, nominally bowing to international pressures, Bolsonaro finally dispatched 700 troops to help with firefighting in the Amazon, but such a move seemed nominal and too belated to undo the damage being daily done by the raging fires in the forest areas.

 

 

Amazonia, Syria, Yemen, and Kashmir

 

What these issues have in common is the inability of the global system of authority to save these national populations from experiencing prolonged tragedy as a result of the criminal behavior of the territorial government and, in some instances, its insurgent adversaries. It is a central deficiency of world order as a system of political control as assessed from a humanistic perspective, and is reinforced by the geopolitical maneuvers of leading states. The political will to act effectively is shaped by nationalist motivations and by more material concerns involving territory, markets, resources, and population identities, with the concern for the avoidance of mass suffering pretty much confined to angry or pleading rhetoric. In effect, principles of international law and the authority UN are ineffectual unless backed by political will or activated by a robust political movement. For Syria, Yemen, these tragic happenings impact upon the society of people, while for Kashmir, the Indian repudiation of Kashmiri autonomy threatens a war between two nuclear weapons states, as well as gives rise to severe state/society tensions.

 

The 2127 fires ablaze in the Amazon are different. Burning Amazonia affects the world by endangering the world’s largest rain forest. It is the latest manifestation of ecological insensitivity by leaders of important countries, in this case, Brazil. Such an extreme degree of insensitivity is not only responsible for massive human suffering by way of displacement and disruption, it also weakens the carbon cycle and lessens biodiversity. The increased concerns about these fires are linked to the 278% in deforestation over the prior year, and to a Brazilian political leadership that makes no secret of its hostility to environmentalism, blaming its critics for drawing attention to these occurrences to discredit the Bolsonaro government, a way of discrediting Brazil’s supposedly justifiable emphasis on economic development and investment opportunity.

 

The Environmental Minister of Brazil, Ricardo Selles sought to deflect criticism, attributing the surge in fires to weather, wind, and heat, that is, as arising from natural causes rather than government policies. He pointed out, correctly, that many of the fires were annual efforts by cattle ranchers, farmers, and loggers to clear their land, a routine agricultural practice. Bolsonaro went so far as to suggest that environmental NGOs might have deliberately set the fires to bring disrepute to the government, and he angrily resisted attempts by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to internationalize the Amazon fires. There may be an element of truth in these defensive assertions, but they fail to address the real ecological done by those fires in the forest areas of the Amazon that have been deliberately set to make way for soy crops, cattle, and more profitable logging.

 

Despite ‘the fog of ecocide,’ this much is clear. The rainforests of the Amazonia, sub-Sahraran Africa, and Borneo/Indonesia are indispensable ecological resources of the planet whose managerial control should not be left entirely to national discretion as exercised by governments, often on the basis of economistic and short-term policy goals, which is currently almost invariably the case. This statist sovereignty approach not only puts at risk the planet’s largest carbon sink and most valued source of biodiversity, as well as disrupting and imperiling the lives of 20 million or more people, mostly indigenous communities, living in Amazonia. Forest experts warn that once a rainforest is degraded beyond a certain point, a tipping point is reached, and the degrading will continue of its own accord until what was once a flourishing rainforest becomes a huge area savannah grasslands. Even before tipping points are reached it takes decades to restore forest ecosystems, including precious biodiversity resources. This dynamic of disastrous mismanagement is accentuated with respect to Amazonia by the Brazilian leadership that ignores pleas from indigenous and riverine communities, as well as environmental groups in Brazil, and the UN and the EU at a time when the planet’s eco-stability depends on planting billions of trees annually, and is further jeopardized by large scale deforestation that cuts deeply into the population of carbon-absorbing trees. Of course, ecological irresponsibility has become for the autocrats who now rule the world their perverse norm of political correctness, led by the climate deniers in Washington that are setting retrograde standards for American environmental policy during the Trump presidency. If the richest country in the world is so irresponsible as to embrace climate change denialism, withdraw from negotiated international arrangements, and make national policy on this basis, what can we reasonably expect from poorer more economically challenged developmentally preoccupied countries? The world order crisis is real, severe, intensifying, and unprecedented in scale and scope.

 

 

Legalistic Exercises in Futility

 

One of the most progressive and persuasive contemporary advocates of a law-based approach to world order and U.S. foreign policy has been that of Marjorie Cohn, a friend and more than that, a comrade. She has responded to the fires in the Amazon in a well-sourced opinion piece whose thesis is conveyed by its title “The UN Could Save the Amazon With One Simple Move,” [Truthdig,  Sept. 1, 2019] She points out that the UN Security Council can declare that the Amazon fires are a threat to international peace and security, and that Brazil should be the target of economic punitive measures to coerce responsible environmental policies, pointing out that the UN did this with good effect as part of the global anti-apartheid movement [See Security Council Resolution 585, 586, 587, 1985] Cohn also calls attention to Articles 25 and 49 of the UN Charter which commits Member states to implement Security Council decisions. Such an analysis is completely valid as far as it goes. A coherent legal framework exists within the UN System that could be used to exert unlimited pressure on Brazil to act in an ecologically responsible manner with respect to Amazonia, but there is one vital element missing—the political will of the main geopolitical actors.

 

It is often overlooked that the UN never was never intended to offer the world an unconditional endorsement of a global rule of law. By its constitutional character, it was established as an institution that was expected to juggle the requirements of global law and order with geopolitical priorities. Such was the clear function of the right of veto given to the five permanent members of the Security Council. It was hoped by those of idealistic disposition that the wartime anti-fascist alliance would persist in a peaceful world, especially as the special status within the Organization was given only to the five states regarded as the victors in World War II. But it was the realists who shaped the will of the geopolitical actors, then and now, and they never for a moment endorsed a global security system resting on law and Charter principles. Indeed, they derided it. The realist consensus, associated with such policy-oriented intellectuals as Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski knew better, believing that national and global security rested, as supposedly always had and always will on balance of power mechanisms, military capabilities, pragmatic leadership, and calculations of national interests. With the partial exception of Kennan none of those figures inhabiting the realist pantheon had the slightest interest in or respect for those who encouraged a framing of global policy by reference to human wellbeing, global justice, or ecological sustainability. In the present global mix, it is only France, a geopolitical lightweight that has dared to raise its voice above the level of a whisper to urge that the extraterritorial repercussions of the Amazon fires justify a global response, but even Macron is quite timid, relying on diplomatic discourse, offers of economic assistance, and the policy venues of the European Community and the G-7. He is too tied to the realist camp to encourage reliance on international law or the UN, and gives not even a hint that the French government would favor punitive action. Even this small French gesture of concern is too much for Donald Trump who complains that Bolsonaro was not being properly consulted while Brazilian internal policy is under consideration.

 

It is perhaps true that the UN could save Amazonia if the political will to do so existed, but it doesn’t, which sadly means that the UN is irrelevant, which is even more true than in the past, given the ultra-national mood now prevailing among geopolitical actors. We might ask what would Obama or Carter have done differently. Probably, not much without a robust global civil society movement that was itself advocating change and drastic measures. It should be remembered that the UN joined, rather than initiated, the anti-apartheid campaign in the 1980s, and that the geopolitical actors in the West went reluctantly along, not because of their antipathy to racism, but because of grassroots agitation in their own societies. In this connection it should be remembered that the U.S. and Britain vetoed UN calls for mandatoryeconomic measures to be lifted only when South Africa agreed to abandon apartheid, and abstained on other resolutions. [See NY Times, July 27, 1945]

  

 

 

What is the Question?

 

In my view, the crisis of Amazonia Burning, makes us more aware of the structural deficiencies of world order that existed ever since sovereign states claimed authority over the entire land mass of the planet as allocated to governmental authorities through the device of internationally recognized boundaries, yet the environmental and ecological issues raised were largely containable within national, regional, and even global frameworks (including world wars). This approach to the territorial allocation of authority and responsibility is supplemented by a highly permissive approach to the world’s oceans by way of freedom of all states to make almost unrestricted use, including naval operations, with minimal procedures for accountability in the absence of specific agreements (as exist, for instance, in the form of prohibitions on most whaling, and many other matters of common concern). Perhaps, the most untenable use of the oceans occurred in the decades after World War II when massive nuclear explosives designed to become warheads on weapons were extensively tested on the high seas, causing radiation to cause disease and death, especially to nearby islanders. And yet, aside from civil society protests, nothing was done by the UN or elsewhere, undoubtedly in part because the main culprit was the leading geopolitical actor. Only after a worldwide civil society protest did governments respond by negotiating the Limited Test Ban, which itself was never fully implemented.

 

With the use of atomic bombs in 1945, and their later development and spread, the core stability of statist world order—also, known as Westphalian world order—began to fray. With the buildup of greenhouse gasses and the decline of biodiversity that process has taken on a momentum of its own, which if not resisted and reversed, spells doom for the human species and much of its natural habitat.

 

We know that this bio-ethical ecological crisis cannot be overcome by appeals to international law and an ethos of international responsibility. We know also that the UN and regional organizations lack the capability or authority to override the sovereign resolve of states dedicated to maximizing national interests, being especially inhibited by the geopolitical actors who have the authority to block decisions in the Security Council. We also have become aware that these essentially structural features of world order exert additional negative influences as a result of failures of global leadership to mitigate world order deficiencies by acting to some extent in the global interest or to react empathetically to the peoples victimized by internal oppression. In an earlier period, this supplemental structural element associated with global leadership helped generate such beneficial arrangements as the public order of the oceans and of Antarctica and more recently the 2015 Paris Agreement on Global Warming and the Iran Nuclear Agreement. It would be a mistake to exaggerate the contribution of global leadership, or overlook its negative impacts, which always accorded geopolitical concerns the highest priority, failing to rid the world of nuclear weaponry and colonialism and failing to set a positive example by shows of respect for international law and the UN.

 

Efforts to overcome these deficiencies have been a characteristic of reformist initiatives and transformative proposals ever since the end of World War II. A dramatic initiative took place with the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement as an outgrowth of the Bandung Conference in 19  . Reflecting developmental priorities and a post-colonial naïve sense of global ethical consciousness, the Third World configuration of non-Western state actors put forward a broad platform under the rubric of The New International Economic Order. And more recently, the UN International Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons highlighted both the concerns of non-nuclear weapons states and the dismaying irresponsible offsetting pushback by geopolitical Western actors determined to retain nuclearism. In effect, overcoming the deficiencies of world order have failed when undertaken by governments or under the auspices of the UN. Reformist initiatives supported by geopolitical actors have done somewhat better due to their policymaking leverage, but do not seek changes that are inconsistent with their short-termgeopolitical interests. Hence, the failure to realize the vision of a world without nuclear weaponry, to achieve environmental regulations as a level responsive to the consensus among climate scientists, and to address a long list of extraterritorial problems that would be treated differently if approached from perspectives of global rather than national interests.

 

What is suggested, is the dependence of human wellbeing on the emergence of a transnational activist movement that demands major structural reforms of world order that

seek a favorable resolution of the bio-ethical crisis. If this seems utopian, you are

quite right to react as if there is no plausible path leading from here to there. Yet I believe it is more illuminating to insist that activating the utopian imagination is the only source of a transformed realism that is sensitive to the distinctive challenges and opportunities of the 21stcentury. Adhering the premises of 20thcentury realism is increasingly a recipe for disaster as the tragedy of Amazonia Burning illustrates, a metaphor for the losing struggle to save life, health, and sanity on planet earth. And while Yemen, Syria, and Kashmir do not threaten the planet’s material viability, the failure to address these massive assaults on human dignity and human rights exhibit the spiritual impoverishment of world order.