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On Zbigniew Brzezinski: Geopolitical Mastermind, Realist Practitioner

3 Jun

Personal Prelude

 

I never knew Zbigniew Brzezinski well, and was certainly not a friend, hardly an acquaintance, but we interacted on several occasions, directly and indirectly. We were both members of the Editorial Board of Foreign Policy magazine founded in 1970 during its early years, which featured lively meetings every few months at the home of the founding co-Chair, a liberal banker named Warren Damien Manshel (the other founding co-Chair was his Harvard friend from graduate school, Samuel Huntington). I was a kind of outlier at these meetings, which featured several editors who made no secret of their ambition to be soon chosen by political leaders to serve at the highest levels of government. Other than Zbig the editor who flaunted his ambition most unabashedly was Richard Holbrook; Joseph Nye should be included among the Washington aspirants, although he was far more discreet about displaying such goals.

 

In these years, Zbig was a Cold War hawk. I came to a lecture he gave at Princeton, and to my surprise while sitting quietly near the front of the lecture hall, Zbig started his talk by saying words to the effect, “I notice that Professor Falk is in the audience, and know that he regards me as a war criminal.” This was a gratuitous remark as I had never made such an accusation, although I also never hid my disagreements with Brzezinski’s anti-Soviet militancy that seemed unduly confrontational and dangerous. Indicative of this outlook, I recall a joke told by Zbig at the time: a general in Poland was asked by the political leader when the country came under attack from both Germany in the East and the Soviet Union in the West, which front he preferred to be assigned. He responded “Germany—duty before pleasure.”

 

In these years Zbig rose to prominence as the intellectual architect and Executive Director who together with David Rockefeller established The Trilateral Commission in 1973. The Trilateral Commission (North America, Western Europe, and Japan) was best understood as a global capitalist response to the Third World challenge being mounted in the early 1970s with the principal goal of establishing a new international economic order. Brzezinski promoted the idea that it was important to aggregate the capitalist democracies in Europe along with Japan in a trilateral arrangement that could develop a common front on questions of political economy. On the Commission was an obscure Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, who seemed handpicked by this elite constellation of forces to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1976. It was natural for Brzezinski to be a foreign policy advisor to Carter during his campaign and then to be chosen as National Security Advisor (1977-1981) by President Carter.

 

My most significant contact with Brzezinski related to Iran Revolution during its last phases. In January of 1979 I accompanied Ramsey Clark and Philip Luce on what can best be described as a fact-finding visit in the last phases of the revolutionary ferment in the country. Toward the end of our time in Iran we paid a visit to the American Embassy to meet with Ambassador William Sullivan who understood that revolution was on the cusp of success and the Shah’s government was on the verge of collapse. What he told us was that the White House rejected his efforts to convey this unfolding reality, blaming Brzezinski for being stubbornly committed to saving the Shah’s regime, suggesting that Brzezinski’s friendship with the influential Iranian ambassador in Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi, apparently blinded him to the realities unfolding in Iran. It should be noted that Sullivan was no shrinking violent. Sullivan had a deserved reputation as an unrepentant counterinsurgency diplomat, who General Westmoreland once characterized as more of a field marshal than a diplomat, given his belligerent use of the American embassy in Laos to carry out bombing attacks in the so-called ‘secret war.’

 

Less than a year later I was asked to accompany Andrew Young to Iran with the hope of securing the release of the Americans being held hostage in the embassy in Tehran. The mission was planned in response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s hint that he would favor negotiating the release of the hostages if the U.S. Government sent an African American to conduct the negotiations. Young, former ambassador to the UN, was the natural choice for such an assignment, but was only willing to go if the White House gave a green light, which was never given, and the mission cancelled. At the time, the head of the Iran desk in the State Department told me privately that “Brzezinski would rather see the hostages held forever than see Andy Young get credit for their release.” Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this was a fair statement or not, although this career bureaucrat spoke of his frustrating relationship with Brzezinski. Of course, there was never an assurance that if such a mission had been allowed to go forward, it would have been successful, but even in retrospect it seemed to warrant a try, and might have led to an entirely different U.S./Iran relationship than what has ensued over the past 38 years.

 

While attending a conference on human rights at the Carter Center a decade later, I had the good fortune to sit next to President Carter at dinner, and seized the opportunity to ask him about his Iran policy, and specifically why he accepted the resignation of Cyrus Vance who sought a more moderate response to Iran than was favored by Brzezinski. Carter responded by explaining that “Zbig was loyal, while Vance was not,” which evaded the question as to which approach might have proved more effective and in the end beneficial. It should be remembered, as was very much known in Tehran, that Brzezinski was instrumental in persuading Carter to call the Shah to congratulate him on his show of toughness when Iranian forces shot and killed unarmed demonstrators in Jaleh Square in an atrocity labeled ‘bloody Friday,” and seen by many in Iran as epitomizing the Shah’s approach to security and the Iranian citizenry.

 

Brzezinski versus Kissinger

 

It is against this background that I take note of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s death at the age of 89 by finding myself much more favorable to his role as foreign policy and world order commentator in recent years than to my earlier experiences during the Cold War and Iranian Revolution. It is natural to compare Brzezinski with Henry Kissinger, the other foreign-born academic who rose to the top of the foreign policy pyramid in the United States by way of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American establishment. Kissinger was less eager than Brzezinski to defeat the Soviet Union than to create a stable balance, and even went so far as to anger the precursors of the alt-right by supporting détente and arms control during the Nixon years. Somehow, Kissinger managed to transcend all the ideological confusion in the United States to be still in 2017 to be courted and lionized by Democrats, including Hilary Clinton, and Republicans, including Trump. Despite being frequently wrong on key foreign policy issues Kissinger is treated as an iconic figure who was astonishingly able to impart nonpartisan wisdom on the American role in the world despite the highly polarized national scene. Brzezinski never attained this status, and maybe never tried. Despite this unique position of eminence, Kissinger’s extensive writings on global trends in recent years never managed to grasp the emerging complexity and originality of world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His line of vision was confined to what could be observed by looking through a neo-Westphalian prism. From this perspective Kissinger has been obsessed with China’s rise and how to reach a geopolitical accommodation with this new superpower so that a new statist balance of power with a global scope takes hold.

 

Post-Cold War Geopolitics: A Eurasian Scenario 

In my view, late Brzezinski developed a more sophisticated and illuminating understanding of the post-Cold War world than did Kissinger. While being sensitive to the importance of incorporating China in ways that were mutually beneficial, Brzezinski was also centrally focused on the non-geopolitical features of world affairs in the 21st century, as well as on the non-statist dimensions of geopolitics. In this regard, Brzezinski was convinced that the future world order would be determined by the outcome of competition among states for the control Eurasia, and that it was crucial for American political efforts to be calibrated to sustain its leadership role in this central arena of great power rivalry.

 

Brzezinski also appreciated that economic globalization was giving market forces a heightened significance that could not be adequately represented by continuing to rely on a state-centric frame of reference in crafting foreign policy. Brzezinski also recognized that a new political consciousness had arisen in the world that he associated with a global awakening that followed the collapse of European colonialism, and made the projection of hard power by the West much more problematic than in the past. This meant that the West must accept the need for consensual relations with the non-West, greater attentiveness to the interests of humanity, and an abandonment of hegemonic patterns of interaction, especially associated with military intervention. He also recognized the importance of emerging challenges of global scope, including climate change and global poverty, which could only be addressed by cooperative arrangements and collective action.

 

Late Brzezinski Foreign Policy Positions

 

What impressed me the most about the late Brzezinski was his clarity about three central issues of American foreign policy. I will mention them only briefly as a serious discussion would extend this essay well beyond a normal reader’s patience. (1) Perhaps, most importantly, Brzezinski’s refusal to embrace the war paradigm adopted by George W. Bush after 9/11 terrorism, regarding ‘the war on terror’ as a dysfunctional over-reaction; in this regard he weighted more highly the geopolitical dimensions of grand strategy, and refused to regard ‘terrorism’ as a strategic threat to American security. He summed up his dissenting view in a conversation on March 17, 2017 with Rachel Maddow as follows, “Yes, ISIS is a threat. It’s more than a nuisance. It’s also in many respects criminal violence. But it isn’t in my view, a central strategic issue facing humanity.” Elsewhere, he make clear that the American over-reaction to 9/11 handed Osama Bin Laden a major tactical victory, and diverted U.S. attention from other more pressing security and political challenges and opportunities.

 

(2) Brzezinski was perceptively opposed to the Iraq attack of 2003, defying the Beltway consensus at the time. He along with Brent Scowcroft, and a few others, were deemed ‘courageous’ for their stand at the time, although to many of us of outside of Washington it seemed common sense not to repeat the counterinsurgency and state building failures oaf Vietnam in Iraq. I have long felt that this kind of assertion gives a strange and unfortunate meaning to the idea of courage, making it seem as if one is taking a dangerous risk in the Washington policy community if espousing a view that goes against the consensus of the moment. The implication is that it takes courage to stand up for beliefs and values, a sorry conclusion for a democracy, and indicative of the pressure on those with government ambitions to suppress dissident views.

 

(3) Unlike so many foreign policy wonks, Brzezinski pressed for a balanced solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, acknowledging, what so many advocates of the special relationship deny, that the continuation of the conflict is harmful to American wider interests in the region and is a major, perhaps a decisive, source of instability in the Middle East. In his words, “This conflict poisons the atmosphere of the Middle East, contributes to Muslim extremism, and is directly damaging to American interests.” [Strategic Vision, 124] As Jeremy Hammond and Rashid Khalidi, among others, have demonstrated is that the U.S. Government has actually facilitated the Israeli reluctance to achieve a sustainable peace, and at the same time denied linkage between the persistence of the conflict and American national interests.[See analysis of Nathan Thrall (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/16/the-real-reason-the-israel-palestine-peace-process-always-fails)].

 

 

I had not been very familiar with Brzezinski later views as expounded in several books: The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Geopolitical Imperatives (1997, reprinted with epilogue, 2012); (with Brent Scowcroft, America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy (2009); Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012).

 

When it comes to Brzezinski’s legacy, I believe it to be mixed. He was a brilliant practitioner, always able to present his views lucidly, forcefully, and with a catchy quality of coherence. In my view, his Cold War outlook was driven toward unacceptable extremes by his anti-Soviet preoccupations. I believe he served President Carter poorly when it came to Iran, especially in fashioning a response to the anti-Shah revolutionary movement. After the Cold War he seemed more prudent and sensible, especially in the last twenty years, when his perceptions of world order were far more illuminating than those of Kissinger, his geopolitical other.

 

Alternate Worldviews: Davutoğlu, Kissinger, Xi Jinping

25 May

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a much modified version of a shorter
opinion piece published by the global-e online publication on May 18, 2017. It is a response to and commentary upon an essay of Ahmet
Davuto
ğlu, former foreign minister and prime minister of Turkey, published under the title ‘Response to Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “The Future of National and Global (Dis)order: Exclusive Populism versus Inclusive Global Governance.”’It contrasts the global outlook of Davutoğlu with that of Henry Kissinger, yet does not discuss the specific policies pursued by either of these public figures while they acted on behalf of their respective governments, and ends with an allusion to Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum a few months ago.]

 

In his global-e essay of March 30, 2017, Ahmet Davutoğlu provides a provocative and comprehensive assessment of current global trends, and their impact on the future of world order. What sets Davutoğlu’s diagnosis of the global setting apart is his insistence that the current crisis of governance, including the ominous dangers that he identifies, can only be overcome in an enduring manner if it is fully appreciated that present maladies on the surface of world politics are symptoms of deeper structural disorders. He gives particular attention in this regard to the failure of the United States to support a reformist agenda that could help establish global governance on foundations that were effective, legitimate, and humane after the end of the Cold War. Implicit here is the contrast between the benevolent global role played by the U.S. after World War II and its harmful dedication to neoliberal globalization after the end of the Cold War without attending to the historic opportunities and challenges of the 1990s.

 

At first glance, Davutoğlu seems to be echoing the lament of Henry Kissinger, the chief architect of Nixon’s foreign policy during the 1970s. Kissinger plaintively asks, “Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future?” This is coupled with Kissinger’s underlying worry: “Our age is insistently, at times almost desperately, in pursuit of a concept of world order.” [World Order, Penguin Press, 2014, 2] Not surprisingly for those familiar with Kissinger’s approach, he expresses a nostalgic fondness and airbrushed account of the liberal world order that the U.S. took the lead in establishing after World War II, as well as his signature nostalgia associated with the construction of the European state-centric system of world order in the aftermath of devastating religious wars in the seventeenth century. His idealizing of this post-Westphalian framework is expressed in a language no one in the global south could read without a good belly laugh as it totally ignores the predatory geopolitics by which the West subjugated and exploited much of the non-Western world. According to Kissinger the new golden age of Westphalia after 1945 was reflective of “an American consensus—an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, foreswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance.” [p.1]

 

The best Kissinger can offer to repair what he now finds so deeply disturbing is “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities.” By the latter, he primarily means accommodating the rise of China, and the consequent dewesternization of the global relation of forces. Such an adjustment would require some restructuring, taking steps to integrate non-Western values into the procedures, norms, and institutions of governance facilitating geopolitical cooperation between dominant states. The content of these cooperative relations would emphasize the establishment of mutually beneficial trade and security governing relations among states. For this to happen the liberal West would have to accept the participation of states that based national governance on authoritarian patterns of national governance without passing adverse judgment. Kissinger, never an advocate of ‘democratic peace’ as theory or policy, is consistent in his promotion of a world order that does not pass judgment on the internal public order systems of sovereign states, leaving human rights to one side, and not making the adoption of democracy an ingredient of political legitimacy. In this regard, Kissinger’s version of geopolitics revives the ethos of a pre-World War II realpolitik prior to the sorts of ideas of ‘democracy promotion’ associated with the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush

 

What makes the comparison of Kissinger and Davutoğlu of interest is less their overlapping concerns with the current deficiencies of global governance than their differing articulation of alternative explanations and recommendations. Kissinger writing in a post-colonial period where hard and soft power have become more globally dispersed, especially moving toward Asia, considers the challenge mainly to be one of reforming state-centric world order by a process of inter-civilizational accommodation and mutual respect with a particular eye focused on how to properly address the rise of China alongside the partial eclipse of Europe.

 

In contrast, Davutoğlu sees the immediate crisis to be the result of inadequate global responses to a series of four ‘earthquakes’ that have rocked the system in ways that greatly diminished its legitimacy and functionality (that is, the capacity to offer adequate solutions for the major challenges of the historical moment). This sequence of earthquakes (end of Cold War, 9/11 attacks, financial breakdown starting in 2008, and Arab uprisings of 2011) occasioned responses by global leaders that Davutoğlu derides as “short-termism and conjectural politics,” that is, ‘quick fixes,’ which failed to appreciate either underlying causes or structural factors. This meant that the policy remedies adopted did not address the problems presented in ways that would avoid recurrent crises in the future. It is this failure of global leadership to address causes and structures that is partly blamed for the present malaise. Davutoğlu characterizes the present period as marked by “a rising tide of extremism,” constituted by a political spectrum with non-state groups like DAESH (also known as ISIS) at one end and the populist surge producing such dysfunctional statist outcomes as Brexit and Trumpism at the other. Davutoğlu does not treat the ascent of China as a fifth earthquake, exhibiting a conceptual understanding of the complexities and originality of the present global setting, while according less attention to the shift in the geopolitical hierarchy associated primarily with China’s rise.

 

Davutoğlu identifies three sets of disappointing tendencies that clarifies his critique: (1) the American abandonment of the liberal international order that it earlier established and successfully managed; (2) the disappointing reactions by the West to anti-authoritarian national upheavals, illustrated by the tepid reactions of the United States and Europe to the Arab Spring, withholding encouragement and support, despite its declared commitment to democratization and human rights; (3) and the structural numbness illustrated by failing to reform and update existing international institutions in the economic and political spheres, particularly the UN, which has been unable to act effectively because so little has been done to take account of drastic changes in the global landscape over the course of the last 70 years.

 

The comparison here between Davutoğlu and Kissinger reveals fundamental differences of analysis and prescription. Kissinger sees the main challenge as one of geopolitical chaos that needs to be overcome by forging realistic, yet cooperative, relations between the U.S. and China. Although he is not explicit, Kissinger seems to be preoccupied with what Graham Allison influentially labels as ‘the Thucydides trap.’ In such circumstances a reigning dominant state feels its status threatened by an emerging challenger, and the rivalry eventuates in war. In the nuclear age even political realists search for alternatives to such a dire prospect. Additionally, Kissinger clearly believes that unless the U.S. and China can agree on world order there will be chaos even if it not outright war. Underlying this imperative is the idea that dominant states are alone capable of creating order on a global scale, making the UN irrelevant, a distraction, and considering international law as a proposed regulative enterprise to be a house of cards.  

 

Kissinger favors a live and let live geopolitical equilibrium presiding over a state-centric world order that works best if the power of the dominant states is balanced and their core interests served on the basis of a shared understanding of how best to govern the world. In a fundamental sense, by proposing the incorporation of China at the apex of global governance Kissinger is advocating the global expansion of the Westphalian approach that was historically developed to minimize war and maximize stability in Europe. As might be expected, Kissinger utters not a word about justice, human rights, the UN, climate change, and the abolition of nuclear weapons. In effect, Kissinger traverses the future as if embarking on a perilous journey across a normative desert. It is hardly an occasion for surprise that Donald Trump should summon Kissinger to the White House amid the Comey crisis or that Kissinger would make himself available for an Oval Office photo op to shore up the challenged legitimacy of an imploding presidency. Trump knows less about foreign policy than my ten-year old granddaughter so that when he described Kissinger’s visit as ‘an honor’ it is left as a complete mystery why this was so. It is amusing that Trump also described his audience with Pope Francis at The Vatican as an honor. The irony of the pairing should not escape even the most casual scrutiny.

 

Davutoğlu’s offers a far more sophisticated and nuanced response to his equally pessimistic diagnosis of the current global situation. His fears and hopes center on an approach that might be described as ‘normative realism’ or ‘ethical pragmatism.’ In this fundamental respect Davutoğlu analyzes the challenges confronting humanity in light of the international structures that exist. He advocates the adaptation of these structures to current realities, but with a strong normative pull toward the fulfillment of their humane and inclusive democratizing potential. He optimistically hopes that the United States will again play up to its weight on the global stage, especially as a normative leader and problem-solver. For this reason he strongly disapproves of the shrill Trump call of ‘America first’ as well as worries about the varieties of right-wing populism that have led to the rise of ultra-nationalist autocrats throughout the planet.

 

Davutoğlu, a leading political figure in Turkey over the course of the last fifteen years, is both a Turkish nationalist and an internationalist. He urges greater representation for emerging economies and states in international institutions and procedures, and the necessary reforms of procedures and practices to bring this about. No personal achievement during his years as Foreign Minister brought Davutoğlu greater satisfaction than Turkey’s election to term membership in the UN Security Council. For Davutoğlu such a supreme soft power recognition of status on the world stage epitomized a new kind of cosmopolitan nationalism. As Kissinger is (hard)power-oriented, Davutoğlu is people-oriented when it comes to global politics. In this regard, Davutoğlu’s worldview moves in the direction of normative pluralism, incorporating diverse civilizational constructs to the extent possible, globalized by crucial universalist dimensions, particularly with respect to human dignity, human rights, and a diplomacy focused on conflict resolution. Davutoğlu gives scant attention to working out a Kissingerian modus vivendi between dominant state actors, but is receptive to practical solutions and political compromises for the sake of peace, justice, and stability.

 

Although I share Davutoğlu’s diagnosis and overall prescriptions I would take note of several differences that might turn out to be only matters of emphasis if our respective positions were more fully elaborated. I think the most distinctive feature of the current world order crisis is its insufficient capacity to address challenges of global scope, most notably climate change, but also the persistence and slow spread of nuclear weapons as well as the pestilence of chronic poverty. The Westphalian approach to world order was premised on the interplay of geopolitical actors and state-centric territorial sovereignty, and was never until recent decades confronted by threats that imperiled the wellbeing, and possibly, the survival of the whole (species or world) as distinct from the part (state, empire, region, civilization). With nuclear weapons, rather than seeking their abolition, the United States exerts as much control as possible over a geopolitical regime seeking to prevent their proliferation, especially using coercive diplomacy to threaten governments viewed as hostile. Claiming to act on this basis, the United States, in coalition with the United Kingdom, launched a devastating attack in 2003 on Iraq followed by a decade of chaotic occupation. This anti-proliferation outlook presupposes that the principal danger to world peace and stability arises from countries that do not possess the weaponry rather from those that have used, developed, and deployed nuclear weapons. Considered objectively, Iran and North Korea are two countries under threat in ways that make their acquisition of nuclear weapons rationally responsive to upholding their security by deterring attacks. It is time to realize that nonproliferation ethos is precarious, misleading, and self-serving, and contributes to a cleavage that splits human community at its core. This split occurs at the very time when greater confidence in human unity is urgently needed so that shared challenges of global scope can be effectively and fairly addressed.

 

In effect, I am contending that Davutoğlu’s prescriptive vision does not directly address a principal underlying cause of the current crisis—namely, the absence of institutional mechanisms and accompanying political will to promote human and global interests, as well as national and local interests. Under present arrangements and attitudes, global challenges are not being adequately met by geopolitical leadership or by multilateral mechanisms that seek to aggregate national interests. The Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015 represented a heroic effort to test the outer limits of multilateralism, but it still falls menacingly short of what the scientific consensus informs us as necessary to avoid exceedingly harmful levels of global warming. Given the current geopolitical mood, it seems unlikely that even the inadequate Paris approach will be properly implemented.

 

Similarly, the sputtering response to the situation created by the North Korean crisis should be treated as a wakeup call as to the dangerous dysfunctionality of a militarist approach to nuclear weapons policy, relying on threat diplomacy and punitive sanctions. The only approach that seems likely to be effective and deemed reasonable over time is one based on mutual security considerations, a serious embrace of a denuclearization agenda, and what might be called restorative diplomacy.

 

In the end, I share Davutoğlu’s call for the replacement of ‘international order’ (the Kissinger model) by ‘global governance’ (specified by Davutoğlu as “rule- and value-based, multilateral, consensual, fair, and inclusive form [of] global governance.” Such a shift to a governance focus is sensitive to the role of non-state actors and movements, as well as to the relevance of national ideology and governing style. It rejects a top down geopolitical approach.

 

It could be a hopeful sign that such a way of thinking is gaining ground that a recent speech in the West by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, moved in Davutoğlu’s, rather than Kissinger’s direction. When Xi addressed the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos he endorsed a worldview that rejected geopolitics, encouraged an inclusive multipolarity, and advocated nuclear disarmament. As Washington continues to conceive of the Chinese challenge as materialist and military, the real challenge being posed by China seems to be on the level of ideas, values, and survival instincts.

 

 

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Is Genocide a Controversial International Crime?

30 Jul

Why ‘Genocide’ is still a Controversial Crime?

 

In this strikingly original, strange, and brilliant book, Philippe Sands raises a haunting question among a tangle of other intriguing issues discussed throughout East-West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity (New York: Knopf, 2016). It is at once a plural biography (with a bit of autobiography thrown in), a jurisprudential fairy tale, and a searing account of the horrifying impact that vicious Nazi policies had on the lives of the author’s family members as well on those of his human rights heroes. The haunting question is this: was it a wise and practical decision to keep the crime of genocide from being part of the international criminal law framework used to assess the individual accountability of surviving Nazi political and military leaders, and then subsequently in dealing with past and present mass atrocities?

 

Reflecting my own interest over the years in the use and misuse of the language of genocide, I found this to be the most provocative and enduring dimension of this multiply fascinating book in which Sands exhibits his versatility as jurist, legal practitioner, investigative journalist, and amateur historian of the Holocaust as it victimized one small region in contemporary Poland that happened to be the birthplace of his grandfather as well as two of the most renowned contributors to the development of international criminal law of the past century. The book’s title is obscure until we readers discover that East-West Street runs the length of the small town in contemporary Poland where these three families originated, and resided, until the momentous events of the 1930s forced them to seek refuge by moving Westwards.

 

East-West Street can be read from many different angles, divided into no less than 158 short chapters besides a prologue that explains how such an unusual literary/intellectual journey got its accidental start with a lecture invitation to the author and an epilogue that attempts to summarize the juridical interplay between the two prime architects of core international crimes (Sir Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin) and the crimes themselves (crimes against humanity and genocide). What creates the dramatic tension in Sands’ treatment of this interplay is the contrast between a jurisprudential logic that focuses on crimes committed against individuals as contrasted with a competing logic that emphasizes crimes against groups. Also at play for Sands are the contrasting personalities and legal approaches of Lauterpacht, the cool, pragmatic, revered professorial insider, and Lemkin, the emotionally driven, obsessive outsider who dedicated his adult life to lobbying governments to support genocide as a crime, and somehow managed to get results.

 

In the background of this titanic struggle of ideas, were the personal stories of the individuals involved, which, in effect, provided the private motivations for such influential public acts. An extraordinary coincidence that Sands puts to excellent literary use arises from the simple fact that both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were connected in their early lives and studies with a small town, variously named, that changed hands eight times between 1914 and 1945, being governed at different times by Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Its most durable name during the period covered in the book is Lemberg, although it is today known by its Polish name, Lviv. What strains credibility almost to the breaking point is that Sands’ own grandfather, Leon Bucholz, also was born in Lemberg, and it is around the lives of these three men of the law that Sands weaves a complex narrative structure that is surprisingly readable. Much of the book is devoted, with passionate attention to the minutest detail, to how their personal lives and sensibilities were shaped by their departure from the Lemberg before it fell under Nazi occupation, and by the pain associated with the wrenching reality of losing contact with their families left behind. Only belatedly, years later did they each discover the ghastly experiences of lethal victimization experienced by family members after the Nazis took over what had then been Polish sovereign territory. It was striking that only silence could accord dignity to occurrences that were evidently experienced as unspeakable, paralyzing a sensitive moral imagination.

 

Against such a background it is to be expected that the book examines closely the person and behavior of Hans Frank, one of the 21 Nazis prosecuted at Nuremberg, who served as the cruel and devoted Governor General of Poland during the war years when the country fell under German occupation, and became the most notorious killing field of the Nazi era. It is also highly relevant that the three men whose lives and careers are the focal point of the narrative, given further reality by interspersed family pictures and documents, were Jewish, although none with any pronounced religious commitment. Yet their lives and careers were multiply determined by this Jewish identity, and what this meant during a period of unprecedented mass persecution and extermination. This interest in Frank is reinforced by Sands’ extraordinary collaboration with Franks’ son, Niklas, with whom he visits the Nuremberg courtroom where 68 years earlier a death sentence had been imposed on his father. Not to be content with the involvement of Niklas, Sands’ also persuades Horst, son of Otto von Wächter, who administered for Nazi rulers an area that included Lemberg, and had earlier been a classmate of Lauterpacht in the law school of the local university, to assist in the reconstruction of the events. These intergenerational connections led Sands to write the screenplay and perform in a documentary film, My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, which had its 2015 premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and won recognition and awards.

 

Such an attempt at reliving of these historical events illustrates the contrasting adjustments to the present, with Niklas feeling that his father fully deserved the punishment he received at Nuremberg, while Horst exhibits a morbid pride, remembering his father’s prominence without any sign of shame or even regrets about his father’s role in carrying out the evil policies of the Nazi occupiers. Philippe Sands positions himself both within and without this apocalyptic past, trying to pull the pieces together in a coherent multi-dimensional account without losing contact with his own personal engagement in this overwhelming family tragedy.

 

Putting to one side the intriguing biographical and autobiographical levels of Sands’ construction of these various lives, I wish to concentrate my observations on the legal legacies associated with Lauterpacht and Lemkin,

depicted with such vividness throughout the book, reaching their climax at Nuremberg. As Sands observes, crimes against humanity (CAH) and genocide were both radical and innovative juridical ideas seeking to criminalize Nazi atrocities. CAH focused on protecting the individual against the criminality of any state including one’s own, while genocide was conceived to criminalize the mass killing of identifiably distinct ethnic or religious groups. Lauterpacht more or less invented CAH with the intention of repudiating the impunity that traditionally attached to wrongdoing by a sovereign government against individuals subject to its territorial jurisdiction and thus insulating those who acted on behalf of the state from any kind of personal accountability. CAH mounted a legal challenge directed at unconditional territorial sovereignty and the prevalence of absolute monarchy, which had long dominated the state-centric world order established in Europe by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Such impunity continued to be a feature of nationalist ideology despite the French Revolution and the emergence of democratic constitutionalism. The numerous subsequent efforts to make governments internally accountable for their acts through law and a variety of constitutional procedures, including elections, did not extend to external behavior. What made CAH such a radical step forward was this insistence on some measure of external or international accountability by means of law.

 

Lemkin, on his side, invented the crime of genocide, including even the word, almost all by himself. He was guided by the unwavering belief that criminalizing the kind of racialist policies put into practice by Nazi Germany was urgently necessary to save civilization from the recurrence of barbarism. It seems that Lemkin was initially disposed to criminalize such behavior by his shocked reaction to the mass killing in Turkey of Armenians in 1915, and the absence of any punitive international response embedded in international law. He believed fervently that the deadly political virus giving rise to such collective behavior was a distinct form of criminality that should never be conflated with a series of separate criminal acts, however severe, that were directed at individuals.

 

I would have thought that there was every reason to support both forms of criminality in reaction to the Nazi experience, and to a certain extent, so does Sands. The main technical obstacle, only superficially discussed by Sands, to the prosecution of these crimes at Nuremberg was the prohibition against retroactive applications of criminal laws. In fact, the Nuremberg Judgment devoted considerable energy to demonstrate its respect for the prohibition, endorsing CAH only if the acts in question could be connected with the onset of the war in 1939; in other words, from 1933 to 1939, the early years of the Nazi regime, the wrongdoing of those acting on behalf of the German government continued to be internationally shielded by impunity. Subsequently, the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Nuremberg Principles, ratified now by more than a half century of state practice gives CAH the status of obligatory norms under customary international law, no longer necessarily linked to aggressive war. More than this, these Principles have come to be regarded as ‘peremptory norms’ or simply jus cogens, that cannot be altered by governmental action, and can be changed only through their replacement by another peremptory norm.

 

Genocide has had a somewhat similar intellectual voyage after being sidelined at Nuremberg to Lemkin’s great disappointment. His personal crusade to achieve the inclusion of genocide among the crimes charged against the Nazis failed. Undeterred by this setback, Lemkin’s unwavering perseverance after Nuremberg was soon rewarded. The Genocide Convention came into force in 1950, and as Sands observes, almost instantly genocide became the ‘crime of crimes,’ the most stigmatizing form of criminality whose commission results in a permanent tainting of the national character of a sovereign state found to have been guilty of genocide. There have been various allegations of genocide over the decades, with Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda being among the most notorious instances.

 

Sands situates himself not quite equidistant in relation to these two jurisprudential giants. His own academic life and personal associations disposed him to side with Lauterpacht, celebrating his success in introducing CAH into the fabric of the Nuremberg experience and from there, to become a critical norm in the emergence of international criminal law, and a featured crime embedded in the Rome Statute that creates the legal framework for the International Criminal Court. Sands is unabashedly appreciative, even awed, believinging that Lauterpacht was recognized as “the outstanding legal mind of the twentieth century, and a father of the modern human rights movement.” [loc. 254] Lauterpacht, as an influential Cambridge professor later elected to the International Court of Justice became a member of the British establishment, and was professionally admired for his prodigious output as a scholar that showcased his committed, yet cautious approach to the development of international law. For Lauterpacht this development to be authentic had to arise from the practice of sovereign states. He had a keen appreciation of the limits of what was politically feasible and legally appropriate, and was respectful toward patterns of statecraft, possibly reflecting his exposure while a student to the great Austrian formalist and positivist, Hans Kelsen. In a book built around the organic links between the personal and public, it is hardly surprising that Sands turns out to have been a student at Cambridge and that Eli Lauterpacht, the jurist son of Hersch, was his teacher and a collaborating source of information about his famous father. This contributes one more instance of Sands’ interest in fathers and sons. Unfortunately, for his scheme of things, Lemkin never married and had no sons.

 

The older Lauterpacht was openly skeptical of genocide, viewing it as ‘impractical,’ even an impediment to the realistic development of international law. Sands is never fully clear as to why a crime that seemed to depict the very essence of the Nazi victimization of Jews and others, should have been put aside on grounds of practicality in the lead up to the Nuremberg proceedings. He does mention in passing American and British reluctance to put such a crime into the indictment at Nuremberg was related to the rattle of skeletons in their respective historical closets: the systematic decimation of native Americans and a variety of British colonial practices. According to Sands, “Lauterpacht never embraced the idea of genocide. To the end of his life, he was dismissive, both of the subject, and more politely, of the man who concocted it, even if he recognized the aspirational quality.” [loc.6700] Sands does refer to the problematic aspects of genocide in various places—especially a lawyer’s difficulty of finding strong enough evidence of the appropriate criminal intent to convince a court of law, considering that those engaged in genocide rarely leave a paper trail that satisfies those sitting in judgment and aware that to obtain a guilty verdict in responses to genocide is an indirect punishment of a nation and its people as well as of the individuals charged.

 

In this regard, despite the crime of genocide not being part of the formal proceedings at Nuremberg, Germany has been convicted of ‘genocide’ in the court of public opinion, and Germans whatever their relationship to the Nazi experience seem destined to live perpetually under this dark cloud. As many have observed, and I have experienced, this deep German consciousness of historic guilt explains an excessive deference to the policies of the state of Israel and the related fear that any criticism of Israeli behavior, however justified, will be perceived as anti-Semitism. In this respect, there is a real objection to the formal and informal allegations of genocide because it imposes guilt not only on individuals who acted for the state but on the nation as a whole. There is a related issue, not raised by Sands, of the degree of complicity with Nazism that it is fair to attribute to the German people as a whole, and whether this complicity should cast its shadow over future generations.

 

I have had an interest in the embittered standoff between the Armenian diaspora and Turkey over the redress of historic grievances relating to the tragic events of 2015. To resolve this standoff depends exclusively on the willingness of Turkey to issue a formal acknowledgement that the wrongs endured more than a century ago by the Armenian people constituted genocide. No lesser form of apology by Turkey even if accompanied by initiatives that keep historical memories alive via a museum, educational materials, and commemorative events will overcome this Armenian insistence, supported by many Western governments, that Turkey admit genocide. Sands appears sympathetic with the difficulty posed by this apparent fetishization of genocide, writing, “[i]t was no surprise that an editorial in a leading newspaper, on the occasion of the centenary against Armenians, suggested that the word ‘genocide’ may be unhelpful, because it ‘stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs.’” [loc. 6618]

 

Questioning the Armenian insistence on genocide has become political incorrect even though the crime was unknown in 1915 when the offending behavior took place and the modern state of Turkey did not then exist as it only came into existence in 1923. Of course, such legalistic considerations will never resolve the controversy as what is deeply at stake is the way historical memories should be inscribed on political consciousness of both victim and perpetrator societies, as well as in authoritative public accounts. It is plausible to admit that what happened a hundred years would have qualified as the crime of genocide if it took place after 1950. The case is further complicated because many Turks continue to subscribe to a historical narrative that claims that the massacres resulted from excessive uses of force in a wartime situation in which Armenians were seen to be a subversive presence siding with the Russian adversaries of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and included occasions on which Turks were also slaughtered. This counter-narrative complicates any acknowledgement by the Turkish government of genocide as it would agitate the volatile ultra-nationalist sentiments that dominate the extreme right in the country.  

 

It is understandable from Armenian perspectives that only an admission of ‘genocide’ is capable of encompassing the magnitude of the wrongs suffered by the Armenian people. There is no other word with comparable stigmatizing power. It was this stigmatizing power that led to Bill Clinton in 1994, while president of the United States, to issue his notorious order that the word ‘genocide’ should not be used by government employees with reference to the massive killing taking place in Rwanda. Clinton evidently feared that the mobilizing effect of labeling these events as genocide would exert unwanted pressure on the United States to intervene to stop the killing.

 

This is the meeting point of the genius of Lemkin, and the worldliness of Lautherpacht, with Sands sensitive to the virtues and limitations of both viewpoints although leaning toward the Lauterpacht approach. Of course, the German guilt is quite different in its essentials from the Turkish reality. A Turkish admission of genocide, should it ever be made, would not be internalized in the manner forced upon Germany by the denazification program implemented by the victors after World War II. It is relevant to realize that Armenian genocide did not emanate from an extremist racialism that was so closely connected with Hitler’s rise to power based on virulent anti-Semitism.

 

In one sense Lemkin has been too successful. In his insistence that what the Nazis were doing to Jews, and other peoples, was a crime against the group, he unwittingly succeeded in elevating genocide above crimes against humanity, and thereby weakened Lauterpacht’s interest in promoting international accountability for crimes without undermining peace among states. There are other concerns. If genocide if read backward into history, as in the Armenian case, it opens a Pandora’s Box that intensifies numerous bitter memories of the past, reopens wounds, and seems to unduly burden present generations with a legacy of criminality that was the work of those no longer alive. What is worse, the Holocaust as the context in which the crime was formalized operates as a standard of comparison, the crime of crimes that lies behind the legal conceptualization, which discourages its acknowledgement by political entities that might be ready to issue an apology but not to suggest that in their national past is an experience that deserves to be treated as comparably reprehensible to what Jews, and not only Jews, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

 

Given a world of states, maybe Lauterpacht after all adopted the more tenable position. Perhaps the most that can be hoped for is an international criminal law framework that prosecutes, as appropriate, individuals, and leaves the chronicling of group crime to historians, novelists, and filmmakers. Even here there are problems not faced by Lauterpacht or Sands that relate to the hierarchical character of world order that makes any serious application of international criminal law more a creature of geopolitics than an expression of the rule of law or a tenet of global justice.

 

Sands while right to be proud of his own role as revered litigator of international crimes adopts a more questionable position by downplaying the relevance of geopolitics. In a notable passage about the objection to Nuremberg as ‘victors’ justice’ he writes, “[y]es, there was a strong whiff of ‘victor’s [sic] justice,’ [at Nuremberg] but there was no doubting that the case was catalytic, opening the possibility that the leaders of a country could be put on trial before an international court, something that had never happened before. [loc. 288] A whiff! [for those unfamiliar with ‘whiff’ its dictionary definition is this: “a brief passing odor in the air as in ‘a whiff of perfume’ or “a very small trace as in ‘a whiff of self-pity in her remarks’] Looking at the impunity conferred by the Nuremberg framework on the indiscriminate, terror bombing of German cities [recall Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five], not to mention the fire bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the victors’ dimension could not be convincingly marginalized from the overall legal proceedings. It was certainly more consequential than even ‘a strong whiff’! Even the American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, who is portrayed by Sands quite reasonably as the most influential presence at Nuremberg, understood that the moral validity of the decision rendered was precarious, and needed future vindication by being integrated into an international law framework that bound all states, winners and losers, strong and weak. That this never happened deserves commentary that Sands fails to provide.

 

Instead, Sands reminds us that there has been much follow up to Nuremberg that supports his assessment of its catalytic impact. He cites his own extensive experience with both categories of criminality in cases involving Serbia, Croatia, Libya, United States, Rwanda, Argentina, Chile, Israel and Palestine, United Kingdom, Yemen, Iran, Iran, Iran, Iraq, and Syria as if the mere listing proves his point. [loc. 6607] I believe Sands’ impressive legal activism only shifts the focus. True, there has been a robust development of human rights and international criminal law, especially after the end of the Cold War, but this has obscured rather than overcome this fundamental flaw. The integrity of the rule of law as an operative global system, depends crucially on treating equals equally, and this has never happened, nor will it happen without a sea change in world politics. As African countries have been pointing out with plausibility, criminal accountability for both CAH and genocide is limited to weak states and losing sides in wars, and impunity remains for the strong and winners. We will long be waiting for the likes of George W. Bush or Tony Blair being called to account for their role in embarking on a disastrous aggressive war against Iraq in 2003.

 

True, introducing these categories of criminality into the legal vocabulary gave a valuable normative tool to civil society, first effectively utilized by the much maligned Russell Tribunal in the midst of the Vietnam War and more recently by the Iraq War Tribunal of 2005 that addressed crimes associated with the Iraq War. Yet civil society has only public opinion at its disposal, and even here, is hampered by the statist orientation of most media outlets that demean such civil society initiatives as illegitimate intrusions on the public sphere reserved exclusively for governments representing sovereign states. At best, these civil society tribunals that pass judgment on the behavior of geopolitical actors are expressions of a moral consciousness that acts as if these norms of international criminal law should be universally regulative rather than selectively applied.

 

Sands, along with Lauterpacht and Lemkin, share the liberal conviction that law is an autonomous force for the good in human affairs (unless deformed in its application as by the Nazis). Their sense of practicalities appears to be a willingness to overlook geopolitical constraints, and to take what incremental steps are made available by circumstances with the hope and expectation that over time the growth of law and legal institutions will overcome the present arbitrariness of practice. In the meantime, the liberal test of validity is a matter of procedural assurances that trials are fair and that those who are convicted are guilty of heinous acts that deserve to be punished. The related fact that some are too powerful to be accountable is a fact of life that it is best not to think too much about. Along with far more notable public intellectuals (e.g. Russell, Sartre, Chomsky, Edward Said) I dissent from this liberal optimism/opportunism, believing that the conscience of engaged citizens is an indispensable challenge to all political systems, (talking truth to power) rather than limiting constructive contributions by acting within it. At the same time, I would not judge liberal icons, such as Sands and Lauterpacht, who have made a political choice opposite to mine.

 

In the course of this essay I have ignored other significant publications by Sands, most particularly his prior relevant and important book, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules (2005), a well-reasoned and documented critique of the approach to international law taken by the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush, especially with respect to the Iraq War, but also in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Although valuing this contribution to the policy debate that occurred during that period, it is fully consistent with the liberal orientation, which is often to oppose American and British foreign policy undertakings, especially if they happen to be unsuccessful and are peripheral to national or strategic interests, and depend upon unilateral aggressive uses of force not authorized by the UN Security Council. In this vein the recently released massive Chilcot Report evaluating British involvement in the Iraq War follows a parallel liberal line, condemning any decision to go to war except on the basis of adequate advance planning and the buildup of public support, but sidestepping the question of whether it was also mandatory on Britain to comply with international law and the UN Charter. Despite the 2.3 million words of the report there is no where a hint about Blair’s potential personal responsibility if international criminal law were to be properly applied.

 

As expressed at the beginning, despite these differences, I greatly admire the author, and applaud Sands’ dazzling performance. Among other qualities, Sands displays an incredible willingness to go to great lengths to get the details correct. He tracks down addresses, relatives, obscure documents and pictures to piece together a riveting narrative of these three lives, and their families, coping with one of the most extreme collective traumas of all time. As said, this book can and should be widely read from many perspectives, and the psycho-politics of the jurisprudence it imparts is the one that happens to interest me most, but it is only one of several strands in this exceptionally rich tapestry, and each one deserves similar detailed commentary.

An Unlikely AMEXIT: Pivoting Away from the Middle East  

14 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The post that follows is a modified version of an opinion piece that was published by Al Jazeera English on July 10, 2016; it examines the argument for disengagement from the Middle East by analogizing a plausible AMEXIT to BREXIT.]

 

The Case for Disengagement

 

A few years ago Barack Obama made much of an American pivot to East Asia, a recognition of China’s emergence and regional assertiveness, and the related claim that the American role in Asia-Pacific should be treated as a prime strategic interest that China needed to be made to respect. The shift also involved the recognition by Obama that the United States had become overly and unsuccessfully engaged in Middle Eastern politics creating incentives to adjust foreign policy priorities. The 2012 pivot was an overdue correction of the neocon approach to the region during the presidency of George W. Bush that reached its climax with the disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq, which continues to cause negative reverberations throughout the region. It was then that the idiocy of ‘democracy promotion’ gave an idealistic edge to America’s military intervention and the delusion prospect of the occupiers receiving a warm welcome from the Iraqi people hit a stone wall of unanticipated resistance.

 

In retrospect, it seems evident that despite the much publicized ‘pivot’ the United States has not disengaged from the Middle East. Its policies are tied as ever to Israel, and its fully engaged in the military campaigns taking place in Syria and against DAESH. In a recent article in The National Interest, Mohammed Ayoob, proposes a gradual American disengagement from the region. He makes a highly intelligent and informed strategic interest argument based on Israel’s military superiority, the reduced Western dependence on Gulf oil, and the nuclear agreement with Iran. In effect, Ayoob convincingly contends that circumstances no longer justify a major American engagement in the region, and that to maintain the commitment at present levels adds to Middle East turmoil, and its extra-regional terrorist spillover, in ways that harms American interests.

 

Why Disengagement Won’t Happen

 

Ayoob’s reasoning is flawless, but disengagement won’t happen, and not because Americans are not smart enough to recognize changed circumstances. The pivot to East Asia was a recent instance of such an adjustment based on an assessment of changed geopolitical circumstances. Actually, the high degree of American involvement in the Middle East was itself the result of an adjustment to changed circumstances. After the Soviet collapse, the earlyier geopolitical preoccupation with Europe seemed superfluous and outmoded, and the Middle East with its oil, Israel, expanding Islamic influence, risky nuclear proliferation potential seemed then like a region where a strong American commitment would solidify its role as global leader. This perception was reinforced after the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which gave neocon hawks a pretext for a regime-changing attack on Iraq, which the neocons hoped was but a prelude to a more elaborate political reconfiguring of the region by way of regime-changing interventions. [See ‘Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’ (1996) for a fuller understanding of the Israeli oriented neocon mindset] The Iraqi undertaking failed miserably during the state-rebuilding occupation that followed upon the attack and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. The master plan involved reconstructing the government and economy of Iraq to serve Western interests while at the same time supposedly democratizing the country. It totally backfired. This American pivot to the Middle East after the Cold War was based on the geopolitical opportunism of Washington in a context of a persisting failure to understand the changing circumstances of the post-colonial world, and especially the altered balance between the military superiority associated with foreign intervention and the resourcefulness of territorial resistance.

 

So why the inflexibility with respect to the Middle East when disengagement brings immediate major practical advantages? Part of the explanation is surely governmental inertia, reinforced by the belief that the changes in conditions are not as clear and favorable as Ayoob contends, making disengagement seem geopolitically vulnerable to future charges that the Obama presidency was responsible for ‘losing the Middle East,’ as if it was ever America’s to lose!

 

More to the point is a range of other reasons militating against disengagement. Perhaps, most significant, is the militarist bias of American foreign policy that is even unable to acknowledge that the attacks on Iraq or Libya were failures. This refusal to think outside the military box prevails in American policy circles, making the debate on what to do about Syria or DAESH center on the single question of how much American military power should be deployed to resolve these conflicts. What Eisenhower called the military industrial complex has come to dominate the machinery of government in Washington, further abetted by the accretion of a huge homeland security bureaucracy since 9/11. Real threats to American interests exist in the Middle East, and given this unwillingness to rely on political or diplomatic solutions for the resolution of most disputes, virtually requires the United States to retain its military presence to ensure the availability of options to intervene militarily whenever the occasion arises.

 

Then there is the anti-international mood that has taken over American domestic politics. It is hostile to every kind of international commitment other than military action against real and imagined Islamic enemies. Additionally, the US Congress has been completely captured by the Israeli Lobby, which puts a high premium on maintaining the American geopolitical engagement so as to share with Israel the burdens and risks associated with the management of regional turbulence. As neither the Arab uprisings of 2011 nor the robust counterrevolutionary aftermath were anticipated, it is argued that there is too uncertainty to risk any further disengagement. This is coupled with the claim that the rapid drawdown of American combat forces in Iraq was actually premature, and led to a resurgence of civil strife that has persuaded the Obama administration to redeploy American troops both to aid in the fight to regain territory occupied by ISIS and to help the government to establish some degree of stability.

 

Why Disengagement Should Happen

 

Neither realist arguments about interests nor ethical considerations of principle will lead to an overdue American disengagement. Washington refuses to understand why intervention by Western military forces in the post-colonial Middle East generates dangerous extremist forms of resistance (e.g. DAESH) magnifying the problems that prompted intervention in the first place. In essence, the intervention option is a lose/lose proposition, but without it American engagement makes no sense.

 

Unfortunately, for America and the peoples throughout the Middle East the US seems incapable of extricating itself from yet another geopolitical quagmire that is partly responsible for generating extra-regional terrorism of the sort that has afflicted Europe in the last two years. And so although disengagement is a sensible course of action, it won’t happen for a long, long time, if at all. Unlike BREXIT, for AMEXIT, and geopolitics generally, there are no referenda offered the citizenry.

 

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Why Arms Control is the Enemy of Nuclear Disarmament

9 Jul

No First Use: Arms Control versus Disarmament Perspectives

 

I have long believed that it is important to disentangle the advocacy of nuclear disarmament from the prevailing arms control approach. The core difference in perspective can be summarized as follows: arms controllers seek to stabilize nuclearism, reserving nuclear weapons for use as deterrent weapons of last resort; nuclear disarmers seek to get rid of nuclear weapons as reliably as possible, and forever; disarmers regard their possession, development, and potential use as deeply immoral as well as dangerous from the perspective of long-term human security.

 

President Barack Obama ever since his 2009 speech at Prague projecting a vision of a world without nuclear weapons has confused public understanding by straddling the fence between these two incompatible perspectives. He often talks like a potential disarmer, as during his recent visit to Hiroshima, but acts like an arms controller, as in the appropriation of $1 trillion for the modernization of the existing nuclear weapons arsenal over the next 30 years or in NATO contexts of deployment.

 

There is a quite prevalent confusion among those constituencies that purport to favor nuclear disarmament of supposing that the adoption of arms control measures is not only consistent with, but actually advances toward the realization of their objectives. Such reasoning is deeply confused in my view. It is not just that most formulations of arms control regard nuclear disarmament, if at all, as an ‘ultimate’ goal, that is, as no goal at all falling outside the domain of policy feasibility.

Obama signaled his own confusion in two features of his Prague speech: first, indicating without giving any rationale (there is none) that achieving nuclear disarmament might not be achieved in his lifetime; secondly, avoiding any mention of the legal imperative of a good faith commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament that was unanimously endorsed by an otherwise divided court in the International Court of Justice historic Advisory Opinion of 1996.

 

Incidentally, the label ‘advisory’ is deeply misleading as this legal pronouncement by the highest judicial body in the UN System is the most authoritative interpretation attainable of relevant international law by distinguished jurists drawn from the main legal and cultural traditions active in the world. For such a diverse group to agree on the legal imperative of disarmament is notable, and for it to be ignored by a supposed advocate who is in a position to act is both revealing and irresponsible.

 

My view of the tension between the two perspectives can be briefly articulated: arms control measures unless tied to a disarmament scenario make the retention of nuclear weapons less prone to accident, inadvertent use, and unnecessary missions while reinforcing the logic of deterrence and indirectly expressing the view that a reliable nonproliferation regime is the best that can be hoped for ever since the nuclear genie escaped confinement. Such an approach makes the advocacy of nuclear disarmament

appear to be superfluous idealism, at best, and an imprudent

challenge to deterrence and realism, at worst. There is a coherent argument for such a posture, but it is not one that credible supporters of a nuclear zero or nuclear disarmament should feel comfortable with as it undercuts their supposed priority to eliminate the weaponry once and for all, although moving to zero by verified stages. This contrasts with the central undertaking of the arms control community to live with nuclear weapons as prudently as possible, which translates into nonproliferation, safety, prudent foreign

policy, non-provocative weapons development and deployment, and trustworthy crisis management.

 

Printed below is a recent editorial of the Arms Control Association proposing the American adoption of a no first use policy as a crucial declaratory step in advancing their agenda of nuclear prudence. Its line of argument well illustrates the overall nuclearist logic of the arms control establishment, which also tries to justify its proposal by showing that nuclear weapons are not needed to fulfill America’s worldwide geopolitical ambitions. These ambitions can be satisfied in all circumstances, it is alleged, except a nuclear attack by a nuclear weapons state, by relying on U.S. dominance in conventional weaponry.

 

Here is a further issue raised: for states that possess or contemplate the possession of nuclear weapons, yet are vulnerable to conventional weaponry of potential adversaries, the implicit rationale of the Arms Control Association editorial is that such states have strong

justifications for retaining, and even for developing such weaponry. In effect, countries such as Iran and North Korea can read this editorial as suggesting that they need nuclear weapons to deter surrounding countries with superior conventional weaponry from exerting undue influence via intervention or coercive diplomacy. In effect, the Arms Control Association no first use position, by treating that the U.S. Government and think tank policy community as its target audience, is undercutting the ethical and political rationale for nonproliferation as a rule of world order. As security is the acknowledged prime value in state-centric world order, an argument justifying nuclear weapons for the leading military power in the world is in effect providing non-nuclear states that feel threatened with a powerful

argument for acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

 

A final clarification: I have long favored the adoption of a no first use policy on its own merits, including at the height of the Cold War. It not only underscored the immorality and criminal unlawfulness of any initiating use, but if properly explained could be taken as a vital step in a disarming process. As long as no such posture was adopted even by the United States, with its formidable conventional military options, it meant that the potential use of nuclear weapons was never taken off the geopolitical table. This meant, as well, that the nuclear weapons labs were encouraged to envision potential roles for these weapons of mass destruction and design weaponry configured to carry out such missions.

 

In effect, a nuclear disarmament position also entails a repudiation of geopolitical ambitions to project worldwide military power as the United States has done ever since the end of World War II. This grandiose undertaking has weakened the UN, undermined respect for international law, and subverted democratic institutions within the United States and elsewhere, all while making the country more insecure than at any time in its history and its enemies more bold and aggressive. The common flaw of dominant political actors is to underestimate the will and capability of its militarily weaker adversaries to develop effective modes of resistance. Both the Vietnam experience and 9/11 should have imparted this basic message that the United States was endangering its future (and that of the world) by its posture of geopolitical hubris built on the false belief that the effective agent of change in the twenty-first century is military

dominance. The nuclear dimension of this hubris is particularly dangerous, and ultimately debilitating.

 

It is long overdue to distinguish arms control from disarmament. Arms controllers have made such a choice, purging genuine advocates of disarmament from their ranks as dreamers. The arms control voice is welcome in government even when their proposals are rejected because they collide with geopolitical goals. In contrast, the voice of disarmers is popular among the peoples of the world. Obama’s Prague speech made such a worldwide social impact, and continues to resonate, because it was widely heard (incorrectly) as putting the United States firmly on a disarmament path.

 

Unfortunately, after eight years of an Obama presidency it is as clear as ever that it is civil society alone that carried the disarmament torch during this period, somewhat backed by a series of non-nuclear governments that are not complicit beneficiaries of America’s nuclear umbrella (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan). In this spirit, although not always sufficiently clear about the policy implications of their nuclear disarmament agenda, the best vehicle for those favoring nuclear disarmament is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and such initiatives as Chain Reaction 2016 and the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.

 

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Editorial Published on Arms Control Association (http://www.armscontrol.org); posted June 30, 2016

 

Take Nuclear First-Use Off the Table

The Cold War standoff that gave rise to tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ended a quarter century ago, and U.S. and Russian deployed arsenals have been slashed through verifiable arms control agreements.

Unfortunately, the risks of nuclear weapons use are still far too high, in part because the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use remain largely the same.

President Obama in 2009 at Hradčany Square Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: White House)

Early in his presidency, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”

On June 6, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes pledged that the president “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use.”

One very important step would be for Obama to declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking and greatly strengthen U.S. and global security.

Limiting the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons was a goal laid out by the “Nuclear Posture Review Report” in 2010, which said the United States should pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of the nuclear arsenal.

Nevertheless, current policy still leaves several dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons-use options on the table, including the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict to pre-empt a real or suspected nuclear attack, to counter the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, or to halt a massive conventional military threat against U.S. forces or allies.

Today, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of bombers, missiles, and submarines. Current U.S. strategy requires that there are enough nuclear forces available to destroy nearly 1,000 enemy targets, many in urban areas, and that these weapons can be launched within minutes of a decision to do so.

Maintaining such a capability plays a large role in compelling Russia—and may soon help to lead China—to field a sizable portion of their nuclear forces in a launch-under-attack mode in order to avoid a disarming nuclear strike. This, in turn, increases the chance that nuclear weapons might be used or dispersed by U.S. adversaries in a crisis.

As Obama correctly said in 2008, the requirement for prompt launch is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States could positively influence the nuclear doctrines of other nuclear-armed states, particularly in Asia. Such a shift in U.S. declaratory policy could also alleviate concerns that U.S. ballistic missile defenses might be used to negate the retaliatory potential of China and Russia following a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack against their strategic forces.

Shifting to a no-first-use policy would not, in any way, undermine the U.S. ability to deter nuclear attack by another state. It is well established that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack, and given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Given the overwhelming U.S. conventional military edge, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. U.S. nuclear weapons are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyberattack by state or nonstate actors.

A no-first-use policy would not undermine confidence in U.S. defense commitments to key allies. Even if there were to be a conventional military conflict with a nuclear-armed state, such as Russia in the Baltic Sea region or elsewhere, the employment of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it would trigger an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation of nuclear weapons use. As a result, the threat of nuclear weapons first-use to counter non-nuclear attacks lacks credibility.

In remarks delivered in Hiroshima May 27, Obama declared that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Yes, we must.

A U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, improve the prospects for further Russian nuclear cuts, and draw China into the nuclear risk reduction process. It would put a spotlight on the dangerous nuclear doctrines of Pakistan and North Korea, where the risk of nuclear weapons use is perhaps most severe, and challenge them to reconsider the first-use option.

By encouraging a new norm against first-use of nuclear weapons, Obama could help ensure, for this generation and those to come, that nuclear weapons are never used again.

 

 

A Weak UN Ensures a Weak Secretary General

13 Jun

 

 

There are many angles of interpretation relevant to the startling admission by Ban Ki-moon that he succumbed to undisguised diplomatic pressure when removing Saudi Arabia from the ‘shame list’ of countries whose armies are found responsible the maiming and killing of children, earning them dishonorable mentioned in an annex to the annual UN report on violations of children’s rights. The scale and severe nature of such violations, committed in the course of the Yemeni intervention carried out by the Saudi led coalition of countries is beyond serious doubt, detailed in the UN report and strongly endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These most respected of human rights NGOs reacted with moral outrage that the SG would give way to such unseemly and crude pressure, which has the effect of undermining the precarious stature of the UN making visible for all to see how geopolitical considerations outweigh even these most fundamental of humanitarian concerns, the protection of children in war zones..

 

There is more to this incident than one more demonstration that this particular SG lacks the political will to uphold the integrity and autonomy of the UN. On display, as well, was the crude manner in which the UN Saudi ambassador, Abdullah al-Mouallami, threw around his political weight without enduring any backlash. This diplomat openly is accused of threatening the UN with ‘adverse consequences,’ and also with issuing a warning that UN emergency programs in such distressed areas as Gaza, Syria, and South Sudan would lose their Saudi (and Gulf coaltion) funding. Apparently, rather pathetically, Ban Ki-moon, thought it better to give ground, and so explained removing Saudi Arabia from the shame list until a joint review determined what to do as the lesser of evils. The greater evil the SG suggested would be to lose financial support for vital programs that affect a far greater number of children.

 

The ambassador made clear that this face saving procedure to review the listing was not to be construed as consenting to an objective inquiry, declaring that the removal of Saudi Arabia from the list was ‘unconditional and irreversible.’ Whether the disclosure of these sordid happenings will challenge the Saudi insistence remains to be seen. What is evident, and offers the world a glimmer of encouragement, is that Saudi Arabia, despite its notorious human rights record, takes seriously enough its international reputation as to make such use of strong arm tactics that are as demeaning as the UN report itself. The SG retreat also shows to the world that being a monetary heavyweight can matter in the UN as much as being a P-5 member or geopolitical leader.

 

What Saudi Arabia had achieved by relying on its economic leverage, Israel and the United States manage to gain more subtly by persuasion. Both governments leaned heavily on the SG to ensure that Israel would not be on the shame list in view of its violations of the rights of children in the course of the bloody 2014 Gaza War. In an earlier massive attack started at the end of 2008, the SG dutifully buried a report strongly condemning Israel for deliberately targeting UN facilities where Palestinian civilians were receiving shelter. So it is important to appreciate that Saudi Arabia is not by any means alone in applying extra-legal pressure to avoid losing face by adverse findings. The fact that the U.S. special relationship with Israel includes helping Israel cover up such serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards is also an added reason for disappointment.

 

The good news is that governments do their upmost to avoid moral and legal opprobrium as a result of UN initiatives, and this is because it matters. Recall the furious Israeli reaction to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that found Israel guilty of numerous violations of the law of war in the course of its attack on Gaza months earlier, which had the effect of burying the report’s recommendations for further action but did validate the allegations of criminality made in civil society, contributing to the discrediting of Israel’s occupation policies and practices, especially as enacted in Gaza. The bad news is that the leverage of the powerful and rich consistently leads the UN to buckle beneath the weight of backroom influence.

What gives this Saudi event salience is the transparency and effectiveness of the inappropriate behavior, which includes the SG’s unusually candid acknowledgement of what took place, producing a media shout out that encourages a critical assessment of the UN and its leadership. Perhaps, Ban Ki-moon in his final months as SG has decided to tell it like it is, having kept his mouth shut and mostly doing what he was told to do for the nearly ten years that he occupied the highest UN post.

 

There are two ways to view Ban Ki-moon’s handling of Saudi pressure. The first impulse is to condemn the SG for cavalierly disregarding the values of the UN Charter, human rights, and international law. From this perspective, Ban Ki-moon reinforced his overall image throughout his two terms as a weak international civil servant who is blown in whatever the direction of the prevailing wind happens to be. A second line of interpretation is more charitable, suggesting that Ban Ki-moon was confronted by a ‘Sophie’s choice’ dilemma: either to insist on the integrity of the shame list or balance the competing costs, and thus exhibit flexibility by opting to keep the economic assistance flowing to places of dire need.

 

What both interpretations suggest is the subordination of UN operations to geopolitical realities, not only as this incident unfolded, but also more tellingly with respect to the underlying structural characteristics of the UN. The manner of choosing a SG, requiring endorsement by each of the P-5, virtually guarantees the selection of a person of weak character and strong ambition. The fact that there have been some partial exceptions among the eight SGs that have so far served is mainly an indication that the gatekeepers have not always succeeded in doing their job of making sure that a person of unshakable moral character is ever selected. Political astuteness, which is understood to me a realistic willingness to be responsive to geopolitical pressures has been part of the job description all along. We can still hope for another Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, or Kofi Annan who will somehow get through the gate, imparting dignity once more to the office of Secretary General, but from a structural point of view such a happy outcome must still be viewed essentially as an accident.

 

Closely related is the even more fundamental recognition that the funding supply chains of the UN are tied directly to these geopolitical levers of influence. The UN is kept on a short financial leash so that the leaders of the Organization will not get the wrong idea, and think of themselves as independent political actors owing primary loyalty to the UN Charter and the ideals set forth in its Preamble. It would be a simple matter to impose a tax on international financial transactions or international flights that would generate the revenue needed to fund the entire UN system. This idea has been around for decades, earlier discussed as ‘the Tobin tax,’ named after the Yale Nobel Prize economist, James Tobin, who is credited with first proposing such a tax in 1972. Why it has never happened should not be a mystery. Those who control the UN have no incentive to loosen their grip. Civil society, although supportive of such an initiative, has never been sufficiently motivated to mount the sort of transnational campaign that succeeded in getting the International Criminal Court established despite geopolitical resistance. Absent political will from above or mobilization from below there is no prospect of achieving the degree of financial independence that would allow a SG in the future to react with anger to the sort of demand made effectively by the current Saudi Arabia ambassador.

 

It is evident that the combination of a discretionary veto conferred upon the P-5, which is a legalized exemption of unlimited scope from UN authority, and the leverage provided by the way the Organization is financed, ensures the primacy of geopolitics in the principal operations of the UN. This is what was intended from the beginning of the UN, and this is what has happened all along. It is written into the UN Charter, which provides the constitutional framework and is veto proof against any geopolitically unwanted modification intended to make the UN more responsive to international law rather than to the grand strategies of its dominant members and their closest friends.

 

Despite such disappointments and shortcomings, the UN plays a vital role on the global stage, and its contributions, actual and potential, should not be overlooked. The UN provides a forum available to all states, raising to global visibility the concerns of the weaker governments in a manner that can make a difference. The UN also provides the principal auspices for multilateral diplomacy, as in relation to such lawmaking events as the Paris Climate Change Agreement of a year ago.

 

As an organization of states, the UN fails to address the agendas of the peoples of the world, especially those so marginalized and vulnerable as not to be adequately represented by governments. Proposals for the establishment of a Global Peoples Assembly, parallel to the General Assembly, have been forward over the years, but have not been realized because opposed by the representatives of a state-centric world order that are unwilling to share the formal stage of authority with civil society representatives even as the actualities of globalization have drained power and energy away from states.

 

Perhaps, the most overlooked, yet significant role of the UN is to be a major player in Legitimacy Wars, throwing their weight on one side or the other in the many ongoing struggles around the world. The UN can also issue reports and gather reliable information that disclose ‘inconvenient truths,’ which are influential with world public opinion, and provoke the sort of awkward responses that led to Saudi embarrassment, followed by anger, leading to the even more embarrassing accommodation by a much compromised Ban Ki-moon. At the same time, the incident also called wider attention to the abuse of children in the Yemen intervention than would have followed by its inclusion in a UN report. Political influence and change work in strange ways, and we cannot yet know whether the disgraceful, yet understandable, behavior of the SG will yet persuade the Saudi led coalition to abandon quietly their intervention in Yemen, or at least modify their tactics.

 

What needs to be understood is that symbolic issues with law, morality, and justice have exerted a major impact on the resolution of conflicts since 1945. It is the normative revolution principally brought about through the achievement of the right of self-determination that has changed the map of the world, and indicated that the anti-colonial flow of history has shaped the narrative of recent decades to a greater extent even than the series of startling innovations in the weaponry and tactics of warfare. The UN seems weak when challenged by geopolitics, yet its mark on the history of our time is the clearest demonstration that its presence still matters, and will continue to do so despite the likelihood of future weak SGs and in the face of its deep structural failings to fulfill the promise of the stirring words set forth in the Preamble of the UN Charter.

 

 

 

Dreaming of the Next UN Secretary General

6 May

 

 

“I solemnly swear to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as Secretary-General of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other authority external to the Organisation.”

United Nations Secretary General’s Oath of Office

 

In 2006 Ramesh Thakur, one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable commentators on global issues, wrote a trustworthy account of what it takes to be selected as UN Secretary General, and then to be effective in the job. [Thakur, “In Selecting the New UN Secretary General,” Feb. 3, 2006, Daily Yomiuri] In many ways his assessment, although realistic, confirms the impression that the leadership potential of this titular position as head of the UN is structurally limited and inconsistent with the spirit of the oath of office. The reason for these low expectations, as Thakur points out, is that the “most important” requirement of the job is to be regarded when selected as acceptable to the five permanent members of the Security Council (the so-called P-5), and especially to the United States.

 

It is a tribute to the potential of the position of SG that the P-5 governments are exceedingly careful in vetting potential candidates, and have not yet ever been deeply disappointed by selecting a rogue SG, although once in office an individual may in some instances become somewhat more responsive to the oath of office than to the secondary wishes of his or her geopolitical masters. Such unresponsiveness, especially as it involved the United States, helps explain why Boutros Boutros-Ghali failed to obtain support for a customary second term in office back in 1996.

 

In practice, the selection process is ultra sensitive to this overriding need for a Secretary General to be someone that will be respectful of the geopolitical winds that blow at a given time in world politics regardless of the spirit and letter of the UN Charter. Appreciating this pattern makes it misleading to read the Charter as if it is intended to provide an authoritative framing designed to regulate the behavior of its 193 member states. It should be accepted for better and worse what it is, a constitutional framework of the UN that privileged the winners of World War II, and at the time of its founding opted for a state-centric international body that subordinated international law and the equality of sovereign states to the inequalities associated with international hierarchies of hard and soft power. In effect, the Charter itself embodies this tension between its geopolitical operating logic, as reinforced by the lack of independent funding, and the idealistic mandate of its Preamble, Purposes, and Principles. In effect, the tension can be understood as between the affirmation of juridical equality and the constitutional loophole ensuring geopolitical inequality. The UN was intended from the outset to be an Organization that enforced standards of accountability on the multiplicity of states to the best of its ability while deferring to the discretion of those deemed in 1945 to be most powerful, a status formalized by the vesting of this unrestricted right of veto in the P-5 bolstered by permanent membership in the Security Council.

 

The Charter is astonishingly silent about the qualifications that should guide the selection of a secretary general, but it is clear on the procedure: a recommendation must be made by the Security Council to the General Assembly for its approval. This means that the any one of the P-5 can use their veto to block a candidate. In this context, the veto has not been necessary as the P-5 have managed, even throughout the entire Cold War, to reach agreement on an acceptable candidate for SG by reliance on this method of secret backroom negotiations, which undoubtedly included much wrangling. The first eight secretaries general emerged from these dark shadows of great power bargaining, but this process gave rise to an increasing cascade of complaints from non-P-5 governments and from interested civil society organizations. These players objected to the secrecy and non-transparency of the way in which the SG was chosen.

 

In an accommodating response, the next secretary general is to be selected by a more seemingly democratic procedure: government nominations of multiple candidates, vision statements by the candidates, and give and take dialogues with civil society representatives. [For a helpful overview of the reformed selection process see Arabella Lang, “Selecting a New Secretary General,” UK House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper No. 7544, 3 March 2015] But we should not be misled. The decisive influence in the selection process remains the Security Council, and there the preferred candidate must still win the unanimous approval of the P-5. In the past, this has produced a race to the bottom, essentially a candidate that is not objectionable to any of these governments. As a result past SGs, with a few notable exceptions, have been ‘company men’ who have been careful not to use leverage of the position to shift the balance of world opinion on a geopolitically sensitive issues. What emerges over the year is that the SG is not expected to manifest a globalist orientation or engage in strong advocacy insisting on the universality of international law.

 

At the same time, the nature of the office requires that the occupant be held in reasonably high regard throughout the world and have a background of credible leadership such as to ensure confidence that the administrative and ceremonial demands of the position will be competently discharged. In other words, for the sake of the UN bureaucracy and for the morale of civil society, it has been accepted that a SG should be able to run the organization and grace ceremonial occasions with uplifting rhetoric. These secondary, but still crucial concerns, may explain why several secretaries generals have proved to be more than geopolitical placeholders, most notably Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961), U Thant (1961-1971), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), and Kofi Annan (1997-2006). Surely, some SGs have been better than others at upholding the dignity and appearance of political independence attached to the position. Kurt Waldheim and Ban Ki-moon have been embarrassments to the Organization because of their failures to project the kind of public leadership that lifts spirits without damaging structures.

 

Against this background, even with the welcome reforms of greater public vetting, transparency, and multiple candidacies, the end result is still likely to be the selection of someone who, above all else, can be expected not to rock the geopolitical boat. Symbolically these reforms seem a step in the right direction, especially if a woman is finally chosen, although the seeming adherence to the principle of regional rotation, which means that the chosen one seems destined to be an East European. This does not augur well for the Organization given the available pool of candidates from that region. If indeed it is to be a woman, then let it be Helen Clark of New Zealand (who has been nominated by her government) or Angela Merkel of Germany or Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile (these latter two seem qualified but are unlikely to be nominated, much less selected), each a proven and principled political leader, as well as being highly experienced in managing organizations. Yet even, as seems unlikely, Clark, Merkel, or Bachelet were to be selected, the best we can hope for is a performance that is graceful and competent but that would be less than what the world needs and what the peoples of the planet deserve. The geopolitical obstacles remain firmly in place and too strong, and even if somehow circumvented, a SG who transcended the demands of geopolitics would likely run the UN into the ground in short order.

 

Such a pronouncement is sad. There is a severe leadership deficit at the global level, and it centers on the absence of mechanisms to uphold the human interest, as distinct from national and geopolitical interests. This is why I must comfort myself by dreaming of rather than hoping that the selection of the next secretary general is a person, ideally a woman, that would think and act globally as representative of the species, and not to uphold the ways and means of the established order. We have witnessed for decades the sorry spectacle of the failure of the UN to tackle the challenges posed by the development of nuclear weaponry or by the dangers associated with global warming. Instead of serving the human interest by achieving nuclear disarmament, the world has ended up with the protection of hierarchical arrangements as embodied in the regime of nuclear nonproliferation, which allows for the development, possession, and possible use of these weapons by the most dangerous countries in the world while enforcing double standards by precluding the acquisition of these weapons by weaker states even when threatened with an overwhelming attack by stronger neighbors.

 

With climate change, the search for a solution involved broadening the diplomatic format to include all 193 member states, but with an end result that what was agreed upon was essentially an aggregation of national interests as well as voluntary, with what was agreed upon falling far below what the scientific consensus has determined to be necessary for the health and wellbeing of future generations.

 

In more flagrant disregard of the Charter itself, and signifying Western as well as P-5 hegemony, has been the reluctance of the Organization or its principal officer ever to challenge the United States and its friends when in the face of flagrant disregard of the UN Charter provisions limiting the use of force to instances of self-defense against a prior armed attack (e.g. Vietnam, after 1965, Iraq, after 2003).

 

What the world urgently needs at the UN is an unshackled guardian of the global public good who articulates human interests as these arose in international life, and had the institutional capabilities to take effective action. At present, we depend on a religious leader such as Pope Francis to fill this normative vacuum, and occasionally political figures such as Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King rise above their national identities to represent the human interest, but such figures lack any institutional capacity to carry their words into deeds. At present, we can only dream that such a figure would be selected as the next secretary general, but we should be aware that dreams often disclose deep aspirations and can offer necessary guidance, and thus should not be ignored.

 

The carnage around the world, as well as the massive migrations of desperate persons, underscores the growing need for a strong United Nations led by a person who above all is dedicated to the promotion of global and human interests, and has the will and mandate to disregard geopolitical pressures. Of course, this now a private pipedream that is politically irrelevant unless it becomes embodied in a global movement for peace, justice, ecological stewardship, and the survival of the species. We have experienced the integrative wonders of neoliberal globalization, with their attendant ravaging of human wellbeing and our natural surroundings. We have also seen the dawn of moral globalization in the rise of international human rights and the call for a global rule of law, but as yet there is not visible on the horizon an organized political undertaking capable of bringing into history these faint gropings toward humane governance of planetary proportions. We still sit around expecting the next SG to continue arranging the deck chairs on a sinking vessel. I feel we are entitled to hope that the ninth UN SG will have the awareness and courage to upset these settled expectations of business as usual.