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Facing the Global Crisis

16 Jan

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a somewhat amplified version of an interview with C. J. Polychroniou, journalist and professor of political economy at West Chester University, which was published on January 7, 2020 in the online journal, Global Policy. As the interview was conducted in December 2019, it fails to address the various disruptive consequences of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, including the violation of Iraqi sovereignty, Baghdad being the site of the drone attack, as well as the risks of war arising from an escalating tit-for-tat cycle of actions and reactions. Given growing tensions between the interconnectedness of the world and the state-centric character of international law, including contradictions between totalizing and disregarding territorial sovereignty, state-centric world order is being increasingly marginalized by geopolitical behavior that both generates and suppresses transnational political violence. A normative crisis with structural implications exists, and is not even being widely appreciated much less adequately addressed. The continuing disregard of this crisis adds to grave risks of aa catastrophic future for humanity, with severe spillover to the natural surroundings shared with non-human species.]

 

Facing the Global Crisis

 Q1. I want to start this interview on the state of global affairs near the end of the second decade of the 21st century by moving from the abstract to the concrete. To begin with, it’s regarded as axiomatic that the postwar international liberal order is fracturing and that we are at the same time in the midst of a geopolitical transition where the most prominent characteristic seems to be the decline of the United States as a global superpower. With that in mind, can you offer us a panoramic perspective on the contemporary state of global affairs? What do you consider to be the primary changes under way, and the emerging challenges and threats to global peace and stability?

 Response: There are many crosscutting tendencies now evident at the global level. At the very time when globalizing challenges are intensifying, the mechanisms available for regional and global cooperation are becoming dangerously less effective. The failure to address climate change, so clearly in the global public interest, is emblematic of a dysfunctional world order system. This failure can be further delineated by reference to two distinct, yet interrelated developments. The first characterized by a vacuum in global leadership, which reflects both the overall decline of the United States as well as its explicit renunciation of such a role by the Trump presidency. Trump proudly proclaims that his political agenda is exclusively dedicated to the promotion of American national interests, declaring defiantly he was elected president of the United States, and not of the world. The second broader development is the rise of autocrats in almost every important sovereign state, whether by popular will or through imposed rule, resulting in the affirmation of ultra-nationalist approaches to foreign policy, given ideological intensity by chauvinistic and ethnic hostility toward migrants and internal minorities. This kind of exclusionary statism contributes to the emergence of what might be called ‘global Trumpism’ further obstructing global problem-solving, shared solutions to common problems, and global expressions of empathy for human suffering. A discernable effect of these two dimensions of world order is to diminish the relevance and authority of the United Nations and of international law, as well as exhibiting a decline in respect for standards of international human rights and a disturbing indifference to global warming and other global scale challenges, including toward maintaining biodiversity and upholding the stability of major global rainforests.

 

Overall, what has been emerging globally is a reinvigoration of the seventeenth century Westphalian regional system of sovereign states that arose in Europe after more than a century of devastating religious wars, but under vastly different conditions of connectivity that now pose dire threats to maintaining minimum world order and to the wellbeing of peoples throughout the world. Among these differences are the dependence upon responsible internal behavior by governing processes at all levels of social interaction in an era of growing ecological interdependence. The tolerance of fires in the Amazon rainforest by the Brazilian government, supposedly for the sake of economic growth, by indulging the interests of agrobusiness and logging, endangers a vital global source of biodiversity as well as depletes essential carbon capturing capabilities of this vast forest area, yet there is no way under existing international norms to challenge Brazil’s sovereign prerogative to set its own policy agenda, however irresponsible with respect to its own ecological future, as well as that of its region and the world.  

 

At the same time, there has emerged doctrine and technology that defies territorial constraints, and gives rise to contradictory pressures that subvert the traditional capabilities of states to uphold national security on the basis of territorial defense. On the one side, transnational extremism and criminality exposes the symbolic and material vulnerability of the most militarily powerful states as the United States discovered on 9/11 when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were allegedly attacked by a small group of unarmed individuals. Added to this are threats to all people from hacking and surveillance technologies that are not subject to territorial regulation. Responses by way of retaliatory strikes or covert operations directed at the supposed extraterritorial source of these attacks and threats, according to a global mandate associated with counterterrorist warfare and transnational law enforcement generate new patterns of lawlessness in the conduct of international relations. Technological and doctrinal innovations associated with the use of precision guided missiles, cyberspace, and pilotless drones, as well as satellite surveillance are producing new conceptions and experiences of boundaryless war zones. The world is becoming a battlefield for both geopolitical actors and a variety of non-state actors in a series of unresolved transnational struggles and undertakings. Additionally, there are opening new uncertain frontiers for 21st century warfare involving cyber assaults of various kinds, evidently already tested and used by the U.S. and Israel in their efforts to destabilize Iran, as well as new initiatives by a few states to militarize space in ways that seem capable of threatening any society on the face of the planet with instant and total devastation. One salient feature of these developments is the unacknowledged significance of neither adversary being a Westphalian sovereign state as generally understood by international relations theory and practice, while ‘political realism,’ which remains largely unchallenged, is more and more out of touch with these political realities subverting statst world order.

 

Under analogous pressures, the world economy is also fragmenting and seeking a reterritorialization of trade and investment, not only behaviorally but doctrinally. Trump’s transactional mode of operations challenges the rule-governed global system established after World War II, which relied on the Bretton Woods institutions and the World Trade Organization. The economic dimensions of resurgent nationalism also give rise to trade tensions, with real prospects of major trade wars, reminding expert observers of the ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ atmosphere in the early 1930s that gave rise to the Great Depression. Underneath this reterritorialized approach to political economy seems to be what amounts to a mostly silent revolt against neoliberal globalization, and its encouragement of transnational trade and investments based on market-based opportunities, as guided by the transnational efficiency of capital and openness of national markets rather than the wellbeing of people, including environmental protection. A major source of dissatisfaction with traditional politics in democratic societies seems associated with increasing economic inequality, causing stagnation, or worse, of middle and lower class living standards, while producing incredible accumulations of wealth at the very apex of society. These trends have unleashed an enraged populist assault on establishment institutions, including traditional political parties, being blamed for enriching upper elites while suppressing the wellbeing of almost entire societies, with an astonishing 99% being left behind. In the American setting, the left/right expression of this new classism is reflected in the Trump proto-fascist base and the Sanders mobilization among youth and disaffected constituencies.

 

In this downward global spiral, additional negative factors are associated with poor management of ending the Cold War, and the accompanying collapse of the Soviet Union. I would point to three principal negative impacts: (1) the failure of the United States as triumphant global leader to seize the opportunity during the 1990s to move the world toward greater peace, justice, and prosperity by strengthening the UN, by reallocating resources from defense to civilian infrastructure, and by initiating denuclearization and demilitarizing policies regionally and worldwide; (2) the degree to which the Soviet collapse led to a world economic order without ideological choices for political actors (‘there is no alternative’ mentality). This pushed the logic of capitalism toward the kind of inhumane extremes that had existed in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. As long as socialism was associated with Soviet leadership it offered an ideological alternative to alienated segments of society, which created strong political incentives in the West to exhibit ethical concerns for human wellbeing, and social protection frameworks moderating the cruelty of minimally regulated market forces; in effect, for its own sake capitalism needed the rivalry with socialism to maintain an ethically acceptable ideological composure; (3) the sudden withdrawal of Soviet balancing influence in several regions of the world, especially the Middle East, led to order-maintaining cycles of oppressive patterns of governance, U.S. regime changing interventions, and political turmoil and prolonged strife causing massive suffering, famine, and devastation.

 

This combination of domestic authoritarianism, transnational conflict configuratons, and state-centric foreign policy is inclining the world toward ecological catastrophe and geopolitical uncertainty, even chaos. This pattern is accentuated by world economic orientations that are oblivious to human and global interests, while slanting national interests toward the ultra-rich. In effect, the political future for formerly leading democratic states is now more accurately described as a mixture of autocracy and plutocracy with fascist overtones of the strong leader and the stereotyping of ‘the other’ as an enemy to be excluded or destroyed.

 

One symptom of these implosive developments is to call attention to the altered role of the United States in this overall conjuncture of historical forces. On the one side, is the reality of U.S. decline, accentuated by the behavior of Trump since 2016 and the rise of China, which reflects the impact of this impulsive and anti-globalist leader and national mood, but also exhibits some longer deeper trends that transcend his demagogic impact. The most important of these is the failure to learn from the reduced effectiveness of military force with respect to the pursuit of foreign policy goals, given changes in the nature of political power and international status, especially in relations between the West and non-West. Costly interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all ended in political failure, despite U.S. military and battlefield dominance and a strong political commitment to the mission. The U.S. reaction has been to reframe tactics rather than to appreciate the enhanced capabilities in the post-colonial world of militarily vulnerable countries to mobilize prolonged and eventually effective resistance to interventions from the West. Such reframing has led to the repetition of failed interventions in new contexts. In this narrow regard, Trump’s seeming repudiation of regime-changing wars was and is more realistic than the Pentagon’s tendency to return to the drawing counterinsurgency and counterterrorist drawing boards to figure out how to do the job better next time.

 

Yet Trump’s militarism is evident in other forms, including seeking to extend military frontiers to outer space, by boasts about investing in producing the most powerful military machine in human history, and by the reckless war-mongering diplomacy toward Iran. In this respect, the U.S. not only is increasing risks of global catastrophe, but also inadvertently helping its international rivals to gain relative economic and diplomatic advantages. A crucial explanation of America’s likely continuing decline results from two refusals: first, a recognition of the neutralization of military power among major states by the mutually destructive character of warfare and secondly, an appreciation of the nature of asymmetric conflicts resulting from the rising capabilities of national resistance frustrating, and generally defeating, what had once been relatively routine and cost-effective colonial and imperial operations.

 

Another source of decline is that the kind of confrontations that existed during the Cold War no longer seems to exert nearly as much influence on security dimensions of world order as previously. Most European states feel less need for the American nuclear umbrella and the safety afforded by close alliance relations, which translates into reduced U.S. influence. This shift can be observed by the degree to which most states currently entrust their defensive security needs to national capabilities, somewhat marginalizing alliances that had been formally identified with U.S. leadership. In this regard, the bipolar and unipolar conceptions of world order have been superseded by both multipolarity and statism in the dynamic restructuring of world order since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China.

 

The profile of American decline, with respect to the international policy agenda could be rather abruptly altered, if not reversed, by an internationalist post-Trump foreign policy. This would be particularly evident, in all likelihood, with respect to reaffirming cooperative efforts regarding climate change, reviving the 2015 Paris Agreement, and calling for a more obligatory approach to international regulatory arrangements. Of course, a revived American bid for global leadership would be further exhibited by certain foreign policy moves such as seeking balance in addressing Israel/Palestine relations, lifting economic sanctions from such countries as Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, renewing adherence to the JCPOA (Nuclear Agreement) with Iran, and urgent calls for strengthening the role and relevance of the United Nations and respect for a global rule of law reconfigured to take account of the transnational features of the digital age with its connectivities and networks joining non-state actors.

 

In a sense, the assessment and contours of American decline, reflective of so many factors, will become clearer after the 2020 elections. If Trump prevails, the decline thesis will be confirmed. If a centrist Democrat, say Biden, prevails, it will likely create a sense of relief internationally, along with a temporary suspension of doubt about the reality of U.S. decline, but will not end the credibility of the longer run decline hypothesis as a Democratic Party president, such as Biden, will not challenge the Pentagon budget or the militarism that underpins American policy for the past 75 years. If, as now seems highly unlikely, the Democrats nominate a progressive candidate, say Sanders or Warren, and (s)he is able to gain enough support in Congress, the trends pointing to further decline might not only be suspended, but possibly reversed. Addressing inequality arising from the plutocratic allocation of benefits resulting from neoliberal globalization and undoing the excessive reliance on military approaches to foreign policy are the only two paths leading to a sustainable renewal of American global leadership and prospects for a benevolent national future.     

 

 

 

Q2. Do you detect any similarities between the current global geopolitical condition and that of the era of imperial rivalries prior to the outbreak of World War I?

 Response: The imperial rivalries, at the root of the stumble into major warfare, were much more overt in the period preceding World War I than is the case today. Now imperial strategies are more disguised by soft power expansionism as is the case with China or geopolitical security arrangements and normative claims as is the American approach, but the possibility of an unwanted escalation in areas of strategic interaction are present, especially in areas surrounding China. Confrontations and crises can be anticipated in coming years, and without skillful diplomacy a war could result that could be more destructive and transformative of world order than was World War I.

 

There is also the possibility of hegemonic rivalry producing a major war in the Middle East, as between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States on one side and Iran and Russia on the other side. The Syrian War prefigured on a national scale such hegemonic rivalry that could now recur on a regional scale. A more optimistic interpretation of developments in the Middle East is to suggest that the stability of the Cold War era might soon reemerge in light of Russian reengagement, which could restore the balance imposed earlier, and seems preferable to the turmoil and confrontations of the last 25 years. It would be prudent to take note of the World War I context to remind political leaders that they risk unwanted sequences of events if promoting aggressive challenges to the established order in regional or global settings. Yet the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in early January 2020 came close to setting off a chain reaction of escalating violent incidents that could have ended in a major war between Iran and the United States of intensity and indefinite scope.

 

Of course, triggering conditions prior to World War I were concentrated in Europe, whereas now it could be argued that the most dangerous situations are either geographically concentrated in the Middle East or in a variety of regional circumstances where coercive diplomacy could trigger an unintended war either  on the Korean Peninsula or in relation to China where interests and ambitions collide in the Western Pacific and South China Sea.

 

Graham Allison has written a widely discussed book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap?(2017), which argues that throughout history when the dominance of a state is challenged by a rising power a major war has frequently resulted to establish geopolitical ranking. Of course, circumstances have changed drastically since the time of Thucydides, due to the possession of nuclear weapons on both sides, a fact that is likely to encourage geopolitical caution as risks of mutual catastrophe are quite evident. At the same time complacency is not warranted as governments have not changed their reliance on threats and bluffs to achieve their goals, and the possibility of miscalculation is present as antagonisms climb escalation ladders.

 

More broadly, the existence of nuclear weapons, their deployment, and doctrines leading to their use in certain situations create conditions that are very different than what existed in Europe more than a century ago. Yet there is one rather frightening similarity. Threat diplomacy tends to produce conflict spirals that can produce wars based on misperception and miscalculation, as well as accident, rogue behavior, and pathological leadership. In other words, the world as now  constituted, as occurred in 1914, stumble into an unwanted war, and this time with casualties, devastation, and unanticipated side effects occurring on a far greater scale.

 

Finally, there were no serious ecological issues confronting the world in 1914 as there are at present. Any war fought with nuclear weapons can alter the weather for up to ten years in disastrous ways. There is the fear validated by careful scholarly study that ‘a nuclear famine’ could be produced by stagnant clouds of smoke that would deprive the earth of the sunlight needed for agriculture for a period of years. In other words, the consequences of a major war are so much more serious that its avoidance should be a top priority of any responsible leader. Yet, with so many irresponsible leaders, typified by Donald Trump, the rationality of caution and that would seem to prevent large scale war may not be sufficient to avoid its occurrence. Also, the mobilization of resources and the focus of attention on an ongoing war, or even its threat, would be so occupying as almost certainly to preclude efforts, however urgent, to address global warming and other ecological challenges.

 

Q3. Given that the historical conditions and factors that gave rise to Cold War policies and institutions have vanished, what purpose does NATO serve today?

 

Response: Although the conditions that explained the formation and persistence of NATO were overcome by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and of the Soviet Union a few years later, NATO remained useful to some of its members for several reasons. For the United States, it kept the U.S. engaged in Europe, and sustained its role as alliance leader. For the major European powers, it represented a security guaranty in the event of a revived Russian threat, and lessened internal pressures to develop expensive European military capabilities that did not depend on American participation. The Kosovo War in 1999 displayed a European consensus to transform NATO into an intra-European peace force, while the Libyan War of 2011 displayed a misleading willingness to manipulate the UN into authorizing NATO to engage in a regime-changing out of area military intervention that not only weakened the legitimacy of the post-Cold War UN and harmed Libya, but also understandably eroded trust in UN procedures on the part of Russia and China that had been persuaded not to oppose a decision at the Security Council for a strictly limited humanitarian intervention but not for NATO sponsored regime change.

 

The NATO alliance should be disbanded in the interest of world peace and stability. Its only real function since 1989 has been to further the geopolitical goals of the United States, and to a lesser extent, France and the UK. The persistence of NATO after its Cold War rationalization was undercut exemplifies the refusal of the West to make the structural adjustments that could have expressed an intention to make a transition from a pre-war environment of strategic confrontation that characterized the Cold War to a post-war atmosphere of dealignment and demilitarization. Had such a transition occurred, or even been attempted, we would now most likely be living in more positive historical circumstances with attention to the real economic, political, and ecological challenges to human wellbeing now and in the future being addressed. We would not need the awakening alarms being set off by a 16 year old Swedish girl!   

 

Q4. Trump’s foreign policy towards the Middle East is unabashedly pro-Israel, while also supportive of Erdogan’s grand vision for Turkey and the Arab world. Can you explain for us this apparent anomaly?

 

Response: It may be intellectually satisfying to give a coherent spin to Trump’s seemingly antagonistic policies in the Middle East, but I feel it conveys a false sense of plan and strategy beyond the play of personality and ad hoc circumstance. The most that can be claimed it that there is a kind of hierarchy in arranging American foreign policies priorities, yet overall, lacking any sense of regional grand strategy. At the top of the Trump policy pyramid seem to be upholding the two ‘special relationships’ with Israel, first, and Saudi Arabia, second. Turkey is somewhat supported because of the seeming personal rapport between Erdogan and Trump, and partly also for reasons of continuity of alignment and economic trade relations. Iran is a perfect regional enemy for the United States, which helps us understand why it have been demonized and subjected to crippling sanctions and war threats for the past 40 years. Iran is antagonistic to Saudi ambitions to assert its regional hegemony and to Israel because of its pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist stance, and not a trading partner or strategic ally with the United States ever since the revolutionary overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Besides, Iran as the leading Shi’a state in the region is a sectarian foil for the Gulf/Egyptian Sunni affinities. Besides, Trump’s insistence on repudiating Obama’s initiatives in the region led to the American withdrawal from the Nuclear Program Agreement negotiated in 2015 (JCPOA, that is, Joint Comprehensive Program of Action), has led to the collapse of an agreement that seemed a breakthrough for peace at the time. This anti-Iran agenda is being carried forward at considerable risk and expense, as well as producing mass hardship for the Iranian people over a period of many decades.

 

Although Trump campaigned on a pledge of disengagement from senseless regime-changing interventions of the past in the Middle East, especially the attack on and occupation of Iraq since 2003, it has been a difficult policy to implement, especially in relation to Iran, and to some extent Syria. This seems to reflect\ American deep state resistance to all demilitarizing moves in the Middle East for strategic reasons, as well as Trump’s quixotic and ambivalent style of diplomacy.

 

As far as Turkey is concerned, there seems to be some continuity in Erdogan’s foreign policy, which is to support the Palestinian national struggle and to favor democratizing movements from below, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, but to avoid entanglements of the sort that led to a major foreign policy failure in Syria after 2011, and recently, an announced willingness to support the Libyan government against insurgency. Also Turkey has under Erdogan’s leadership supported major institutional reform at the UN by questioning the hold of the permanent members of the Security Council on UN decision-making, typified by the slogan ‘the world is greater than five.’).

 

  Q5. Do you see China as emerging any time in the near future as a global superpower?

 Response: I think China is already a global superpower in some fundamental respects, although not a global leader in the manner of the United States in the period between 1945-2016. Whether it has the political will to play a geopolitical role beyond its East and South Asian nearby regions is difficult to predict. The top Chinese officials seem to sense a dangerous vacuum and inviting opportunity resulting from the withdrawal of the United States from its leadership position. At the same time, the Chinese themselves seem aware of their lack of experience beyond the Asian context outside of the economic sector, are preoccupied with domestic challenges, and are aware that Chinese is not a global language nor the renminbi a global currency. For these reasons, I expect China to stay largely passive, or at most defensive, when it comes to the global geopolitical agenda, and use its considerable leverage to promote multipolarity and restraint in most international venues.

 

At the same time, China’s superpower status can be affirmed in two different fundamental respects: as the only credible adversary of the United States in a major war and as a soft power giant when it comes to spreading its influence beyond its territorial limits by a variety of non-military means, most spectacularly by its Road and Belt Initiative, the largest investment in an integrative undertaking in the world. If soft power status is the best measure of influence in a post-political world order, then China may have already achieved global leadership if history is at the dawn of a new period in which the role of military power and conquest as the principal agent of change is morphing toward obsolescence. Arguably the most telling symptom of American decline is its gross over-investment in military capabilities despite enduring a series of political setbacks in situations where it dominated the battlefield, which when coupled with the failure to address the decaying domestic infrastructure and refusing to fill the gaps of social protection. Perhaps, the Vietnam War is the clearest instance of total military superiority resulting in the loss of a war, but there are other notable instances (Afghanistan, Iraq).

 

 

Q6. If you were asked to provide a radical vision of the world order in the 21st cedntury, what would it look like?

 

Response:This is a difficult assignment. I would offer two sets of response, but with a realization of the radical uncertainty associated with any conjectures about the future of world order. My responses depend on some separation between considerations of policy and of structure. I respond on the basis of my tentative diagnosis of the present reality as posing the first bio-ethical-ecological crisis in world history.

 

With respect to policy, I would emphasize the systemic nature of distinctive present challenges, global in scale and scope. The most severe of these challenges relate to the advent of nuclear weapons, and the related geopolitical policy consensus that has opted for a nonproliferation regime rather than a denuclearizing disarmament alternative. Such a regime contradicts the fundamental principle of world order based on the equality of states, large or small, when it comes to rights and duties under international law. It does, however, reflect adherence to the fundamental norm of geopolitics that is itself embedded in the UN Charter, which acknowledges inequality with respect to rights and duties, evident in other spheres of international life, including accountability for international crimes, as acknowledged by the demeaning phrase, ‘victors’ justice.’

 

To address the challenges to world order that threaten the peoples of the world does not require overcoming political inequality altogether, but it does require attaining two goals that involve radical changes in political behavior: 1) respect for and adherence to international law and the UN Charter by all states, especially the most powerful, which would at least entail national self-discipline and the elimination of the right of veto at the UN, but not necessarily permanent membership in the Security Council; 2) the strengthening of the autonomy of the United Nations in relation to the peace and security agenda by creating an independent funding arrangement based on imposing taxes on transnational travel, military expenditures, and luxury items. The objectives would be to move toward a global organization that was dedicated to the global and human interest as well as to the promotion of national  interests as is now the case, which would depend on vesting implementing authority in the UN Secretary General as well as the acceptance of a degree of demilitarization by current geopolitical actors, with the proclamation of shared goals of making national security unambiguously defensive, and globally regulated in accord with international law.

 

In effect, the policy priorities to be served by such a radical reordering of global relations, shifting authority and power from its present geopolitical nexus to a multiplicity of hubs of influence that sought global justice and ecological sustainability, and were more institutionally situated in global networks and arrangements. In the scheme depicted above it would mean a rather dramatic shift from geopolitical autonomy to a more law-governed world order with the establishment of effective mechanisms to serve the whole of humanity rather than being focused on the wellbeing of its distinct territorial parts. In the process, accompanying social democratic arrangements for trade, investment, and development would need to be adjusted to serve the attainment of basic economic and social rights as implemented by monitoring and regulatory transnational procedures that were also sensitive to ecological sustainability.

 

It hard to imagine such policy and structural modifications taking place without a renewed confidence in democratic, ethically grounded, and generally progressive styles of governance at the national level, protective of vulnerable people, accountable to future generations, as well as acting without total deference to short-term electoral cycles. In other words, the behavioral tendencies and values that are now dominating most political arenas by dangerously myopic approaches to policy and structures of accountability would have to be transformed on the basis of ecological consciousness, respect for human rights and international law, and an international institutional structure oriented around the protection of human and global interests in addition to national rights.

 

There is no plausible political path visible to such a future at present, although there is a growing sense of panic, especially among youth, as recently epitomized by the charismatic impact and impressive insight of Greta Thunberg. What is altogether missing from the present setting are credible sources of revolutionary energy guided by such a vision of a necessary and desirable future, which would entail the rejection of autocratic governance of sovereign states and of apartheid geopolitical regimes (as with nuclear weapons, accountability to international criminal law, and double standards). In effect, a drastic shift from a zero-sum world of destructive rivalry, exploitation, intervention, and political egoism to a win/win world based on the emergence of a sense of global community and ecological unity accompanied by the mechanisms and structures to convert policy directives into behavioral conformity.

 

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

5 Sep

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

 

The World Order Backdrop

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Amazonia, Syria, Yemen, and Kashmir

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Legalistic Exercises in Futility

 

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

 

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

 

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

  

 

 

What is the Question?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

A Response to Heikki Patomaki: Is the Time Right for a World Political Party? 

16 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The following post is my commentary on an essay by Heikki Patomiki, a leading Finnish scholar who has devoted his career to working on the normative frontiers of international relations: especially the struggle for global democracy. Here he explores and cautiously advocates a civil society global effort to establish a world political party in a form appropriate to global conditions and with the overriding goal of the enhancement of the individual and collective wellbeing of humanity. Professsor Patomaki’s essay and the range of comments, including mine, can be read by clicking this link  https://www.greattransition.org/publication/roundtable-world-party

This interaction was sponsored by the Great Transition Initiative of the Tellus Institute, which is notable for its emphasis on the crucial nexus between praxis and theory. My comment is below, but the others develop a variety of responses, pro and con, the proposed undertaking of establishing a world political party.]

 

 

A Response to Heikki Paomaki: Is the Time Right for a World Political Party? 

 

I have long admired the “visionary realism” that has been at the core of Heikki Patomäki’s scholarly contributions to the struggle for a peaceful, democratic, sustainable, and just world order. It is “visionary” because Patomäki depicts a future for humanity that exceeds the limits of the feasible, and seems guided by what is necessary(in responses to challenges) and what is desirable(with respect to values and opportunities). In addition, he writes with lucidity, considers impediments, and takes seriously skeptical objections to what he proposes. It is a form of “realism” because Patomäki takes account of what is real by way of threats to human wellbeing, and makes use of experience with other radical global reformist projects as a basis for assessing the plausibility of his own conjectures and proposals. All of these positive qualities are present in this essay putting forward the case for taking steps now to establish the first ever world political party.

As I read Patomäki, his point of departure is to affirm as a world order imperative the urgent need for “a fundamental shift from the dominant national mythos to a global worldview.” Without quibbling about choice of words, I think what he has in mind is less a “shift” than the emergence of a global worldview with the political traction needed to address the global-scale problems that he enunciates. The existential point of departure is the interconnectedness of every individual on the planet, no matter how diversely situated in relation to class, race, occupation, and political milieu in the face of such mounting global risks as are associated with “ecological crises and weapons of mass destruction.” Patomäki attributes the dysfunctional response patterns to these shared risks to the prevailing national mythos and its political manifestations in a world order system dominated by territorial sovereign states. A world political party, generated by activist initiatives of civil society, could in Patomäki’s view become the vehicle to facilitate a global transformation that would offer the peoples of the world a path toward risk reduction resulting from a more appropriate administration of planetary activity in all policy domains. Such a transformative process would become manifest in a more functionally and normatively appropriate institutionalization of political life than the present reliance on the zombie national mythos, that is, a system that persists long after its functionality has deteriorated. Patomäki believes that a world political party would become a vital force in giving credibility to a global mythos responsive to the challenges and opportunities of planetary interconnectedness.

Even taking account of the limits of coverage in a short essay, I have some problems with the way in which the world political party is situated in the historical present. I would have liked to see some greater diagnostic emphasis on geopolitics and neoliberal capitalism as obstacles to global transformation and as oppositional to the formation of a politically relevant world political party. Geopolitics is important because hierarchies of power and wealth embedded in the established order suppress any realist risk assessment process, as well as make inequalities of benefits and burdens override the commonalities of human interconnectedness. Similarly, neoliberal capitalism operates according to a transnational logic that accentuates many dimensions of inequality, and is oriented in ways at odds with both the national and global mythic landscapes that understandably preoccupy Patomäki.

A further question I have is a matter of resonance and receptivity. I have the sense that Patomäki’s version of visionary realism is at once too late and too early. It is too late in the sense that there existed greater fluidity with respect to world order arrangements either in 1945 at the end of World War II or in the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War. In 1945, there was a heightened sense of world risk due to the recent atomic attacks on Japanese cities and what that prefigured for future warfare. Civil society would have been receptive to bold initiatives by national governments, but it was dormant with respect to envisioning shaping the future by forming a world political party that embraced an agenda based on the survivability of the species and the benefits of a cooperative world order reflecting a global ethos. After the Cold War, there was a sigh of relief, but the absence of any relevant kind of transformative energy directed at dramatic risk reduction and globally oriented problem-solving. Political leaders missed this golden opportunity, and the multitudes were pacified by consumerism and materialist aspirations.

We are now experiencing a set of global realities that seems devoid of the missed opportunities of these two occasions in recent international history when the stars of destiny seemed more favorably aligned for the promotion of visionary realist undertakings, including the formation and rapid support for a grassroots type of world political party. What the present conjuncture of forces most offers to those who share, as I do, Patomäki’s insistence that we need a fundamental shift toward globality of consciousness and action is as yet difficult to grasp, let alone endow with transformative agency. I would emphasize two unheralded features of our global circumstance, perhaps in accord with “Big History” that Patomäki calls to our attention: First, the ease of communication and networking associated with the digital age where globally constituted projects of this sort can be interactively shaped without requiring physical face-to-face meetings; secondly, the very adversity of circumstances and the severity of global risks is giving rise to a radical populist consciousness, which while still at the margins, contains the ingredients of a political platform that does justice to the needs and values that should inform a world political party from its inception. This radical consciousness can be thought of as an acknowledgement of the first bioethical crisis in human history, which raises questions about whether the species has a collectivewill to survive.

I find these kinds of general considerations of our human circumstances more illuminating than the sort of encouragement that is derived from the successful movement for the establishment of the International Criminal Court or the ongoing efforts of the Democracy in Europe Movement. It is true that these projects show that transnational political undertakings can work to some extent even in the face of resurgent nationalism, but I do not find such undertaking as having relevant transformative agency or potential.

I would like to end with an aside associated with the failures of the Arab Spring in 2011. Having been in Cairo just after the extraordinary mass nonviolent uprising that led to the downfall of a cruel, autocratic regime in Egypt, I witnessed the excitement and hope of the people at the time. I also witnessed the consequences of not having a clear agreed-upon vision of what needs to be done, a political platform that sets forth a program. My fear associated with promoting a world political party at this time is that it is ideologically premature. This is not a call for a blueprint, as I agree with Patomäki that such specificity would be shaped as the party took form, and in response to inputs from participants around the world. Yet there is a need for more concreteness regarding capitalism, geopolitics, international law, human rights, climate change, nuclear disarmament, and the UN than is contained either in Patomäki’s fine essay or, more significantly, in the climate of progressive world opinion. Until that degree of clarification and consensus is present, I fear that disillusionment would be the likely outcome of any present effort to move forward with the formation of a world political party. Our time can be better spent otherwise to satisfy the urgent challenges of a transformative global agenda, although putting the ideaof a world political party in the progressive imaginary is a constructive contribution. What I find questionable at this point is any serious effort, given present realities around the world, to actualize the idea.

 

 

Toward Geopolitical Disengagement: Uncertain yet Desirable

13 Jan

[Prefatory Note: The post below was published in Middle East Eye on 30 December 2018, and is here reproduced with some modification. Humility in assessment is necessary as what we see tends to be partial and incomplete. Radical uncertainty is the appropriate interpretative outlook, which means that the future could break either bad or good. For a region that has endured so much suffering and abuse, I offer fervent wishes that we will be surprised by hopeful developments during coming months. Altready the shakeup of regional politics and perceptions due to the Trump withdrawal move is ambiguous in its implications, but seemingly leading in the positive direction of U.S. political disengagement, and an end to the delusions of being ‘a force for good.’

 

 

Toward Geopolitical Disengagement: Uncertain yet Desirable

 

Ever since the World War I travesties of Sykes/Picot and the Balfour Declaration, the Middle East has been the scene of geopolitical rivalries and unfolding nationalist narratives that veered uneasily between extremes of tyranny and chaos. A second post-Ottoman milestone was crossed in 1956 when the United States displaced its main European allies, the UK and France as the principal manager of Western interests in the region, which at the time centered on the Cold War containment of the Soviet Union, safeguarding Western access to Gulf oil and trade routes, and sustaining Israeli security. A further phase emerged after the ending of Cold War geopolitical bipolarity. This was soon followed by the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which supplied the pretext for a series of disastrous interventions in the name of counterterrorism.

 

Post-colonial Turmoil

 

Then came the uprisings of 2011 consisting of a series of popular movements displacing several authoritarian regimes, followed by an array of foreign interventions, proxy wars, prolonged strife, and massive civilian suffering throughout the region. One result of these anti-authoritarian uprisings has been a surge of counterrevolutionary violence and intensified repressive tendencies. Beyond this, U.S./Saudi/Israeli extreme hostility toward Iran has threatened for years to explode into a regional war of great ferocity.

 

Into this maelstrom of violence and disorder, the ascent of Trump to U.S. leadership two years ago seemed a huge dump of oil on these already raging fires in the Arab world. Such apprehensions were quickly realized: giving the green light to the Saudi/UAE ultimatum directed at Qatar, going all out to help Israel impose an apartheid state on the Palestinian people, and building a war mongering alliance with Riyadh and Tel Aviv to produce some sort of final showdown with Iran. And worst of all, remaining complicit in the Saudi intervention in Yemen, a humanitarian catastrophe that has pushed over 17 millions Yemenis to the brink of starvation.

 

 

Syrian Withdrawal

 

As the world has learned, often painfully, Trump is the least predictable  and most irresponsible political figure ever to govern in the United States. On the home front, his policies have been ideologically coherent, leaning far to the right on such varied matters as immigration, trade, taxes, law enforcement policies, and respect for constitutional guidelines. On foreign policy, there has been Trumpist bluster and erratic behavior, but nothing very disruptive other than perhaps the Jerusalem embassy move, that is, until the sudden announcement of the withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria a few days ago, to be followed by reducing by 50% the combat presence of American forces in Afghanistan.

 

This Syrian move has shaken the national security establishment in Washington, and supposedly further undermined confidence in America’s global role among NATO allies and, above all, upset Israel and Saudi Arabia. In this case, Trump overrode the unanimous advice of his hawkish advisors and ministers, failed to consult with allies, and justified the withdrawal by misleadingly claiming the defeat of ISIS.  The magnitude of the government crisis was signaled by the announced resignation of General Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense, and underscored by his letter condemning the president’s approach in all but name. This letter of resignation was immediately treated as scripture by Democrats, as well by such stalwarts of liberalism as CNN and the NY Times. It even led several Republicans to at last step forward to denounce Trump’s new Syria policy, contending that it betrays the Kurds, rewards the Russians and the Assad regime, and is red meat for the undefeated ISIS legions.

 

Assuming that Trump does not pull the rug out from under his own initiative, it certainly merits deserve a more balanced consideration, and quite likely a favorable assessment. The American military presence in Syria was always problematic, too modest to be a game changer, but significant enough to prolong the Syrian agony. With respect to ISIS, it may not be defeated, but the main players in Syria at this point—the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran all have strong immediate incentives to carry the fight against ISIS to a successful conclusion. We cannot know what Turkey will do with respect to the Kurds operating close to its border in northern Syria and supposedly linked to the armed struggle movement of the PKK centered in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq. We can hope that Erdogan gave Trump some assurances when they talked of foregoing an escalation of anti-Kurdish military efforts and the Syrian Kurds and their allies among the Turkish Kurds will on their side explore deescalating options.

What we can be encouraged by, especially if account is also taken of the withdrawal of half of the American combat contingents in Afghanistan, announced just one day later, is that Trump seems to be giving substance to his long deferred campaign promise to end foreign interventions and give emphasis to restoring the quality of life in the United States. If this is indeed the case then it is bad news for the Saudi and Israeli hawks. They expected Trump to lead this most unholy of alliances to the gates of Tehran, maybe not by military means, but at least by intensified forms of coercive diplomacy and a variety of destabilizing tactics. Trump has deservedly earned a reputation for habitual inconsistency, or for staying the course once a policy comes under fire. At least for the moment, it would seem that the Syrian withdrawal, even if slowed down by deep state pushback, is best understood as part of a larger political disengagement from failed military adventures in distant countries at great cost and almost no political results. If this happens, it will be a major defeat for the ‘bipartisan consensus’ that promoted U.S. global militarism ever since the end of World War II as the twin sibling of neoliberal globalization.

 

All and all, what emerges is certainly not a pretty picture yet there are grounds to be more positive than the strongly negative reactions of the political elites in America and Western Europe. The disavowing of foreign military intervention by the United States is long overdue, given the record of political failure and the trail of suffering left behind. Yet more important, and undoubtedly not part of any coherent revision of grand strategy by Trump, is the possibility that a reduced political engagement by the United States in the Middle East will encourage regional moves toward moderation, self-determination, and co-existence. Such disengagement would allow the realities of a post-colonial Middle East to break freer of the shackles of geopolitics. Even the Israeli leadership might feel encouraged over time to reconsider their approach to the Palestinian national movement, and shift their focus from seeking an apartheid victory to envisioning a political compromise that presupposes the true equality of both peoples with a single secular democratic state.

 

The context of the Syrian withdrawal is also consistent with the drift of several recent regional developments. First of all, the grotesque murder of Kamal Khoshoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has made it less feasible than before to join hands with the leadership in Riyadh, and solidify the anti-Iran alliance with Israel and the United States. As well, the dreadful Saudi  intervention in Yemen, undertaken with American support, has already caused massive suffering, and threatens to produce what is already being called the worst famine in the last hundred years. Moves at a Stockholm Conference of the parties agreed on the establishment of a UN presence to open the main Yemeni port at Hudaydah, handling 80% of food imports. If this initiative holds it would be a hopeful step back from the brink of a worsening humanitarian catastrophe. If this de-escalation gains momentum it would  likely reinforce the sense of geopolitical disengagement that is now associated with removing American troops from Syria, but might also encourage ending US complicity in the Yemen War.

 

These conjectures about a possibly better future for the Middle East in 2019 are beset by profound uncertainties. Aside from Trump further giving way to militarist counter-pressures, there is the possibility that he has at last crossed the red line of reluctant acceptance by the Republican Party facing its own lose/lose future. Such a dilemma could translate into a determined effort to force Trump from presidential power one way or another. He would then be replaced by the current vice president, Mike Pence, seemingly an ideological colleague on the home front, but unlikely to buck the national security establishment on its core global posture, namely, an unshakable belief in the benevolence and efficacy of American military power. Pence would be freed to produce a foreign policy that was both independent of Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency and not twisted to such an extent to satisfy Israel’s ambitions.

 

There are also disturbing alternative futures for the Middle East in the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal. These include a surge of ISIS terrorist attacks in Europe and North America, a bloodbath in Syria as Damascus consolidates its victory in the civil war, and a major Turkish offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. None of these developments can be ruled out, and if occurring, would alter for the worse what we can reasonably hope for in the region as 2019 unfolds.

 

Yet for the first time in the 21stCentury it is possible to envision positive developments in the region as reducing the level of violence and turbulence. Even if these moderating developments occur, the situation throughout the region still has a long way to go to achieve peace, stability,

humane governance, and justice.

 

As well, prospects are bleaker than ever for a sustainable peace for Israel and Palestine. Hardliners are in firm control in Israel, with a seeming resolve to carry the Zionist project in its most expansive form to a victorious finish. Although such an outcome is implausible, what is likely is a hardening of the apartheid structures oppressing the Palestinian people as a whole and an even more embittered resistance and increasingly militant global solidarity movement.

In Praise of the Syria Withdrawal

29 Dec

[Prefatory Note:The following interview, to be published in Counterpunchwas conducted by Daniel Falcone on December 20, 2018. Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from Syria that defied the bipartisan consensus that has shaped U.S. foreign policy since 1945 poses the biggest challenge to the Trump presidency, especially as it shook Israel’s confidence and coincides with woes of Wall Street. In coming weeks it should become clear whether the American version of the deep state remains asleep or perceives this ‘watershed moment’ (Friedman) as the opportunity to restore confidence in the pre-Trump version of world order.]

 

In Praise of the Syria Withdrawal

Q1: As an expert on American foreign policy what is the true meaning and significance of trump pulling ground troops out of Syria. Is it this simple and straightforward?

 

Of course, with Trump we never know either the real motivation for an apparently abrupt decision of this sort or whether in the next day or so it might be reversed in an equally abrupt manner. It all depends on how the winds of his imperial ego are blowing. And this is not a reassuring awareness in the nuclear age. Gareth Porter, a reliable commentator on what goes on in Washington, has insisted that the decision was not abrupt, but long in the works, reflecting Trump’s correct insistence that the American military presence in the Middle East was not worth the costs or burdens, having little capacity to control political outcomes.

 

With Trump we should also assume that egocentric motivations of the moment are part of the story. We do know that such an inflammatory decision shifts attention away, at least briefly, from the Mueller developments that seem more threatening to Trump’s comfort zone day by day. Beyond these explanations, Trump can accurately claim that he is fulfilling one of his most emphatic pledges of his 2016 presidential campaign, namely, offering scathing criticism of costly interventions in the Middle East as the basis for his commitment to bring American troops home very soon. Such a pledge made a great deal of sense as the American experience with military interventions was a record of unacknowledged failure with a learning curve that hovered around zero.

 

The unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003 followed by a prolonged occupation, was a flagrant violation of the prohibition on aggressive war, the core principle of the UN Charter and modern international law. It was also the cause of massive suffering and devastation, resulting in internal strife and constant chaos. The mindless occupation policy imposed by the United States deliberately inflamed sectarian tensions in Iraq, which in turn spread Sunni/Shi’ia turmoil throughout the region.

 

Geopolitically, as well, the Iraq War illustrated the dysfunctional nature of such uses of international force even when the superior military capabilities of the United States are brought to bear. A central strategic goal of the intervention was to weaken the regional footprint of Iran by placing a Western-oriented government on the Iranian border of a country ready and willing to have American military bases on its territory. The main effect of the American intervention and extended presence was the reverse of what was intended. Iranian regional influence in part because the American occupation approach sought to disempower the Sunni dominance that had been associated with Saddam Hussein’s regime and put in its place an Iran-oriented Shi’ite leadership. The Iraqi negative reactions to the Trump Christmas visit to American troops suggested that the U.S. presence in Iraq is far from secure, and continues to be an affront to Iraqi nationalism.

 

A further result of the purge of Sunni elements in the upper echelons of the Iraqi armed forces soon after the occupation began in 2003 was the formation of ISIS as a terrorist organization committed to the expulsion of the occupying forces from the Middle East and spreading governance under the auspices of radical Islamic leadership. In retrospect the real irony is that Saddam Hussein’s regime, although repressive and repulsive, was far preferable for the Iraqi people and even for American strategic goals in the Middle East than was the unlawful intervention and bungled occupation if unintended consequences are taken into account. Our war planners never were willing to come to terms with this systemic series of miscalculations, and more or less arrayed themselves beneath the notorious banner, ‘mission accomplished’ unfurled to honor the presence of George W. Bush on an American aircraft carrier. Although this banner was mocked due to the resistance encountered in the course of the occupation, it had a second life through the unwillingness of the national security establishment in Washington to heed the lessons of the Iraq failure. Rather than learning from failure, the experience was pushed aside and effectively forgotten.

 

Trump claims that his policies for the past two years have defeated ISIS, making it prudent and appropriate from a national security perspective to withdraw American ground forces at this time. The claim as to ISIS is disputed by the entire defense establishment in the U.S., and seems to have contributed to the Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, decision to submit a thinly veiled criticism of Trump’s withdrawal approach on strategic grounds, stressing especially the importance of acting in concert with allies. The decision has also been criticized as abandoning Syrian Kurds to the tender mercies of Assad’s regime and Erdogan’s Turkey. For the governments in Damascus and Ankara, the Kurds, while allied with the U.S. in its anti-ISIS campaign, pose threats to the territorial integrity and political stability of both Syria and Turkey. Such criticisms are suspect, assuming that on balance the American military presence in Syria, although small, played a positive stabilizing role. If my assessment is correct there is never an appropriate moment for withdrawing a combat presence from an overseas country previously the scene of an American intervention. We need to remember that this military involvement in Syria was already almost twice as long as World War II, with no convenient end in sight.

Q2: How do you assesses the mainstream agenda setting media’s response to trump’s latest foreign policy decision regarding Syria?

 

My impression is that the media response has so far been dominated by the sort of bipartisan approach that earlier underpinned American foreign policy during the Cold War and produced the ‘Washington Consensus’ that provided ideological coherence for the neoliberal version of economic globalization. During the Cold War this militarization of foreign policy led to a series of interventions on the geopolitical periphery, culminating in the Vietnam War. With respect to the world economy, a capital-driven approach to economic policy that was largely indifferent to the human consequences of market forces resulted in gross inequities with respect to the distribution of the benefits of economic growth or its damaging ecological side effects. The experience of widening disparities of wealth and income became a structural feature of the world economy, and seems closely connected to the rage expressed by those multitudes. A majority of persons quite reasonably feel victimized by the policies accepted by the entire policy establishment, whether they identify as Democrats, Republicans, or independents. This rage has been translated into various forms of political frustration, including giving rise to an electoral tidal wave in the leading constitutional democracies around the entire world that brought to power demagogic figures whose defining message was to pose as enemies of the established order. In Trump’s case, he sloganized this hostility by a campaign promise ‘to drain the swamp.’ This political spectacle is enacted in various ways reflecting the distinctiveness of the autocrat and the particularities of each set of national circumstances.

 

In the American case, Trump’s approach has been to weaken constitutional structures of government, while strengthening the grip of Wall Street on the American economy via massive tax cuts for the wealthy and the dramatic weakening of regulatory authority with respect to labor practices and environmental protection.

 

The Syrian withdrawal decision is perceived as one more unacceptable consensus-disruptive move by Trump that includes a repudiation of one the pillars of the Cold War Era, namely, tight alliances epitomized by NATO. Such a unilateral move by Trump without any reliance on prior consultations with leading allies is seen as a further blow to American leadership of the Western democracies. The fact that the Trump decision was publicly endorsed by Putin at a time when Western elites are urging a more confrontational approach to Russia is taken by the media as a further sign that the U.S. is in a go it alone foreign policy.

 

The Mattis resignation letter very effectively encouraged the media to react in this manner. It challenges Trump in all but name, complaining both about alliance disruption and the failure to heed the views of those who opposed the Syrian pullout. He is obviously upset that his own advice, and that of his high-ranking colleagues, was ignored. His letter reminds readers of his extensive professional experience and knowledge that is relevant to understanding both the Syrian reality and the implausibility of claiming that ISIS is defeated. In essence, he deplores the military withdrawal from Syria, insisting that it will be of help to America’s principal rivals in the world, Russia and China, “whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours.” The following sentence in the Mattis letter could have been written in the midst of the Cold War: “It is clear that China and Russia..want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions—to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies.” Mattis perceives the world as an arena for continuous geopolitical rivalry where a militarily proactive global posture is the only acceptable approach for the United States and the West.

 

It is not only that most influential media outlets side with the critics of this Trump initiative, but their failure to convey the rationale justifying his decision beyond saying that he is fulfilling a campaign pledge or shifting the national conversation away from the Special Counsel. If Trump follows up the withdrawal with a termination of air strikes in Syria, and makes a significant use of the funds saved by foregoing military operations to hasten a Syrian recovery from seven years of devastation, massive human displacement, and incredible civilian suffering, the policy should be acknowledged as a constructive and long overdue move then in a demilitarizing direction that begins to undo the immeasurable harm done by the Iraq War that commenced in March 2003, and was an assault on the international legal order, including the UN, from the outset.

 

I would predict that the national security establishment will condemn even this evidence of a serious shift toward disengagement from Middle East turmoil as an unwelcome retreat from American leadership, and a form of encouragement to its adversaries and rivals to take more risks to expand their zones of influence. If this is so, the mainstream media is sure to follow along, nightly parading a series of retired generals who bemoan this renunciation of the U.S. global security role of the past half century of a ‘forever war.’ What may be worse is the failure to treat the issue as even debatable. There is no media effort to balance criticism of Trump’s decision by presenting progressive voices drawn from civilian society.

 

It is common for media pundits to question policy choices so long as they do not touch the fundamental guidelines of structure and geopolitical priorities that have shaped the American global role ever since 1945. These fundamentals include the Atlantic Alliance as embodied in NATO, market-oriented constitutionalism as embedded in the neoliberal credo, and the globe-girdling military presence as typified by more than 800 overseas military bases, a sizable naval operation patrolling in every ocean, and a capability to wage hyper war from any point in space. The media will not challenge those that defend this security structure, and even Fox News and the Murdoch media outlets can be expected to be neutral, departing from their habitual acceptance of whatever Trump does.

 

It is not surprising that CNN news anchors such as Don Lemon or Chris Cuomo almost salivated in response to the Mattis letter, reading it aloud as if it was an instant classic in political rhetoric to be compared with the Gettysburg Address. Their anti-Trump animus was so intense that they did not even express any skepticism about Mattis’ geopolitical hubris in the letter that seemed both dated and overly belligerent. His words: “the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world.” Really. Such an opinion is not widely shared in most parts of the world. Many people and foreign leaders now worry far more about what the United States does than they do about China and Russia.

 

In my view the anti-Trump media frenzy does reflect well-grounded worries about Trump’s style and substance, yet it is failing to expose the citizenry to pluralist views, especially in foreign policy by shutting out almost completely progressive voices. The media may not be guilty of spreading fake news, but it is guilty of partisanship, ideological conformity, and hostility to critics on the left. In fact, the media blurs the issue by misleadingly treating the center and the liberal establishment as ‘the left.’

Q3: What are the important implications for the Syria pull out that coincides with harsh treatment of Iran? Does this negate any positive steps with Middle East diplomacy?

 

At this point it is difficult to tell whether the Syrian withdrawal will intensify Trump’s anti-Iran policy or lead to its weakening, and even its gradual abandonment. It seems as though neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia are comfortable with Trump’s latest move, partly because they were evidently not consulted, or even briefed, and partly because it could be interpreted as the beginning of a wider American disengagement from the Middle East and a long overdue phasing out of George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ launched after 9/11, continuing year after year without an endgame, although Obama at one point openly regretted this, and promised to devise one, but it never happened.

 

I am hard put to find any positive initiatives in recent Middle East diplomacy emanating from Washington. Trump/Kushner have carried the partisan pro-Israeli policies of earlier presidencies to absurdly one-sided extremes by way of announcing the embassy move to Jerusalem in December 2017, Washington’s silence about the weekly atrocities at the Gaza fence, cruel cuts the UNRWA funding, closing the PLO office in Washington, questioning Palestinian refugee status, a blind eye toward unlawful settlement expansion and the seeming acceptance of Israel’s recent moves in its Knesset toward a one-state apartheid solution. To refer to Israel as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ has become so obviously false that even Zionist militants have quietly abandoned the claim.

 

Perhaps, American pressures are moving Saudi Arabia and its allies to end their intervention in Yemen, previously materially and diplomatically backed by the United States, and pushing the civilian population to the very brink of starvation. The situation in Yemen is already being described as the worst famine in the past hundred years, putting at severe risk over 17 million Yemenis. If the Yemen War is brought finally to an end, it can be seen as an unintended consequence of the grotesque Khashoggi murder, creating strong incentives in Washington to rethink its embrace of Mohammed Bin Salmon as ally and partner. Or put more crudely, the arms sales bonanza with Riyadh could be in trouble unless the Yemen War is brought to an end before the humanitarian ordeal becomes catastrophic.

Q4: Trump’s doctrine has been called “me first.” Does this title apply in the case?

 

I have no reason to doubt that Trump’s actions with regard to Syria are basically reflections of his narcissistic political style as expressed at a particular moment through concrete actions. Yet, as earlier suggested, because Trump withdrew from Syria at this time on the basis of selfish motives, does mean that we should not evaluate the policy on its merits rather than through the eyes of the dominant political class in Washington that has brought grief to tens of millions for decades. These ‘experts’ have over time built up an intellectual and career dependence on global militarism and permanent warfare. It means, among other things, a stubborn refusal to take note of a string of failures where battlefield dominance has not translated into control of political outcomes, but instead ended in stinging political defeats. At bottom, there persists a stunning refusal to heed this central lesson of the Vietnam War, a refusal repeated in Afghanistan, Iraq, and with respect to most of the colonial wars. In each instance the side that won on the battlefield lost the war in the end, yet only after inflicting terrible damage and itself enduring heavy human, economic, and reputational costs. Nothing helpful was learned, and energies were devoted to how to reinvent counterinsurgency and counterterrorist doctrine so as to win such struggles for the political control of distant countries, and not be hampered by anti-war activism and elite skepticism.

 

If Trump stumbles onto a security path that ends such interventions in the global south we should celebrate the result, even if we withhold praise of Trump as a virtuous political actor. Beyond this, we should not be too quick to condemn his openness to a cooperative relationship with Russia if it helps the world avoid a second, more dangerous cold war that it can ill afford at this time of climate change. Trump might not know exactly what he is doing but bypassing Europe for a geopolitical bargain with Moscow might make realist sense given present historical circumstances, and it time self-styled realists themselves woke up to this benign possibility.

 

Of course, my wish for an end to militarism, nuclearism, and foreign interventions may be coloring my views, blindfolding me with respect to the dangers and risks that some associate with Trump’s march to the apocalypse. I acknowledge this, but I am also convinced that the conventional candidates of either political party would never in a thousand years pull the rug out from under this globalized militarism that could never tolerate a peaceful future for humanity. Humanity remains trapped in a cage sometimes called ‘the war system,’ which has the semblance of a permanent lockup.

Q5: Will liberal hawks react to same way to Syria as they typically do with Russia? This seems to be a failing strategy to reclaim the presidency in 2020. Do you agree?

 

I fear the centrist pragmatism of liberals, and not only the regressive approaches taken by hawks. These liberals have supported war after war as well as forged a strong new consensus that the time has come to challenge Russia and China once again. The logic is perverse: If Putin is pleased it is proof that Trump is wrong. Such reasoning seems to be dominant among the policy planners in Washington and the opinion and editorial commentary of CNN and the NY Times. Such issues are not even treated as fit subjects for debate and discussion. Instead, there are two or more guests with military or CIA backgrounds that take turns lambasting Trump’s Syria moves, especially as it has been coupled with a White House decision to halve the American troop contingent in Afghanistan by withdrawing 7,000 soldiers, hardly a rash decision considering that the American military presence in Afghanistan is about to enter its 17thyear, and stability for the country is further away than it was in 2002 when the occupation began.

 

As far as the 2020 election is concerned, it will be a great lost opportunity if the Democrats nominate a centrist liberal, who might be far more humane than Trump at home, but would likely recommit to the war of terror and a revival of American readiness to avoid political setbacks in various parts of the world, never having learned this supreme lesson that military intervention does not and should not work in the post-colonial world.

 

Of course, these days we cannot be sure of anything, including being confident that such a return to the old ways of doing foreign policy by a Democratic candidate would be an electoral disaster. Trump remains unpopular outside his base. This means that if the stock market stays down, trade wars reduce living standards in the country, the undocumented are cruelly deported or asylum seeking women and children are shot at the border, a smooth talking Democrat with the politically correct national security views would win, maybe even scoring a landslide.

 

But would this outcome be a victory for the peoples of the world? If Trump were to stay the Syrian withdrawal course, not a likely

prospect, it might not be so easy to vote him out of office with a clear conscience. This suggestion is meant as a provocation to liberals and establishmentarians, but it does call attention to the likely frightful foreclosure of peaceful options for American voters given the likely choices in 2020. The liberal line in 2016 was that compared to Sanders, Hillary Clinton was electable and would get things done, and look where that bit of practical wisdom landed us!

 

 

 

 

Chomsky’s 90th Birthday

16 Dec

[Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview with Daniel Falcone, author and educator, that was published in CounterPunchon December 14, 2018. The text has been slightly modified.]

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview with Daniel Falcone, author and educator, that was published in CounterPunchon December 14, 2018. The text has been slightly modified.]

 

Celebrating Noam Chomsky’s 90th Birthday

 

 

Daniel Falcone: How were you first introduced to Chomsky? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

 

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming his field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam Waractivist.

 

We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved as opponents of the escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed we were opposed to any military involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions of the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, discussions often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue.

 

I recall Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only agree to give a series of lectures on linguistics that was the nature of the invitation if his hosts would also arrange parallel formats for him to address his political concerns. He apparently frequently made this a condition of his acceptance, and because he was such a star attraction, it was almost always enthusiastically accepted, and even viewed as a bonus.

 

I found the Princeton lectureson theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever this already famous scholar had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of linguistic theory at stake, which meant that his presentation seemed way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

 

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me then and even now was Chomsky’s attitude of apparent indifference to this reaction, which was confirmed by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It was hardly surprising that the second and third lecturewere given in a rather empty room, being attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and a few on the faculty who had strong linguistic interests.

 

When he gave his talk on political issues, Chomsky’s style was strikingly different. His presentation on political issues was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humorous asides, usually of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly hoping to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint, and conveying an assured sense that there existed no other coherent and ethical to view the issues being discussed. As with his opening linguistics lecrure, his political talk was held in a large hall that was overflowing, but this time no one left.

 

The response was enthusiastic and responsive. I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had taken part in an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his utter insistence on speaking truth to power. These truths of Chomsky went far beyond mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

 

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his reluctance to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. There was something disturbing about this unwillingness to concede small points to those who shared his views 95% of the time. This polemical style left even admirers sometimes feeling that his presentation could have been more effective if he had left a bit of space for doubt and divergent opinions. This style of unwavering assurance seemed to reflect a public sensibility more than deriving from a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor sometimes to be leonine.

 

 

DF: Scholar Henry Girouxonce told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

 

RF: I share this expression of exceptional mode of appreciating  Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’ His following is global in ways that exceed that of any other

living public intellectual

 

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

 

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledgeabout subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomskyis always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place in some remote part of the world.

 

His presence and role is so precious because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence and gratitude that so many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

 

DF: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

RF: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular displays of intellectuality and moral engagement, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

 

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Timesmisleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective interpretations of the facts and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper while bemoaning the cruelty of extreme poverty. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals. They are willing to do good so long as it doesn’t interfere with their supreme interest in doing well!

 

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestinehave given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Despite disagreements with Said on such questions I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything other than sentiments of respect and admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

 

Now that Chomsky is convinced that the political and physical conditions no longer exist to achieve a two-state peace, and the Israeli one-state solution is unacceptable, it would be of great value to know what Chomsky now proposes. Perhaps, he has already set forth his ideas in light of the present circumstances, but I am not familiar with any such statement.

 

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDSor coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement to support the Palestinian national movement. I am not aware of the deep roots of this reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed, and the Palestinian people have been paying the price.

 

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999. In the end, with strong feelings of ambivalence, my fear of a Kosovo repetition of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 led me to support the NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo independence from Serbia.

 

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention in Kosovo was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to this admittedly non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the comparable Kurdish plight in Turkey.

 

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were numerous settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in several books written in collaboration with the late Edward S. Herman.

 

DF: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

RF: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russellwas an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries. Both were derided for swimming against strong national currents.

 

In my own intellectual and personal experience, the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartreand Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made me understand the role and contributions of those who came to be known as ‘public intellectuals.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone. In the context of the Cold War Chomsky published his inspirational essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in the initial issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1967. No piece in my lifetime exerted a stronger positive influence on public debate in the United States than did this call to act in opposition to the Vietnam War at a crucial moment when doubts about the American war policies were beginning to challenge the government.

 

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature and broke with Camusand official France over the Algerian War. Said rejected Arafat’s and the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Frameworkof Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and lent support to the academic freedom of an embattled Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues, although he did object when Chomsky’s statement of support was published as a foreword to a Faurisson book without his permission.

 

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth justifications for their dissenting views. In a last interview Sartrewas asked, what was his greatest regret? I found Sartre’s response suggestively provocative–that he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said as well. In effect, rather than backing down or retreating by acknowledging that he might have been more diplomatic, he opts for an even more strident clarity of belief and action.

 

If I look around at later generations, I take note of many passionate and articulate voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and inspiration. We are living at a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years when approaching the awesome age of 90,Noam’s voice remains as loud and clear as ever. It is always worthy of listening, and almost always of heeding. In recent years Chomsky has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the various flaws of American foreign policy or to critiques of capitalism. At the same time, he has delivered scathing attacks on Trump and Trumpism as the climax of degenerative politics in America.

 

DF: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

 

RF: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all governmental embodiments of statist authority.

 

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre contributed to literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed. I found this line of assessment a refreshing departure from my impression of Chomsky’s early posture of pessimistic critical realism. It may reflect the personal serenity that Noam seems to be experiencing in this stage of his life.

 

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience and freedom, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in organizational efforts, or any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky has become an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

I did feel in the late 1960s that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance and the potentialities of anti-war activism. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it produced an embarrassing defeat for a militarist foreign policy. In a sense, these assessments seemed to arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

 

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies, to befuddle and manipulate the citizenry. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war leading to the deaths of many innocent persons.

 

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work, which meant a great deal to me, was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter as matters of elemental morality and geopolitical prudence.

 

DF: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

 

RF: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

 

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience of non-specialists, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent and sensible interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us that most of us have difficulty of formulating.

 

Secondly, Chomsky’s style, personal engagement, and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action, and even hopes for a better future.

 

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps overly aware, that there are always at least two sides to any contested position.

 

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me as someone trained in law, the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce one-sided political commitments whenever appropriate. More concretely, how I am able to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited, but it also means understanding hierarchies of abuse and exploitation as the core reality of apartheid structures..

 

I seek the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of this continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think and act.

 

DF: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your studyand which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

 

RF: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding, and I might add, humbling. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and blessed by physical longevity!

 

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. Among the most serious intellectual inadequacies of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted, even ignoring their relevance.

 

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sandersin 2016, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was treated as unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee, despite not even being consistently radical in his outlook. Yet he was radical enough to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism, and that was enough to disqualify his candidacy although he emerged as the most popular and trusted political figure in America, greatly exceeding the approval ratings of the prevailing candidates, Trump and Clinton.

 

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires enduring defamation and marginalization. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionistproject was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but it also challenged me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice are the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

 

And it would be wrong not to reiterate Chomsky’s overwhelming sense of the responsibility of an intellectualto engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

 

 

 

Daniel Falcone: How were you first introduced to Chomsky? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

 

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming his field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam Waractivist.

 

We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved as opponents of the escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed we were opposed to any military involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions of the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, discussions often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue.

 

I recall Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only agree to give a series of lectures on linguistics that was the nature of the invitation if his hosts would also arrange parallel formats for him to address his political concerns. He apparently frequently made this a condition of his acceptance, and because he was such a star attraction, it was almost always enthusiastically accepted, and even viewed as a bonus.

 

I found the Princeton lectureson theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever this already famous scholar had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of linguistic theory at stake, which meant that his presentation seemed way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

 

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me then and even now was Chomsky’s attitude of apparent indifference to this reaction, which was confirmed by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It was hardly surprising that the second and third lecturewere given in a rather empty room, being attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and a few on the faculty who had strong linguistic interests.

 

When he gave his talk on political issues, Chomsky’s style was strikingly different. His presentation on political issues was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humorous asides, usually of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly hoping to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint, and conveying an assured sense that there existed no other coherent and ethical to view the issues being discussed. As with his opening linguistics lecrure, his political talk was held in a large hall that was overflowing, but this time no one left.

 

The response was enthusiastic and responsive. I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had taken part in an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his utter insistence on speaking truth to power. These truths of Chomsky went far beyond mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

 

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his reluctance to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. There was something disturbing about this unwillingness to concede small points to those who shared his views 95% of the time. This polemical style left even admirers sometimes feeling that his presentation could have been more effective if he had left a bit of space for doubt and divergent opinions. This style of unwavering assurance seemed to reflect a public sensibility more than deriving from a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor sometimes to be leonine.

 

 

DF: Scholar Henry Girouxonce told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

 

RF: I share this expression of exceptional mode of appreciating  Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’ His following is global in ways that exceed that of any other

living public intellectual

 

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

 

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledgeabout subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomskyis always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place in some remote part of the world.

 

His presence and role is so precious because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence and gratitude that so many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

 

DF: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

 

RF: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular displays of intellectuality and moral engagement, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

 

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Timesmisleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective interpretations of the facts and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper while bemoaning the cruelty of extreme poverty. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals. They are willing to do good so long as it doesn’t interfere with their supreme interest in doing well!

 

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestinehave given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Despite disagreements with Said on such questions I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything other than sentiments of respect and admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

 

Now that Chomsky is convinced that the political and physical conditions no longer exist to achieve a two-state peace, and the Israeli one-state solution is unacceptable, it would be of great value to know what Chomsky now proposes. Perhaps, he has already set forth his ideas in light of the present circumstances, but I am not familiar with any such statement.

 

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDSor coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement to support the Palestinian national movement. I am not aware of the deep roots of this reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed, and the Palestinian people have been paying the price.

 

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999. In the end, with strong feelings of ambivalence, my fear of a Kosovo repetition of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 led me to support the NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo independence from Serbia.

 

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention in Kosovo was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to this admittedly non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the comparable Kurdish plight in Turkey.

 

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were numerous settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in several books written in collaboration with the late Edward S. Herman.

 

DF: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

RF: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russellwas an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries. Both were derided for swimming against strong national currents.

 

In my own intellectual and personal experience, the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartreand Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made me understand the role and contributions of those who came to be known as ‘public intellectuals.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone. In the context of the Cold War Chomsky published his inspirational essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in the initial issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1967. No piece in my lifetime exerted a stronger positive influence on public debate in the United States than did this call to act in opposition to the Vietnam War at a crucial moment when doubts about the American war policies were beginning to challenge the government. 

 

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature and broke with Camusand official France over the Algerian War. Said rejected Arafat’s and the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Frameworkof Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and lent support to the academic freedom of an embattled Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues, although he did object when Chomsky’s statement of support was published as a foreword to a Faurisson book without his permission.

 

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth justifications for their dissenting views. In a last interview Sartrewas asked, what was his greatest regret? I found Sartre’s response suggestively provocative–that he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said as well. In effect, rather than backing down or retreating by acknowledging that he might have been more diplomatic, he opts for an even more strident clarity of belief and action.

 

If I look around at later generations, I take note of many passionate and articulate voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and inspiration. We are living at a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years when approaching the awesome age of 90,Noam’s voice remains as loud and clear as ever. It is always worthy of listening, and almost always of heeding. In recent years Chomsky has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the various flaws of American foreign policy or to critiques of capitalism. At the same time, he has delivered scathing attacks on Trump and Trumpism as the climax of degenerative politics in America.

 

DF: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

 

RF: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all governmental embodiments of statist authority.

 

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre contributed to literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed. I found this line of assessment a refreshing departure from my impression of Chomsky’s early posture of pessimistic critical realism. It may reflect the personal serenity that Noam seems to be experiencing in this stage of his life.

 

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience and freedom, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in organizational efforts, or any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky has become an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

I did feel in the late 1960s that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance and the potentialities of anti-war activism. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it produced an embarrassing defeat for a militarist foreign policy. In a sense, these assessments seemed to arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

 

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies, to befuddle and manipulate the citizenry. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war leading to the deaths of many innocent persons.

 

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work, which meant a great deal to me, was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter as matters of elemental morality and geopolitical prudence.

 

DF: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

 

RF: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

 

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience of non-specialists, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent and sensible interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us that most of us have difficulty of formulating.

 

Secondly, Chomsky’s style, personal engagement, and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action, and even hopes for a better future.

 

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps overly aware, that there are always at least two sides to any contested position.

 

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me as someone trained in law, the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce one-sided political commitments whenever appropriate. More concretely, how I am able to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited, but it also means understanding hierarchies of abuse and exploitation as the core reality of apartheid structures..

 

I seek the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of this continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think and act.

 

DF: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your study and which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

 

RF: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding, and I might add, humbling. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and blessed by physical longevity!

 

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. Among the most serious intellectual inadequacies of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted, even ignoring their relevance.

 

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was treated as unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee, despite not even being consistently radical in his outlook. Yet he was radical enough to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism, and that was enough to disqualify his candidacy although he emerged as the most popular and trusted political figure in America, greatly exceeding the approval ratings of the prevailing candidates, Trump and Clinton.

 

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires enduring defamation and marginalization. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionist project was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but it also challenged me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice are the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

 

And it would be wrong not to reiterate Chomsky’s overwhelming sense of the responsibility of an intellectualto engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

 

 

Why Vote on Tuesday: The Menacing Challenges of Trump and Trumpism

4 Nov

World Order in the Age of Trump and Trumpism 

[Prefatory Note: This piece has been published in two online publications in recent days, Rozenberg Quarterly and Z-Net, in slightly modified form. It is based on a lecture given at West Chester University in Pennsylvania on October 24, 2018 at the invitation of C.J. Polychroniou. Although I have no great expectations about improvements in American foreign policy of Congress if it is fully or partially controlled by Democratic majorities after the November 6thmidterm elections. Nevertheless, I share the widely held anti-fascist view that any show of opposition to Trump and Trumpism at this time deserves priority on an urgent basis.]

 

On Trumpism

 

This title requires a few words of explanation. By the ‘Age of Trump,’ I mean not only the current American president. The phrase is meant to encompass elected leaders like him around the world. I have a friend in India who refers to Narendra Modi as ‘our Trump’ and the newspapers have been full of commentary to the effect that the new leader of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, amounts to ‘a Brazilian Donald Trump,’ although some familiar with Bolsonaro’s worldview insist that ‘a Brazilian Joseph Goebbels’ is more accurate. This extension of Trump to Trumpism is meant to make us aware that Trump is not just an American abnormality. He reflects a structural conditions that seem global in character, although with significant variations from nation to nation, and makes reference to Trump’s proto-fascist ‘base’ in the U.S..

 

By referring to ‘Trumpism’ my intention to highlight several issues other than decrying Trump as a particular instance of this new autocratic brand of a supposedly ‘democratic’ leader: (1) To associate ‘Trumpism’ with a deliberate U.S. withdrawal from political and neoliberal globalization, without significantly challenging, perhaps even augmenting military globalism, enhancing capabilities to project destructive power anywhere on the planet, while weakening alliance commitments and multilateral trade frameworks; (2) Trumpism also refers to the populist base of support for a global array of strong leaders, and their accompanying right-wing social, economic, and cultural policies, with the threat of ‘fascism’ and fascist tendencies being increasingly feared and perceived, even in centrist discourse; (3) Trumpism also involves a shift of preferred worldview from globalist to nationalist centers of political gravity, with a loss of normative support for human rights, democracy, and multilateral diplomacy and cooperative forms of multilateral problem-solving and treaty making; and (4) in the American setting, this phenomenon of Trumpism is not tied solely to the person of Trump; it could survive Trump if one or more of several scenarios unfold—for instance, in the 2018 and 2020 national elections the Republican Congress is reelected, even if Trump should be defeated or compelled to resign—in effect, the Republican Party has been effectively taken over by the ideas, values, and approach of Trump, and vice versa; it is difficult to disentangle ideological cause and effect as between party and leader.

 

The Kavanagh confirmation hearings were one kind of straw in the wind, considering the iron party discipline manifested. With this appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court it is likely that the American judiciary will be Trumpist for many years even if Trump is soundly defeated in 2020. Trump’s judicial appointments are setting the judicial tone for years, if not decades, were the Democratic Party to take control of the Senate as early as November.

 

 

On Trump: Personality and Policy

 

There is one important confusion surround the global approach of Trump, which arises from the perception of Trump as incoherent, impulsive, and dishonest, and nothing more than an opportunistic narcissist. I think this confusion can be reduced by distinguishing between Trump as tactician and Trump as strategist. It is as if it is necessary to approach the identity of Trump as an either/or question: either Trump is completely ad hoc and opportunistic or he knows what he is doing, and has been effective in carrying out his plan. My view is that Trump is both an erratic personality and a right-wing ideologue.

 

To simply a rather complex set of questions let me suggest that when Trump acts tactically, or in dealing with the media, he is inconsistent, often lies, bobs and weaves like a professional boxer.  He seems capable of being starkly contradictory without blinking, and above all, adopt positions that are both tasteless and detached from reality, as well as being supremely opportunistic, especially if he feels cornered by breaking news or is intent on capturing the news cycle. In such contexts, Trump seems ready to keep changing his story, retract compromises, defame the opposition, inflame his base by uttering deliberate exaggerations, and steer the ship of state with wild abandon without the steadying presence of a rudder. 

 

However, when Trump acts strategically he seems quite a different person, above all, rather coherent, and methodical, almost pragmatic, in advancing an ideological agenda. His grand strategy is consistently reactionary in the sense of being ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-globalist, militarist, business friendly, and contemptuous of international law, the UN, human rights, constitutionalism, the rule of law, climate change, and environmental protection. Trump continues to be an avowed climate changer denier in the face of massive scientific evidence to the contrary and despite a series of daunting extreme weather events here in the United States. ‘America, First’ is Trump’s signature slogan. For once, it is not ‘fake news,’ although it strikes many of us as imprudent and unacceptable in shaping American public policy. This kind of egocentric nationalism and unfettered capitalism is dangerously ill-adapted to serve as a geopolitical and economic compass for successfully navigating the 21stcentury.

 

To obtain a more complete picture of Trump’s political style, it seems illuminating to make an assessment by combining perceptions from three different angles: as a trickster and con man when tweeting or dealing with the media; as a demagoguewhen he performs at his political rallies; and as an ideologuewhen it comes to policy decisions and influence peddling. It is this composite that makes Trump such a confounding and dangerous political figure. It also makes the past political experience of American presidents irrelevant. It is not an overstatement to observe that there has never before been an American president who handles the office in such a maverick fashion.

 

 

Normative  Decline

 

As someone who has long associated his work with the critical tradition of International Relations (IR) theorizing, I am particularly sensitive to an observable normative decline in  international behavior that can be partially attributed to Trump and Trumpism. For one thing, the US has acted as global leader, including as advocate of public goods, ever since 1945. Admittedly its recordand practicehas been mixed when it comes to international law and respect for the UN and its Charter. Nevertheless, the pre-Trump leadership role was vital in several key sectors of global policy, including climate change, nuclear arms control, development assistance, world poverty, and global migration. The United States Government was also a vital promoter of several less visible concerns such as negotiating a modern  public order of the oceans, an international regime for Antarctica, and an international framework of rules, procedures, and institutions for trade and investment. There is no doubt that the U.S. carried out its leadership role so as to gain advantages for itself, but this was generally accepted by most other states because the U.S. contributed to policy results that were widely believed to be upholding the common interests of humanity. Without this American role, there has emerged a leadership vacuum at the very time that the world order challenges can be met only with a strong and constructive exertion of leadership on global issues. The UN is incapable of providing such leadership. World order remains state-centric and is as dependent as ever on global leadership by dominant sovereign states. It is quite possible that some post-American form of collective leadership will emerge, and provide the world with an inter-governmental alternative to global governance under the watchful eye of Washington.

 

What Trump has done, and Trumpism endorsed, is to repudiate these normative horizons in global settings in a variety of contexts in which their relevance should be treated as greater than ever. Such behavior increases risks of catastrophic ecological and geopolitical events, ranging from accelerated global warming to a war with Iran. It also exhibits a kind of escapist evasion of the real challenges to national and global wellbeing that will grow more serious and impose ever higher costs on the future to the extent that they are being currently ignored. Furthermore, leaving these issues to simmer, accentuates the existential suffering of persons subject to cruel and oppressive conditions of strife and control, while consigning future generations to a dark destiny and heightened risks of catastrophic events.

 

 

Preparing for Trump: the Failures of Pre-Trump Leadership

           

By indicting the role of Trump and Trumpism I do not want leave the impression of a rosy picture of pre-Trump world order. In actuality, Trump has so far when acting internationally, except for global economic policy, mainly departed from the pre-Trump policy framework discursivelevel. To date the behavioraldiscontinuities are not clearly evident.  Trump has definitely made moves to dismantle the international political economy, or what is referred to as ‘the liberal world order’ shaped after 1945, with its deference to the approaches taken by the Bretton Woods Institutions of the World Bank and IMF. Yet the Trump approach does not want to regulate capital flows beyond protecting the domestic American market. It has no trouble with an outlook that favors returns on capital over effects on people.

 

On other issues, as well, it is well to look back so as to gain insight into what has changed, and what has remained essentially the same. Pre-Trump foreign policy was steadfastly pro-Israeli all along, its idea of national security all along aspired to achieve global military and economic dominance, and Washington’s approach to the UN, international law, and human rights was always highly selective, and often subordinated to the pursuit of strategic goals. This was especially true after the end of the Cold War. During this period of 25 years pre-Trump leaders completely missed golden opportunities to improve the quality of world order by strengthening the UN, by seeking nuclear disarmament, by pursuing ecological stability, and by promoting global economic reforms that would ensure a more equitable societal sharing of the benefits of economic growth. It did none of these things, thus paving the way for the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which has to be sure intensified these regressive tendencies that preceded its occupancy of the White House. In this sense, it is a mistake of mainstream critics not to place significant levels of blame for Trump and Trumpism on the myopic priorities of pre-Trump global leadership. [See Stephen Gill, ed.,Global Crises and the Crisis of Global Leadership(2012)] It is a reasonable conjecture that had the pre-Trump leaders taken advantage of the situation after the end of the Cold War to promote an ambitious program of global reform, there might never have been an ‘Age of Trump,’ but of course we will never know.

 

The claimed reality of normative decline can be better understood by looking at three illustrative instances both to understand and appraise the claim.

 

  • Ignoring Palestinian Rights. One of the clearest instances of Trump’s approach in action concerns the approach to the Palestinian struggle for national rights. Trump’s one-sided moves over the past two years are indicative: appointing extreme Zionists to shape his policies toward Israel and Palestine, and even the region; Trump’s break with the international consensus by moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; a blind eye toward unlawful Israel settlement expansion and its repeated use of excessive force and collective punishment; the defunding of UNRWA assistance to administer occupied Palestinian territories accentuating the ordeal endured by the civilian populations, especially in Gaza; and the attempts to deny refugee status to several million Palestinian refugees born in refugee camps.

 

These provocative policy initiatives appear to be part of a coherent endorsement of a ‘one-state Israeli solution,’ a feature of which is to deny completely Palestinian fundamental rights, including above all the right of self-determination. Along the way Trump and his minions bashes the UN for its supposedly anti-Israel bias and go so far as to threaten UN member states and the Organization with funding consequences if American policy demands are being ignored. It should be understood that Israel and the United States are complaining about UN criticisms of Israeli policies that are flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and international criminal law.[†]

 

Such geopolitical bullying at the UN is a total repudiation of the potential for creating a cooperative international order, which would alone be capable of serving the shared interests of the entire world. These interests include those challenges of global scope that no sovereign state, no matter how rich and powerful can hope to solve on its own. These bullying moves by the U.S. are also a shocking response to efforts at the UN to hold Israel accountable for flagrant violations of international law.

 

This in turn has enabled Israel to proceed ruthlessly with the last phases of the Zionist Project in its maximal form, which is to establish an exclusive Jewish state on the entirety of what had long been an essentially non-Jewish society. It is helpful to recall that at the time in 1917 when this Zionist Project received its first major international blessing in the form of the Balfour Declaration the Jewish population of Palestine was less than 6%. The repression and dispossession of non-Jewish residents that has followed for more than a century rips away the veil of deception surrounding the claim that Israel was the only democratic state in the Middle East. It gave a measure of plausibility to allegations of the apartheid nature of Israeli domination of the Palestinian people.  This allegation has now been made less controversial due to the recent adoption in Israel of a new Basic Law known as “The Nation Staten Law of the Jewish people.” Despite the realities of the subjugation of Palestinians, prior to the Basic Law, the United States had joined Israel in insisting at the UN that an academic report concluding that the patterns and practices relied upon by Israel qualified as  apartheid was nothing other than a crude attempt to slander Israel via an anti-Semitic trope.[‡]

 

My point here is to take account of a clear and prominent international situation in which American political partisanship is allowed to push aside normative considerations. To do this in such a high-profile setting, further diminishes respect for the rights of a dispossessed and oppressed people and for international law and the UN generally.

 

 

  • The Qatar Crisis. The Qatar Crisis, which began in 2017, illustrates the tactical side of Trump as ill-informed and mercurial when it comes to American foreign policy and is again confirmatory of the irrelevance of international law if its application is inconvenient in geopolitical crisis situations. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s 2017 May visit to Saudi Arabia, with its purpose of strengthening of the Saudi/Israel/US resolve to confront Iran, the Mohammed ben Salmon leadership in Riyadh chose the moment to confront the tiny state of Qatar with 13 Demands, coupled with a variety of threats as a prelude to coercive diplomacy in the form of a blockade, an embargo, and expulsion of Qatari nationals from residence and employment throughout the Gulf region.

 

The central charge against Qatar was its alleged support for terrorists and terrorism in the region. This was a perverse charge because the Gulf Coalition making the allegations was far more indictable for supporting international terrorism and promoting jihadism than was Qatar. The real motivation of the anti-Qatar coalition was to shut down Al Jazeera and the policies of asylum that Qatar extended to political figures seeking refuge, initiatives well within Qatar’s sovereign rights, and steps that were actually supportive of internationally protected human rights and political pluralism.

 

In actuality, these countries seeking to overwhelm Qatar were more worried about democratictendencies than they were about terrorism. Their Sunni governments are extremely hostile to all Muslim oriented political tendencies  in the region in ways that are regarded as more threatening to their stability than is the Shi’ia sectarian rivalry. This form of threat perception was made clear by the counterrevolutionary support given by the Gulf monarchies to the military coup against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt back in 2013. The hostility toward Shi’ism is less theological than geopolitical, a cover for its competition with Iran for regional hegemony.

 

At first, Trump conveyed unreserved U.S. support for these moves against Qater designed to intimate this tiny country. However it became soon clear that Trump had no idea about what he was doing.  Upon returning to the U.S. Trump quickly discovered that the largest American air base in the region was located inside Qatar housing as many as 10,000 American troops. In an unexplained turnaround Trump dropped support for confronting Qatar and urged the parties to resolve the Gulf Crisis as soon as possible by negotiations, a position supported strongly by the Secretaries of State and Defense. After some months, when this shift of Washington tactics didn’t succeed, Trump shifted again this time asserting that the U.S. does not interfere in such crises, and left it up to the parties to find their own solution. I suspect that this second shift occurred because the Trump presidency didn’t want to be associated with a position that appeared to exert no influence on the parties to the conflict.

 

My central point is that what didn’t matter at all in such a tactical situation was the striking fact that Qatar, as with Palestine, had international law totally on its side with respect to all of the issues in contention. Even the international community and the UN failed to lend symbolic support to Qatar in reaction to the unlawful bullying tactics pursued by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. Qatar has seemed reluctant to insist on its rights under international law as its pragmatic response to the crisis was to seek a mediated compromise rather than an acknowledgement of wrongdoing  by the Gulf Coalition. Perhaps such a posture was, and remains, a reflection of the power disparities, which meant that Qatar’s only hope to end the crisis peacefully. Expecting the Gulf Coalition to admit its wrongdoing was evidently assumed to be unrealistic given its hard power dominance of the Gulf.

 

  • The Khashoggi Murder. As has been widely suggested, the grotesque murder of the leading Saudi journalist, Kamal Khashoggi, shocked humanity in ways that tens of thousand of dead civilians in Yemen and Syria have not. There are various interpretations and piously phrased prescriptions about what must be done. Should the Saudi perpetrators be held responsible? And if so how? Should lucrative arms deals benefitting the American arms industry be cancelled costing American jobs and profits? Should the alliance with Saudi Arabia by the US and Israel go forward with its central plan of confronting Iran, while abandoning the Palestinians? What such a litany of questions ignores is the total neglect of the relevance of the most fundamental of human rights, the right to life, as well as the abuse of diplomatic immunity of consulates located in a foreign territory.

 

When contemplating the proper course of action the main consideration seems to be ‘how to preserve national interests in light of such a grisley murder?’ As long as possible, Trump and the Israeli leadership sought to explain away the Khashoggi murder by shamelessly advancing a series of scenarios that invoked ‘alternative facts’ to avoid pointing a finger of accusation in the direction of Riyadh—first, it didn’t happen, and if it happened it was an accident, and then finally, if it wasn’t accident it  was not premeditated, and should be treated as a rogue operation of Saudi security people going beyond their orders. If some Saudi official are punished this is enough to absolve Mohamed ben Salmon from guilt, regional geopolitics after a pause can be resumed as if the murder didn’t happen, and the United States can deliver the arms sold with a clear conscience as if nothing happened that should raise questions about continuing to treat Saudi Arabia as a valued ally. Not just the Khashoggi murder, but the broader record of human rights abuse, the malicious and inhumane Yemen War,  and the major funding of Islamic militancy around the world should have caused severe doubt. Does not political realism have any outer moral limits? The alliance with Saudi Arabia carries cynicism about ethical decency to an extreme.

 

 

Taking World Order Seriously

 

Leaders like Trump or Netanyahu whose global outlook are antagonistic to the values of the UN Charter and some form of humane global governance. Yet even they appear to value the UN as a prime time arena within which to articulate their preferred futures and aspirations, ironically including attacking the UN because it does behave as they would wish. In this sense, the priorities and values of leaders, especially those of authoritarian disposition, are often displayed in the annual series of speeches given at the UN. The media pays little attention to such presentations except to gain clues about immediate policy concerns, and this preoccupation with hot button issues overlooks their value as expressive of the worldview professed by current national leaders. This is not to suggest that such UN statements ignore immediate policy choices. The point is rather that it is more valuable to treat these annual statements as meaningful disclosures of underlying ideas about the nature and dynamics of world order.

 

Donald Trump’s second UN speech was somewhat less belligerent than his 2017 speech, except with reference to Iran, which was threatening, misleading, and in violation of spirit and letter of UN Charter. Trump disturbingly conveyed a clear sense that recourse to war, at least for the US was discretionary, and need not necessarily be justified by advancing a credible claim of self-defense or even a reasoned justification. As such, without using negating language toward the relevance of international law, Trump is repudiating in form as well as practice the core undertaking of the UN to prohibit all aggressive threats and uses of force in international relations.

 

In articulating this conception of the world according to Trump a few quotations underscore the tone and substance of his outlook, especially his insistence on subordinating global concerns to national interests narrowly conceived. On all questions, Trump accords priority to sovereign political will, thus repudiating the central efforts after World War II to promote a global rule of law and impose standards of criminal accountability on those who act on behalf of sovereign states. He also rejects the role of the UN Charter and international law as the rightful arbiter of when a state is authorized to use force internationally in situations other than responses to armed attacks.

 

A few representative quotes convey the tone and substance of Trump’s 2018 speech to the General Assembly.

 

On Anti-Globalism:

“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and dominance.”

 

On Affirming Capitalism as the only legitimate path:

“America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

“All nations around the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings.”

 

On UN Reform:

Denying the  legitimacy to both HRC and ICC:

“We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to      an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.”

 

 

On a World of Sovereign States:

“Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy, has ever endured or peace has ever prospered. And we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all,”

“So let us choose a future of patriotism, prosperity, and pride…We have a policy of principled realism rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.”

 

Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, the 93 year old leader of Malaysia gave the UN General Assembly an entirely different view of both the national interests of his country and his view of the global setting. This view reaffirmed the balance struck between the global and the national in the post-1945 initiatives as enacted by establishing the UN and holding the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Mahathir also recognized the gravity of the challenges that are presently confronting humanity. In my view, Mahathir’s responsible statesmanship contrasts with Trump’s anachronistic ideas of international order and American national interests.

 

As with Trump, a few representative quotes from Mahathir’s speech convey his overall approach.

 

On Malaysian national interest and values:

“Malaysians want a new Malaysia that upholds the principles of fairness, good governance, integrity and the rule of law. They want a Malaysia that is a friend to all and enemy of none. A Malaysia that remains neutral and non-aligned. A Malaysia that detests and abhors wars and violence. They also want a Malaysia that will speak its mind on what is right and wrong, without fear or favour. A new Malaysia that believes in co-operation based on mutual respect, for mutual gain. The new Malaysia that offers a partnership based on our philosophy of ‘prosper-thy-neighbour’. We believe in the goodness of cooperation, that a prosperous and stable neighbour would contribute to our own prosperity and stability.”

 

On respect for UN principles:

“These include the principles of truth, human rights, the rule of law, justice, fairness, responsibility and accountability, as well as sustainability.”

 

Toward a nonviolent geopolitics:

“There is something wrong with our way of thinking, with our value system. Kill one man, it is murder, kill a million and you become a hero. And so we still believe that conflict between nations can be resolved with war.”

 

On UN Reform:

“Malaysia lauds the UN in its endeavours to end poverty, protect our planet and try to ensure everyone enjoys peace and prosperity. But I would like to refer to the need for reform in the organisation. Five countries on the basis of their victories 70 over years ago cannot claim to have a right to hold the world to ransom forever. They cannot take the moral high ground, preaching democracy and regime change in the countries of the world when they deny democracy in this organisation.”

 

These two opposing worldviews should not be viewed as symmetrical. Trump adopts an extreme version of state-centric world order that might have been seen as appropriate for a dominant state in the nineteenth century. In contrast, Mahathir has views that take responsible account of twenty-first century realities, and a more globalized cluster of challenges and opportunities. In this regard, it seems appropriate to regard Trump and Trumpism as dangerously anachronistic, while Mahathir providing an illuminating example of what might be described as ‘the new political realism’ sensitive to the urgencies of the present.

 

 

Seven Conclusions

 

  • It is instructive to distinguish Donald Trump the person from Trumpism a global political phenomenon of right-wing populism and a structural reaction to neoliberal globalization;
  • It is also clarifying to distinguish Trump the gifted tactical trickster from Trump the right-wing ideologue;
  • There has occurred a normative decline rendering irrelevant in most war/peace settings international law, the UN, and human rights; this decline began before the Trump presidency but has been accelerated by Trump;
  • It would be misleading to overlook pre-Trump failings of American global leadership, especially in the period between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks; the pre-Trump continuities are more fundamental than discontinuities, especially in view of the bipartisan response to 9/11;
  • Two lines of criticism of Trump’s world order approach should be taken into account: I. blame by the established interests and the deep state for dismantling the liberal international order, damaging Western solidarity, retreating from hegemonic leadership; II. blame by political realists for abandoning the U.S. role as benevolent hegemon; such realist hold Trump responsible for his failure to do more to shape global policy along pragmatic and sustainable lines;
  • War-mongering toward Iran;
  • It would be in the human interest to be attentive to Mahathir’s alternative worldview, which articulates a perspective sensitive to the claims of small states and responsive to the claims of planetary realism; such an outlook necessarily rejects regressive embraces of ultra-nationalism that are occurring in several key countries at the present time.

 

  

 

[*]Based on lecture given at West Chester University, October 24, 2018.

[†]It is always important to appreciate that the problems of the Palestinian people are a direct result of the failure of the UN to find a formula for peace that upholds Palestinian basic rights. No other situation in the world is so directly related to UN unrealized initiatives.

[‡]This study titled “Israeli Policies and Practices Towards the Palestinian People: The Question of Apartheid,” was commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Council for West Asia (ESCWA), released March 15, 2017, and written by Virginia Tilley and myself.