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Trump’s Idea of World Order Endangers the Human Future

12 Oct

[Prefatory Note: This post is an interview with Daniel Falcone that was published in slightly modified form in Counterpunch on October 4, 2018]

 

Trump’s Idea of World Order Endangers the Human Future

 Q 1. What are your general thoughts on Trump’s recent UN talk and how world opinion received it?

 

A: The Trump speech at the UN this year was a virtual mirror image of Trump’s overall political profile, slightly embellished by some idealistic sentiments of an abstract and vague character, and if the content is analyzed, revealing glaring tensions between the banal abstractions and the concrete lines of policy being advocated by the American president. However, if Trump’s remarks are compared with his first speech to the General Assembly a year earlier, except for the warmongering toward Iran, it was less belligerent, and a bit more ingratiating to other members and to the UN as an organization, yet essentially unchanged so far as its essential features affirming nationalist policy, values, and prescriptions are concerned. It was a speech that not only subscribed to the premises of a state-centric world order, but celebrated sovereignty as the best and only reliable foundation for security on a global level.

 

A central theme articulated by Trump throughout the speech and strongly stressed at the beginning and end was the primacy of a sovereignty-centered world order based on territorial nation-states. This amounts to a strong affirmation of Westphalian ideas of world order as these have evolved in Europe since the middle of the 17thcentury. The essential tone of the speech was awkwardly encapsulated in this pithy statement: “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism.” Throughout the speech this notion of patriotism was kept obscure unless thought of as an emotional attachment to sovereign rights that reinforced its rational claim to loyalty of individuals.

 

It is far from clear what is meant by ‘the ideology of globalism,’ although it can be inferred from other formulations in the text, and elsewhere, that for Trump it means rejecting any policy prescription that puts the wellbeing of the region or world ahead of the interests of individual sovereign states. Trump leaves no doubt about this: “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered. And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.” Quite a lot of history is overlooked in this sweeping generalization, although its descriptive weight may depend on how ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are understood. At least with regard to ‘peace’ empires have done better for longer time intervals than have sovereign states.

 

The emotive embodiment of such a state-centric worldview is conveyed by Trump’s stress, unusual in statements by leaders at the UN, on ‘the doctrine of partriotism.’ Again, the meaning is clear even if the words chosen are rather odd, even out of place. There is no doctrine of patriotism in either the annals of diplomacy or in scholarly writing lying about waiting to be explained. A claim of patriotism is normally associated with expressions of overriding, sometime blind, loyalty to a particular national political community, especially in relation to war and ideology. Patriotism is also invoked to justify the sacrifices made by citizens, even unto life itself, and to explain the bestowal of unconditional support to one’s own country in situations of international conflict or ideological conflict. In the Cold War period it was a common slogan among anti-Communist self-proclaimed patriots to shout at ideological critics of capitalism or national policy: “America, love it or leave it.”

 

Against such a background, Trump’s next moves in his address to this UN audience is exactly what we have come to expect from him. First, he puts America forward as a model nation that demonstrates to the world what achievements can be had with respect to constitutional stability and prosperity, giving other states a blueprint to mimic if they seek the best possible future for their respective societies. And secondly, insisting that America will respect the sovereignty of others and cooperate for mutual benefits, but only on the basis of reciprocity and as measured by what the U.S. government deems as fair, which Trump insisted would require several drastic course corrections within and without the UN. Trump in his now familiar framing contends that the U.S. has in the past borne a disproportionate share of financial burdens at the UN, and elsewhere in its international relationship, but vows that this pattern will not be allowed to continue in the future. Whether in trade relations or foreign economic assistance, the United States will demand not only good balance sheet results as assessed by a transactional logic, but shows of political support in international venues from those governments that are beneficiaries of American largesse.

 

Where Trump tramples on normal diplomatic decorum, so much so that his comments provoke derisive laughter from the assembled delegates, occurs when he boasts so grossly about the accomplishments of his presidency. “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any other administration in the history of our country.” To give more tangible grounds for this extraordinary moment of self-congratulation with representatives of the governments of the entire world sitting in front of him, Trump claims “America’s economy is booming as never before.” To substantiate such a boast Trump points to the record highs of the stock market and historic lows for unemployment, especially for minorities. He also points to counterterrorism successes in Syria and Afghanistan, and to border security in relation to illegal migration.

Maybe most distressing in the context of telling this global audience about how well the United States is doing under his leadership is Trump’s unabashed embrace of militarism as if it is a sign of the virtuous character of the United States. He speaks with pride, rather than shame, of record spending of $700 billion for the military budget, to be increased in the following year to $716 billion. Such expenditures are announced with no felt need for a security justification beyond the bald assertion “[o]ur military will soon be more powerful than it has ever been.” There is no explanation given for why such gigantic sums are needed or how they will be used.

 

Trump gives here an unintended hint of a globalist element. He resorts to the familiar trope that “[w]e are standing up for America and for the American people. And we are also standing up for the world.” In other words, American militarism is a win/win proposition for all nations, provided, of course, that they are not identified as enemies to be sanctioned and destabilized from within and without.

 

The UN was affirmed by Trump so long as it operated according to this template based on the interaction of sovereign states that were dedicated above all to maximizing the benefits of international cooperation for their own national societies. Two caveats along the way qualified this endorsement of sovereign rights. First, respect for the sovereign rights of others does not apply to ideological and geopolitical adversaries of the United States and its allies. Hence, sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, regimes which were singled out to express Trump’s view that socialism inevitably produces misery are justified as such states deserve no respect for their sovereignty. This ideological provincialism, which hearkens back to the worst of hawkish ideologues during the Cold War Era, is coupled with the vitriolic repudiation of the sovereign rights of Iran, which is blamed for exporting terrorism throughout the Middle East and ruling its own people with an iron fist. What follows is not a statement of grudging respect for the sovereignty of such miscreant states, but escalating sanctions, and harsh threats of confrontation and destabilization.

 

Secondly, Trump claims, with reference to the UN, that the U.S. has in the past borne an unfair share of UN expenses, and as with trade and other international arrangements, argues that this must stop. In the Trump future cooperation will only be possible if this situation is corrected, while at the same time making sure that the Organization behaves in ways that correspond with the wishes of its largest financial contributor. Trump singled out the UN Human Rights Council [HRC] and the International Criminal Court [ICC] for fierce condemnation, alleging that such institutions fall far below his criteria of acceptable behavior. Trump refers to the embarrassment associated with the fact that the elected membership of the HRC includes governments with terrible human rights records, one of his few observations that has merit. For the ICC no words of rejection are strong enough for Trump, but he chooses the following language to make his point: “As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureau.” Such sentiments amount to the death knell of all prospects for a global rule of law if American geopolitical leverage is sufficiently strong.

 

I was also struck by what Trump left unsaid in his speech. There was no reference to his supposed ‘deal of the century’ with its pledge to deliver an enduring peace to Israel and Palestine. I can only wonder whether the evident content of the approach being long prepared by the White House seems so politically unacceptable that it has either been shelved or is in the process of being repackaged. Although it is probably foolish to speculate, the Kushner/Greenblatt/Friedman plan according to what is known, involved an unpalatable mixture of ‘economic peace’ incentives for the Palestinians with some sort of arrangement to transfer Gaza to the governmental authority of Jordan and Egypt. In effect, this strikes me as a pseudo-diplomatic version of the ‘Victory Caucus’ promoted so vigorously by Daniel Pipes and the Middle East Forum, but for the sake of appearances made by the Kushner group to seem as if a new peace process. For Pipes, the road to peace is based on the prior renunciation of Palestinian political aspirations coupled with the acknowledgement both that Israel is the state of the Jewish people and that international diplomacy had been tried within the Oslo framework for more than 20 years, and failed.

 

The Trump approach appears to want a similar outcome to that put forward by Pipes, but seeks to reach such a diplomatic finishing line by creating in advance a set of political conditions favorable to Israel and offering a different set of inducements to the Palestinians if they will kneel down politically. This approach had been signaled by adopting the Israeli line on Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, UNRWA, and Gaza, yet in UN venues Trump uses uncharacteristically cautious language, expressing only the faintest hope that some kind of solution will mysteriously issue forth: “The United States is committed to a future of peace and stability in the region, including peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That aim is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” Among the most ‘obvious facts’ is the provocative announcement of the intention to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem last December.

 

Perhaps, the most notable change from Trump’s remarks of the prior year is his praise of Kim Jung-un for taking denuclearizing steps. The prior year Kim was insultingly called ‘the rocket man’ and his government demeaned as a ‘depraved regime.’ This year Trump seemed to be suggesting, and even thanking neighboring countries for their support, that there exists, thanks of course to Washinton’s bold diplomacy, the best chance ever that a peaceful transition will occur, leading to a unified Korea devoid of any threat of a war on the peninsula fought with nuclear weaponry. 

 

Not surprisingly, also, there was not a word mentioned in Trump’s lengthy speech about climate change, or the need for enhanced lawmaking treaties to solve global challenges. Trump’s implicit message is that the UN should not try to do more than provide meeting places for geopolitical leaders to address the peoples of the world while enjoying what the great city of New York has to offer by way of restaurants and culture. In this view the real role of the UN is to give geopolitical actors a convenient venue to pursue their foreign policy ambitions, but to step aside when it comes to prescriptions for behavior in accord with international law, or even its own Charter.

 

To give an inevitable Orwellian spin to a speech that at several points lauds democratic forms of governance as the only legitimate way to structure state/society relations, Trump singles out four countries with notably autocratic leaders for positive recognition near the close of his remarks: India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Poland in that order. If we ask ‘what do these otherwise dissimilar states have in common’? The answer is certainly not democracy, as none are ‘democatic’ in any satisfactory sense. Periodic elections are not enough. The obvious answer to the question is ‘having autocratic leadership.’ Perhaps an even more instructive answer is ‘they all have favorable relations with Trump’s America.’ This is certainly not due to their democratic credentials. Indians refer to Modi as ‘our Trump,’ Saudi Arabia is as repressive and atrocity-prone as any state on earth, Israel maintains an apartheid state to keep Palestinians under oppressive control while it establishes an exclusivist Jewish state in what was not so long ago a non-Jewish society, and Poland is harsh toward refugees and generally repressive toward dissent.

 

Apart from Netanyahu and other authoritarian leaders, there was little in Trump’s speech that would appeal to foreign leaders, other than perhaps his show of selective respect for the sovereign rights of other states, which was incidentally the only applause line of the entire speech. It was essentially a speech telling the world that it had taken Trump only two years to make America great again. And if other states seek greatness, their leaders should follow along by relying on the Trump’s simple formula: abandon globalism, choose patriotism. Such an empty, anachronistic message was properly unheeded by those who quietly stayed in their seats throughout the speech except for the delegates from countries where Trumpism already controlled the government.

 

Q 2. Can you talk about how Trump manages to be such an effective politician at his rallies yet fails to parlay this to successful UN addresses?

 

A: At his rallies, Trump performs as a fiery demagogue to the delight of his populist base drawn from right-wing America. His audience consists mainly of white working class supporters who have reason to feel enraged and victimized by the regressive internationalism of the American political establishment, whether Democratic or Republican. Despite his wealth Trump successfully projects an anti-establishment posture that has even managed to captured the Republican internationalist mainstream, partly by promoting economic nationalism, and has effectively neutralized the neoliberal internationalism of Wall Street by claiming credit for the stock market rise while tearing down the pillars of the liberal global order so carefully constructed by bankers and corporate giants ever since 1945.

 

This demagogic appeal is furthered bolstered by promising a robust sovereignty-oriented nationalism in which the rights and interests of Americans will be given the highest priorities, illegals deported, Muslims kept out, and dog whistles of approval given to white supremism. Trump promises that these policies will be embodied in economic arrangements that are capable of keeping jobs in America, employment low, and encouraging capital investment to stay at home to reap tax benefits and windfall profits to entrepreneurs by way of environmental deregulation and the weakening of social protection for the poor and homeless.

 

Such an abandonment of internationalism in rhetoric and policy is rather displeasing to most other countries, including the Atlantic coalition that had been the mainstay of American foreign policy until Trump came along. The Trump engagement with the world is backed up by blunt forms of  militarism, and pledges to back up its threats with missiles if resistance is met, and ultimately playing the role of geopolitical bully at the UN and elsewhere. This is a departure from the avowals of American leaders since World War II to provide enlightened global leadership that is beneficial to the whole world, which can fairly be described as a brand of globalism with the military instrument present but used sparingly, although still excessively. 

Q 3. Trump might feed his base by disrespecting the international community but at some point this is not sustainable correct?

 

So far Trump has not paid a high price for ignoring global challenges such as climate change, nuclearism, famine, global migration, refugee flows, and global inequalities, but days of reckoning will come, and when they do the costs of his version of militant nationalism will be extremely high, and likely unmanageable without bringing chaos and catastrophe. In this basic sense, the reaffirmation of nationalism as the only acceptable political model for this century is a way of fiddling madly while the planet bursts into devastating flames. Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Iran Nuclear Program Agreement, as well as his denunciation of the International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Council are normative retreats from the fledgling efforts to construct a world community based on the rule of law and respect for human dignity.

Q 4. Trump continues to shock and frighten the world regarding Cuba and Iran with antiquated threats of sanctions and continued hostility.     Furthermore, Trump has no method to the madness re: China and Canada in terms of trade. Can you discuss theses matters respectively and how we we’ve become a laughing stock on a world stage?

 

Instead of being a laughing stock, it is more realistic to view Trump’s America as bringing tears to the eyes of those who care about present human suffering and future prospects for peace, human rights, global justice, economic stability and equity, and ecological sustainability. What we need is an equitable globalismthat is dedicated to safeguarding and promotinghuman interests. What we don’t need is a militarized patriotism that builds walls of exclusion and criminalizes socialist governments while turning a blind eye to bloody autocrats and coal emissions, which seems to be the rough guidelines shaping Trump’s language, and most of his policies. It is not a good time for those who seek the present and future wellbeing of the human species and co-evolutionary relations with the surrounding natural environment. In contrast, citizen pilgrims seeking a world community, are dedicated to a peaceful transitions to an ecologically sensitive and equitable planetary civilization that incorporates empathy as a core value. 

 

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Revisiting the Earth Charter

27 Aug

[Prefatory Note: The following essay will appear as a chapter in Peter Burden & Klaus Bosselmann, eds., The Future of Global Ethics(Edward Elgar, 2018),  with the title ]

 

 

Revisiting the Earth Charter 20 Years Later: A Response to Ron Engel

 

 

Ron Engel has articulated an insider review of the Earth Charter so thoughtfully, urbanely, and persuasively that my initial temptation was to restrict my response to a single word: ‘Amen!’

 

Yet I am familiar enough with the academic ways of gathering diverse voices to explore a topic or to evaluate the scholarship of a distinguished author, as to discard my one-word option. At the same time, it would be misleading if I didn’t praise Ron Engel for putting so many elusive issues before us in such a lucid and compelling manner as to make my efforts at dialogue feel a bit forced, given the high level of agreement.

 

This endorsement of Engel’s call to action for the realization of the ambitious goals of the Earth Charter does not strike me as particularly dialogic, but rather as expressive of the importance of transnational consensus-building at this stage among the likeminded constutency of ecological worried on the crucial transformative challenges that lie at the heart of the making the Earth Charter into a Plan of Action, or at the very least, a manifesto. In effect, if the Earth Charter presents the vision, a manifesto could implore implementation by identifying what needs to be done, and by whom.

 

Can we amid the complexities and contradictions of the historical present identify agents of change or social forces comparable to the manner in which Marx and Engels interpreted the role of the working classes in mid-19thcentury Europe? Without differing from Ron Engel except in choice of words, I am wondering how to achieve political traction for a transformative political movement that agrees with him that the most formidable obstacles lying on the path leading toward planetary peace and justice are ideologies and practices associated with neoliberal capitalism and its strong linkages of mutual dependence with militarized governmental bureaucracies.

 

In recent years this toxic set of institutional/ideological linkages has been able to divert the peoples of the world and most governing elites from the challenge of restoring pre-industrial ecological integrity to such issues as the threats to civilizational coherence posed either by transcivilizational migratory flows that expose the fragility of democratic values and practices, climate change, various forms of globalization that reinforce inequalities and enrage those feeling themselves left behind. In reaction, many populated and affluent societies of the world have perversely placed their trust, and their future, in demagogic leaders and ultra-nationalist political parties who proclaim anti-ecological agendas in spirit and substance.

 

In light of this, it does seem rather utopian to situate current hopes on the ecological radicalization of democracy in ways that insist on the implementation of equality across the spectrum of human concerns and even extend the boundaries of ethical sensitivity to encompass non-human species. Can we, in other words, really rely on the peoples of the world to form a movement powerful enough to bring the Second Axial Age into being, especially at a time when the transcendent values of the First Axial Age are being so widely betrayed? At least, we need some exploration of why such a belief in the reinvigoration of democracy is not a mere exercise in wishful thinking, and needs to be put aside if we are to contemplate the future with an open mind.

 

I admit that if a skeptical eye is turned toward the present potentialities of democracy, we need to ask, ‘what then?’ to escape from falling into a dark pit of despair. Certainly, none of the now competing secular ideologies, or their religious analogues, seem capable of taking on such a mission. It could be that we are experiencing nothing more than a democratic pause, and that there will be a dialectical renewal of democracy in reaction to the dominant autocratic/populist political trajectories that now seem to be moving the world toward ecological crisis, if not catastrophe.

 

We need to remember that the best Athenian minds, including Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, all lost faith in democracy due to the capacity of demagogues to turn the citizenry of their city into a frenzied warmongering mob that made Athens succumb to its own hubris. This surrender has often been misunderstood and misapplied by the power-mad realists shaping global governance in its present hybrid mixture of statism and geopolitics, the chaos of interacting sovereign states ‘disciplined’ by the grand strategies of the dominant states. The Melian Dialogue in Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, is often cited by writers on international relations to show that in the foreign encounters of states, power counts, and that’s it, with reliance place on Thucydides’ often invoked arresting words: “”those who have power do what they like, those who do not, do what they must.”[1]A more careful reading of Thucydides’ whole history shows that this first great historian of warfare was using this apparent whitewash of cruelty and opportunism in war as indicative of Athenian decline, and not as a comment on the way the world works. It was suggesting to attentive readers that those who do not respect universal morality in dealing with their weaker adversaries will themselves perish before long. This is a message our militarist political elites refuse to heed or even receive, and are aided in doing so, by think-tank realists and power hungry academics who wrap themselves in the false flag of ‘realism.’

 

Perhaps, the most startling claim in Engel’s essay is that the Earth Charter is actually illuminating the ontological essence of human reality. Such a bold assertion sets the agenda of the Second Axial Age as above all tasked with converting this sense of humanity as ecological beings into a living historical reality. By invoking ontology Engel is claiming that Earth Charter perspectives depict “the essential structure of reality” that definitively establishes the moral boundaries of human endeavor and grounds hope for a relevant global movement for self-government as necessarily responsive to this understanding.

 

I share the view of Engel that we must keep focused on what is necessaryand desirable, and not let our views of the future get hijacked by the self-interested entrepreneurs of what is feasibleand reasonable who continue to exert near monopoly control over the exercise of political and economic power.Among the most insidious of these entrepreneurs are the corporatized media giants that feed our minds with a false confidence in the normalcy of our times, thereby distracting us from an appreciation of the urgent priorities that stem from its unprecedented systemic abnormality. This media spin on the contemporary world obstructs most efforts to achieve a relevant critical awareness. Without such an awareness, the needed emergent consensus on who we are and how we should behave is situated on a terrain that is out of human reach. Instead of an ecologically driven focus, the mainstream media is leading the worthy fight in so many places to protect freedom of expression from statist and corporate encroachments, thereby offering a better understanding of the abuses attributable to autocratic forms of governance operating at the level of the state.

 

While this struggle is truly significant, and must be waged, it is not as central as is the struggle to recover am ecological sense of our beingness-in-the-world, a sense that came naturally to many native peoples around the world whose existence was not only suppressed and exploited, but their wisdom discarded by reductionist and hegemonic versions of how human society interacts with its natural surroundings. At the very time when we need to be conditioned by the ecological imperatives of a new global ethics, most societies are in the grips of these earlier struggles to avoid slipping into 21stcentury versions of the dark ages or at best making themselves content with being ‘entertained’ while the fires of ecological disarray move ever closer. In this sense, the political struggles being waged are tinkering with the modalities of how human society manipulates nature for its benefit instead of recovering modalities of mutuality and reciprocity that can produce structuralchanges as well as fight policy battles within anachronistic ontological frameworks.

 

What is possible and necessary, and follows from the coherence of the Earth Charter, and our recognition of the truthfulness of its presentation of reality, is altering the sense of citizenship and political participation, at least for those of us that endorse the vision. I find that the call for global citizenship, which Engel affirms, to be somewhat misleading. Citizenship presupposes community, and what is lacking at present is any meaningful sense of global political community. For the overwhelming multitude of people the boundaries of territorial sovereign states exhaust the content of political community. Moving toward an ecological civilization will require the emergence and construction of a genuine and robust global community, but that is a project for the future rather than presenting an existing alternative. It is a task for the future, and needs to be identified as such to avoid a purely nominal claim of globalcitizenship in a global setting shaped by nationalist ideologies that inhibit in the name of traditional patriotism, any real engagement with either species or ecological wellbeing, especially when these normative strivings are seen to place burdens on the pursuit of nationalist priorities. For this reason, I prefer the language of ‘citizen pilgrim’ as self-identifying those of us seeking to construct a global community that is organized around global ethics of the sort that flows from an acceptance of the worldview embedded in the Earth Charter. In my imaginary, the citizen pilgrim is embarked on such a journey equipped with maps that locate no fixed destination, but dwell upon the idea, at once spiritual and material, of establishing a global community by stages as opportunities arise.

 

In the background of such musing, is a problematic sense that the United Nations, as the institutional center of the international legal order, was supposed to prefigure such a global community. From a reading of the Preamble to the UN Charter it was clear that the new organization was expected to promote humaninterests rather than provide an additional vehicle for realization of nationalinterests. Such an idealistic perception of the UN was always doubtful, and at most expressed a vague expectation to be fulfilled at some distant time in the future. The constitutional makeup of the UN reflected the anarchic workings of existing world order, giving priority to the equality of sovereign states as against the claims of either people or nature and allowing the dominant states to use their right of veto so as to opt out of their obligations to comply with the UN Charter, as well as their geopolitical entitlement to view international law as discretionary for themselves while being mandatory for the others.

 

In light of this background, it should have been anticipated that the UN would become over time primarily an instrumentcombining statecraft and geopolitics, and only rarely a crucial venue for global policy making. As the UN has matured, it has not developed as its most ardent supporters had hoped, but on the contrary has lost much of its earlier relevance to the resolution of international conflicts, and seems more marginal than ever on the major challenges of our time. Such a generalization is not meant to withhold credit from the UN, especially from its specialized organs dealing with health, children, culture, human rights, and environment in ways that improve lives and the habitat, but within frames of thought and action that are almost totally pre-ecological.

 

At the very outset of his essay Engel delimits the overriding goal and challenge facing humanity to be one of achieving what he calls ‘a new era of global governance.’ It never becomes evident what that would entail by way of institutional and normative renovation. The realization of the Earth Charter vision would seem to depend upon the existence of institutions having as their primary mandate a mission to serve peace and justice for all peoples of the world, not by implementing the outlook of a growth-oriented developmental economy, but by reference to an ecologically infused global ethics. This undertaking is quite revolutionary in its call for reordering the values and practices that have prevailed throughoutmodern human history, it is further extended, by a fundamental ecological pedagogy insisting that we as a species can only expect to live in a sustainable manner if we also enlarge our moral and political imagination to take into account the wellbeing of non-human species.

 

What that means concretely needs to be worked out in ways that acknowledge the contradictions that exist when it comes to mediating inter-species relations on the basis of some measure of mutuality. Does it, for instance, require the adoption of a dramatic dietary embrace of vegetarianism by the entire human species, or is it sufficient to treat animals decently and killing only for subsistence as native peoples clearly did? Who is there to identify the demographic limits that meet the standards set by an ecologically grounded global ethics, and how will such limits be set and implemented? Engel regards non-violence as integral to the dynamics of the transformation expected to result from the Second Axial Age, but does that mean that security for communities can dispense with weapons and count on the disappearance of violent crime? Such questions are illustrative only.

 

I was struck by a recent report that a year ago in a penguin colony in Antarctica only two penguins survived from a birth cohort of 18,000 due to the diminished ecological conditions prevailing in their customary habitat.[2]Among the causes of such a doleful incident is industrial fishing that has greatly diminished the supply of krill on which not only penguins, but giant squid, the blue whale, and seals depend upon for sustenance. From the perspective of humane ecology, there arise a series of questions about balancing the needs and desires of the human species against the wellbeing of other species, including whether certain market driven activities should not be prohibited or severely restricted, as well as the question of who decides when the issue concerns life support in the global commons.

 

Given the gross disparities that exist in material circumstances and resource endowments in the world as we know it, is it plausible utopianism to insist on equalityas the measure of a just society, or is it more credible to settle for equity, fairness, and material needs(as already posited as human rights in Articles 25 and 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). There are many more relevant issues if the design of ecologically oriented global governance is to become, whether by stages or through a revolutionary surge, the signature achievement of the Second Axial Age. One such overarching issue is whether a kind of minimalism could fashion early effort to make the Earth Charter assume the status of being a political project, and more maximalist views being held in abeyance.

 

There is also the question of time, and the related urgency of meeting challenges that cannot await for the usual rhythms of historical change to work their way into human experience. The pace of technological innovation shortens time horizons in ways that societies seem unable to absorb, and so deny to varying extents. This seems true whether it is the advent of nuclear weaponry or digital life styles. It would seem that we are living with unrealistic calmness in the midst of a consuming global emergency. We cannot hope to achieve the vision of the Earth Charter by waiting for it to happen, and the value of Ron Engel’s essay is to impart such feelings of urgency with respect to moving from vision to action. In my terms, can a band of citizen pilgrims be the Paul Revere’s of this age, sounding alarm bells that awaken the slumbering masses before it is too late?

 

I know that some respected commentators on the global situation insist that we are already too late, have crossed vital ecological and biodiversity thresholds of no return. I resist such pessimism, or its twin, optimism, for the simple reason that the future is unknowable. If unknowable, then we share the responsibility and opportunity to work toward a preferred future. We are living in a period when the only politics that meets our needs as a species and our planet as an ecological entity is ‘a politics of impossibility,’ which is another way of saying that mastering the art of the possible has no chance of embodying the vision and values of the Earth Charter, along with Engel’s gloss, in the realities of the human future.

 

[1]Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (Free Press, translated by Richard Crawley, 1998) 588.

[2]See article by John Sauven, director of Greenpeace, in The Guardian, Oct. 13, 2017 under the title “Penguins starving to death is a sign that something’s very wrong in the Antarctic.”

The Future of NATO: An Interview

11 Aug

The Future of NATO: An Interview with Daniel Falcone

 

[Prefatory Note: An interview with Daniel Falcone on the future of NATO that considers Trump’s brazen challenges and the tepid responses of European political leaders, and what this interplay signifies for the future of world order. At least, Trump’s approach has so far avoided the drift toward Cold War 2 that might have happened had Hillary Clinton become president, but Trump’s trade war mentality may hasten the advent of a different kind of second Cold War, with China and Europe at its epicenter, that is, if the Trump presidency is not undermined in the November elections or otherwise. We should be puzzled by the seeming passivity of the deep state in the U.S. Does it not exist after all?]

 

 

 

 

Q1. What are the reasons for Trump’s insistence that NATO is just another extension of corruption and an institutional burden for the United States?

 

It is difficult to evaluate Trump’s particular moves from coherent rational perspectives. He seems driven by narcissistic motivations of various sorts that have little to do with any overall grand strategy, and a diplomatic style that he has managed to impose on the conduct of American foreign policy that consists of provocative bluster and insults of respected foreign leaders, a continuation of the sort of vulgar irreverence that brought him unexpected success on the presidential campaign trail in 2016 and earlier celebrity in the deal-making world of real estate, gambling casinos, beauty pageants, professional boxing, and reality TV (“The Apprentice”). Explaining Trump’s recent confrontational focus on financial contributions by NATO members seems as simple as this at first glance, but of course, such assessments based on personality never tell the whole story in the complex unfolding political narrative. Undoubtedly, another part of the story can be associated with the insistence during a Trump’s interview that Europe is a trade rival of the United States. A further conjecture may be a geopolitical ‘peace’ framework based on Russia, China, and the U.S..

 

With regard to NATO, Trump has a clear target related to two things he seems to love, and admittedly such affections were not alien to the foreign policy he inherited from his predecessors: money and weapons. By showing that he can gain what Obama failed to achieve with respect to meeting the agreed 2% of GDP goal set for NATO members, he can, and certainly will, boast of his greater effectiveness in protecting America’s material interests than prior presidents. As suggested he measures foreign policy success by reference to monetary returns and America, First (and Me, First) criteria, and tends to put to one side the solidarities of friendship among countries sharing a common cultural identity and mutual respect that have been at the core of the alliance ethos over the decades, especially in relations with Western Europe since World War II. For Trump it appears that alliances, including even NATO, are to be treated as nothing more than business arrangements that are only worthwhile so long as their profit margins hold up. This means that financial contributions become the clearest test of whether cooperative frameworks makes sense in present settings. Interests and values are put to one side while the bundles of cash are counted. In such a process, the circumstances that brought the alliance into being, or justify its continuation, are ignored. Actually, Trump could make a credible case for withdrawing from or greatly downsizing the alliance, given present world conditions, which would help reduce the U.S. fiscal deficit, as well as easing the burdens of security that fall to Washington.

 

In the end, Trump could credibly claim a narrow victory for himself at this recent NATO summit in the transactional sense of gaining assurances from the European governments that they will be increasing their defense budgets.In return Trump reaffirmed continuing U.S. support for the NATO alliance. Like a Mafioso family gathering when the cash flow is restored, friendship between European governments and Trump’s America becomes again possible, providing foreign leaders are prepared to continue absorbing the insults Trump delivers along the way, and then when they create awkward moments, as with Teresa May in Helsinki, are curtly dismissed as his own ‘fake news.’ When ‘fake’ is used to discredit the truth, trust vanishes, and one of the pillars of a healthy democracy is destroyed. We gradually lose our understanding of what is truth, and worse, no longer care or hold leaders accountable by reference to reality.

 

There is no indication of any attention given by Trump to the crucial question: whether NATO serves sufficient useful purposes in the post-Cold War world to be worth the economic costs, let alone the political costs associated with spending on weapons rather than the wellbeing of people and their natural surroundings. Would not the long overdue transition to a real peacetime security posture have many positive advantages for the U.S. and Europe, including exploring prospects for a mutually beneficial cooperative relationships with Russia and China? We have reached a stage in world history where we should be asking whether NATO might be abandoned altogether or drastically redesigned in light of the current agenda of actual global policy challenges. If NATO were converted into a vehicle for the realization of humansecurity, setting its new agenda by reference to the wellbeing of people, it would be a genuine triumph for Trump and the global public interest, but such an orientations seems well outside the boundaries of his political imagination. In fairness, no American leader has dared to adopt the discourse of human security, or questioned the continued viability of Cold War alliances and accompanying strategic doctrine, and it would be pure wishful thinking to expect such demilitarizing words to issue from the lips or mind  of Donald Trump. At least those of us who watch the Trump spectacle in bemused fear should more than ever put forward our own hopes and beliefs in broad gauged cooperation between North America and Europe based on a commitment to  peace, justice, and security, and demand that discussion of the future of the relationship between Europe and North America not be reduced to a demeaning debate about how to raise the level of military spending or keep obsolete alliances in being by the artifice of worrying only about whether particular governments are meeting the 2% goal, which seems like an arbitrary number that is unrelated to the actuality of security challenges..

Q2. How do you forecast the European reaction to the Trump commentary on NATO and could you explain how this might impact key portions of US foreign affairs?

 

Europe’s governmental response to the Trump onslaught so far has been very disappointing, while recent civil society responses in Europe has been generally encouraging. On the one side, NATO leaders seem to pout like aggrieved children, angered and humiliated, but too frightened of the uncertainties associated with confronting Trump to raise their objections above the level of a whisper. On the other side, their acquiescence to the Trump insistence that NATO viability is to be measured in dollars or maybe Euros, unaccompanied by even a pretense of putting forward a relevant substantive rationale for Cold War levesl of spending. Such passive aggressive behavior by European leaders is likely best understood as a sullen endorsement of Trumpism. In effect, the Europeans are muttering “yes, we in Europe should be allocating more of our resources to the defense budget and begin to live up to our 2% commitment” so as to keep a renewed watchful eye on Russia and go along with the slouch toward a Second Cold War. There is no justification given for supposing that Europe will be safer if more heavily invested in military equipment, and my view is that Europe would be far safer, more secure, and more serene if it instead invested these additional funds in helping alleviate the refugee challenge at both the asylum end and at its various sources where combat and climate change have made some national habitats virtually unlivable. It might be emphasized that these habitants from which people are escaping to Europe most commonly at great risk to themselves, have been rendered uninhabitable partly by industrialization in the West and by the bloody aftermath of European colonialism that left behind arbitrary borders that did not correspond to natural communities.

 

Responding to the root causes of refugee and migration pressures should be seen as a matter of long deferred collective responsibility, and not as charity or as exercises of discretion. Furthermore, if NATO were responsive to real threats to the security of Europe, including to its democratic way of life, it would focus its attention with a sense of urgency on these issues instead of implicitly preparing the continent for a new Cold War that an anti-Russian weaponized foreign policy will, ironically, help bring about, initially no doubt in the form of a destablizing arms race, and calls for raising defense spending to even higher levels.

 

Here Trump seems to have his priorities confused. At times, for instance in supporting Brexit, and now endorsing a hard Brexit and the Boris Johnson approach, Trump seems to be furthering Moscow’s prime aim of weakening the unity of Europe, while at the same time by rallying NATO members to increase military spending Trump seems to be lending credibility to Russian worries of a new Cold War.

 

Whether for personal reasons associated with his shady financial dealings and his vulnerability to blackmail or a sense that the way to bring stability to the world is to have strong leaders work together, and establish a grand alliance of autocrats, Trump’s soft spot for Putin may be preferable to what a hard-edged, NATO enthusiast like Hilary Clinton would have brought to the White House had she won the election. A Clinton presidency would almost certainly have gone easy on NATO when it comes to the economics and politics of burden-sharing while insisting on the adoption of a hardline on such geopolitical issues as Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Given the recent show of timidity by NATO leaders scared to cut the umbilical cord that has tied their security policies to the diktats of Washington ever since 1945 (with the notable exception of DeGaulle’s ‘France, First’/. leadership). We sometimes forget that aspiring to the role of global leader has always come with a high price tag, but the expense involved is more than offset by the benefits of status, heightened influence in global arenas, and a favorable positioning in the world economy, or so it seemed to the political elites of both parties until Trump through handfuls of sand into the intricate machinery of the national security state..

Q3. In the past US led and authorized NATO bombings are criticized rather easily and justifiably from the left, but what is the danger of the Trump mentality to foster a disregard for global order from the reactionary right wing? And does resistance to Trump cynicism put NATO skeptics on the left in a difficult position in your view?

 

I think that the ideological discourse has definitely been altered by Trump’s  alt-right approach to NATO. The left, such as it is, has refocused its energies on resisting what it believes to be a slide toward fascism at home arising from its correct perceptions of the Trump presidency as racist, ultra-nationalist, chauvinist, Islamophobic, subverting constitutionalism, and haunted by demagogic leadership. Those most upset with the attacks on the alliance underpinnings of NATO are not the left, but rather the more centrist liberalconstituencies encompassing moderate Republicans as well as mainstream Democrats. These are persons likely as upset by the challenge mounted by the mildly insurgent left-leaning politics of Bernie Sanders as by Trump, perhaps more so. Trump is ardently pro-business, pushed through Congress tax reform that mainly benefits those, like himself, who are part of a tiny billionaire class. What remains of the liberal establishment, whether on Wall Street or situated in the dark inner and hidden recesses of the deep state, is on the verge of tears in the aftermath of Trump’s assault on the NATO anchoring of the Atlanticist approach to American foreign policy that became so iconic for the political classes comprising the bipartisan American establishment ever since 1945.

Q4. Trump was elected partly because of what amounts to his “Me First” Doctrine as well as his “Make America Great Again” slogan. Does he in your estimation fully intend to utilize NATO in the background while appeasing his rabid anti institution base?

 

Trump and his fanatical base in the U.S. never seem far apart. Even in pursuing trade wars around the world, especially with China, that harm many of those who voted for him, his rationalizations, invoking the ‘America, First’ language and jobs rhetoric whether or not the evidence supports such claims. Apparently, so far, a relentless demagogue can fool many of the people all the time, especially by the rants of a populist politic that takes delight in scapegoating outsiders and arousing rage against the insiders who are portrayed as reaping the benefits of the international liberalism that gave us both the Cold War world economy and produced a neoliberal predatory aftermath identified in the 1990s as ‘globalization’, a view of political legitimacy that combines a private sector economy with some minimal form of democracy.

,;

 

 

 

How NATO will eventuallu fit within this Trump scheme is not yet clear, and may never be so. It seems a blustery sideshow at this point as NATO does not seem to have clear missions in post-Cold War Europe except to be a rallying center for counterterrorist tactics, which operationally depend on national policing and paramilitary capabilities. It seems that Europe is willing to pay up to sustain the NATO status quo, allowing Trump to laugh his way to the bank. NATO’s leading members are most worried these days about keeping the EU together in the face of various stresses associated with Brexit, refugees, a far right anti-immigration resurgence, and some loss of confidence in the EURO and austerity fiscal discipline. Handling Trump is an unpleasant additional chore for European leaders, but it is so far treated more in the spirit of the London protesters’ giant baby balloon, a matter of parenting, lacking real substantive weight, or so it seems. Aside from Turkey no European government seems to be considering alternative alignments now.

On the broader posture of anti-institutionalism and anti-multilateralism, Trump has kept faith with his pre-Fascist base by bullying tactics at the UN, repudiating the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. These are big ticket items that represent extremely serious setbacks for responsible efforts to address challenges of regional and global scale that pose severe threats to peace and ecological stability.

Q5. Trump likes to portray himself as a populist alternative to the Bushes and Clintons and their reckless foreign policy while questioning our “exceptionalism.” In reality however we have broadened and expanded our presence around the world under Trump. Can you talk about the Trump foreign policy and how’d you categorize it?

 

Trump foreign policy, such as it is, seeks to diminish engagement with international institutions, including treaty regimes, and retain greater freedom of maneuver for the U.S. Government in international relations. It seems also to deny the reality of such global challenges as climate change, global migrations, genocidal behavior, and extreme poverty. It is definitely statist in outlook, both because of a belief in nationalism as the best guide to policymaking and problem solving, and because the United States as the richest and most powerful of states can supposedly gain greater advantages for itself by reliance on its superior bargaining leverage in any bilateral bargaining process. Borrowing from his deal-making past, Trump seems convinced that the U.S. will get more of what it wants when it deals bilaterally than in hemmed in my multilateral frameworks as in trade relations or environmental protection.

 

Beyond this kind of transactional search for material advantages, oblivious to substantive realities that make cooperative approaches more likely to achieve beneficial results, Trump has been consistent in promoting reactionary issues at home and abroad whenever given the chance, whether by tweeting or issuing executive orders. While in Europe he gave public voice via TV to an anti-immigration screed, telling Europeans that immigrants were ruining Europe, bringing to the continent crime and terrorism, a malicious argument similar to the slander of undocumented Hispanic immigrants present in the United States, some long in the country, and making laudable contributions.

 

Trump’s silences are also important. He seems determined to ignore crimes against humanity if committed by states against people subject to its authority, whether the Rohingya in Myanmar or Palestinians in Gaza. American support for human rights, always subject to geopolitical manipulation, is now a thing of the past so long as Trump hangs around, although such considerations may be cynically invoked when helpful to strengthen arguments for sanctions and uses of force against adversery states.

 

Whether wittingly or not, Trump seems determined to shatter the legacy of the Bushes and Clinton built around an American led liberal international order, but without any real alternative conception of global governance to put in its place. So far this has produced an ad hoc approach, beset by contradiction, which one day can veer in the direction of confrontation as with Iran or North Korea, or on another day seem to seek some sort of long-term accommodation with Russia and North Korea, and sometimes even China. Also evident is the extent to which Trump’s foreign policy initiatives are designed to please Israel, as with the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem announced last December, or the heightened tensions with Iran, or have no justification other than to uphold the expectations of billionaire domestic donors of his presidential campaign. And finally, there is the search for the grandiose, ‘the deal of the century,’ a breakthrough that will make Trump great for once and for many, but when more closely considered the deal, as the one in the offing to end the Israel/Palestine struggle turns out to be a house of cards, so one-sided that it effectively collapses before its absurdly pro-Israeli contents have been officially disclosed.

 

Whether by his blunt actions sowing discord or his silent acquiescence in the face of atrocities, we have reason to fear the trajectory of the Trump presidency. In this sense, the NATO performance was just a tip of a dangerous iceberg imperiling world order, but also the future of responsible and responsive governance in a period of grave danger and intense turmoil. As with the weak response of European governments to Trumpism, there is reason for disappointment about the resilience of republican institutions within the United States, including such stalwarts as separation of powers and the constitutional integrity of political parties. Alarm bells should be ringing through the night at maximum volume, but so far the silences outweigh the noise as the world slouches toward catastrophe, chaos, and cruelty.

 

Wider Consequences of U.S. Withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council

7 Jul

Interview with Daniel Falcone, June 21, 2018, initially published in TruthOut, July 3, 2018

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Questions on U.S. Withdrawal from UNHRC

 

  1. What are your thoughts on the US pulling out of the UNHRC and how are Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley’s disparaging and overly defensive claims different from what is taking place in the background? They’ve remarked how the UNHRC is “hypocritical and self-serving” and remarked of its “chronic anti-Israel bias.” What is it about the UNHRC that compels the US to disengage?

 

I think the superficial response to this latest de-internationalizing move is the tendency of the Trump Administration to align its policies in conformity with Israeli priorities and preferences, which have long focused on the Human Rights Council (HRC) as a venue hostile to their policies and practices. HRC is the most important actor in the UN System in which geopolitical pressures can be largely neutralized, partly because there is no veto, and partly because it is representative of the frustrations that the world as a whole has felt for decades in response to the dual Israel posture of defying international law while constantly expanding their grip on what was internationally widely understood after the 1967 War as territory set aside for a Palestinian sovereign state. This interactive process has gone on so long as to seem irreversible at this point, making the two-state solution reflective of the international consensus no longer a realistic option, which appears to leave open the path to an Israeli one-state solution that corresponds with the maximal Zionist vision of establishing a Jewish state with sovereignty over the whole of Palestine, which from the Zionist perspective is ‘the promised land’ of Jews by virtue of a biblical entitlement. Such a rationalization completely ignores the normative primacy in the 21stcentury of the right of self-determination to be exercised by the majority resident population and its legitimate representatives. This circumstances helps explain both Palestinian resistance and Israeli reliance on an apartheid matrix of control to shatter opposition to its goals.

 

Rather than an anti-Israeli bias, the UN as a whole, and the HRC in particular, have done too little rather than too much with respect to expressing disapproval of Israel’s policies and practices in Palestine. It should be recalled that after the British gave up their Mandatory status as administrator of Palestine after World War II, the UN was tasked with finding a solution to the tensions between the majority Palestinian population and the Jewish minority (of about 30% in 1947). It came up with a partition plan embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181, which when rejected by the Palestinians produced the Partition War resulting in the removal, mostly by force, of about 750,000 Palestinians from the area set aside for a Jewish state, and the prolonged occupation of 22% of the territory that remained of the Palestine Mandated territory, governed by Jordan until 1967, and subsequently militarily administered by Israel. In other words, the UN has failed to produce a sustainable solution that protects minimal Palestinian rights, much less its fundamental right of self-determination, and has been unable to curb Israeli behavior to conform to the constraints of international humanitarian law. It should be understood that the UN has no comparable unfulfilled responsibility with respect to any other territory in the world, and its attention to Israeli defiance is more of an expression of institutional frustration and futility than it meant to mount a serious challenge to Israeli behavior, including its flagrant violations of the Geneva Conventions and Protocols. To the extent Israel is challenged it comes from Palestinian resistance initiatives, as witnessed recently in the lengthy demonstrations and killings associated with the Great Return March, and secondarily, from the intensifying global solidarity movement highlighted by the growing success of the BDS Campaign. It is this success that is much more threatening to Israel than anything that happens at the UN, and helps explain their frantic effort to criminalize and penalize those that are active BDS supporters.

 

 

  1. How can you describe the current reputation of the United States in world affairs? There was talk of the US pulling out preemptively as to avoid a embarrassing condemnation from the UN for the US/Israel treatment of Gaza.

 

The U.S. by design and incompetence has pushed itself increasingly into a sterile ‘America, First’ corner that has increased tensions in several regions of the world, loosened long-term alliance relations, weakened multilateral lawmaking, and raised risks of nuclear and regional warfare. Instead of seeking to overcome the turmoil that is causing massive suffering in the Middle East, the United States has lent material and diplomatic support to genocidal war making directed at Yemen and joined with Israel and Saudi Arabia in pushing toward a regime-changing intervention in Iran with dire potential consequences both for the Iranian people and the region, and possibly the world. The Trump repudiation of the 2015 nuclear agreement reached with Iran and the Paris climate change agreement is to retreat from positive internationalismand its global leadership role exercised since 1945, as well as to disrupt the institutional and treaty frameworks facilitating global trade and investment. This combination of warmongering militarism and exclusionary nationalism is generating a new American foreign policy that might be identified as illiberal internationalism, or maybe more graphically as negative internationalism. It is not only causing dangerous forms of confrontation, it is also acting as a catastrophic distraction from urgent problem-solving imperatives of this period of world history, especially, meeting the challenges of climate change, biodiversity, nuclearism, migration, and extreme poverty.

 

 

  1. Real Clear Politics asserted that, “the international community stokes Gazans’ ruinous belief that Israel belongs to them and fuels their delusive dream of return. On May 18, for example, the U.N. Human Rights Council again improperly intervened in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of Hamas.” This outlet is called “ideologically diverse.” How crucial is Israel’s role in the US pullout?

 

It is difficult to assess the motivational calculus that prompted the U.S. withdrawal from the HRC. It seems over-determined, especially consistent with this pattern during the Trump presidency of withdrawing from otherpositive internationalistarrangements mentioned earlier. Surely, Israeli hostility to the HRC, which I experienced personally while serving as HRC Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, is a factor, but to what extent, is impossible to say. In some respects, the HRC withdrawal seems parallel to the provocative move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. In effect, we think we are punishing the world by our refusal to participate in these international arrangements, but in reality we are harming ourselves.

 

 

4.Describe the structure of US geopolitics at the moment and how are allies reacting to this unclear and confusing period? Also, do you see any good press coverage?

 

I think the Trump pattern is so erratic and dangerously destabilizing that it impairs our capacity to acknowledge positive initiatives even if narcissistically or defensively motivated. I find the liberal Democratic criticism of the Korean nuclear accommodation as the prime example, but another is the indistinct effort to normalize relations with Russia, avoiding a second Cold War. As suggested, Trump may be seeking glory for the Korean diplomacy and his fears of Moscow disclosures about his finances might drive his approach to Putin and Russia, but even such dubious and dark motives should not color our judgment of the policy? The mainstream media seems so polarized with respect to the Trump presidency, and thus tends mindlessly to condemn or applaud, with little by way of effort to disentangle the policy from the person.

 

Trump’s crude pushback against European allies has generated confusion. On the one side, there is a European sense that the time has come to cut free from the epoch of Cold War dependence on Washington, and forge security and economic policy more independently in accord with the social democratic spirit of ‘Europe, First.’ At the same time, there is a reluctance to risk breaking up a familiar framework that has brought Europe a long period of relative stability and mostly healthy economic development to Europe. Such considerations create a mood of ambivalence and uncertainty, perhaps thinking that Trump is a temporary aberration from reestablishing a more durable framework versus the idea that Trumpism has given Europe and the separate states an opportunity to achieve a political future more in accord with the values and interests of the region and its member states than its longtime deference to the shifting moods and priorities of Washington. Also, Europe is now facing its own rising forms of right-wing populism, chauvinistic nationalism, and a resulting crisis of confidence in the viability of the European Union under pressures from the refugee influx and the unevenness of economic conditions in northern Europe as distinct from Mediterranean Europe.

 

Finally, the Asian context is different. Trump has sought to focus on revising the economic relationship with China in ways that supposedly help American business and consumers. In this pursuit, it would be helpful to stabilize the Korean peninsula and keep firm the relationship with Japan. So far, this pattern seems to describe the present approach, but given the clumsy impulsiveness of Trump when it comes to abrupt shifts in policy it is hazardous to make predictions as to the future course of American behavior in the Asian context. Maybe, just maybe, the absence of the Israeli dimension, may give Asian policy more flavor of coherence and rationality, yet such a possibility still involves a radical repudiation of the earlier promotion of neoliberal globalization and international liberalism, and a return to mercantilist approaches to economic nationalism.

 

 

  1. Is there a strategy to this exit because of the Republican Party base in your view? How much of this, like Iran perhaps is for electoral politics?

 

Earlier in the Trump presidency seemed the Republican Party seemed divided, and there was more tension between the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress than recently. Especially after the passage of the pro-rich, pro-business tax bill in 2107, the Trump hold on the Republican Party strengthened to the point that an astonishing 89% of Republicans, according to recent polls, now approve of his presidential leadership. This is profoundly worrisome, and at the same time, revealing that any serious Republican departure from the Trump approach to major political issues will be viewed as virtual political suicide by career-minded Republicans.

 

As for Trump himself, his motivations are hard to assess as he proceeds by intuition, demagogic self-confidence, and unparalleled narcissism, which means no accountability, no truthfulness, and no coherence. Intellectuals tend, as they did with Reagan, to underestimate Trump’s capacity to connect with the raw feelings of ‘ordinary’ Americans, especially those feeling left out. This Trump appeal becomes formidable when bolstered by right-wing financial and ideological support.

 

I feel it is not too alarmist or misleading to talk of the present era of American political life as ‘pre-fascist,’ posing the formidable challenge of reversing the political current in the country as rapidly as possible to avoid any transition from pre-fascism to fascism (in some distinctly American form that refuses the language of fascism while implementing its worldview).

Transforming World Order?

20 May

 

[Prefatory Note:  This post is my review of an important critical study of the deplorable conditions of law and politics in the current global setting. The author grounds his diagnosis and proposals on a philosophical interpretation of this subject-matter, but the radical vision although appealing gives little attention to how such a vision can become a political project, and so this learned text creates an impression of apolitical utopianism. This review will be shortly published in the American Journal of International Law.]

 

 

 

TRANSFORMING WORLD ORDER?

 

Eutopia: New Philosophy and New Law for a Troubled World.By Philip Allott. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2016, Pp. xi, 368. Index. $135.

 

Grasping Allott’s Ambitious Undertaking

 

It is not by chance that Philip Allott, professor emeritus of international public law and fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, UK,offers unusual guidance to readers in the opening sentence of the Preface to Eutopia: “The reader may want to read this book more than once, and to read it with unusual care” (p. vi). If anything, this advice is understated. Allott has written a learned, conceptually intense, and wildly ambitious book that demands the most dedicated attention taxing the perseverance of even the most diligent of readers. Allott challenges us on every page, really on each of its paragraphs given a systematic inflection by being numbered as if elements of a mathematical proof. Putting the bar of comprehension so high raises preliminary awkward questions—is the immense burden imposed on the reader sufficiently rewarded by the contribution that Allott makes to our understanding of the human condition? There is a second subsidiary question—is Allott’s distinctive methodology an effective and necessary means by which to raise and resolve such fundamental issues? and for what audience is this undertaking intended? I will return to these matters at the end of my attempt to assess Allott’s undertaking, which by any measure is extraordinary. It is nothing less than a philosophically coherent depiction of a comprehensive and desirable future for humanity designed to do nothing less than achieve the totality of human potentiality if properly enacted.

Allott attributes his sense of profound concern with the way the world was organized to his experience decades ago as a legal advisor in the British Foreign Office (1960–1973). It was there that he became aware of “all significant aspects of international government” leading him to the “settled moral conviction—that the nature of so-called international relations must be changed fundamentally and, with it, the nature of international law.”[1]Although the argument put forward is expressed abstractly, without civilizational specificity or very much by way of policy critique and example, there is no doubt that Allott is deeply offended and worried by his various encounters with political realism while serving the British crown. In a strong passage Allott vigorously rejects the major premise of the nuclear age, which he decries as “the development of the grotesquely named strategic nuclear weapons, as if mass murder and mass destruction could be strategies adopted by rational human beings.”[2]Such strong language suggests Allott’s repudiation of conventional wisdom in the world that he inhabits, which stands in stark contrast to the world that he believes can be brought into being by new thinking responsive to the overriding moral and political imperative of seeking a new world order in which all human beings can flourish, and find happiness, as well as address the formidable challenges of global scope that threaten the survival of the human species and much of its natural habitat.[3]

To begin with, it is important to realize that Eutopiais a sequel to an equally challenging and ambitious earlier work, Eunomia: New Order for a New World, published in 1990.[4]In a long Preface written especially for the 2001 publication of a paperback version, Allott gives readers important clues to what led his thinking in such radical directions, including his disdainful treatment of incremental global reform steps advocated by liberal internationalists that he believes irrelevant, given the magnitude of the challenges facing humanity. Allott is convinced that only a revolutionaryprocess can generate the capacity needed to enable humanity to produce a positive future for itself. Clarifying this orientation, Allott writes,

 

We are people with a permanent revolutionary possibility, the power to make a revolution, not in the streets but in the mind. And the long journey of revolutionary change begins with a single revolutionary step. We can, if we wish, choose the human future. We, the people, can say what the human future will be, and what it will not be.[5]

 

This appears to be affirming a radical form of political agency vested in the people, that is, change from below, although this is never asserted in this form or as an ingredient of democracy or transformative populism.

This crucial matter of orientation and perspective, with its Hegelian confidence in the power of ideas to transform and regulate behavior, leads Allott to distance himself from those who insist that “practicality” in the domain of politics is the only responsible approach to the advocacy of change and reform. Allott rejects the mainstream consensus that constrains debate within the confines of feasibility as interpreted by the powers that be: “To disprove a claim that a set of ideas is merely Utopian, it is useful simply to recall that those ideas contain a future which is not only possible but also necessary, and that the human future is always an imaginary potentiality until it becomes a present actuality.”[6]As Allott puts it elsewhere, “We make the human world, including human institutions, through the power of the human mind. What we have made by thinking we can make new by new thinking.”[7]This theme pervades Allott’s entire undertaking, but such an unconditional statement of benign mental potency seems to be oblivious to the darker forces of the unconscious that drive human behavior in destructive and self-destructive directions. The dominance of these darker forces has, in my view, entrapped the political imagination in an iron cage, accounting for the widespread feelings of despair on the part of those who confront the future with eyes wide open.[8]Allott is fully aware of this, shares this foreboding, but offers us the redemptive possibility of this mental revolution.

Allott writes in the Preface to his present book,

 

Since Eunomia was published, the globalising of human social and mental existence has proceeded at a pace and in ways that could not have been predicted then, and with ever more troubling consequences, and ever more serious threats and challenges. Chaotic globalizing is even negating humanity’s tentative unity-in-diversity. (P. viii)

 

We should appreciate that Eunomiaand Eutopiaasserted this dramatic diagnosis well before Donald Trump’s “America First” approach has aggravated the world order situation by a series of dramatic withdrawals of America’s engagement in cooperative forms of globalization with respect to such crucial policy contexts as climate change, international trade, global migration, and arms control (currently most pointedly, the decertification of the 2015 5+1 Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program). I think it is safe to assume that Allott’s worldview as of 2018 would move closer to moral panic, given Trump’s intensifications of “chaotic globalizing.” In the Foreword to Eutopia,Allott contrasts his earlier effort as one of meeting a “global socialchallenge” with the more momentous current undertaking in the book under review of overcoming “a universal humanchallenge” (p. ix). Putting this progression of perspective in relation to knowledge systems, Allott has shifted his outlook from that of social and jurisprudential engineer to that of global anthropologist or planetary ethnographer.

In Allott’s work the reader encounters a perplexing blend of pessimism about the existing human condition and of optimism about the limitless potentiality of the human species. In stirring words, “We are a species with unlimited potentiality that is failing in crucial aspects of its self-evolving and self-perfecting” (p. ix). What gives direction to Allott’s radical way of thinking is a post-Enlightenment belief in thought, reason, and knowledge as guiding action, best exemplified by the great philosophical traditions in the West that have been appraising the human condition for centuries. In this spirit he laments, as he rejects, the contemporary Anglo-American philosophic turn against its own tradition, uselessly shifting its energies to arcane language puzzles and esoteric logical quirks while abandoning reflections on and prescriptions for the desirable unfolding of humanity in light of its surrounding human circumstances.

In a short Afterword, Allott makes plain his oppositional stance to the hegemony of science and engineering modes of thought in the public domain where governments act and citizens form their policy preferences. Allott categorizes his own work as exhibited in a private domain and premised on what he calls “humanist thinking” (p. 341), that is shaped by values, wisdom, and erudition. At the same time, he asserts a positive role for such thought against the grain, needed in his view, to enable “the human mind . . . to imagine a better human future” and to activate “the human will” so as to “mak[e] a better future happen” (id.). He follows this with the haunting exposure of his own foreboding about the human future, ending the book with these words: “For how much longer?” (id.). As a reader I would say that the main message left behind here by Allott is the urgency associated with a revival of humanist thinking as a necessary precondition for meeting the challenges of our historical circumstance as a profoundly threatened species.

 

Sources of Inspiration

 

Allott is forthright about acknowledging three inspirational points of departure for Eutopia. Allott roots his extraordinary exploration of prospects for radical change in the utopian tradition of Thomas More who “enabled his readers to see their own social life with new eyes, and to judge it, and to imagine other ways of life” (p. vii). In effect, this kind of utopianism creatively provides a stimulus for critical reflections on the world as it is, as well as unleashing imaginative efforts to project on the screen of human expectations more satisfying and uplifting alternatives as potentially attainable.

Francis Bacon is his second inspirational spark, by way of his foundational anticipation of the degree to which scientific and technological innovation—in effect, “revolutions”—would open the doors of human understanding in dramatic new ways that led in the past to drastic forms of societal restructuring. Bacon “saw that a revolution in our understanding of the human mind could produce every other kind of revolution. He saw that the human mind can transform the human world. We are his beneficiaries to this day” (pp. vii–viii). Allott definitely follows Bacon in believing that altering authoritative templates of human subjectivity has the potential for unleashing transformative forces, and given his severe indictment of how human coexistence is currently (mis)managed on all levels of social interactions, he leaves the reader with this urgent sense of “revolution or doom.” The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, raises comparable questions, yet without any prospect of revolutionary closure with a focus on what “living together well” might mean and what “democracy to come” could achieve.[9]Allott comes close to Derrida’s approach in a chapter entitled “New Society: Living the Good Life Together.”

Allott’s undertaking bears comparison with the World Order Models Project (WOMP), which proceeded from a comparable diagnosis to prescribe a series of “relevant utopias” or “preferred worlds” as necessary, desirable, and achievable.[10]It grounds its hope for the human future on the emergence of what might be called ethical universality(shared values associated with minimizing collective violence, social and economic well-being, humane governance, and ecological sustainability) that could foster collaborative undertakings of sufficient scope and depth.[11]By so doing it would become possible to overcome both the political fragmentation of state-centric world order and the civilizational diversity of post-colonial identity patterns. Such a relevant utopia depends more humbly than Allott’s revolution in the mind on a retuning of the rational mind and the sharpening of normative sensibilities to take account of the globalizing pressures being exerted by nuclearism, neoliberalism, and digitized networks.

The third source of inspiration affirmed by Allott is the canon of Western philosophy as a response to “a miasma of nihilism and despair, unable to comprehend or to redeem terrible real-world events that the human mind itself had caused” (p. ix). Only by turning to philosophizing in the classic tradition can there be any hope for “the necessary and urgent revolution in the human mind” (p. ix). Allott invests philosophical inquiry with an incredible capacity of human empowerment: “Without philosophy, we have little or no control over the making and the remaking of a better human future. Without philosophy, now and hereafter, the human species may not survive” (p. ix). He underscores this rather dismaying observation with the assertion that Eutopiais designed with no less an objective than bringing “the great and ancient existential debate back to life, before it is too late . . . the permanent possibility of making the human world into ‘a place of happiness’” (p. ix). I wonder whether this is a proper reading of the philosophic canon in which the warnings and admonitions of St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer unaccompanied by the view that history can be reshaped by a revolution in the precincts of the human mind. At the same time each of these thinkers, except Schopenhauer, did at least endorse a vision of a better human future, but not as an achievement of the creativity and normative capabilities of the rational mind.

 

Allott’s Distinctive Methodology

 

It should be understood that unlike Eunomia, which drew on Allott’s professional experience and academic specialty (international public law), Eutopia is a remarkable achievement of amateurship, that is, an immersion in philosophic thought for which the author had neither evident training nor prior publications, but great love and intimacy. In this regard it is informed by the philosophic canon of the West, especially as developed by British philosophers, but with its own rather peculiar and somewhat questionable methodology. In clusters of chapters entitled “The Human Condition,” “Human Power,” and “Human Will,” Allott sets forth the grounds and components of his belief in the potency of the human mind. Each chapter is, in turn, divided in two parts, with the first part consisting of numbered paragraphs containing in logical sequence, fundamental elements of the human mind such as memory, imagination, knowledge, and emotions. The second part of each chapter consists of a series of quotes from a wide spectrum of thinkers, mainly philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle to Marx, Lenin, and Karl Popper, and many, many others. Despite impressions of inclusiveness, there are some surprising names missing. For instance, for me none of three twentieth century philosophers who shed the most light on the human condition are even mentioned once: Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, and Martin Heidegger. As well, non-Western thought is touched on very lightly both in the text and the complement of philosophical quotations: The Buddha and Gandhi are never mentioned, Confucius once.

I have no doubt that Allott is a learned student of philosophy who has developed more or less on his own, without specific debts in the course of his argument to earlier thinkers, a coherent cartography of the human mind as possessed of great agency. At the same time, this dualist methodology of putting the argument one place and the philosophic sources in an entirely separate place without any explicit effort to establish a linkage between the two seems questionable to me, and neither rationalized nor explained by Allott. Either the section of quotations is to be read as conveying somewhat randomly the spirit of philosophical conjecture with regard to a theme covered by the argumentative text, or the reader is left to do the immense work of finding for herself connections between an individual quoted passage and the argument of the text, which I can report in my case to have been a daunting, time-consuming, and not very rewarding, challenge.

There are other issues raised by this methodology. Allott does not explain his reasons for inclusion and exclusion. Also, his conception of philosophy is very capacious, extending to literary figures (Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Goethe, and T.S. Eliot), social and natural scientists (Durkheim, Max Weber, Harold Lasswell, and E.O. Wilson), and even cultural and political critics (Marshall McLuhan, Ruskin, and Thomas Paine). If each of these quotes was tied to passages in Allott’s text even as footnotes, or given a distinct commentary that explicated their linkage, I would likely applaud the approach. Left alone as distinct items to be read in sequence following the chapter text, seems either without redeeming value or requiring too much of an effort for the reward. In Eunomiawhere Allott is on much firmer ground in terms of professional competence, the methodology is more conventional, and although demanding because of the abstractness and systematic quality of the thought, and more effective in conveying a distinct critique and way forward. In this earlier book Allott’s chapters contain only the numbered paragraphs of argument with no second part that gives sources.

 

The Essential Role of Law

 

Allott’s vision is very much influenced by his appreciation of law as a fundamental ordering device with respect to all that transpires in the universe. In this regard “the laws of nature” and “scientific laws” are seen as achieving results that human-created law can only aspire to produce, especially with respect to international law. What underlies this emphasis on law is the fact that all activities in the cosmos exhibit for Allott a tendency to exhibit orderas a fundamental reaction to the alternative of chaos.In Allott’s view order is the result of law governed behavior.

In EunomiaAllott makes clear that the two modern theorists of international law who make contributions along the lines of a systemic reworking of law as constitutive of world order are Hans Kelsen and Myres McDougal.[12]What they have done to merit this affirmation is “to elevate international law on to a plane appropriate to a true legal system.” In Kelsen’s case, it involved detaching law from its social and political infrastructure so as to create an autonomous legal order of encompassing generality, with international law a derivative subsystem. While in McDougal’s case, the effort was almost opposite to that of Kelsen, integrating and connecting international law with the underlying social, economic, and political processes, and disciplining its operations by reference to what Allott calls “value-processing,” a phenomenon that is present in all forms of social activity.[13]

Allott calls McDougal “ahead of his time,” especially by undertaking the prophetic task of “preaching a new dispensation to a recalcitrant group of human beings who were almost beyond redemption, the participants in international relations” (p. IX). It is clear from a broader exposure to Allott’s thinking that he is referring to the hard power realists who exclude values from international relations, and thus marginalize international law, and whose operating procedures can perhaps be most easily comprehended by reference to Henry Kissinger’s theory and practice of international relations.[14]Allott concludes that neither Kelson nor McDougal reshaped the manner with which international relations, with its race to the bottom of human endeavor, was being conducted.

Nevertheless, Allott regards the challenge confronting him is to integrate a philosophically coherent and grounded legal order in the manner of Kelsen with a normatively driven legal order geared to the most general features of international life in the spirit of McDougal, and considered his earlier book as having such a purpose by proposing “a general theory of society and law which is potentially universal” (p. IX). He faults McDougal as rooting his approach too parochially in the distinctively Western democratic experience to be universally acceptable. These ideas about law are carried forward in Eutopia, but under the North Star of fear and trembling about the human future.

For Allott, “[l]aw is the primary social system serving the survival and flourishing of the human species” (p. 210). In a somewhat grandiose assertion he writes, “[b]y means of the idea of law we human being have taken power over everything, not least power over ourselves” (p. 209). In this era of seeming powerlessness against the pushbacks of nature or the eruption of irrational politics among publics and leaders, it becomes difficult to comprehend such celebrations of the role of law in regulating the human condition. So as to align lawmaking and rule of law with the present, Allott insists “[i]t is time for human beings to become a kind of philosopher” (p. 210). Presumably, such a sentiment should be read as his kind of philosopher who would tie the rule of law, constitutionalism, and international law to human survival and flourishing, the normative goals affirmed throughout as vital within our historical situation.

In a comprehensive chapter on law as a generic dimension of the human condition Allott gives his ideas about the functioning of law and order, as well as law and custom, law and power, law as a system, and law and value (pp. 210–31). With respect to international law discussed as a distinct system, “a primary purpose of the present volume,” Allott argues that it is necessary to promote “a fundamental reconstituting of international society, including the reimagining and remaking of the international legal system,” giving special attention to the relations between law and power (p. 215).

After reviewing the existing theories of law as applied to the international situation Allott is convinced that international law must be fundamentally changed so that it can serve the goals of human survival and flourishing, but how, and by whom? Allott calls for new law that is based on the primacy of these goals, reaffirming human agency in controlling the role of law, contending that we are the makers of law as “the supreme judges of the common good” (p. 232). In some tautological sense, yes, but as an existential matter of politics, psychology, history, and social structure, I would say, no to such an outpouring of anthropomorphic enthusiasm.

 

Conclusion

 

For anyone seeking a comprehensive world order vision of what exists and what might be, this book is definitely worth the effort, even if the result, as in my case, is to feel that its value is mainly the focus on the centrality of the law phenomenon rather than on depicting a plausible path to a desirable human future. I find Allott’s call for a revolution of the human mind as itself the means for asserting benign control over the human condition now so imperiled to be “whistling in the dark.” The structures of power and wealth are entrenched in support of the worst features of “lawlessness.” We are in the midst of a regressive era in which we, as a species, are losing the ecological, geopolitical, and ethical struggles for a benign human future.

There has been much discussion in scientific circles as to whether it is appropriate to label our age as that of the “anthropocene,” given the impact that human activity has on the sustainability of life on planet earth. Allott converts this acknowledgement into a hyperbolic version of anthropomorphism in which the human mind is crowned as supreme ruler over all that transpires on earth. I find this points our worried sensibilities in the wrong direction.

Although agreeing with Allott on the dangers of state-centricism and political realism, as well as on the goals of species survival and flourishing, I disagree on the dynamics of collective awakening. I would urge “humility” and “compassion” as the guiding values in any constructive reappropriation of the human future motivated by the desire to ensure survival and promote goals of living together happily as a species.

In the end, we can thank Allott for providing us with a vision that is rich in conceptual content and moral energy, a philosophic manual for the job that needs to be done. But even after a close reading, the roadmap is missing, and we are left with the imperative of providing one as a civilizational priority. We can agree with Allott that a new international law that is guided by human well-being rather than the old international law catering to the power/wealth lusts of powerful states is essential, but to identify such a need is far removed from its satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Philip Allot, Eunomia: New Order for a New World, at xli (2001).

[2]Id.at lii.

[3]Allott sets forth his purpose in writingEutopiaalong these lines at several points (pp. 215, 260, 269, 296, 312–13).

[4]Indeed, it is not possible to ignore the first book in approaching the even more elaborate framework of Eutopia.

[5]Allott, Eunomia,supra note 1, at xxxiv.

[6]Id.at xxvii.

[7]Id.

[8]My formulation of the human non-responsiveness to these darker forces that currently pose such formidable challenges of global scope is set forth in an essay, Richard Falk, Does the Human Species Wish to Survive?,inRichard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order253–62 (2016).

[9]See discussions of Derrida’s focus on living together in Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace(Elisabeth Weber ed., 2012); also Fred Dallmayr, Democracy to Come: Politics as Relational Praxis(2017).

[10]SeeSaul H. Mendlovitz, On the Creation of a Just World Order: Preferred Worlds for the 1990s(1975);Richard Falk, A Study of Future Worlds(1975).

[11]SeeHans Küng. A Global Ethic for a Global Politics and Economics(1998).

[12]SeeAllott, Eunomia, supranote 1, at xlvii.

[13]All references in this and succeeding paragraphs are to id.at xlviii.

[14]SeeHenry Kissinger, World Order(2014). For critique, see Richard Falk, Henry Kissinger: Hero of Our Time, 40 Millennium155–64 (July 6, 2015).

The End of Democracy?

8 May

[Prefatory Note: This post is an expanded and somewhat modified version of an opinion piece published by the online publication, global-e on May 1, 2018. It seeks to raise questions and suggest different ways of conceiving of democratic governance.]

 

The End of Democracy?

As demagogic leaders with popular approval or at least acquiescence now dominate the political process of several important ‘democratic’ states, questions about the core or indispensable content of democracy are more appropriate than ever. How should we understand the meaning of democracy in a variety of national circumstances? Is democracy, as properly defined, the best mode of governance under all conditions for every society enjoying sovereign rights? Or in the more reserved spirit of Churchill’s quip, is democracy just ‘the least bad?” Do China or Singapore offer the world, or at least certain societies, a preferred alternative compared to democracy as it evolved and perceived in the West?

 

Many states seek the imprimatur of ‘democracy’ but limit drastically the choices open to the citizenry or proclaim themselves ‘a Jewish state’ or ‘an Islamic Republic,’ which means they are more accurately regarded as an ethnocracy(Israel) or theocracy(Iran). The legitimating imprimatur of democracy should be based on something more objective than the language of self-identification, that is, claiming to be a democracy because the governing arrangements have a formal appearance that resembles what is expected in a democracy, nothing more, nothing less. Instead, it seems an opportune time to delineate the particular institutions, values, and practices that identify the distinctive features of democratic forms of governance.

 

It is not only a matter of taking note of the weakening of the democratic character of ‘democracies’ in recent decades. It is also the attractiveness of China as an efficient developmental model and functional problem-solving mechanism. This Chinese political system is recently being identified as ‘pragmatic authoritatianism.’ Such a comparison of political systems is currently of particular interest because of the disturbing behavior of the United States in this period, both its repudiation of liberalism at home when it comes to the protection of human rights and a kind of blustering militarism abroad that is accentuated by Trump’s retreat from responsible global leadership that had previously given American foreign policy a certain legitimacy despite being the first ‘global state’ in world history. In this regard it is notable that China has shaped its ascendancy in recent decades by mastering soft power diplomacy while the U.S. decline has been accompanied by costly demonstrations of the growing deficiencies of continued reliance on the hard power geopolitics, unsuccessfully defying the realities of the post-colonial world in the early 21stcentury.

 

Against this background, the remainder of this essay explores the notion of democracy from a number of perspectives, seeking to distinguish between political arrangements that serve their citizens normatively as well as materially. There are also historical questions about whether democracy can flourish in an atmosphere in which intense stresses are generated by wide inequalities in circumstances that produce hardships and resentments, creating a susceptibility to opportunistic politicians who scapegoat outsiders and vulnerable groups. Such a pattern has surfaced in the West, increasingly so after the declaration of ‘the war on terror’ that has contributed to the massive generation of refugees, especially as a consequence of prolonged warfare and chaos in the Middle East. This has itself exerted pressures on humane governance by pushing political parties and publics further and further to the right, creating a populist base for fascism if the system becomes further stressed by economic crisis or through fears of terrorism, whether real or contrived.

 

Procedural and Republican Democracy

The idea of ‘free elections’ is certainly a prerequisite of a governing process in which the leadership is somehow accountable to the citizenry. It is not possible to think of a political system as democratic if it does not allow its citizens to select, without fear or interference, among a wide range of candidates of their choice, even if the process is filtered through political parties or primaries or otherwise. What qualifies as a free election can be debated endlessly, but it seems enough to suggest that candidates should represent significantly divergent societal viewpoints on major issues that compete for support, that votes are counted honestly, and no obstacles are intentionally placed in the path of those in the electorate who are poor, less educated, and not fluent in the native language.

 

The relationship of money to the electoral process is increasingly problematic, and abetted by well-funded lobbying. As might be expected, the configuration of these issues varies from state to state. A crisis of democracy in the United States has highlighted these issues. On the one side, many, perhaps most, qualified candidates are discouraged from taking part in the political process or are subjected to defamatory treatment if they do. On the other side, NGOs such as the NRA and AIPAC distort the political process, making it politically impossible to serve the public interest, for instance, by rendering unlawful the sale and possession of assault weaponry and in the case of AIPAC making it as difficult for the United States to pursue foreign policies in the Middle East that reflect the national interest of the country and the global interest of people due to the overwhelming and often mindless pressures to follow Israel’s policy priorities no matter where they might lead. The pressure exerted to repudiate the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 illustrates the way lobbying obstructs the implementation of the public interest. In some sense, it is this interplay of money, influence, and regressive policies that raise fundamental questions about the political and moral legitimacy of governing process. A clouding of public interest in democratic practiceresults from this lethal mixture of private sector money and a frustrated public that poses fundamental threats to American democracy as it formerly operated, and in different ways, to other political systems that purport to retain a democratic system jiust because they hold periodic, free elections. 

 

Looked at from a different angle, a state should not necessarily jeopardize its democratic credentials if it disqualifies candidates and parties that deny basic human rights to segments of the citizenry on some principled basis or espouse fascist agendas, or if rights are somewhat abridged during periods of national emergency as during wartime. This contingent dimension of democratic governance is almost always controversial. It can be discussed in relation to specific instances by reference to the acceptable limits that can be imposed on the practice of procedural democracy. Such a form of government is sensitive to the dangers of abuses and corruptions when power becomes too concentrated, invoking ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers’ as institutional bulwarks of restraint on ‘the tyranny of the mob’ or the predatory behavior of the tyrant. To the extent that such restraints are regularized the governmental form is more precisely identified if labeled asrepublican democracy.’ There is some concern that minorities with strong agendas can encroach on free speech by overreaching by suppressing dissident views of contested historical happenings, as with the Holocaust denial laws of several European countries and in relation to the effort by Armenian communities to make it a hate crime to question the description of the 1915 massacres in turkey as ‘genocide.’

 

Such restraints on the capricious exercise of power tend to be challenged, however, by technological legerdemain and excessive government classification procedures that seriously undermine political transparency and the constitutional constraints on war making by leaders if present, leaving weighty decisions in the hands of an unaccountable few. Without democratic accountability in such instances, democracies lose legitimacy, especially considering the risks and dangers of the nuclear age. Whistleblowers, although often subjected to a criminalizing backlash, are an indispensable resource of contemporary democracy.

 

It may be that only the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals ofallcountries can restore a semblance of substantive reality to a procedural or republican understanding of democracy, and the primacy that could then be again accorded ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers.’ There is growing concern that what Bruce Franklin and Chas Freeman call ‘the forever war’ can be reconciled with the political freedom of the citizenry. Security concerns are now associated with the behavior of persons not necessarily associated with formal military or intel activities, putting the whole society perpetually under suspicion, a condition that provides pretexts for pervasive intrusions on privacy and technically feasible totalizing surveillance.

 

Liberal versions of democracy—especially in their republican form—almost always includes a guaranty of intra-governmental friction and judicial protection of civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression and the right of assembly, but not necessarily (and likely not at all) social and economic rights. In this sense, these seemingly unresolvable tensions between neoliberal versions of capitalism and political democracy are of paramount importance in many societies widely regarded as ‘democratic.’

 

Normative Democracy

To achieve an inclusive political order a substantive commitment to deal with basic social and economic rights is essential, although infrequently acknowledged. This raises questions about the potential compatibility of real democracy with contemporary forms of capitalism. The protection of social and economic rights are necessary so as to satisfy the material needs of all people under sovereign control, especially with respect to food, health, shelter, education, environmental protection, responsibility to future generations. Yet a market-driven ethos has not been effectively challenged in ideologically or behaviorally even by large-scale homelessness or extreme poverty so long as the gates of opportunity pretend to be available to all. This dimension of democratic governance is rarely analyzed, and is best considered by reference to values-driven, inclusive, andnormative democracy. A society should also be protected against war-prone leadership that defies transparency by relying on claims of secrecy and national security, and authorizes leaders to engage in reckless coercive diplomacy and even to make war on their own without the participation of other branches of government.

 

Somewhere in between selecting leaders, upholding rights, and ensuring a minimal standard of living that entrenches human dignity and enables a humane society are considerations of internal and external security. Meeting the threats from within and without while avoiding hysteria, paranoia, and different forms of suppression is a fundamental responsibility of every legitimate state, and especially of those that claim a democratic pedigree. There is no satisfactory label, but since a state unable to protect sovereign rights and internal political order loses the respect and allegiance of its citizenry, the security dimension of governance can be associated witheffective democracy. For without political order, and a capability to address external threats and internal disorder, no form of governance can avoid chaos, foreign penetration, and a hostile backlash from its own citizenry, although specific assessments of this kind involve subjective appreciations of capabilities and political will.

 

There are increasing critiques of democratic states for having weakened the bonds between what citizens seek and what the government does. In the United States, for instance, special interests inflate the prices of pharmaceutical products to astronomical heights, insulate gun control from public opinion to a grotesque degree, and allow corporations, banks, and billionaires to contribute unlimited amounts to (mis)shape political campaigns. Markets are further distorted by corruption of various kinds that undermine the capabilities of government to serve the people. This dimension of democratic governance can be considered under the rubric ofresponsive democracy. Without a high degree of responsiveness on central policy issues, a governing process will steadily lose legitimacy, especially if seen as deferring to special interests.

 

Majoritarian Democracy

It becomes increasingly evident that in some political systems free elections occur, demagogues participate—and sometimes prevail—and a majority of the citizenry is either submissive or supportive. In this kind of atmosphere toxic, win/lose polarizations develop, with extremist and paranoid rhetoric justifying suppression and demonization of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and even asylum seekers. Walls are proposed and built; borders are militarized; and exclusionary ideas of political community gain traction in the marketplace of ideas. One result is that the values, views, and security of vulnerable and oppositional populations are ignored or even condemned. Genuine news is dismissed as fake news, and vice versa, creating fact-free political leadership. This kind of political order can be termedmajoritarian democracy, and contains worrisome attitudes that are pre-fascist in character.It also generates a mirror-image opposition that demonizes the leadership, as in Turkey, in ways that grossly exaggerate wrongdoing, generating a vicious circle of denunciation and abuse.

 

This majoritarian form of democracy tends to rest its claims on passion and a perversion of Rousseau’s ‘general will’ rather than on reason and evidence, and is contemptuous of limits on the exercise of state power on behalf of the nation, especially if directed against foreign or domestic ‘enemies.’ As a result, the rule of law and, especially, respect for international law and the authority of the United Nations are weakened, while deference to the ruler increases in conjunction with claims of indefinite tenure atop the political pyramid, ratified by periodic votes of approval in which the opposition is ineffectual, being demoralized, split, suppressed, and disfavored by most of the mainstream media. Such leaders as Putin, Xi, Trump, Erdoğan, Sisi, Modi, and Abe manifest the trend, remaining popular while often treating ‘citizens’ as if they were ‘subjects’, thereby blurring the distinction between democracy and authoritarianism when it comes to state/society relations.

 

Aspirational Democracy

In opposition to these disturbing trends are more humanistic and spiritual concerns that focus attention on the protection of human rights, especially of those who are vulnerable and poor. The idea of ‘democracy to come’ as depicted by the deceased French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and recently developed further by Fred Dallmayr, is being taken more seriously by those dedicated to achieving genuine democratic forms of governance.

 

This idea centers on the belief that democracy in all its manifestations, even at its best, remains an unfinished project with unfulfilled normative potential. It represents a call to work toward an inclusive democracy based on the serious implementation of ‘the spirit of equality’ (Dallmayr), the goal of humane governance best articulated by Montesquieu. Such a political order goes beyond upholding the rule of law by seeking to promote justice within and beyond sovereign borders. Such a democratic political order would now subordinatenationalinterests tohumanandglobalinterests as necessary in relation to climate change, nuclear weaponry, migration, disease control, peace and security, and the regulation of the world economy. No democracy of this kind has so far existed, but as a goal and ideal this political vision of democratic fulfillment can be understood asaspirational democracy, and might take different forms depending on the societal context and civilizational orientation.

 

Concluding Comments

These different forms of democracy overlap and are matters of degree, but do call attention to the various and variable features of political life that rest on the shared proposition that ‘the people,’ or their representatives, should be regarded as the proper source and validation of political authority and legitimacy. Yet such a mandate for democracy as flowing upwards from the people, superseding God-given or self-anointed authority figures legitimized by ritual and reinforced by claims of a monarchical or divine aura of absolutism, is in many societies again being scrutinized, and under all conditions, is precarious and must be safeguarded and periodically revitalized. Many informed and concerned persons are asking whether democracy is any longer the least bad system of governance for the challenges confronting their societies, yet these critics seem at a loss to propose an alternative. In this setting, the question posed for many of us is whether democracy, as now practiced and constituted, can be restored and extended by legitimating reforms. As engaged citizens we must accept this challenge in ways that are sensitive to the particularities of time, place, traditions, challenge, and opportunities.

 

Because of globalization in its manifest forms, it is no longer tenable to confine the ambitions of democracy to national spaces. Global democracy has become, is becoming, a matter of ultimate concern. Issues raised concern transparency, accountability, participation, and responsiveness of global policy processes, and of course, how the global is to be linked to the regional and national so as to pursue the goal of global humane governance: equitable, stable, sustainable, peaceful, compassionate, and attentive to threats, challenges, and policy choices.

 

 

 

 

Attacking Syria

18 Apr

Attacking Syria

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is an assessment of the recent Syrian missile attack by the armed forces of the U.S., UK, and France from a variety of perspectives. It is a modified and expanded version of a text earlier published in The Wire  (Delhi) and Il Manifesto(Rome). I intend to write two further posts suggested by the controversy generated by the airstrikes of April 14, 2018 against sites associated with Syria’s alleged chemical weapons capabilities. These strikes raise questions of international law, domestic constitutional authorization for international uses of force, strategic logic, and moral imperatives and rationalizations. Each of these issues is capable of multiple interpretations raising further concerns about the appropriate location of the authority to decide given the nature of world order in the 21stcentury.]

 

 

Preliminary Reflections

 

At this stage it seems reasonable to wonder whether Syria was attacked because it didn’tuse chemical weapons rather than because it did. That may seem strange until we remember rather weighty suspicions surrounding the main accusers, especially the White Helmets with their long standing links to the U.S. Government, and past skepticism about their inflammatory accusations that critics claim reflect fabricated evidence conveniently available at crisis moments.

 

A second irreverent puzzle is whether the dominant motive for the attack was not really about what was happening in Syria, but rather what was nothappening in the domestic politics of the attacking countries. Every student of world politics knows that when the leadership of strong states feel stressed or cornered, they look outside their borders for enemies to blame and slay, counting on transcendent feelings of national pride and patriotic unity associated with international displays of military prowess to distract the discontented folks at home, at least for awhile. All three leaders of the attacking coalition were beset by rather severe tremors of domestic discontent, making attractive the occasion for a cheap shot at Syria at the expense of international law and the UN, just to strike a responsive populist chord with their own citizenry—above all, to show the world that the West remains willing and able to strike violently at Islamic countries without fearing retaliation. Beleaguered Trump, unpopular Macron, and post-Brexit May all have low approval ratings among their own voters, and seem in free fall as leaders making them particularly dangerous internationally.

 

Of course, this last point requires clarification, and some qualification to explain the strictly limited nature of the military strike. Although the attackers wanted to claim the high moral ground as defenders of civilized limits on military actions in wartime, itself an oxymoron, they wanted even more crucially (and sensibly) to avoid escalation, carrying risks of a dangerous military encounter with Russia, and possibly Iran. As Syrian pro-interventionists have angrily pointed out in their disappointment, the attack was more in the nature of a gesture than a credible effort to influence the future behavior of the Bashar al-Assad government, much less tip the balance in the Syrian struggle against the government. As such, it strengthens the argument of those who interpret the attack as more about domestic crises of legitimacy unfolding in these illiberal democraciesthan it is about any reshaping of the Syrian ordeal, or a commitment to upholding the Chemical Weapons Convention.

 

A third line of interpretation insisting that what was said in public by the leaders and representatives of the three attacking Western powers was not the real reason that the attack was undertaken. In this optic, it is pressure from Israel to mute President Trump’s feared slide toward disengagement from Syria as a prelude to a wider strategic withdrawal from the Middle East as a whole, a region that Trump in his speech justifying the attack calls ‘troubled’ beyond the capacity of the United States to fix. At least temporarily, from Israel’s point of view, the air strikes sent a signal to Moscow that the United States was not ready to accept Syria becoming a geopolitical pawn of Russia and Iran. Supposedly, the Netanyahu entourage, although pleased by the Jerusalem move, the challenge to the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and silence about the IDF lethal responses to the Gaza Great Return March, have new worries that when it comes to regional belligerence and overall military engagement, Trump will be no more help than Obama, who quite irrationally became their nightmare American president.

 

And if that is not enough to ponder, consider that Iraq was savagely attacked in 2003 by a U.S./UK coalition under similar circumstances, that is, without either an international law justification or authorization by the UN Security Council, the only two ways that international force can be lawfully employed, and even then only as a last resort after sanctions and diplomatic avenues have been tried and failed. It turned out that the political rationale for recourse to aggressive war against Iraq, its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction was totally false, either building the case for war on the elaborately orchestrated presentation of false evidence or more generously, as awkwardly victimized by a hugely embarrassing intelligence lapse.

 

To be fair, this Syrian military caper could have turned out far worse from the perspective of world peace and regional security. The 105 missile attack war over in 3 minutes, no civilian casualties have been reported, and thankfully, any challenge to the Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria was deliberately excluded from the targeting plan, or to the Syrian government, thus taking precautions to avoidT setting in motion the rightly feared retaliation and escalation cycle. This was not an idle worry. More than at any time since the end of the Cold War sober concerns abounded preceding the attack that a clash of political wills or an accidental targeting mistake could cause geopolitical stumbles culminating in World War III.

 

Historically minded observers pointed out alarming parallels with the confusions and exaggerated responses that led directly to the prolonged horror of World War I. The relevant restraint of the April 14thmissile attacks seems to be the work of the Pentagon, and certainly not the hawk-infested White House. Military planners designed the attack to minimize risks of escalation, and possibly even reaching behind the scenes an undisclosed negotiated understanding with the Russians. In effect, Trump’s red line on chemical weapons was supposedly defended, and redrawn at the UN as a warning to Damascus, but as suggested above this was the public face of the attack, not its principal motivations, which remain unacknowledged.

 

 

Doubting the Facts

 

Yet can we be sure at this stage that at least the factual basis of this aggressive move accurately portrayed Syria as having launched a lethal chlorine and likely nerve gas attack on the people of Douma, killing at least 40? On the basis of available evidence, the facts have not yet been established beyond reasonable doubt. We have been fooled too often in the past by the confident claims of the intelligence services working for these same countries that sent this last wave of missiles to Syria. International maneuvering for instant support of a punitive response to Douma seemed a rush to judgment amid an array of strident, yet credible, voices of doubt, including from UN sources. The most cynical observers are suggesting that the timing of the attack, if not its real purpose other than the vindication of Trump’s red line, is to destroy evidence that might incriminate others than the Syrian government as the responsible party. Such suspicions are fueled by the refusal to wait until the factual claims could be validated. As matters stand, the airstrike seem hastened to make sure that the respected Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), when finally carrying out its fact finding mission would have nothing to find.

 

To allay reactions that these are ideologically driven criticisms, it is notable that the Wall Street Journal, never a voice for peace and moderation, put forward its view that it was not “clear who carried out the attack” on Douma, a view shared by several mainstream media outlets including the Associated Press. Blaming Syria, much less attacking, was definitely premature, and quite possibly altogether false, undermining the essential factual foundation of the coalition claim without even reaching the formidable doubts associated with issues of the unlawfulness and illegitimacy of an international use of non-defensive force without authorization by the United Nations.

 

 

Remnants of Colonialism

 

Less noticed, but starkly relevant, is the intriguing reality that the identity of the three states responsible for this aggressive act share strong colonialist credentials that expose the deep roots of the turmoil afflicting in different ways the entire Middle East. It is relevant to recall that it was British and French colonial ambitions in 1916 that established the blueprint for carving up the collapsed Ottoman Empire, imposing artificial political communities with borders reflecting European priorities not natural affinities, and taking no account of the preferences of the resident population. This colonial plot foiled Woodrow Wilson’s more positive proposal to implement self-determination based on affinities of ethnicity, tradition, and religion of those formerly living under Ottoman rule.

 

The United States fully supplanted this colonial duopoly as the colonial sun was setting around the world, especially after the Europeans faltered in the 1956 Suez Crisis. At the same time the U.S. quickly made its own heavy footprint known, feared, and resented throughout the region with an updated imperial agenda featuring Soviet containment, oil geopolitics, and untethered support for Israel. Even earlier in 1953 the Truman Doctrine and CIA support for the overthrow of the democratically elected and nationalist government of Mohammad Mosaddegh disclosed the extent of U.S. involvement in the region.  These strategic priorities were later supplemented by worries after 1979 about the spread of Islam and fears after 2001 that nuclear weaponry could fall into the wrong political hands. After a century of exploitation, intervention, and betrayal by the West, it should come as no surprise that anti-Western extremist movements have surfaced throughout the Arab World, and engendered some populist sympathies despite their barbaric tactics.

 

 

 

Violating International Law, Undermining the UN

 

It is helpful to recall the Kosovo War (1999) and the Libyan War (2011), both managed as NATO operations carried out in defiance of international law and the UN Charter. Because of an anticipated Russian veto, NATO, with strong regional backing in Europe launched a punishing air attack that drove Serbia out of Kosovo. Despite the presence of a strong case for humanitarian intervention within the Kosovo context it set a dangerous precedent, which advocates of a regime-changing intervention in Iraq found convenient to invoke a few years later. In effect the U.S. found itself backed into insisting on an absurd position, to the effect, that the veto should be respected without any questioning when the West uses it, most arbitrarily and frequently to protect Israel from much more trivial, yet justifiable, challenges than what this missile attack on the basic sovereign rights of the internationally legitimate government of Syria signifies.

 

American diplomats do not try to justify, or even explain, their inconsistent attitudes toward the authority of the UN veto, despite the starkness of the contradiction. Perhaps, it is a textbook example of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. More accessibly, it is a prime instance of a continued reliance on the benefits of American exceptionalism. As the self-anointed guarantor of virtue and perpetual innocence in world politics the United States is not bound by the rules and standards by which its leaders judge the conduct of others, especially adversaries.

 

As a personal aside, with some apologies owed, I was the main author of the section of the report in my role as a member of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, which put forth the rationale of ‘illegal but legitimate’ with respect to the Kosovo intervention. I had misgivings at the time, but was swayed by the shadow of Srebrenica and the difficulties of finding a consensus among the members of the Commission to put forth this line of argument, qualified to an extent in the text of the report, by invoking the exceptional facts and expressing what turned out to be the vain hope that the UNSC would itself create greater flexibility in responding to humanitarian crises of this kind and overcome what seemed at the time giving credibility to a pattern of justification for war making that could in the future be twisted out of shape by geopolitical opportunism. My fears have been realized, and I would now be very reluctant to endorse my own formulations that seemed, on balance the right way to go back in the year 2000. Now I lose sleep whenever I recall that I was responsible for what has become an insidious conceptual innovation, ‘illegal but legitimate,’ which in unscrupulous geopolitical hands operates as an ‘open Sesame’ rendering irrelevant Charter constraints.

 

The Libyan precedent is also relevant, although in a different way, to the marginalization of the UN and international law to which this latest Syrian action is a grim addition. Because the people of the Libyan city of Benghazi truly faced an imminent humanitarian emergency in March of 2011 the argument for lending UN protection seemed strong. Russia and China, permanent members of the UNSC, and other skeptical members, were persuaded to suspend their suspicions about Western motives and abstained from a resolution specifically authorizing the establishment of a No Fly Zone to protect Benghazi. It didn’t take long to disabuse Russia and China, mocking their trust in assurances by the NATO states that their objective were limited and strictly humanitarian. They were quickly shocked into the realization that actual NATO mission in Libya was regime change, not humanitarian relief. In other words, these same Western powers who are currently claiming at the UN that international law is on their side with regard to Syria, have themselves a terrible record of flouting and manipulating UN authority whenever convenient and insisting on their full panoply of obstructive rights under the Charter when Israel’s wrongdoing is under review.

 

Ambassador Nikki Haley, Trump’s flamethrower at the UN, arrogantly reminded members of the Security Council that the U.S. would carry out a military strike against Syria whether or not  it was permitted by the Organization. In effect, even the veto as a shield is not sufficient to quench Washington’s geopolitical thirst. It also claims the disruptive option of the sword of American exceptionalism to circumvent the veto when it anticipates being blocked by the veto of an adversary. Such duplicity with respect to legal procedures at the UN puts the world back on square one when it comes to restraining the international use of force by geopolitical actors. Imagine the indignation that the U.S. would muster if Russia or China proposed at the Security Council a long overdue peacekeeping (R2P) mission to protect the multiply abused population of Gaza. And if these countries went further, and had the geopolitical gall to act outside the UN because of an expected veto by NATO members of the Security Council and the urgency of the humanitarian justification, the world would almost certainly experience the bitter taste of apocalyptic warfare.

 

 

The Charter Framework is Not Obsolete

 

The Charter framework makes as much sense, or more, than when crafted in 1945. Recourse to force is only permissible as an act of self-defense against a prior armed attack, and then only until the Security Council has time to act. In non-defensive situations, such as the Syrian case, the Charter makes clear beyond reasonable doubt that the Security Council alone possesses the authority to mandate the use of force, including even in response to an ongoing humanitarian emergency. The breakthrough idea in the Charter is to limit as much as language can, discretion by states to decide on their own when to have recourse to acts of war. Syria is the latest indication that this hopeful idea has been crudely cast in the geopolitical wastebasket.

 

It will be up to the multitudes to challenge these developments, and use their mobilized influence to reverse the decline of international law and the authority of the UN. Most members of the UN are themselves so beholden to the realist premises of the system that they will never do more than squawk from time to time.

 

Ending Trump’s boastful tweet about the Syrian airstrike with the words ‘mission accomplished’ unwittingly reminds us of the time in 2003 when the same phrase was on a banner behind George W. Bush as he spoke of victory in Iraq from the deck of an aircraft carrier with the sun setting behind him. Those words soon came back to haunt Bush, and if Trump were capable of irony, he might have realized that he is likely to endure an even more humbling fate, while lacking Bush’s willingness to later acknowledge his laughable mistake.

 

 

Fudging Constitutional Authorization

 

Each of the attacking countries claims impeccable democratic credentials, except when their effect is to impede war lust. Each purports to give its legislative branch the option of withholding approval for any contemplated recourse to military action, except in the case that the homeland is under attack. Yet here, where there was no attack by Syria and no imminent security threat of any kind each of these governments joined in an internationallyunlawful attack without even bothering to seek domesticlegislative approval, claiming only that the undertaking served the national interest of their governments by enforcing the norms of prohibition contained in the Chemical Weapons Convention.

 

The American attempts to supply flimsy domestic justifications are decisively refuted by two widely respected international jurists, including one, Jack Goldsmith, who was a leading neoconservative legal advisor in the early years of the George W. Bush presidency. [Jack Goldsmith & Oona Hathaway, “Bad Legal Arguments for the Syria Airstrikes,” Lawfare website, Aprile 14, 2018]  Their article rejects arguments based on theAuthorization for the Use of Military Force, which in 2001 gave broad authority to use military force in response to the 9/11 attacks, but has no bearing here as Syria has never been accused of any link. The other legal claim that has been brought forward argues that the airstrikes are expressions of the president’s authority under Article II of the Constitution to serve as Commander in Chief, but any freshman law student knows, or should know, that this authority is available only if the use of force has been previously validated by Congress or is in response to an attack or a plausible argument of the perceived imminence of such an attack. Revealingly, the internal justification for Trump’s authority has not been disclosed as yet, and has been heavily classified, showing once again that government secrets in wartime are not primarily kept to prevent adversaries from finding things out, but as with the Pentagon Papers, are useful mainly to keep Americans in the dark about policies that affect their wellbeing and possibly their survival. It also gives the leadership more space for deception and outright lies.

 

It has been reliably reported that the Trump White House preferred to act without seeking Congressional approval, presumably to uphold the trend toward establishing an ‘executive presidency’ when it comes to war/peace issues, thereby effectively negating a principal objective of the U.S. Constitution to apply the separation of powers doctrine to any recourse to war. This also marginalizes the War Powers Act enacted into law in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the vain attempt to restore the Constitutional arrangement after a period during which the President arrogated power to wage war and the policy acted upon produced the worst foreign policy failure in all of American history.

 

 

Where Does This Leave Us?

 

There are several levels of response:

 

–with respect to Syria, nothing has changed.

 

–with respect to the UN and international law, a damaging blow was struck.

 

–with respect to constitutionalism, a further move away from respect for separation of powers, thus marginalizing the legislative branch with respect to war/peace policies.

 

–with respect to oppositional politics, citizen protest, and media reactions, an apathetic atmosphere of acquiescence, with debate shifting to questions of purpose and effectiveness without virtually no reference to legality, and quite little, even to legitimacy (that is, moral and political justifications).