Archive | rules of the game RSS feed for this section

Asking Foolish Questions About Serious Issues

7 Mar

 

 

When the Clinton campaign started complaining about Russia interfering in US elections by hacking into the DNC I was struck by their excesses of outrage and the virtual absence of any acknowledgement that the United States has been interfering in dozens of foreign elections for decades with no apparent second thoughts. CNN and other media brings one national security expert after another to mount various cases against Putin and the Kremlin, and to insist that Russia is up to similar mischief in relation to the upcoming French elections. And never do they dare discuss whether such interference is a rule of the game, similar to espionage, or whether what was alleged to have been done by the Russians might lead the US political leaders and its intelligence agencies to reconsider its own reliance on such tactics to help sway foreign elections.

 

Is this selective perception merely one more instance of American exceptionalism? We can hack away, but our elections and sovereign space are hallowed ground, which if encroached upon, should be resisted by all possible means. It is one thing to argue that democracy and political freedom are jeopardized by such interference as is being attributed to Moscow, and if their behavior influenced the outcome, it makes Russia responsible for a disaster not only in the United States but in the world. The disaster is named Trump. Assuming this Russian engagement by way of what they evidently call ‘active measures’ occurred is, first of all, an empirical matter of gathering evidence and reaching persuasive conclusions. Assuming the allegations are to some extent validated, it hardly matters whether by what means the interference was accomplished, whether done by cyber technology, electronic eavesdropping, dirty tricks, secret financial contributions, or otherwise.

 

What is diversionary and misleading is to foster the impression that the Russians breached solemn rules of international law by disrupting American democracy and doing their best to get Trump elected or weaken the Clinton presidency should she have been elected. The integrity of American democratic procedures may have been seriously compromised, and this is deeply regrettable and should be remedied to the extent possible, but whatever happened should not be greeted with shock and consternation as if some inviolate international red line had been provocatively crossed.

 

There are three appropriate questions to pose: (1) what can we do to increase cyber defenses to prevent future intrusions, and restore domestic confidence that elections in the United States reflect the unimpeded will of the citizenry and are not the result of machinations by outsiders? (2) do we possess the means to ascertain the impact of such intrusions on the outcome of the 2016 national elections, and if such investigation points beyond a reasonable doubt to the conclusion that without the intrusion Clinton would have won, should that void the result, and impose on Congress the duty to arrange for a new emergency electoral procedure for selecting a president free from taint (especially if the Trump campaign aided and abetted the Russian intrusion)? (3) are there ways to bolster norms against interventions in the internal affairs of sovereign states that offer protection against such interference? Note that giving convincing answers to these questions is not a simple matter, and requires serious reflection and debate.

 

To illustrate the moral and political complexity we can consider the core dilemma that is present for a government with a dog in the fight. Suppose the Kremlin had reason to believe that a Clinton presidency would lead to a new cold war, would it not have been reasonable, and even responsible, for Russians leaders to support Trump, and if the situation were reversed, shouldn’t the US do all it can do to avoid the election of a belligerent Russian leader? Wouldn’t millions of people have been thankful if Western interference in the German elections of 1933 were of sufficient magnitude to avoid the triumph of the National Socialist Party?

 

 

There are good and bad precedents arising from past international behavior, especially if established by important states by repeated action, that then empower others to act in a similar manner. Without governmental institutions to oversee political behavior, the development of international law proceeds by way of international practice. Thus when the United States claims the right to interfere and even engage in regime-changing interventions, we greatly weaken any objections when others do the same sort of thing. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The logic of reciprocity contributes to a normative process that reflects international practice as much as it does international lawmaking treaties.

 

Some equally serious and worrisome parallel issues are raised by recent disclosures of serious cyber attacks by the US Government on the North Korean nuclear program. The American media and government officialdom treat the conduct of cyber warfare against North Korea’s nuclear program as something to be judged exclusively by its success or failure, not whether its right or wrong, prudent or reckless. We interfered with the North Korean nuclear program without seeking authorization from the UN, and certainly without any willingness to tolerate reciprocal behavior by others that disrupted any of our nuclear activities.

 

It can be plausibly argued that North Korea and its wily leader, Kim Jong-un, are dangerous, reprehensible, and irresponsible, and that it is intolerable for such a government to possess nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. That such a circumstance creates a ‘right of exception,’ suspending international law and considerations of reciprocity, would seem a far more responsible way to proceed, preserving a sense that the US is normally respectful of and accountable to international law, but North Korea poses such a dire threat to humanity as to make all means of interference acceptable. But apparently so intoxicated by geopolitical hubris the thought never occurs to either our leaders or the compliant mainstream media that puts out its own version of ‘fake news’ night after night. It is instructive to realize how bipartisan is this disregard of the relevance of international law to a sustainable world order. These new disclosures relating to North Korea assert that Trump ‘inherited’ an ongoing cyber war program from Obama, who had in earlier years been unabashedly complicit with Israel’s cyber efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

 

Does it serve the interests of the United States to set the rules of the game in international relations with respect to nuclear policy, making little pretense of being bound by the standards imposed on other sovereign states, especially those non-nuclear states accused of taking steps to acquire the weaponry? The tigers control the mice, and the idea of a rule of law that treats equals equally is completely foreign to the American mindset in the 21st century when it comes to the role of hard power, security policy, and grand strategy in international life, but interestingly, but much less so in the context of trade and investment. This distinction is worth pondering.

 

In other words when it comes to security policy and grand strategy, there are two basic rules of contemporary geopolitics that contravene the golden rule of ethical behavior:

 

         Rule #1: Do not allow others to do unto you what you frequently do to others (the Russian hacking discourse);

 

         Rule #2: Do unto other what you would never accept others doing unto you (cyber attacks on Iran and North Korea).

 

It is arguable that this normative assymetry is the only way that world order can be sustained given the absence of world government, or even a strong enough UN to enact and implement common behavioral standards in these domains traditionally reserved for sovereign discretion. A golden rule governing the way states are expected to act toward one another with respect to war/peace issues is certainly currently situated in global dream space. If this is so or so believed, let us at least lift the fog of self-righteous rhetoric, plan to defend our political space as well as we can, and rethink the unintended consequences of interfering in foreign elections and engaging in regime-changing interventions.

 

At least, let us not deceive ourselves into believing that we are responsible custodians of peace and decency in the world. Do we really have grounds for believing that Donald Trump is less dangerous to the world than Kim Jong-un or the Supreme Guide of Iran? Even if their outlook on political engagement overlaps and their swagger is similar, the US is far more powerful, has alone used nuclear weapons against civilian targets and overthrown numerous foreign governments, including those elected in fair and free elections, and has its own house in a condition of disorder, although despite all this admittedly humanly far more desirable than the order experienced within totalitarian North Korea.

 

Is it not time for the peoples of the world to rise up and put some restraints on the strong as well as the weak? The UN veto power confers on the most powerful states a constitutional free ride when it comes to compliance with international law and the UN Charter. In effect, the UN back in 1945 institutionalized a topsy-turvy structure that curbs the weak, while granting impunity to the predatory behavior of the strong.

 

If we grant that this is the way things are and are likely to remain, can’t we at least look in the mirror, and no longer pretend to be that innocent damsel that can only be protected by slaying the dragons roaming the jungles of the world. Trump had his singular moment of truth when he responded on February 4th to Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that Putin was “a killer”: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country is so innocent.” And unlike Trump’s frequent journeys into dark thickets of falsehood that are dismissed by the injunction “let Trump be Trump,” when the man speaks truly for once, his words were scorched, and erased even from the influential media blackboards of the alt right.

Advertisements

The Confused Russian Hacking Debate, Trump Victory, and U.S. Global State

18 Dec

 

 

The U.S. Government, with the collaboration of a disturbingly compliant media, seems to have discovered a deeply rusted version of The Golden Rule: “Do not permit others to do unto you, what you have repeatedly done.” Everybody in the slightest degree attentive to the way world works, knows that espionage and covert meddling in foreign elections has long been a standard weapon in the arsenal of geopolitical diplomacy. The U.S. proudly thwarted the electoral success of Communist Parties in Europe after World War II, not to mention countless interferences large and small, overt and covert, in elections throughout the Global South, with an especially dark record in Latin America (“so far from God, so close to the United States”). Beyond that, if the outcome of democratic elections should produce leaders that pursue policies that disturb Washington such as nationalization of resources, adoption of leftist policies, friendship with U.S. adversaries, more than meddling is likely to follow. Such a government can depend vary degrees of delegitimation, destabilization, sanctions, and eventually even military intervention. This pattern has been frequently relied upon in the past, and there are several current instances. (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, to name a few instance of reversing political outcomes that our elected leaders deplore); Iran, Venezuela are examples of present instances. [On Chile see authoritative article by Ariel Dorfman, “Now Americans Know How Chile Felt,” NY Times, Dec. 17, 2016.]

 

The mainstream media in the West has focused relentless outrage on claims of Russian hacking of the American electoral process without even taking note of relevant American practices. The establishment’s most trustworthy public voice of imperial reason, Thomas Friedman, refers to Russian behavior as an ‘act of war.’ The very slippery ex-CIA Deputy Director, Michael Morel, uses even more inflammatory language, describing Russian hacking as ‘the political equivalent of 9/11.’ There are numerous raucous calls for a ‘proportionate response’ by the United States including even such provocative and punitive acts as equipping the Ukraine with offensive weaponry. What is extraordinary, even for those familiar with the geopolitical dimensions of world politics, is for this debate and discourse on alleged Russian hacking to proceed with no questions asked about the thick dossier of comparable American electoral meddling all over the world over the course of decades, including taking much more direct forms via bribery, assassination, and assorted other consequential interferences than anything the Russians have done.

 

When we think further about what has been hacked, the hullabaloo is comedic. Wikileaks is accused only of leaking the awkward disclosures of internal Democratic National Committee documents that revealed embarrassing Democratic staff concerns about the way Hillary Clinton was handling her emails and confirming that the DNC actively worked to undermine the primary prospects of Bernie Sanders. If another Snowden had done the original hacking, it would be treated as another case of whistleblowing with ambiguous consequences. The disclosures would be an admittedly controversial status, especially objections to the intrusions on the privacy, really secrecy, relating to the way political parties manipulate the American electoral process. At the same time the emails allowed citizens to know parts of shabby goings on behind the scenes of party politics. Is this truly an interference with American democracy of a magnitude that warrants dangerously escalating international tensions? Barack Obama, while reacting with calm language, goes along with these exaggerated reactions, falsely implying by silence an American innocence of undertaking similar to, and often far worse than what the Russians, under Putin’s direction, are alleged (without even some supportive evidence) to have done.

 

What is more fundamentally at stake is a challenge directed at the one-sided prerogatives of the United States as the first aspiring ‘global state’ in all of history. The Russians violated the First Law of Geopolitics as implemented by the United States in its role as global state: “You are prohibited from doing to us, what we are doing to you and others.” The Second Law: “You will be severely punished if you violate the Fist Law.” The Third Law: “You are forbidden to object to, or even mention, the First and Second Laws of Geopolitics.” The Fourth Law: “The public media is expected to express outrage when the First Law is violated, call for the implementation of the Second Law, while remaining quiet about the presence of double standards and moral hypocrisy.

 

This way of interpreting right and wrong, or the application of law, inverts normal understanding and expectations. What we expect is that all states are either subject to a legal constraint or that it doesn’t exist. We do not expect some to be subject to constraints and one or more others to be entitled to have discretion to act as it wishes, and do so with impunity. Yet international society has long formally and informally allowed power to take precedence over law and the legal ethos of equality. Even the United Nations Charter in establishing the Security Council embedded geopolitics in the formal structure of the world organization by granting the five winners in World War Two with permanent membership (P-5) and the right of veto. This combination means effectively that for these five states compliance with international law is completely voluntary and only those decisions that meet the approval of the P-5 become mandatory. Put more vividly, the UN was able to act decisively in Libya (2011) because there was no veto, while in relation to Syria over the course of the last five years there has been no capacity for the UN to act due to the right of veto threatened and exercised by Russia and China. Another example–Israel has been consistently shielded from UN censure by the Security Council over the years due to U.S. reliance on its veto power.

 

The geopolitics of the global state are similarly structured, although less explicitly. Standards of criminal accountability apply effectively only to losers of major wars (Germany, Japan after World War Two) or countries in the Global South. The United States has exempted itself from any prospect of accountability except by symbolic actions resulting from civil society initiatives. For instance, during the Iraq War of 2003, there took place a series of legal inquiries conducted under civil society auspices. These culminating in a session of the Iraq War Tribunal in 2005 that reached conclusions through its jury of conscience that the United States and the United Kingdom, and their leaders and collaborators, were guilty of aggressive war and violations of the laws of war. The Western press in the liberal democracies upheld the 4th Law of Geopolitics by maintaining a steadfast silence about these proceedings, although the Iraq War Tribunal proceedings carefully documented its findings and enjoyed the participation of some of the world’s leading jurists.  

The same pattern with minor variations applies across the board with respect to global security issues. The nuclear weapons regime is a prime example, with the United States, in particular, using the instrument of ‘counter-proliferation’ to justify aggressive war and to ignore completely the reciprocal legal duties imposed by the Nonproliferation Treaty. Iraq was invaded, Iran and North Korea repeatedly threatened, because of the geopolitical resolve to avoid Iraqi acquisition and possession of nuclear weaponry despite credible security arguments that such weapons were needed to deter hostile adversaries. As is certainly relevant to the hacking debate, prior to the Iraq War the intelligence community was similarly unified in supporting the false contention that Iraq possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and was actively pursuing the development of the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The head of the CIA at the time notoriously reinforced this intelligence consensus by calling it ‘a slam dunk.’

 

The nuclear weapons states, as part of the nonproliferation bargain to induce other states to forgo the weaponry, promised back in 1968 to engage in good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament along the way to demilitarization and general and complete disarmament. Although the International Court of Justice in 1996 unanimously upheld this interpretation of the treaty obligations of the nuclear weapons states there has been no movement in the direction of compliance. In fact, Barack Obama, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize partly because of his anti-nuclear posture, approved of a $1 trillion dollar modernization and development program for the American nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years and for the eight years of his presidency has never called upon the United States and other nuclear weapons states to implement their clear NPT treaty obligation.

 

The same geopolitical structure is present with respect to ‘humanitarian intervention’ and general standards of compliance across the spectrum of human rights violations, ranging from torture to judicially enforced racism. The West under American leadership operates as if it enjoys a right of intervention, preferably to be exercised with UN backing, and a corollary tacit right to be free from reciprocal claims even to correct its most flagrant human rights abuses. When the George W. Bush presidency overtly relied on and justified interrogation practices widely viewed as torture, there was no call for the implementation of the international legal disallowance of torture and related abuses of human rights. For the United States to renew a reliance on waterboarding is, at best, a matter of policy, while for other countries such practices would be regarded as a matter of law.

 

My friend and colleague, Rich Appelbaum, raises an important point. Granted this kind of interference has been used a major foreign policy instrument of the United States, what Russia apparently did with respect to hacking and possibly even tilting the election in Trump’s favor is clearly undesirable, and should be treated as unacceptable. Yet even here the context is complex. First of all, to retaliate against Russia without even acknowledging that the U.S. Government has habitually interfered in foreign elections creates a false consciousness among the American people and invites accusations of hypocrisy.

 

There is also a deeper problem associated with security in a state-centric world with a weak UN. If our leaders were confronted by a foreign election in a major state in which one of the candidates was a warmongering extremist and the opponent a moderate, would it not be rational, and in the national, and even the global interest, to do all that could be done to tilt the election away from the extremist. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Hillary Clinton was perceived as hostile and militarist, while Donald Trump was evidently regarded as friendly and supportive of a lower American military profiles, especially in the Middle East. I think these perceptions are faulty overall, but all the evidence suggests that such views are widely believed in Russia and sincere.

 

Regulating the use of cyberspace is decidedly a gray area. International law and the UN Charter give little guidance beyond the vague directive to respect territorial sovereignty. This Russian hacking incident may serve to provide the political impetus for a lawmaking treaty binding all countries to a framework that at least establishes guidelines for governments of sovereign states to follow. Even if such a framework can be agreed upon, a big if, there are many areas of doubt as to what is best considering the present structure of world order. A first question is whether to keep cyberspace as a playground for geopolitics, and a second is whether it is desirable to prohibit all forms of meddling in foreign societies, and their elections and internal politics, no matter how dangerous and malevolent we perceive foreign developments to be. In a globalizing, interdependent, and nuclear armed world it would be playing with species suicide to decree by law, morality, and practice detachment from developments in foreign societies that pose deep threats beyond territorial borders.

 

In the end, perhaps, the best solution is to treat such hacking incidents and related disclosures the same way as espionage. Our spies are heroes, rewarded and honored in various ways, their spies are notorious intruders subject to the harshest punishments that criminal law can impose. Espionage goes on by every conceivable means, including increasingly reliance on the best tools that innovative technology possesses. The ‘game’ played is to defend our ‘secrets’ against foreign spies and domestic whistleblowers by all available means, but to do everything possible to learn their secrets. We can hope for prudence, but little more, in this double game, and maybe this is the way to handle hacking intrusions in our political space: scream about violation of our electoral process, while doing our best to exert control over theirs, but not succumb to the sort of outrage that raises international tensions in dangerous ways. We should take account of the fact that sometimes espionage provides information about adversaries that is reassuring, and discredits domestic hawks calling for dangerously adventurous policies.

 

I am someone who fervently wished, despite strong reservations about Clinton’s foreign policy inclinations and past record, that Clinton has won the election by norms of the electoral college as well as a result of the popular vote. I regret deeply the Russian role in hacking the DNC, their failure to disclose the RNC hacks, and deplore their profoundly flawed judgment in believing that they and the world would be better off with a Trump presidency.

 

In conclusion, I have long opposed American interferences in the political life of foreign countries, believe in accepting the outcome of the dynamics of self-determination, and have long thought the United States and the rest of the world would be better off if the government accepted the discipline of international law as setting limits on foreign policy options. In my view, such a realization is the unlearned lesson of the Vietnam War. I would repudiate the four laws of geopolitics, and opt instead for a global leadership role for Washington based on the rule of law.

 

Of course, we should not embrace international law, or any law, with illusions.

Law can be twisted in contradictory ways by legal experts. Law often is an instrument of geopolitics. Nevertheless, with eyes wide open, international law, diligently applied in accordance with a culture of human rights and peacemindedness, is a better guide for the national and global future than geopolitics.