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The Sympathetic Skeptic: Luis Cabrera’s Interview with Richard Falk on behalf of the World Government Research Network

12 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The following interview was conducted by Professor Luis Cabrera, a political theorist on the faculty of Griffith University in Brisbane Australia. Cabrera has written notable books on themes of world government and global integration. He is also the co-founder and co-director of the Global Government Research Network. The original posting of the interview can be found at <>


[I would describe myself as a strong skeptic, and place less emphasis on the sympathetic aspects of my views about finding institutional mechanisms protective of global and human interests. I do believe that a stronger and more independent UN is part of the answer as are special governmental and quasi-governmental arrangements to deal with specific subject-matter of global scope. At the same time, advocacy of world government irresponsibly overlooks the danger of sanctioning a move to global tyranny and to a frozen economic order that would almost certainly need to deal with disparities in material circumstances by coercive means. I do recommend checking out the website recently put together by Luis Cabrera and James Thompson, and can be found via Google at ‘World Government Research Network’ where high quality articles and world government related news can be found.]



[The following biosketch preceded the interview: Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and associated with the program on Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara since 2002. He has been a prominent and prolific voice in scholarship on international law and world order since the late 1950s, and more recently has championed the promotion of ‘humane global governance’ as an alternative to top-down economic globalization. Falk was centrally involved in the World Order Models Project in 1960s-1980s. WOMP was a research-focused outgrowth of the world government movements of the 1940s and 1950s, and its head, Prof. Saul Mendlovitz of Rutgers, was an unabashed advocate of binding world government. Falk was more skeptical, famously arguing that most world government proposals are guilty of ‘premature specificity.’ The World Government Research Network interviewed Prof. Falk on his long career and current views on global integration in August 2015.]


1) You were the North American director for the World Order Models Project (WOMP), which was aimed in part at developing an inclusive international academic dialogue on global integration. What were the major challenges to developing a genuinely global dialogue, and how successful do you think the project was in meeting them?


I think the main participants in WOMP were very disposed to a global dialogue, although sharp differences in outlook were present from its inception. There was an initial split between those of us from the North who focused on war prevention given the anxieties generated by the U.S./Soviet geopolitical rivalry and those in the South who were concerned with development, overcoming European colonial legacies, and steering clear as possible of the Cold War. A secondary split was between Saul Mendlovitz, the overall director and fund raiser who made the project possible, who strongly believed in the near term inevitability and desirability of world government in some form and the rest of us who believed that the preconditions for democratic world government did not exist, were not on the horizon, and in any event were fearful of international integrations of political authority and power beyond the level of regionalism. WOMP was successful so long as it agreed to disagree, which it did during its initial decade or so of existence. There were stimulating meetings in various parts of the world, and a series of interesting books describing our ‘preferred world for the 1990s.’ Mendlovitz edited a volume of essays that gave an overview of the project by giving the authors an opportunity to put forth their distinct visions of a feasible, necessary, and desirable future for world order. Of the principal authors my book A Study of Future Worlds came by far closest to endorsing a global integrationist vision by its stress on the necessity of ‘a central guidance system’ to deal with the problems of the world in the 1970s, but still tried to keep my distance from the Western tradition since the end of World War I of pushing world government schemes.


The second phase of WOMP sought to fashion a consensus view of the future of world order. Its shared framework was based on the acceptance of world order values (peace, human right rights, economic wellbeing & justice, and environmental protection) rather than on trends toward global integration. There was little attention given to the emergence of ‘globalization’ and its economistic orientation via neoliberalism or the optic provided by ‘the Washington consensus.’ This second phase of WOMP coincided with the end of the Cold War. The differences in regional priorities persisted, and the projected ended in a mood of frustration, especially on the part of Mendlovitz who until the very end believed that the secret to a peaceful future was challenging the war system and establishing a robust form of global constitutionalism. The rest of the WOMP participants were either not interested in this form of advocacy or suspected it as a kind of Western geopolitical Trojan Horse that contained a blueprint for global domination that was to be disguised in public discourse as a plan for world government.


2) Overall, what do you see as the most significant contribution of WOMP? What are the lessons that current scholars should take from the WOMP experience, including in such coalitional efforts such as the World Government Research Network?


I think the idea of bringing together prominent scholars in their respective regions who shared normative preferences for a humane world order was an extraordinarily prescient initiative, but it may have been prematurely enacted. I believe there is more awareness in this period of the early 21st century of the need for the collaborative design of alternative futures in an historical context of intensifying global integration and a growing awareness of the fragility of political arrangements in a state-centric structure of world order that can neither protect the global/human interest in relation to climate change and nuclear weaponry nor can provide national or human security for peoples living within the boundaries set by the nation-state.


Online collaboration provides exciting opportunities for collaboration without any dependence on major funding, although it gives up the benefit of face-to-face contact that deepens social networking. The WOMP experience may be helpful in identifying the limits of such collaboration as well as the importance of setting a research agenda that gives space and relevance to a variety of viewpoints. The dialogic experience works best when there is a shared normative ground that is at the same time comfortable with the reality and legitimacy of divergent views, with participants refraining from any compulsion to overcome disagreements and divergent priorities.


3) You have long been associated with world order studies and world federalism, but you have also been consistently skeptical of advocating a binding world government in the relatively near term. What would you say to the many researchers who in recent years have helped revive academic dialogue around world government, in many cases advocating it?


I am not sufficiently familiar with the recent trends in world government advocacy by scholars to have any strong opinion about its usefulness either pedagogically or as the basis for engaged citizenship. I continue to find absent the political preconditions for any kind of constitutional consolidation of authority at the global level as distinct from considerable latent potential for regional and sub-regional integrative developments. I also see some societal benefits accruing from reversing trends toward global integration, and have an interest in what I have enigmatically called ‘anarchism without anarchism’ and might seem to be at odds with my earlier support for global reform to achieve central guidance capabilities.


My scepticism about world government is grounded on three types of objection: first, creating a global polity without a prior global community is almost certainly a formula for either collapse or tyranny; secondly, the unevenness of material circumstances and cultural outlook would make the control of the political center almost certain to depend on iron fist structures of domination and exploitation; thirdly, the almost total absence of political will among either contemporary elites or publics to create a world government, or even to posit world government as a desirable goal; nationalism remains a strong ideological reinforcement for the maintenance of a state-centric world order.


What I do agree about is the vital importance of finding procedures and mechanism that will promote the global and human interest. The UN was conceived to fill this gap, but its statist structures has made it mainly a venue where competing conceptions of national interests seek to find compromises. Such a framework has not been able to address problems of global scope such as nuclear weaponry, climate change, and the regulation of the world economy. Is it possible to imagine the effective promotion of the global/human interest without the existence of world government, whether in federalist or unitary form? I regard this as the primary survival question facing the human species that pertains to the role and nature of global governance. Without a capability to serve the global/human interest, I lack the imagination to grasp how a catastrophic future for generations to come can be avoided.



4) You have championed global civil society, or ‘globalization from below’ as a means of promoting more humane global governance and ultimately preparing the way for shared rule well beyond the state. Are you encouraged by developments in global civil society in the 55-plus years of your academic career, discouraged, or do you see the record as more mixed?


I remain uncertain how to respond. My mood varies with sudden changes in the global atmosphere. I felt encouraged, even excited, by the unfolding of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement in 2011, but feel more discouraged by the success of subsequent counterrevolutionary forces that have proved so robust in the Middle East and by the inability of the Occupy Movement to sustain its initial impulse to challenge contemporary distortions and injustices attributable to neoliberal capitalist logic and behavior. I continue to believe that hope for the future rests upon challenges from below, a normative insurgency that posits an eco-humanist imaginary with sufficient persuasiveness to mobilize widespread support around the world, including among disaffected segments of economic and political elites that recognize the need for a paradigm shift away from growth-oriented compulsions, as well as a radical turn against the war system as the means to achieve security and stability.



5) You also have championed, with Andrew Strauss, the development of an initially consultative global parliament. Later versions of the argument advocate the signing of a treaty among existing democratic states to get the ball rolling. Does that still appear to you to be a more promising route than, for example, the one advocated by the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly?


Yes, I still believe that a global parliament that represents people directly is more promising than the creation of a parliamentary assembly that is likely to reproduce most tendencies already present in the UN. I think there is a better chance of a peoples assembly creating a different kind of global agenda with different priorities if it is established as the outcome of a populist movement. To be worthwhile a global parliament must be responsive to global interests and to the grievances of the most marginalized and vulnerable peoples in the world, and should be proposed with these goals uppermost. Of course, as a political institution a global parliament will evolve in ways that reflect changes in the political climate, but it should be insulated to the extent possible against manipulation by money and by national governments, especially by those governments harboring hegemonic ambitions.


6) You are often quoted (from a 1975 piece) as saying that global government proposals and proponents engage in ‘premature specificity.’ How long until the time is right, if ever?


What I meant by the phrase is that without a political climate receptive to global government proposals, the blueprinting of institutions is an exercise of limited value, and tends toward an apolitical approach to global change. The Clark/Sohn plan for limited world government through the radical reform of the UN Charter is a clear illustration of what I have in mind. It lacks any conception of a political scenario that has the slightest chance of moving from the current state of affairs to the ideal future that they set forth as a solution for the world order challenges of the Cold War Era. There is a chicken and egg problem admittedly present: the demonstration of offer practical designs for how a world government would work is intended to overcome criticisms that argue that world government is not capable of preserving societal freedoms and could not restrain the abuse of power by those in control of such strengthened institutions. It has been my experience that those who set forth their plans for world government are usually ultra-rationalists who believe that change follows from having the best ideas, winning after dinner arguments. I disagree with such viewpoints, and regard change as following from the interplay and eruption of social forces. What seems useful at this time is for scholars acting in transnational collaboration to construct a series of political scenarios that envision benevolent forms of global transformation, including tentative ideas about institutional design. I would think this would be an excellent undertaking for the World Government Research Network just launched.



7) You have been actively engaged in social and political affairs for many decades. What advice might you have for upcoming generations of academics, in particular those working in areas of international politics and law, who might also want to engage, and do so effectively?


Political participation is a very personal matter, and depends on how a person views the world, as well as on conceptions of the proper interaction of the life of a professional academic and that of a citizen concerned with public policy. I have taken the view, which is controversial within American universities that engaged citizenship can usefully include advocacy work, which can also make contributions to education in a free society. The first challenge is to develop the skills appropriate for critical and independent thinking. The second challenge is the importance of endowing conscience with sufficient authority as to validate the role of citizen/scholars in talking truth to power and entering the arenas of debate and action to promote preferred policy outcomes.


I felt that forthrightness in the classroom combined with receptivity and openness to opposing viewpoints gave added vitality to the academic experience, and connect the pursuit of knowledge with a commitment to societal reform in positive ways.

It is important to be sensitive to the political atmosphere as it bears on particular issues. In my own experience there is no doubt that I have paid a price for articulating controversial beliefs on current policy issues and implementing such analyses with shows of solidarity with groups and peoples seeking liberation from oppressive circumstances. Challenging the established order is much more likely to produce pushback, even in the form of discriminatory actions and defamatory attacks, on some issues than others. For instance, on questions of world order, although many disagreements exist that reflect divergent worldviews and ethical standpoints, there is rarely the kind of effort to discredit opponents as is encountered when the focus is on contemporary issues of political and social conflict, especially if it touches on matters of military intervention, religious and ethnic identity or counters the work of strongly entrenched domestic lobbies.


The Nuclear Challenge (10): Seventy Years After Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Against Binaries

10 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This is the tenth, and mercifully the last, in this series of posts prompted by the 70th observance of the atomic attacks in 1945. The intention has been to explore several of the more important dimensions of what is called here ‘nuclearism,’ the securitization of nuclear weaponry in the face of international law, international morality, and simple common sense, and what can and should be done to achieve desecuritization of such weaponry of mass destruction, reviewing the stubborn adherence to nuclearism by the nuclear nine, the marginalization of the UN with respect to disarmament and denuclearization, and the rise and fall of antinuclear activism in civil society. Hopefully, the time will come when a less gloomy depiction of the nuclear challenge can be made by some future blog practitioner. This text is a slightly revised version of what was initially posted, written in grateful response to comments received.]


There have been a variety of philosophical assaults on either/or thinking, perhaps most notably flowing from the deconstructionist pen of Jacques Derrida. In more policy related contexts, the debate about dichotomizing gender has featured two sets of arguments: first the contention that it is important to distinguish lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, hence the LGBT designation of sexual ‘otherness,’ which enriches the either/or-ness of the reigning male/female gender binary. Identifications of sexuality also cuts against the grain of the dominant heterosexual or straight template, and is further contested by ongoing debates surrounding the societal, legal, and conceptual legitimacy of ‘same sex marriages.’


The New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, pushes the sexual identity envelope further by developing the case for ‘fluidity’ of preferences, that is, neither purely this or that. He personalizes the issue, indicating that he generally is attracted to women, but on occasion might also be attracted to men, which because the feelings of attraction are greater for women than men, it is not accurate to define himself as ‘bisexual.’ Such a blurring of boundaries corresponds with the actuality of his feelings that even cut across supposedly liberating socially constructed categories as LGBT is meant to be. [Sept 7, 2015] The point being that the biopolitical reality of life often does not divide neatly into binary categories, and when we address the issue as one of upholding societal norms by enacting laws disciplining sexual limits, adverse social, political, and psychological self-alienation and arbitrary distinctions follow. This encroaches upon our freedoms in unfortunate, often unconscious, ways, leading many individuals to stay in the closet to hide their true feelings or be open and face subtle punitive consequences. Or, at best, individuals conclude that their failure to fit their feelings into a single box is somehow ‘abnormal.’ Relaxing traditional roles of state, church, and society in policing politically correct identities is one of the few areas in which freedom in American can be said to have expanded in the last couple of decades, and this, largely due to the transcendence of gender and sexual binaries thanks to robust civil society activism that cut against the grain of majority sentiment.



Perhaps, the most blatant of all binaries bearing on nuclear weapons is between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ nuclear weapons states, which immediately reminds us of Mahmood Mamdani’s devastating critique of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. [See Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (2005)] The United States and its allies regard themselves as ‘good’ nuclear weapons states that the world has no reason to worry about while Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan are ‘evil,’ or at best ‘irresponsible’ or ‘insecure’ states that should if at all possible be disallowed to acquire nuclear weapons. It is this primary binary that provides the moral/political disguised infrastructure of NPT treaty regime, which when established was confined to the P5 of the UN Security Council, which while not conceived of as ‘good’ by the West were at least not part of ‘the axis of evil’ depicted by George W. Bush during his presidency.


In this series on the nuclear challenge as of 2015, I have myself succumbed to the ‘binary temptation’ in at least two respects—distinguishing arms control from disarmament, and separating nuclear disarmament from conventional disarmament. Relying on binaries can contribute to a certain clarity of analysis, leading I believe to useful political discourse, but it is also misleading unless qualified and transcended. Dichotomizing choice and consequences in these ways can be especially useful in pointing out weaknesses and pitfalls in ‘politically correct’ methods of solving societal problems. In this spirit, I continue to believe it is illuminating to insist on the critical difference between complete nuclear disarmament as transformative of the security scene as now embedded in world order and arms control as a series of more or less helpful reformist moves that stabilize and manage the role of nuclear weaponry in contemporary security structures. These arms control moves are made without posing any challenge to the fundamental distribution of power and authority in the world, and tend to make such a challenge appear less urgent, and even of questionable benefit.

From this perspective, then, a critique of the NPT regime as the preeminent stabilizing structure in relation to nuclearism seems justified. It provides the basis for setting forth an argument that the NPT approach is antagonistic, rather than complementary to denuclearization and disarmament. This is contrary to the way the NPT regime is generally explained and affirmed, which is as step toward achieving nuclear disarmament, and an indispensable place holding measure to reduce the risks of nuclear war. It is true that inhibiting the spread of nuclear weaponry seems to be in the spirit of what might be described as horizontal denuclearization, although even this limited assertion is not without controversy. The recently deceased Kenneth Waltz with impeccable logical consistency seemed to believe so deeply in rational decision making as embedded in the doctrine of deterrence that he favored the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries because it would tend to make governments more cautious, and hence nuclear war less likely. Others, including myself, are more ambivalent about such an out of the box position, worrying about any further spread of the bomb, but thinking that only when there is a sense of a loss of control in the capitals of the nuclear nine will there arise a sufficient interest in denuclearization as a genuine political project (as distinct from more or less sincere rhetorical posturing). Obama’s Prague speech in 2009 still seems sincere as of the time of its delivery, but we need to notice that it lived and died as rhetoric because it lacked legs, that is, the rhetoric was never converted into a political project. In contrast, the NPT is definitely a political project and enjoys strong geopolitical support.


The policy emphasis on horizontal denuclearization has the sometimes intended and sometimes unintended effect of shifting public attention away from the greater problematique of promoting vertical declearization, that is, inducing the nuclear weapons states to enter a diplomatic process that would finish with zero nuclear weapons in their military arsenals. Again such a distinction, while useful for some purposes, employs the artificial binary of horizontal and vertical, and misses the nuance actuality of hybridity and interactivity, or what Blow describes as ‘fluidity’ or others have been delimiting by dwelling on the fifty shades of gray positioned between the black and white of conventional thinking. Decuclearization for each of the nuclear nine raises different issues depending on the outlook of their leadership, the political context, and the ease of making alternative non-nuclear security arrangements, as well as their interaction with one another and with neighboring states.


Perhaps, the most salient false dichotomy of all is between ‘nuclear weapons states’ and ‘non-nuclear weapons states.’ When countries have the enrichment facilities and materials, as well as the technical knowhow, they possess a breakout capacity that could materialize in a matter of months, or maybe already exists as a result of a secret program (as was the case with Israel). Yet without acquiring and exploding a bomb such states retain their status as non-nuclear. Israel is treated as belonging to the nuclear nine because its possession of the weaponry has been documented convincingly, although it has never officially admitted its possession of the weaponry, and keeps vindictively punishing Mordechai Vanunu because he exposed the truth about Israel’s nuclear program. North Korea may not have assembled a bomb when it was charged with violating NPT constraints. Germany and Japan, and perhaps a few other countries, are latent or threshold nuclear states, although their overt posture is one of being ‘non-nuclear.’ The fluidity of reality makes the binary classification, at best, a first approximation. At worst, it creates a deceptive distance between states that have nuclear weapons and those that do not presently possess the weaponry, but could do so in a short time. Or between those that pretend not to have the weapon but actually have it and those that pretend to have it but do not have it. The binary classification ignores the many differences with respect to nuclear weapons and doctrines surrounding use of the nuclear nine, but also the many nuances of technical and political proximity to nuclearism of non-nuclear states. Some states have allowed deployments of nuclear weapons on their territory, others have prohibited ships carrying nuclear weapons from entering their ports for even a short visit.



The situation becomes even more complicated if inquiry is extended to secondary political effects. It has been argued that vertical denuclearization undertaken by the United States would likely lead to horizontal nuclearization on the part of Japan and South Korea. Contrariwise, it is reasoned in strategic circles that the nuclearization of countries in Asia and the Middle East could induce vertical denuclearization on a systemic basis to avoid the instabilities and raised risks of a growing number of hands on the nuclear trigger, and to clear the way for regional securitization based on American conventional military dominance. Worries about continued proliferation combined with the realization that American military power would become more usable and effective in a world without nuclear weapons even led such realist mainstays as George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn to support nuclear disarmament in the normally militarist pages of the Wall Street Journal. [“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan 4, 2007.]


A similar line of reasoning applies to the relationship between nuclear disarmament and conventional disarmament. Focusing on nuclear disarmament as a distinct undertaking avoids difficult issues of whether disarmament rests on a premise of pacifism and thus would be imprudent in view of centuries of political consciousness supporting the right and practical necessity of political communities acting in self-defense to uphold their security against external threats. This logic of a collective right to bear arms underlies the modern system of state-centric world order that conceives of security within bounded territorial entities as integrally linked to the war system.


At the same time, as discussed in relation to Gorbachev’s vision of nuclear disarmament discussed in The Nuclear Challenge (3), it is unrealistic to think of deep disarmament without introducing demilitarization into the process. Otherwise as Gorbachev points out, governments will be reluctant to take the last steps in a denuclearizing process if they understand that at the zero point for nuclear weapons, the world will be confronted by American military dominance, already prefigured by the U.S. government spending almost as much to maintain and develop its military machine as the entire rest of the world. For meaningful commentary it is necessary to view different types of disarmament as complements rather than as alternatives, and not to ignore different levels of interactivity. Although both Gorbachev and the Shultz group advocate nuclear disarmament, their geopolitical agendas are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Gorbachev seeks a demilitarized world of equally secure sovereign states whereas the Shultz group favors stabilizing American military hegemony.


One of the most frequently identified binary is that between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy or power. This binary is built into the NPT regime, giving non-nuclear states reassurances in Article IV that by foregoing the bomb they will not be denied the supposed benefits of nuclear energy, and that they can look forward to a denuclearized world as the nuclear weapons states accepted a legal duty to negotiate disarmament in Article VI. And then in Article X parties to the NPT are given a right to withdraw after giving three months notice in response to security imperatives, a right that can be overridden by the geopolitical insistence on non-acquisition of the weaponry as with Iran. The reality of the nuclear world subverts such a binary in a number of ways. If a nuclear energy program is established it creates conditions that makes it easier to cross the weapons threshold by having the capability to produce enriched uranium or plutonium and the technical knowhow to produce a nuclear warhead. Also, the kind of nuclear accidents that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima suggest that nuclear facilities are nuclear time bombs awaiting an igniting natural disaster or human error. Such nuclear power plants are also could be a priority target for unscrupulous political extremists. These nuclear facilities pose unknown risks of devastation that could terrorize millions of people, and spread intense fear across the globe following the release of large amounts of intense radiation. Vagaries of air currents might determine whether communities become afflicted or not.


And then there are issues of geopolitical fallout stemming from managing the NPT regime. Instead of the NPT contributing to stability, its maintenance can provide the rationale for recourse to threats and uses of aggressive force. The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq was mainly justified as a NPT enforcement operation as was the imposition of damaging international sanctions on Iran coupled with frequent reiterations of the military option by American and Israeli leaders. In effect, the alleged need to prevent certain instances of unwanted proliferation is providing political actors, especially the United States, with geopolitical justifications for costly unlawful wars that displace millions and disrupt existing political arrangements. Characterizing nuclear energy as ‘peaceful’ does not seem compatible with the spirit or substance of a fully denuclearized world.


There is an even deeper divide that needs to be bridged conceptually and practically. Can drastic forms of demilitarization reliably occur without also addressing poverty and gross disparities of individual and collective existence? And can such socio-economic issues be resolved without a combination of life style adjustments and the dismantling of neoliberal capitalism as the ideological linchpin of economic globalization? And are any of these radical changes worth contemplating without the inclusion on the policy agenda of global warming and threats to biodiversity? And on and on.


What I favor, in effect, is retaining binaries to clear up basic choices that can be better understood without the complexities and subtleties of fluidity, but also moving toward a second level of interpretation that is immersed in the existential realities of the lifeworld. On this level, evaluation would be contextual and configurative, and not be pre-judged or appraised by reference to a reductive binary. From such angles, the NPT would be seen as both helpful and harmful, making its assessment change with time and context. The NPT may have, on balance, been a constructive step in 1968 when it was possible to believe that inhibiting proliferation would give nuclear disarmament time and space to establish a more favorable climate for negotiations. By way of comparison, in 2015 the world possesses overwhelming evidence suggesting the disinclination of the nuclear weapons states to consider disarmament as a serious policy option. Such an understanding may shift the balance sufficiently to make it now more constructive to repudiate, or at least challenge the NPT regime. Such an altered approach seems quite reasonable in light of the militarist and unlawful tactics of implementation employed to victimize the peoples of Iraq and Iran.


The question of how to think about nuclear issues is itself daunting, yet crucial. One way to go about it is the recognition of distinct discourses with some sensitivity to overlaps between binary and contextual or configurative forms of analysis as discussed above. Among the substantive discourses that seem particularly useful for the promotion of denuclearization and disarmament the following can be commended: international relations; geopolitics; international law; international morality; denuclearization; demilitarization; securitization. Obviously, the path to nuclear zero is long with many twists and turns, and where it will lead remains unknown. What is known is that the struggle for nuclear disarmament, denuclearization, and demilitarization bears heavily on the destinies of the human species, and we each have a responsibility to become a participant rather than a spectator.

The Nuclear Challenge (9): Relying on International Law: Nuclear Zero Litigation

8 Sep


The Nuclear Challenge (9): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Nuclear Zero Litigation


[Prefatory Note: Two prior posts, The Nuclear Challenge (1) & (2) address indirectly the efforts of international law and lawyers to highlight the clash between international law and nuclear weapons. In this post I combine a focus on international law with a continuation of the inquiry into the role of civil society activism that was the theme of The Nuclear Challenge (8). Here I attempt a more concrete gaze at the promise and limitations of international law as a policy instrument available to governments and citizens committed to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Zero Lawsuits filed by the Republic of the Marshall Islands on April 24, 2014 provide an occasion for such an appraisal. This litigation reflects opposed counter-currents. It is both an encounter with geopolitical nuclearism and a mode of global consciousness-raising at a time of dangerous complacency about the threats posed by the continuing possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry, as well as the warping of the security mind by supposing that human security can ever be ethically and effectively safeguarded by current strategic thinking surrounding the varying roles assigned to this weaponry by the military planners and political leaders of the nine nuclear weapons states. The text below contains some revisions and corrections of the original post, mainly reflecting my attempt to take account of constructive feedback.]


From the time of the atomic explosions at the end of World War II there have been two contradictory sets of tendencies at work: the repudiation of the weaponry and its contemplated uses as ultimate criminality and the secret feverish refinement of the weaponry to enhance its precision, destructive effects, battlefield capabilities, and delivery systems. To date, the latter tendency has prevailed, but so far, contrary to the worst fears, avoiding uses (but not without unlawful threats to use, think tank proposals for use, and high alert international crises containing unseemly dangers of nuclear war).


From the beginning international law was a tool relied upon by those who challenged the legitimacy of both the atomic attacks themselves and the later developments and doctrines associated with the weaponry and its central role in the superpower rivalry at the core of the Cold War. In the immediate aftermath of the atomic attacks on Japan, there were many governmental pronouncements in the West about nuclear disarmament as an imperative of human survival, and it was widely assumed in the public that international law through the medium of a negotiated treaty containing procedures to assure compliance by all parties was the correct approach to unconditional declearization and principled repudiation of the weaponry, and this remains the consensus view of pro-disarmers at present.


Especially the UN General Assembly from the outset of the nuclear age was a political venue within which the criminality of the weaponry was confirmed, although gradually the impact of nuclear geopolitics moved disarmament off-stage and shifted policy attention to the supposedly more realistic goals of managing the nonproliferation regime and minimizing the spread of the weaponry. As discussed in previous posts, whatever political energy for a world without nuclear weaponry existed has been transferred over time to a variety of civil society venues. During the Cold War, Europe was the most likely military theater for a nuclear confrontation, accounting for a variety of anti-nuclear movements and initiatives. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain being the best known, but also the German Green Party gained anti-nuclear prominence. Since the end of the Cold War the most activist anti-nuclearism has been associated with advocacy and educational efforts that were oriented around the presumed authoritativeness of international law as reinforced by political commitment and international morality in two major respects:

                        –the unconditional unlawfulness of the weaponry with respect to threat, use, deployment, possession, and development;

                        –a reliance on a treaty-making approach to achieve nuclear disarmament by carefully calibrated stages, and subject to monitoring, verification, compliance, and dispute settlement procedures, and containing robust response mechanisms in the event of non-compliance or cheating.

In other words, both the case against all facets of nuclearism as presently operative and the framework proposed for its elimination through a process of total denuclearization are both guided and governed by international law.


At the same time, there are difficulties with an uncritical acceptance of this centrality of international law. First, the evidence is strong that the nuclear weapons states, above all the United States, will not override its security policies as related to nuclear weapons or other vital concerns of foreign policy out of deference to international law. This official lawlessness exists even in the face of assessments of international law enjoying the strong backing of the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial body. The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the ICJ reached two conclusions that should have led to operational adjustments in the announced doctrine and political behavior of governments possessing nuclear weapons: (1) nuclear weapons were only lawfully usable, if ever, when the survival of the state was credibly at issue; and (2) a unanimous views among the judges that the nuclear powers had a good faith obligation to negotiate both an end to the arms race and a disarmament plan, and what is more, and should not be overlooked, that these governments had “an bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.”


True, this was an advisory opinion, not formally binding on the parties, leading to diverse views as to legal weight of the findings. Also it was the case that the ICJ judges were badly divided, with a slim majority (and even that resting on the President’s second casting vote to break a tie) favoring the view of conditional unlawfulness of the weaponry. Actually, the unlawfulness side was stronger than it seemed by looking only at the vote on the central finding of severely qualified legality as three of the ICJ judges were so committed to unconditional unlawfulness that they refused to support the majority conclusion, which was deliberately made consistent with a very narrowly construed deterrence doctrine. What is more notable is that the nuclear weapons states paid not the slightest operational attention to what these most distinguished judges from the world’s main legal system had determined in the only systematic international review of the arguments about legality that had gone on since the first atomic explosion in wartime (a persuasive national review was set by a Japanese court in the important Shimoda case) . This disdain for the relevance of international law was apparent even before the ICJ issued its advisory opinion, taking the form of the vigorous opposition led by the United States to the General Assembly referral of the question of legality to the World Court, insisting, in effect, that a judicial interpretation of international law was not relevant to the status of nuclear weapons. The substantive claim being made was that the U.S. Government was as it was doing all that it could reasonably do to reduce risks of nuclear war, through arms control, nonproliferation, and deployment policies. Any more foundational judgment was thus deemed inappropriate and misleading. Further, that the ICJ was a judicial body not equipped to evaluate security policy, and thus at best relying on ‘moral’ and ‘political’ considerations couched in legal language.


The same line of reasoning was relevant with respect to the second conclusion relating to the NPT obligation to negotiate in good faith and with an end in view. What was already being done supposedly fulfilled the Article VI obligation of the nuclear weapons states, and the Court had neither the information or the expert competence to pronounce otherwise, although the judges unanimously acted as if they did have the needed knowledge, and hence an institutional responsibility to pronounce their views as to the legality of nuclear weaponry and the requirements of compliance with the NPT.


I think a clear picture evolves. The nuclear weapons states accord primacy to geopolitical policies when in tension with international law, especially on crucial issues bearing on the conduct of warfare and the shaping of peacetime security policies. The geopolitical consensus accepted by all nine weapons states is to disregard or sideline the purported relevance of international law. In reaction to this consensus there is some huffing and puffing by nonnuclear governments, but no political will to mount a challenge on even such a tangential issue as non-compliance with the Article VI obligation, a clear material breach of the NPT. This combination of geopolitical nuclearism and passivity by the members of international society other than ‘the nuclear nine’ has meant that it is up to each of this latter group of states, as a matter of sovereign discretion, to determine what its policies on deployment, threat, and use will be, and whether it will agree or not to specific arms control measures. And because government security policies are treated as the most carefully guarded of all state secrets, there is no meaningful democratic participation, including even by most elected or appointed government officials, and neither knowledge nor leverage by the citizenry. Every government possessing nuclear weapons is authoritarian, with only the head of state having the non-reviewable and unaccountable authority to decide whether and when to use nuclear weaponry against which targets and with what magnitudes of destructive power.


Left to carry on the campaign to rid humanity of the nuclear menace are the disparate and somewhat incoherent forces of civil society as receiving varying degrees of encouragement from non-nuclear states. At times of global crisis, as occurred periodically during the Cold War, these forces from below can be aroused to sound a loud alarm that has some resonance at the political center, but mainly this kind of societal pressure demands prudence and restraint rather than compliance with international law, and gains satisfaction from tiny incremental moves taken to step back from the nuclear precipice. With the decline of anxieties about possible confrontations between major nuclear weapons states after the end of the Cold War, there is mostly evident a mainstream law emphasis on the ‘enforcement’ of the NPT directed at non-nuclear states perceived as seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.


Behind these developments, off to one side, are persevering efforts to insist on the unlawfulness of the weaponry and on gaining support for using the existing legal machinery of states and world society to push harder on the arguments of illegality. As has been pointed out, such efforts even if successful, are unlikely to make the steep climb up the geopolitical mountains on top of which are located the nuclear weapons arsenals. Yet that does not make the struggle to empower law with respect to nuclear weaponry without meaning or irrelevant to a survivable future. The outcome of the ICJ Advisory Opinion on legality, despite the unwelcome outcome of being defiantly deflected by the nuclear weapons states, did have the positive effects of strengthening the political will and morale of anti-nuclear activists and their organizations throughout the world, and even making non-nuclear governments more aware that the nuclear nine were not fulfilling their part of the NPT bargain.


One notable expression of this heightened political will was the initiation of litigation in ICJ and American federal courts by the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) based on the alleged treaty failure to implement Article VI of the NPT by the nuclear weapons states that are parties to the treaty, and by customary international law for India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea (having withdrawn from the treaty in 2003) that are not. Such litigation was grounded in the unanimous conclusion of the ICJ that good faith obligation to negotiate a nuclear disarmament arrangement that needed to be brought to a conclusion. In the 19 years since the Advisory Opinion there have been persuasive confirmations that the nuclear nine were not at all disposed to seek nuclear disarmament, making it highly reasonable for any non-nuclear party to the NPT to mount such a legal argument based on non-compliance, and indeed material breach of treat obligations.


And what country, other than Japan, had a greater moral and political entitlement to do so than the Marshall Islands? RMI lacks a legal entitlement due to Compact of Free Association, and that creates a certain awkwardness in putting forward the allegations of non-compliance with the disarmament obligations of Article VI as the real motivation arising from the legacy, harm, and memories of the nuclear testing cannot be relied upon it putting forward its legal arguments. In an important respect the past matters less than the future, and the only reason to invoke RMI vicitimization as a result of the testing is to create a stronger atmosphere of receptivity in the International Court of Justice in deliberating on the subtleties of the jurisdictional controversy and to pay a deserved homage to those from RMI who paid such heavy costs due to the harm inflicted by the tests.


This archipelago of 1156 islands and islets occupying 750,000 square miles of ocean space in the Pacific was taken over from Japan by the United States after World War II, and formally given the status of Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (a political entity that included several other Pacific island groups) by the United Nations in 1947. The tiny population of 68,480 lives on 29 coral atolls. In a most dramatic betrayal of trust imaginable the United States used the Marshall Islands as the principal test site without consulting the indigenous population or seeking their consent. 67 atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted between 1946 and 1958. The largest was code named Castle Bravo and had an explosive magnitude of 15 megatons, which is 1000 times the force of the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a result of this nuclear testing the people of the Marshall Islands have endured a variety of severe harms, ranging from forced evacuation and displacement, radiation sickness that continues to be prevalent, and environmental damage that appears to be permanent. There is a mechanism that has allowed Marshall Islanders to gain compensation from the United States for harm that can be persuasively attributed to the nuclear tests, but at the cost of waiving the pursuit of claims elsewhere as a result of the Compact of Free Association linking RMI to the United States. This mechanism continues to operate as a consequence of the fact that the effects of exposure to high doses of radiation may now result in cancer or genetic defects for many years.


The legal theory behind the case rests on the legal proposition that the Marshall Islands in common with all other parties to the NPT have a legal right to insist on compliance with Article VI. This provides RMI with a basis for arguing that a legal dispute exists with the nuclear weapons states emanating from this alleged treaty breach. RMI contends also as with every state in the world that if a nuclear war occurs, it would be severely harmed as the detrimental effects would be global, impacting upon the security and wellbeing of the Marshall Islands, and indeed of all peoples living on the planet. For the case to be accepted for adjudication by the ICJ a majority of the 15 judges must agree that a ‘legal dispute’ exists between the complaining state and the states accused of being in breach. The wheels of international justice turn slowly, if at all, and it remains to be determined, and I can only hope that the legal team representing the RMI will convince enough of these judges sitting in The Hague to clear this high jurisdictional hurdle. Only then can the court proceed to hear arguments and render a judgment on the merits. This litigation before the ICJ if it goes forward will result in ‘a decision,’ which unlike the 1996 Advisory Opinion is obligatory, and can in theory be enforced by the Security Council acting under Article 94. Any enforcement attempt along these lines could be vetoed by one of the five permanent members, and almost certainly would be. The NPT gives states that are parties the legal option to bring a legal dispute before the ICJ, and every state in the world, including the four nuclear powers that are not parties to the NPT are allegedly also subject to its authority by way of customary international law, which may seem a stretch given the jurisprudential conservatism of the ICJ in the past. The legal reasoning supportive of this extension of customary international law is based on the proposition that the NPT has been so widely adhered to and so fundamental to world order that it has become binding whether or not a country is a party, that it is ‘a lawmaking treaty’ on matters vital to the wellbeing of humanity and that it is obligatory for the entire community of states.


This line of argument raises a complex jurisprudential issue for the ICJ as the legal reasoning goes against the earlier consensus that an attribute of national sovereignty is the option to remain outside of an international legal framework, and even to dissent from it. From the development of progressive international law, this litigation presents a great opportunity for the ICJ to align itself with the authority of international law in the area of war and peace, as well as with respect to  global security and human wellbeing in the nuclear age.


The companion case filed by the Marshall Islands in a Federal District Court resulted in a dismissal on February 3, 2015 resting on the highly questionable notion that the alleged damage to the Marshall Islands was too speculative to qualify as a legal interest that a court of law should adjudicate, and that the issue raised was, in any event, precluded by judicial review as a result of the Political Question Doctrine (PQD), which has led past courts to dismiss international law claims bearing on national security and foreign policy.


Such dismissals invoked separation of powers reasoning and regressively ignores the relevance of international law to the lawfulness of foreign policy, which occurred in stages since the initial formulations of PQD in a period when recourse to war was not covered by international law. Unfortunately, PQD has been interpreted by American courts to mean that such issues are not for the courts to decide, but are matters of foreign policy that should be resolved within the exclusive domain of the executive branch. Accordingly, the judiciary should not venture an assessment of this kind of challenge to security policy even if formulated by reference to a treaty obligation, which the U.S. Constitution explicitly avows as ‘the supreme law of the land.’ This dismissal of the RMI initiative has been appealed to the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco for review and decision. The continuing invocation of PQD in cases of this kind is to restrict severely the prerogatives of the citizenry to ensure that their elected representatives uphold international law and accept the applicability of a global rule of law when it comes to foreign policy.


Whatever the eventual outcome of these parallel judicial initiatives, the cases have already had a significant civil society impact, which has been galvanized by the law suits, acting to raise public awareness of their potential importance. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has played a central role in this undertaking in the realm of public education. It has taken the lead in fashioning a consortium of more than 90 civil society organizations supportive of the litigation, and through its websites it has tracked the progress of the cases through the courts in a manner that is both educative and energizing. Whether this litigation can ignite the sort of transnational collaboration between governments and civil society organization in the manner that proved so successful in generating support for an anti-personnel land mines treaty and for the International Criminal Court remains to be seen. Such a positive outcome for an anti-nuclear grassroots and moderate government coalition can only be conjectured at this point, but such a result would be no more surprising than establishing the ICC over the objections of the world’s leading geopolitical actors. 


These law suits have also brought much wider and overdue attention to the nuclear exploitation of the Marshall Islanders, as well as admiration for the willingness of this tiny stressed and subordinated polity to put forward such a controversial legal argument, especially considering that their own security and economic viability is so linked to the good will of the United States embodied in a paternalistic ‘compact’ (Compact of Free Association with the United States) that entered into force as the trust status was superseded in 1988 when the Marshall Island became “a presidential republic in free association with the United States.” In tangible terms this has meant that the United States has accepted responsibility for the defense and protection of the Marshall Islands and for granting a range of economic subsidies, and in exchange retains use of a missile test site on Kwajalein Atoll, undoubtedly a reminder of the years when the island group was the principal site for developing new generations of nuclear weaponry.


It is pathetic that it has taken so many decades to mount this very limited legal challenge to nuclearism and that the challenge is being made by this small and vulnerable republic while the rest of the governments throughout the world continue to sit on their hands while nuclearism remains essentially unchallenged. To remove all doubts as to its future expectations, the U.S. Government has budgeted $1 trillion over the next thirty years to keep its superior nuclear capabilities up to date so as to ensure its continuing dominance of the outer frontiers of nuclear security strategy. We can only at this stage be thankful to the RMI for embarking on these nuclear lawsuits, and wish that the judicial bodies given this great opportunity to apply international law in a manner directly related to the wellbeing, and indeed the survival, of humanity, will respond appropriately.


The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective

24 Aug

The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective


Without question the P5 +1 nuclear agreement with Iran is a vital move toward peace and stability in the Middle East, a step back from the maelstrom of conflict that is roiling much of the region, and leaving what stability there is among sovereign states under the control of various absolutisms that repress and exploit their own populations.


At the same time before congratulating the negotiators and building a strong rationale for yet another Nobel Peace Prize given to architects of Western diplomacy, we should pause and peer behind the curtain of hegemonic confusion embellishing a more dubious statecraft by an ever compliant mainstream media. If we pull back the curtain, what do we see?


First of all, we should immediately recognize that the most sensible agreement for the region and the world would have included Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the negotiating mix, and yielded a unanimous call for responding to nuclear anxieties with a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. As far I know, every government but Israel in the region, and this includes Iran and Saudi Arabia, favors regional nuclear disarmament, and is decidely uncomfortable with Israel as the sole nuclear weapons state in the region.


Many may feel that I am dreaming when I raise this point, but without the clarifying impact of dreams, political reality remains an opaque spin chamber. In a decent world order that was built on a foundation of law and equality among sovereign states with respect to the challenge of nuclear weapons there would be no double standards and no discriminatory policies. When reflecting on the current emphasis on reaching an agreement with Iran there is a political unwillingness to widen the optic for discussion, much less for implementation, of the most rational and ethically coherent approach to denuclearization of the Middle East.


If we are so obtuse or arrogant to ask ‘why?’ this is so there are several explanations. Undoubtedly, the most illuminating response is to point out that to include Israel’s nuclear weaponry in denuclearization diplomacy would violate ‘the special relationship’ binding the United State to Israel, although not vice versa as the Netanyahu/AIPAC outrageous campaign to undermine the P5 +1 initiative unmistakably demonstrates. Obama’s refusal to go along with Israel’s insistence on far tighter restraints on Iran as a precondition for its acceptance of an agreement is straining the special relationship and weakening the overwhelming support it had previously enjoyed among Jews in the United States. These tensions also reveal that even this most special of special arrangements has its outer limits! Yet it seems evident that these have yet to be discovered by the majority of the U.S. Congress.


Secondly, Iran is targeted by the agreement as a pariah state that is being subjected to a more stringent regime of inspection and restraint than has ever been imposed on any other non-nuclear state. Yet what has Iran done internationally to deserve such harsh treatment? In the period since the Islamic Republic took control of the country in 1979, Iran was aggressively attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1980 with the encouragement and blessings of the United States Government, resulting in approximately one million battlefield deaths in the eight-year war to both sides. In the last decade or so, Iran has been the acknowledged target of destabilizing covert violent acts by the United States and Israel, including targeted assassinations of nuclear scientists and cyber efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Israel has made a series of unlawful threats of military attack and the United States has exhibits Martian solidarity by uttering somewhat more veiled assertions of its residual reliance on a military option, recently rearticulated by Obama as ‘war’ being the only alternative to the agreement should it be rejected by the United States.


We should not forget that Iran that is surrounded by belligerent adversaries openly talking about the feasibility of military attacks upon their country under present world conditions. From a purely realist perspective it is Iran that has one of the most credible security claims ever made to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent weapon in response to Israeli aggressiveness reinforced by American backing. After all, it has been reliably disclosed and documented that Israel on more than one occasion was on the verge of attacking Iraq, backing off at the last minute due only to splits within the Israeli cabinet over issues of feasibility and fears of adverse consequences.


This whole discourse on Iran’s nuclear program is notable for presuming that policy options can be selected by its adversaries without any consideration of the relevance of international law. Even supposing that Iran was, in fact, overtly seeking a nuclear weapon, and approaching a threshold of acquisition, this set of conditions would not validate recourse to force. There is no foundation whatsoever in international law for launching an attack to preempt another country from acquiring nuclear weapons. The U.S. relied on such a pretext to justify its attack on Iraq in 2003, but such an argument was rejected by the UN Security Council, and the American led attack and occupation were widely viewed as contrary to international law and the UN Charter. To launch a non-defensive attack on Iran would be a flagrant violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and of the norm prohibiting recourse to aggressive war used to convict German and Japanese surviving leaders after World War II of state crime. It is well to acknowledge that Iran succumbed to a kind of geopolitical blackmail by accepting this one-sided agreement. It is hardly surprising that the logic of geopolitics triumphed over respect for international law, and yet the fact that the liberal media and world public opinion smile so gratefully, apparently not realizing what an unhealthy an atmosphere exists, is discouraging, and not a good omen for the future.


Maybe there could be a case for bending, or even breaking international law, if Iran was genuinely posing a plausible threat that could not be met through diplomacy and defensive capabilities. But the realities are quite different. Iran has been the target of unlawful threats and various forms of covert intervention, and has responded with responsible caution, if at all. To reinforce this one-sided experience of insecurity with this kind of agreement sets the unfortunate perverse precedent of treating the victim of an unlawful intervention as the culprit justifying international sanctions, and possibly a future military onslaught. This represents a perversion of justice, as well as exhibiting a fundamental disregard of international law.


This reasoning is not meant to exonerate Iran from severe criticism for its internal failures to uphold the human rights of its citizens or for its continued punitive action against the leaders of the Green Revolution. It is important to realize that regulating recourse to international uses of force has been deliberately separated in the UN Charter from interfering in state/society relations absent the commission of severe crimes against humanity or genocide, and a green light is given by the UN Security Council for what amounts to ‘humanitarian intervention,’ recently justified by reference to the emergent international norm of a ‘right to protect’ or R2P. Such a R2P justification was put forward and controversially enacted in Libya in 2011.


True, during the Ahmedinejad years irresponsible fiery and provocative language was used by Tehran with reference to Israel, including repeated calls for the abolition of the Zionist project. The language used by Ahmedinejad was given its most inflammatory twist by Israeli translations of the Farsi original. Read more objectively, it was not Jews as such that were the subject of the invective, or even Israel, but Zionism and its belligerent behavior in the region, especially its refusal over the course of decades to achieve a sustainable peace with the Palestinian people, and on the contrary, its policy of continual land grabbing in Palestine to make peace between the two peoples an increasingly distant prospect of diminishing relevance in the domains of practical diplomacy.


The principal point of this analysis is to show that this agreement reflects the primacy of geopolitics, the neglect of international law, the impact of the US/Israel special relationship, and yet despite these drawbacks, it is still the best that supporters of peace and stability can hope for under present conditions of world order. Such a reality is occluded by the presentation of the debate in the United States as mainly the exaggerated mini-dramas associated with pressuring key members of Congress to vote for or against the agreement and engaging in sophisticated discussions as to whether the constraints imposed by the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, although the strongest ever imposed, are still as strong as Obama claims or as some uncertain Congress people demand. As argued here, support for the agreement is overwhelmingly in the national, global, regional, and human interest, but this assessment does not mean we should view world order through the distorting lens of heavily rose-tinted glasses.


This nuclear agreement reflects where we are in dealing with global crises, not where we should be. It is this distinction that is suppressed by the liberal media and government spokespersons that tout the agreement as an extraordinary achievement of international diplomacy. If we value international law, global justice, and indeed the future of the human species, then the distinction between the realm of the ‘feasible’ and the realm of the ‘desirable’ deserves energetic critical exposure by all of us who fancy ourselves as citizen pilgrims, that is, devotees of human and natural survival, as well as of global justice and human rights.

The Nuclear Challenge: 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Gorbachev’s Response (3)

21 Aug


No public figure was more convincing and determined to pursue the ideal of a world without nuclear weaponry than Mikhail Gorbachev while he was the transformative General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between the years of 1985 and 1991. Of course, Gorbachev is appreciated in the West mainly as having presided over a political process that led to the nonviolent ending of the Cold War, the peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet he was also perhaps the only head of an important sovereign state during the nuclear era whose commitment to nuclear disarmament and the conditions of a peaceful world reflected a deep realization that the existing world order was not sustainable and not serving the interests of the Russian people. His speeches at the United Nations and elsewhere exhibited ethical and political concerns that recognized that national interests could no longer be separated from the promotion of global and human interests.


Gorbachev believed then, and continues to believe, that nuclear war becomes more likely, a virtual certainty, with each passing year; as more governments continue to possess and others over time gain access to the weaponry the risk of nuclear war rises. Gorbachev believes that it is inevitable that the nuclear club will grow gradually larger, as it has, although more slowly than some had feared. He also believed, reflecting the Cold War context within which he governed, that the illusionary search for a winnable combination of weaponry and doctrine could produce an unwanted nuclear conflict between rival superpowers either by one side seeking a victory or by the other preempting an opponent it perceived as dangerous so as to lessen vulnerability and avoid defeat. In the mid 1980s the Soviet system was experiencing a complex and deep crisis of economic stagnation and bureaucratic rigidity, which meant that the nuclear arms race burdened an already acutely stressed Soviet reality.


In an August 16th interview with the German magazine, Spiegel, Gorbachev strongly reaffirms his anti-nuclear outlook, and recalls the successes and disappointments of his efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. His skepticism about disarmament negotiations back in the 1980s is even disheartening today than when Gorbachev was in power. The approach then prevalent he regarded as a hypocritical blend of posturing and useless meetings, a pathetic wordplay in which “diplomats pored over mountains of paper, drank wine, and even harder stuff..and it was all for nothing.”


More helpful in Gorbachev’s view were unilateral steps taken in Moscow that acknowledged a growing danger of catastrophe that could only be removed by the “complete destruction of nuclear weapons and a permanent ban on them.” As significant as this serious affirmation of nuclear disarmament as a necessary and highly practical goal of state policy represented a shift in Soviet thinking and strategy that gave the highest priority to minimizing risks of war until a safer future could be brought into being by eliminating weaponry of mass destruction (including chemical weapons).  This meant, in Gorbachev words, that instead of planning “for coming war” or seeking military advantages, the central policy effort was devoted to the prevention of “military confrontation with the West.”  That is, war avoidance as an interim approach that depended on a Soviet foreign policy that consciously reduced international tensions rejected threat diplomacy and provocative policy moves.



Gorbachev surprisingly found that Ronald Reagan, his American right-wing counterpart, shared his nuclear anxieties, and was ready to be a partner in joint denuclearization efforts. Already in 1985 they jointly declared that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Gorbachev interprets this declaration as a commitment by the two governments not to seek a position of superiority based on developing new types of nuclear weapons (for instance, defensive shields that made an attack seem more plausible, and thus might tempt a potential target state to consider preemption), but claims that the United States never acted as if it understood this Reagan/Gorbachev declaration in this manner. Gorbachev does take appropriate note of Reagan’s deep attachment to SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) as limiting the progress that the two leaders could make in relation to denuclearization, and incompatible with his recognition of what a horror nuclear war would be.


In this regard, Gorbachev considers United States militarism then and now to constitute the “insurmountable obstacle to a nuclear-free world.” As this unfortunately seems to be a correct assessment, it entails a gridlocked nuclear future with no escape route. Gorbachev expresses his almost fatalistic view of human destiny if nuclear weaponry is retained: “The alternative is clear: Either we move toward a nuclear-free world or we have to accept that nuclear weapons will continue to spread step by step across the world.” In effect, the only effective long-term nonproliferation regime is dependent upon a parallel regime of complete nuclear disarmament, and without such a regime nuclear war will occur at some point due to the sheer multiplication of nuclear actors.


As others have noticed, the highpoint in Gorbachev era nuclear diplomacy occurred at the Reyjkavik summit in 1986 when Reagan and Gorbachev seemed to be on the historic verge of agreeing on the obligatory elimination of all nuclear strategic weaponry, only to have the potential breakthrough immediately undermined on the home front in the United States by the bipartisan realist guardians of the nuclear status quo. This very robust move in Iceland that briefly ‘threatened’ to achieve nuclear disarmament was unnerving for militarists in the West. Always skilled at summarizing the hawkish mood of governing elites, Margaret Thatcher sounded the collective alarm: “We won’t be able to handle a second Reyjkavik.” And indeed, her words were heeded at the pinnacles of government, and there has not been another Reyjkavik, or anything approaching a high profile inter-governmental occasion at which ideas about nuclear disarmament were being seriously discussed and contemplated by the governments of the respective leading nuclear weapons states.


What has received scant notice is the missed opportunity of the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 when the Cold War came to an end. It was then George H.W. Bush who was the American president, supposedly moderate, sensible, and knowledgeable about foreign affairs. And this is the depressing point. It was just his establishment realism that led Bush derisively to dismiss any ambition to take advantage of the new situation in the world to abandon the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and seize the opportunity to initiate a global nuclear disarmament process. Instead of exploring what could have been probably negotiated with Gorbachev, Bush notoriously rejected on principle fundamental reform as ‘the vision thing,’ which he happily admitted was not his cup of tea. And so this unprecedented moment of opportunity was tragically wasted, and instead the 1990s became a decade devoted to servicing neoliberal economic globalization being fashioned in a manner that produced a post-colonial predatory set of relations among the peoples of the world. This ‘new world order’ was driven by the logic of capital efficiency, which has led to steadily widening disparities between rich and poor within countries and regions and in their interplay as well as launched multiple threats to environmental sustainability.


In effect, after the Cold War even the fatuous nuclear disarmament diplomacy that Gorbachev decried disappeared, and a period of self-satisfied nuclear complacency ensued. Governments are more or less content with obscure ritual review conferences within the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Regime. This failure of political imagination by Bush Sr. may be seen in retrospect as a most disastrous lapse in American global leadership, far worse than was the American refusal to join the League of Nations after World War I, and give that first experiment in war prevention on a global scale some slight chance of success. For these reasons I would not be astonished if a revisionist historian concludes that the Bush Sr. presidency was more harmful to the United States and the world than was the failed presidency of Bush Jr..


There is a final vital point that Gorbachev develops in response to skeptical questions from the Spiegel interviewer about the feasibility of nuclear disarmament. Gorbachev responds by posing a question of his own that is meant to answer itself by an implicit appeal to common sense: “And can we really imagine a world without nuclear weapons if a single country amasses so many conventional weapons that its military budget nearly tops that of all other countries combined?” He goes on to point out the obvious: “[t]his country would enjoy total military supremacy if nuclear weapons were abolished,” and by implication, other countries will never be so foolish as to submit their societies to such hegemonic arrangements. In effect, Gorbachev is imagining that nuclear weaponry should be linked, not as in most liberal speculation to an affirmation of the nonproliferation regime, but rather to undoing geopolitical militarism, which means that if the United States ever embraces nuclear disarmament as policy rather than sentiment, it will have to terminate its global domination project. Gorbachev delivers here a powerful and persuasive message: if the United States ever becomes truly serious about wanting to implement the visionary conceptions of nuclear disarmament that Obama affirmed in his Prague speech with lofty generalizations, then it must simultaneously embark on a program of unilateral demilitarization.


With this concluding bit of insight from Gorbachev, which I find compelling, we should also acknowledge that it has been an odd deficiency in strategic thought in the West that most forms of strong advocacy of nuclear disarmament have not been organically connected with an overall demand for American demilitarization. Unless nuclear disarmament is implemented in a policy context that includes the demilitarization of geopolitics, it would give the United States the kind of political environment in which its massive military machine would be far more usable, less inhibited, and in all probability more menacing to the rest of the world. From this perspective one wonders why the realist cadres at the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, and the Beltway think tanks do not endorse nuclear disarmament as a prime strategic goal fully consistent with achieving the kind of global securitization administered from Washington that militarists have long favored as the keystone of American grand strategy since 1945.


Gorbachev doesn’t venture onto this speculative terrain. His current belief is that unless American demilitarization becomes part of the nuclear disarmament package “talks toward a nuclear-free world will be little more than empty words.” Although Obama is not mentioned, his Prague speech thus qualifies as ‘empty words,’ not only because of the absence of follow up, but more pointedly due to Obama’s silence about the relevance of diminishing America’s non-nuclear military capabilities as an essential aspect of making credible and beneficial the endorsement of a world without nuclear weapons.

It is also probably the case that when an American president possesses a determined commitment to a world without nuclear weapons he will make initiate a campaign to win over public opinion in Omaha, Denver, or Phoenix, and not Prague. What is said in the Czech Republic may play well in Oslo, but it is not going to shake the ideological and bureaucratic foundations of nuclearism in the United States.


In this short essay, it has been my principal intention to appreciate the humane wisdom of Mikhail Gorbachev, and to hope that even 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki an American leader will emerge in the dark of night to carry forward the struggle for a viable human future by championing nuclear disarmament to be accompanied by substantial American demilitarization. She will think and act against the grain of this delusional quest for absolute geopolitical control, and maybe rest long enough to thank

Gorbachev for showing the way, both as political leader and as engaged citizen, an exemplary instance of what I call ‘citizen pilgrim.’    









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The Nuclear Challenge: 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1)

18 Aug


[Prefatory Note: I have been preoccupied for many years with the multiple challenges posed by nuclear weapons, initially from the perspective of international law and morality, later with regard to prudence diplomacy and political survival in international relations, and in all instances, with an eye favoring deep denuclearization associated in my mind with an abiding abhorrence over the use of atomic bombs against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and with the avoidance of any future use of nuclear weaponry or even threatened use. The annual observance of these terrible events encourages reflection and commentary on this darkest of legacies. Zero nuclear weapons is the unconditional goal that I affirm, achieved in a manner that creates as much public confidence as possible that the eliminations of weaponry and enriched uranium stockpiles are being faithfully carried out.


In this spirit, I want to call attention to a notable volume on the continuing menace posed by nuclear weapons that has just been published under the editorship of Geoffrey Darnton, bearing the title Nuclear Weapons and International Law, and available via Amazon or the bookseller Ingrams. The book contains the entire text of the judgment issued by the London Nuclear Warfare Tribunal (1985), a civil society initiative presided over by four judges, three of whom were Nobel Prize winners, the great dissenting opinion of C.G. Weeramantry in the Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons issued in 1996 by the International Court of Justice, and other documents and texts discussing the continuing imperative of nuclear disarmament. I recommend the book highly to all those who seek a broad understanding of why the citizen pilgrims of the world should unite in an urgent effort to create a climate of public awareness that pushes governments to make a genuine effort to fulfill by way of a practical disarming process the often articulated and affirmed vision of a world without nuclear weaponry. What is crucial is to shift the discourse from affirming the elimination of nuclear weaponry as an ultimate goal to the adoption of nuclear disarmament as a programmatic goal of practical politics, especially in the nine nuclear weapons states. Whether this entails a simultaneous partial disarmament of conventional weaponry by some states, especially the United States, is a further issue to consider.


At the invitation of Geoffrey Darnton, David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Foundation (NAPF), and I contributed a jointly authored foreword to the volume as well as a dialogue on nuclear weapons and international law. Krieger, a lifelong advocate of a zero nuclear world, as well as a poet whose poems are often responsive to his humane concerns, has devoted his professional life to the attainment of this goal, traveling throughout around the globe to reach diverse audiences and take part in a variety of NGO anti-nuclear efforts. The NAPF heads a coalition of civil society support for the historic Marshall Islands legal initiative currently under consideration in the International Court of Justice and in American federal courts that demands fulfillment of the nuclear disarmament provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. More information about the NAPF and the Marshall Islands litigation can be found at the NAPF website. A second post will contain our foreword together with David’s poem, “A Short History Lesson: 1945” that raises in the most pointed form the moral tensions and civilizational hypocrisies that related the atomic bombing to the Nuremberg Judgment that held surviving Nazi leaders accountable for their complicity in state crime.]


There are many reasons why nuclear weapons have been retained and acquired by sovereign states, and it is an instructive insight into the workings of the war system at the core of state-centric world order that the first five nuclear weapons states happened to be the five states given preeminent status in the United Nations by being made permanent members of the Security Council with a right of veto. Because of the devastating potentialities of nuclear weaponry to destroy the human future there was from the start of ‘the nuclear age’ a public outcry against their retention and widespread revulsion about dropping atomic bombs on densely populated Japanese cities. This dialectic between hard power maximization and public canons of sensitivity to state-sanctioned atrocity has been evident ever since 1945. The outcome has been the retention and development of the weaponry with related efforts to limit access to the extent possible (the ethos of nonproliferation) and vague affirmations of a commitment to seek nuclear disarmament as a matter of policy and even law. This asymmetry of goals has given us the situation pertaining to the weaponry that haunts the future of humanity. It is epitomized by the geopolitical energies devoted to implementing the nonproliferation provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (1970; 190 states), as evidenced by making the feared apprehension of future acquisition a casus belli in Iraq (2003) and with respect to Iran, hopefully a second nonproliferation war being averted by the Iranian willingness to limit their nuclear program in such a way as to minimize any prospect of acquiring ‘the bomb.’ In contrast, the nuclear disarmament provision, Article VI, of the NPT is treated by the nuclear weapons states as pure window dressing, having the outward appearance of being a bargain reached between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, but in reality a commitment by the latter to forego the weaponry in exchange for an empty promise that has been discredited by the absence of credible efforts at implementation over a period of almost half a century. Part of this reality is the unwillingness of the non-nuclear states to raise their voices in concerted opposition to the one-sided implementation of the NPT, exhibiting their reality as states but without geopolitical leverage.


The liberal version of this deceptive Faustian Bargain is the claim that the NPT and nuclear disarmament are complementary to one another, and should be linked in thought and action. The statist reasoning that offers a rationale stresses the desirability of limiting the number of nuclear weapons states while efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament move forward. Among the world’s most astute commentators on nuclear weapons policy is Ramesh Thakur, who heads the Secretariat on the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. In a recent article in The Japan Times [“Link Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation Efforts,” Aug. 12, 2015] Thakur tells us that “there is an inalienable and symbiotic link between nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.” He regards “[t]he key to how to protect the political gains and security benefits of the NPT, while also working around it to impart momentum into the disarmament process leading to the total abolition of all nuclear weapons.” From this perspective, Thakur laments the failures of the nuclear weapons states to embrace this linkage in a credible manner, and worries that non-nuclear states are threatening to disrupt the benevolent NPT regime that he credits with greatly restricted the number of states possessing the bomb and has helped avoid any recourse to the weaponry over the 70 years that have elapsed since Nagasaki: “Globally, more and more countries are coming around to the conclusion that the NPT is being used cynically by the nuclear powers not to advance but to frustrate disarmament.”


What is surprising is that it has taken so long for the non-nuclear governments to reach this conclusion, or at least to acknowledge their disaffection in a public space. The mind game played so well by the nuclear weapons states, above all, the United States, rests on the proposition that the main threat posed by the existence and possession of the weaponry is its spread to additional states, not the weaponry itself, and certainly not the nuclear weapons states themselves. This inversion of the real priorities has shifted the policy focus away from disarmament for decades and put the spotlight on proliferation dangers where it doesn’t belong, Iran being the current preoccupation resulting from this way of thinking. The geopolitical discriminatory nature of this mind game is further revealed by the treatment of Israel, what Thakur calls “The global double standards” that are “reinforced by regional hypocrisy, in which all sides stayed studiously silent on Israel’s bombs. ”Sanctions and war threats directed at Iran, silence and denial conferred on Israel.


My disagreement with Thakur rests on his central assertion of linkage. In my view, the NPT regime has been posited for its own sake (operationalizing the sensible global consensus that the fewer nuclear weapons states, the better) but even more robustly, and here is the unacknowledged rub, as a long-term alternative to nuclear disarmament. In other words, while it is theoretically possible that the NPT regime could have been established as a holding operation to give time for a nuclear disarmament process to be negotiated and acted upon, it has been obvious from an early stage that the government bureaucracies of the leading nuclear powers had no intention of accepting an arrangement that would deprive themselves of the bomb. What the Faustian Bargain imposed was the false pretension that nuclear disarmament was integral to the policy agenda of the nuclear weapons states. From time to time political leaders, usually with sincerity, express their commitment to nuclear disarmament. At various times, several American presidents, including even Ronald Reagan, have affirmed their dedication to such a nuclear free future, most recently Barack Obama at his Prague speech in 2009, but after a flourish of attention, nothing happens.


Understanding why nothing happens is the real challenge facing the global disarmament movement. It is here that attention should be given to the ideologies of realist geopolitics that shapes the worldview of the policy elites that control the formation government policies and the supportive self-interested bureaucracies deeply entrenched in the media, think tanks, weapons labs, and private sector (the phenomenon Eisenhower flagged as ‘the military-industrial-complex’ in his Jan. 17, 1961 Farewell Address). It is these ideological and structural factors that explain why nothing happens, and is never allowed to happen. In what should have been treated as a startling confirmation of this disheartening assessment occurred when four former top government officials with impeccable hard power realist credentials decided a couple of years ago that the only way to uphold U.S. security dominance in the future was to abolish nuclear weapons, even their eminence did not prevent their hard power arguments for nuclear disarmament being shunted to one side by the nuclear weapons establishment. [See George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4, 2007; see also Shultz et al., “Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation,”Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2011.]


Winning the mind game is a process that needs periodic diversions from the actuality of the global apartheid approach to nuclear weaponry that has never been seriously challenged, but is deeply antithetical to Western professed repudiation of genocidal tactics and ethos. When fears mounted of a breakdown in the bipolar standoff during the Cold War there did take place a popular mobilization of opposition to nuclearism. The anti-nuclear movement reached peaks in Europe after the scares of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and in response to some of the weapons deployment decisions by NATO. (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, CND). The main ground of anti-nuclear opposition was fear, although the most articulate leader of CND, E.P. Thompson expressed antipathy to nuclear weapons and doctrine on essentially ethical grounds. Thompson argued on the basis of an illuminating analysis that the culture that embraced the then prevailing policies of mutual deterrence was already an active accomplice of Satan by its announced willingness to annihilate tens of millions of innocent people should its will to survive as a state be tested by an unacceptable enemy provocation. [See “Notes on Exterminism: The Last Stage of Civilization,” New Left Review I/121 , May-June 1980] It is indicative that the governments of the nuclear weapons states, and here most notably again the United States was most adamant, never were unequivocally willing to commit themselves to ‘no first use policies’ even in relation to non-nuclear adversaries. In other words, nuclear weapons were treated as instrumental to foreign policy contingencies, and not tainted with illegitimacy based on the supposed ‘nuclear taboo.’


Nonproliferation was the most brilliant of all diversions from the transparent acknowledgement that, whatever rhetoric was used to the contrary, the lead states never accepted nuclear disarmament as a genuine goal of their foreign policy. Quite the contrary. All moves to manage the arms race, including reductions in the size of nuclear arsenals and arrangements about communications during times of crisis, were also designed to reduce public fears of nuclear war and thereby weaken anti-nuclear movements—first, through the message that steps were being taken to minimize risks of an unintended or accidental nuclear war, and secondly, that these steps were steps on a path leading to eventual nuclear disarmament.


This double coded message providing the policy rationale for arms control. Militarist contributors to this process, raising their doubts about whether risks were in fact being reduced if military options were being constrained by arms control measures. But it was the second element in the arms control approach that enjoyed tacit and sometimes explicit bipartisan support in the United States where this kind of debate mainly took place. The entire spectrum of policymaking elites agreed that the enactment of nuclear disarmament was both unrealistic and dangerous, and if a visionary president allowed his moral enthusiasm to get the better of him the backlash was swift and decisive as even Reagan found out after informally agreeing with Mikhail Gorbachev at their Reykjavik summit in 1986 on a treaty framework that was premised on getting to zero. In reaction, even liberal democrats in the political establishment chided Reagan for being naïve and insufficiently informed when he was blamed for mindlessly stepping across the invisible but rigorously enforced red line that separates managerial arms control from transformational nuclear disarmament. The lesson was learned, as the next presidential administration headed by George H.W. Bush, adopted as a cautionary internal slogan ‘no more Reykjaviks.’ The ‘No’ of the American establishment to nuclear disarmament could not be clearer, nor could the belligerent ‘Yes’ to upholding by war if necessary the NPT regime.


With such an understanding, my disagreement with Ramesh Thakur becomes clear and fundamental, and to make it unmistakable, I would conclude by saying the time is now ripe for the total de-linkage of nonproliferation from disarmament with respect to nuclear weapons policy. Without such a de-linkage false consciousness and confusion are unavoidable. It is time to generate populist impatience with the refusal of decades by government establishment to act on the basis of reason, ethics, and prudence: this requires the adoption of policies truly committed to the total abolition of nuclear weaponry in a period of not more than seven years.

Alliance Blackmail: Israel’s Opposition to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

26 Jul


The Vienna Agreement [formally labeled by diplospeak as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)] reached by the P5 + 1 on July 14, 2015 has been aptly hailed as a political breakthrough, not only because it calms regional worries about Iran’s nuclear program, but more so because it has the potential to remove an ugly dimension of conflict from the regional turmoil in the Middle East. Such a diplomatic success, after so many years of frustration, chaos, and strife, should be an occasion for hope and celebration, and in many venues it is, although not in Israel or Saudi Arabia or among the neo-con kingpins in Washington think tanks and their numerous Republican allies in the U.S. Congress.


Which side will prevail in this dysfunctional encounter is presently obscure, which itself is an indication of the dismal conditions of political life in America. Many unanswered and unanswerable questions bedevil the process: Will this agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program be approved, and then implemented, or will it be blocked or unacceptably revised before coming into operation, or later on? Will Iran become associated more openly with Western attempts to defeat ISIS and in the desperate need to bring peace and humane governance to Syria where the people of the country have endured such severe suffering since 2011? Will these developments allow Iran to be treated as a normal state within regional and global political settings, and if this reduced atmosphere of external tension occurs will it also have moderating impacts on the internal governing process in Iran? Or will Israel and its allies succeed in keeping Iran in ‘a terrorist cage’ reserved for pariah states, and continue to insist upon a military option to wage war against Iran? Will Israel receive ‘compensation’ in the form of enhanced military assistance from the United States to demonstrate Washington’s unwavering commitment to the alliance? Will Israel’s secretly acquired nuclear weapons capability be called into question in an effort to achieve denuclearization, which is more consistent with peace and morality than calling into question Iran’s threat of nuclear proliferation? Further afield, will this gap between the American/European and Israeli/Gulf approach lead over time to new geopolitical alignments that broaden beyond policy toward Iran’s nuclear program?


At the core these many concerns, is the nature and health of the United States/Israel relationship, and more broadly the appalling balance of forces that controls political life from the governmental hub in Washington. The alliance bonding between the two countries have been called ‘unconditional’ and even ‘eternal’ by Obama, words echoed by every American public figure with any credible mainstream political ambitions, currently including even the supposed radical presidential aspirant, Bernie Sanders. And yet that is not nearly good enough for AIPAC and the Adelson-led legions pro-Israeli fanatics, which periodically lambaste this strongly pro-Israeli president for alleged betrayals of Israel’s most vital security interests, and generally take derisive issue with the slightest sign of accommodationist diplomacy in the region.

The most illuminating discussion of these issues from Tel Aviv’s perspective is undoubtedly the recently published memoir of Israel’s American born ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, who served in this key role during the period 2009-2013. Oren was elected to the Knesset earlier this year representing, Kulanu, a small centrist Israeli party focused on economic and social reform. Oren’s bestselling book, Ally: Managing the America/Israel Divide (Random House, 2015) succeeds in combining an intelligent insider’s account of the strained relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama presidency with frequent vain and self-aggrandizing autobiographical reflections in the spirit of ‘Look Ma, I am dancing with the Queen,’ reinforced by analysis that justifies every aspect of Israel’s extreme right-wing and militarist approaches to security policy and diplomacy. To understand better the Israeli worldview that mixes genuine fears of its enemies with arrogant behavior toward its friends there is no more instructive book.


An American–born Jew, Oren conceived of himself both as a product of and an emissary to the Jewish diaspora in the United States, diplomat discharging his conventional government-to-government diplomatic role. Above all, Oren during his tenure in office (2009-2013) apparently did his best to keep political tensions between these two countries and their personally uncongenial leaders below the surface while unreservedly supporting the public claim that this special alliance relationship serves the interests and values of both countries. Oren ends his book with a dramatic assertion of this overlap: “Two countries, one dream.” Perhaps even more disturbing than the rationalization of all that is Zionist and Israeli throughout the book is the seeming sincerity of Oren’s sustained advocacy. A bit of cynicism here and there might have made Oren less of a self-anointed Manchurian candidate.


Given this posture of dedicated advocate, it is hardly surprising that Oren is a harsh opponent of those liberal groups that question AIPAC’s constructive influence on American policy debates or that he views initiatives critical of Israel, such as the Goldstone Report or the BDS campaign, as dangerous, disreputable, and damaging threats to Israel’s security and wellbeing. Even J-Street, harmless as it has turned out to be, was viewed as an anathema to Oren who turned down its invitations and regarded it as somehow exhibiting a leftist posture toward Israel. Only later when it became domesticated by denouncing the Goldstone Report and generally supportive of Israel’s use of force against Gaza did Oren feel it had joined what he calls ‘the mainstream’ of Beltway politics, which in his slanted vision is where he situates AIPAC and the U.S. Congress. Quite incredibly, even Martin Indyk, early in his career an AIPAC researcher and more recently the American ambassador to Israel, was viewed as a poor appointment as Special Envoy to the Kerry peace talks of 2013-2014 because he did not have a cordial enough relationship with Netanyahu. From my perspective, it was also a poor appointment, but for opposite reasons–an in-your-face display of pro-Israeli partisanship that undermined any credibility the United States claimed as a responsible intermediary at the resumed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.


Central to Oren’s presentation of Israeli behavior is the one-way street that he treats as embedded in the word ‘ally,’ which for Oren expresses the peculiar and generally unacknowledged character of this ‘special relationship.’ It is well illustrated by Oren’s support for Israel’s effort led with undisguised bluntness by Netanyahu to undermine Obama capacity to negotiate a nuclear arrangement with Iran despite JCPOA being strongly endorsed as in the national interest of the United States, but also of France, United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Germany. The agreement also seems beneficial for the Middle East as a whole and indeed for the world. Such an encompassing consensus endorsing the elaborate arrangement negotiated was exhibited in a resolution of support adopted by the UN Security Council [SC Resolution 2231, 20 July 2015] by an unusual unanimous vote. Oren still complains bitterly that Israel’s rejectionist views toward an agreement with Iran were in the end circumvented, at least so far. At one point Oren even suggests that Israel was better off when the inflammatory Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president rather than the more measured Hassan Rouhani. In his view, Iran remains just as aggressively disposed toward Israel despite the more moderate language of the present leadership, but that the West has been falsely reassured to the point of being willing to ease gradually the sanctions previously imposed in this latest diplomatic initiative, thereby raising the level of threat faced by Israel and accounting for Netanyahu’s frantic opposition to the agreement.


In the end, despite siding with Israel at every turn with respect to tension with the U.S. Government, Oren recognizes that Obama has been on balance been a faithful ally. Although indicting the Obama presidency the United States for being a disloyal ‘ally’ when the Iran chips were on the diplomatic table. It is not presently clear whether Netanyahu’s insistence that the nuclear deal (JCPOA) is ‘a historic mistake’ will overcome rationality and self-interest in the American setting either in the immediate future of approving the (non-treaty) agreement, or over a longer period should the United States have the misfortune of electing a Republican president in 2016 who are presently stumbling over one another in their competition to denounce more decisively.


More generally, Oren outrageously proposes that this alliance between Israel and the United States, to live up to its potential, should have three dimensions that would make it unlike all others: ‘no daylight’ on common concerns, that is, no policy differences; ‘no suprises,’ that is, advance notification to the other government of any international policy initiatives bearing on the Middle East; and never a public display of disagreements when policy differences between the two governments emerge as happened with Iran. The justifications given by Oren emphasize the usual litany of two states sharing commitments to political democracy, anti-terrorism, and having common regional strategic and security goals.


What seems superficially astounding is that the world’s number one state seems frightened to step on the smallest Israeli toe, while Israel is ready to do whatever it needs to do to get its way on policy issues in the event of a dispute with its supposedly more powerful partner. After negotiating a far tougher deal (on enriched uranium and intrusive inspections) with Iran than the realities warrant, at least partly out of deference to Israeli concerns, Washington still feels it appropriate and apparently necessary to indicate a readiness to provide ‘compensation,’ that is, enlarged contributions beyond the current $3.1 billion, offers of weapons systems designed to bolster further Israel QME (Qualitative Military Edge) in the Middle East. The White House additionally sends its recently appointed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, to Israel with hat in hand, evidently to reassure the Israeli leadership that nothing about the agreement is inconsistent with continuing support of Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit, which appears to be a writ of permission in violation of the UN Charter and international law by granting Israel assurance in advance of U.S. support should it at some future point launch an attack on Iran. It should be noted that no state in the world enjoys such inappropriate benefits from an alliance with the United States. The whole dubious logic of QME implies a continuing willingness to put Israeli security permanently on an unlawful pedestal in the region that places other states in a subordinate position that makes them susceptible to Israeli military threats and hegemonic demands. It is tantamount to providing Israel with assured capabilities to win any war, whatever the pretext, that should emerge in the future, and also means that Israel is the only state in the Middle East not deterred by concerns about retaliation by an adversary. For years Israel has been threatening Iran with a military attack in flagrant violation of Article 2(4) that unconditionally prohibits “any threat or use of force” except in situations of self-defense as strictly limited by Article 51.


Oren, of course, sees things much differently. He repeats without pausing to entertain the slightest doubt, that Israeli is the only democracy in the Middle East and joined at the hip to American foreign policy as a result of these shared interests and values. He insists that the UN is biased against Israel, and is thankful for American blanket opposition to all hostile initiatives, whether justified or not, that arise within the Organization. For Oren UN bias is clearly evident in the greater attention given to Israel’s alleged wrongs than those of much bloodier international situations and worse violators. He also faults Obama, as compared to George W. Bush, for being a weak ally, too ready to please the Palestinians and indeed the entire Islamic world, and supposedly causing an unspecified ‘tectonic shift’ in the alliance with Israel during his presidency. In this regard, the Iran Agreement is the last straw for Oren, and the most damaging example of a departure from the alleged alliance code of no daylight and no surprises (epitomized by recourse to secret diplomacy between Washington and Tehran that left Tel Aviv out of the loop for several months leading up to the agreement). Of course, Oren is unapologetic about Israel’s obstructionist behavior. He treats Netanyahu’s conception of Israel’s security as essentially correct, if at times unnecessarily confrontational. He believes that in this instance Israel’s worries are sufficiently vital and well-founded as to deserve putting aside diplomatic niceties. This was the case when the Israeli leader was invited by the Republican leadership in Congress to speak on Iran at a special joint session convened for this purpose in early 2015 without even informing the White House in advance of the invitation, a violation of political protocol.


Deconstructing the Oren view of alliance politics makes it clear that its operational code would be better observed if the Congress and not the President represented the United States in matters of foreign policy. Netanyahu and a majority of the U.S. Congress do seem to see eye to eye, including of course on whether the Iran Nuclear Agreement, as negotiated, should be approved. Across the board of foreign policy in the Middle East, Netanyahu and Congress are bellicose, inclined toward military solutions despite the dismal record of failure, and inclined to decide about friends and enemies on the basis of geopolitical alignment and religious orientation without the slightest concern about whether or not supportive of democracy, human rights, and decency.


Should a Republican with these views be elected president in 2016, then Oren’s dream of the alliance as based on ‘no daylight, no surprises, and no public discord’ would likely come true, illustrating the proposition that one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. More carefully considered, it would seem probable that if Hilary Clinton gets the keys to the White House her approach to Israel will be closer to that of Congress than that of Obama even recalling that Obama backed away quickly from his early demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion and has significantly increased military assistance for Israel without exhibiting much concern about peace and justice in the region, or with regard to the Palestinian ordeal. U.S. response to the Sisi coup in Egypt is indicative of a strategic convergence of approach by the Obama White House and Netanyahu’s Likud led government.


Two realities are present as surfacing in response to the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA):

-the presidency is on one side (along with Clinton) and Congress/Israel is on the other side;

–yet more broadly conceived, the alliance remains as unconditional and bipartisan as ever, defiant toward the UN and the constraints of international law whenever expedient.


A final point. JCPOA imposes more restrictions on Iranian enrichment capabilities and stockpiles, and on inspection and monitoring of compliance, than has been imposed on any country in the course of the entire nuclear era. Its regional justifications, aside from Israeli security, emphasize the avoidance of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. And left out of consideration altogether was the nuclear weapons arsenal of Israel acquired with Western complicity and by covert means, as well as through operations outside the Nonproliferation Treaty regime, which is used to tie Iran’s hands and feet. Such are the maneuvers of geopolitics, that underpin the alliance so strongly celebrated by Michael Oren.







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