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Toward Benign Global Leadership in a Post-Trumpist World Order

7 Jun

Toward Benign Global Leadership in a Post-Trumpist World Order

 

[Prefatory Note: This is a revisionof a post that was published as #534 on May 14, 2018 inthe TRANSCEND Media Service with the title “World Order After the Cold War.” This essay discusses possible future geopolitical relationships that might provide beneficial global leadership, much needed if current world order challenges are to be met this side of catastrophe.]

 

 

The Cold War ended abruptly and surprisingly, not only preceded by the Gorbachev softening of the ideological dimension but his offers to the world of an uplifting alternative to geopolitical rivalry and predatory neoliberal globalization:  war prevention and common security, as well as internal democratizing reforms crystallized by the Russian words glasnostand perestroika. At first, it seemed to sympathetic observers an overhaul of socialism that resembled the program of reform that Franklin Roosevelt had put into practice in the United States during to rescue the country from the depths of the Great Depression. Missing a goldenopportunity for global reform the West watched with triumphal glee as the Soviet system unraveled. Instead of lending this innovative leader in Moscow a helping hand the United States did all it could do to hastenthe Soviet collapse. How different, and better, the world might have been if Washingtonhad sought to make Gorbachev’s Kremliin the redesignof world order along humanistic lines!

 

This lost opportunity to transform the negative bipolarity of the Cold War era in the direction of positive bipolarity illustrated a historically significant failure of moral and political imagination. The essence of positive bipolarity would have involved transformations of the war system and predatory capitalism as the basis of world order. This would be combined with an embrace of common security at the level of sovereign states, human security as the level of society, and a reliance on robust lawmaking multilateralism in the face of such global challenges as nuclear weaponry, climate change, acute poverty, and migration.

 

The aftermath of the Cold War exhibited several forms of dysfunctionality: failures by the Amercan-led West to recognize and act upon a new global agenda that served the human interestrather than continue to pursue geopolitical ambitionsby relying on coercive diplomacy, an inadequately regulated world economy,  and militarist leverage. With a variety of global disasters in the offing, it is more urgent than ever to explore whether there remains an emergent possibility of positive forms of world order.  A brief overview of what went wrong after the Cold War ended serves as a prelude to exploring what might be put right, although not at all likely to happen without transnational revolutionary ferment in support of humane global governance.

 

 

The Failed Response: Unipolarity

 

With the Cold War over, a unipolar moment appeared to be the most accurate way of regarding the geopolitical structure of world politics after this geopolitically painless ending of Cold War bipolarity, fortunately occurring without an accompanying major warfare or civil strife. The United States despite the wide open window of opportunity, seemed to take no notice, and instead built a bridge to nowhere called ‘full spectrum dominance.’

 

It does appear in retrospect that U.S. suffered from a paralyzing version of triumphalism after the Soviet collapse, glorified in  various shortsighted narratives of its victory, most influentially, perhaps, by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Establishment gurus supported the American-led response to Iraq’s attack and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, especially with the backing of the peacekeeping consensus at the UN, and a ringing proclamation by George H.W. Bush of ‘a new world order.’ He based this enthusiasm on the apparent new potential for P-5 cooperation under U.S. leader and a more active UN role, finally seeming to fulfill Charter intentions. Unfortunately, these hopes were never thought through, and proved in any event to be transitory.

 

The Bush, Sr. presidency showed quickly its lack of commitment to the emergence of a new world order beyond the opportunistic and temporary relevance of the label to help mobilize an anti-Iraq consensus to support a legally questionable recourse to war. The idea that this was the beginning of more serious forms of collective global governance in the aftermath of the Cold War was just not present in the American political imaginary. Rather the low causality efficiency of the military operations that achieved an easy victory in the Gulf War overcame the lingering so-called Vietnam  Syndrome, thereby restoring the confidence of the U.S. in the relevance of its military prowess. Not since the humbling defeat in Vietnam was there any public belief that the war machine could prevail quickly in time and at acceptable costs.

 

Bill Clinton’s presidency was no more capable of shaping a constructive international response to the new realities of international life than had been the elder Bush. Clinton promoted the predatory capitalist view of the new world order by giving priority to the efficiency of transnational capital at the expense of the wellbeing of people. This goal of facilitating the transnational flow of capital contributed to a perverse shift of ideological emphasis from Keynesian to neoliberal economics, further marginalizing concern for the harmful human consequences of unregulated markets, setting the stage for various forms of trouble. This shift to neoliberalism is significantly responsible for the severe inequalities that now afflict the internal public orders of many states, as well as insufficient attention to global warming. The resulting alienation helps explain the rise of freely elected autocrats whose popularity rests on a mindless hostility to the established order.

 

Perhaps the most tragic effect of such responses to the end of the Cold War was the lost opportunity to exert two major forms of positive U.S. leadership: seriously proposing international negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament and other forms of demilitarization; and strengthening the UN by adding non-Western permanent members to the Security Council to reflect the new geopolitical landscape, as well as confining the veto to circumstances of self-defense.

 

The 1990s did achieve a temporary depolarization in international relations yet without accompanying normative improvements by strengthening international institutions to uphold global interests. U.S. leadership was focused on narcissistic geopolitics lacking even a self-interested long-term vision. This kind of lapse was further aggravated by the rise of neoconservative influence in the U.S. that favored relying on military superiority to promote strategic interests, especially in the Middle East.

 

 

Mishandling Mega-Terrorism After 9/11

 

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were apparently the work of a non-state actor, heralding two broad developments affecting the structure and processes of world order: first, the resecuritizing of international relations, which meant reasserting the primacy of politics over economics as the vector of geopolitical behavior; secondly, deciding that the proper response to the attacks should be shaped by the war paradigm rather than the crime paradigm, which had been relied upon in the past by governments when dealing with terrorism.

 

In one respect, the war on terror was an extension of unipolarity, especially given the political logic articulated by George W. Bush to the effect, ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists.’ Beyond this demand for solidarity with the counterterrorist side, there is the sense that territorial sovereignty of any country can be legally breached if its government is unable or unwilling to eliminate terrorists from its soil. There are no safe havens if the entire world becomes the battlefield.

 

The decision of the Bush Jr. presidency to treat the 9/11 attacks as ‘war’ rather ‘crime’ has caused many concerns about civilizational decline, and the abandonment of international law and common humanity. The names Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are appropriately invoked to epitomize what went perversely wrong in the response to 9/11, considering the early attempt to portray the conflict as pitting the evil terrorists against the benevolent democrats.

 

As with the earlier failure to take advantage of the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attack were another lost opportunity to enhance world order by devising a regime of common security. Such a regime could be adapted to regulating non-state violent political crimes and transnational extremist movements by inter-governmental police cooperation, as abetted in exceptional circumstances by paramilitary and military tactics.

 

The 9/11 response by way of a series of controversial and costly international wars that failed to achieve their security goals despite a massive military commitment weakened international law, the UN, and multilateralism generally. It also seriously compromised the quality and reputation of democratic life in liberal societies by its excessive encroachment on civil and political rights.

 

While the U.S. was engaged in military adventurism at a time when war was losing its historical agency, China, India, Brazil, Russia were gaining influence and making impressive developmental progress. The G-20 was established to create a more representative venue for global economic policy but its lack of institutionalization and authority are part of a confusing situation that features inadequate and incoherent international regulation of the world economy. States, led by the United States increasingly rely on narrowly nationalistic economic policies posing rising risks of trade wars and regressive forms of protectionism. What has emerged is an ineffectual form of multipolarity that leaves at risk the agendas of trade, investment, and development. In relation to global security there seems to be emerging an amalgam of military unipolarity without political effectiveness, exhibiting a helpless passivity with respect to repeated atrocities and massacres, typified by pathetic responses to the Syrian War raging since 2011 and the failure to protect the people of Gaza subject to repeated abuse by Israel over the course of many years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatives to Anemic Multipolarity

 

The sort of anemic multipolarity (as distorted by an inept unipolar militarism)just described is inherently unstable given the increasing tensions and harms resulting from insufficiently attended contemporary challenges of global scope. As seems obvious, either a creative alternative will emerge or there is likely to be a series of regressive trends and events associated with worsening conditions arising from one or more of these unmet world order challenges. The most plausible positive alternatives under these conditions are benevolent leadership for either multilateralism or bipolarity. The assumption here is that the United States under Trump, as complemented by a reactionary and unprincipled Congress, is no longer motivated or capable of exercising the kind of leadership role that it had assumed since 1945, admittedly always with mixed results from the perspective of humane values.

 

            What might multilateralism with benevolent leadership mean?China has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for soft power extension of influence together with the greatest surge of economic growth in all of history. China seems to have a mature and realistic appreciation of the need for global problem solving and management of global warming, nuclear policy, and the world economy. Whether it can deliver the kind of globally oriented

leadership needed at this stage of history is an unanswered question. As the most promising nextglobal leader China will need to overcome several obstacles: the fact that Chinese is not spoken outside its borders; China lacks a globally traded currency; China has little experience in global, as distinct from regional, diplomacy; China has a poor human rights record at home; and Chinese ideology, itself now rather obscure, is without many foreign adherents even if its own practice seems pragmatically motivated.

 

 

Maybe it is premature to count the United States as out of the leadership game. It seems possible, maybe likely, that the Trump presidency will, in one way or another, be rejected by means other than global catastrophe, that is, by electoral rejection, impeachment, resignation. It also seems that a progressive backlash to Trumpism will occur in the United States and perhaps elsewhere, as well as a rejection of the recent global wave of exclusivist nationalism. A new global mood might be receptive to a  revival of creative multilateralism, vitality for the UN and other international institutions, and display support for more compassionate global public policy processes that are not narrowly focused on national interests, and more attuned to the promotion of global and human interests.

 

A variant of this kind of more hopeful world order scenario would result from a new global political atmosphere induced by a shared recognition of urgent challenges. Such an atmosphere could lead to what might be called benevolent bipolarityin which the United States and China collaborate much as wartime alliances have produced strong cooperative relations temporarily bonding heretofore antagonistic political actors. This was the case with the anti-fascist coalition. Such bipolarity would complement multilateralism by concentrating policymaking in these two governmental centers of authority, status, influence, and capabilities. It would extend their current reach to encompass common and human securitysystems that gradually rendered the war system obsolete and discredited reliance on coercive geopolitics. During this process security would increasingly be assessed from the perspectives of human rights, global justice, civilizational equality, and ecological sustainability.

 

Such a reframing of policy formation in the domain of security would achieve a new kind of two-level world order: (1) leadership exercised by the collaborative efforts of China and the United States; (2) multilateral lawmaking and humane policy pursued by states, as influenced by and coordinated with civil society actors around the world.

 

 

 

 

A Concluding Remark

 

We are living in a period of radical uncertainty, although increasingly imperiled by palpable world order challenges. The dominant current trend is highly problematic, configured by various expressions of resurgent and exclusivist nationalism that is irresponsibly unresponsive to an array of global challenges. It is highly unstable because the challenges on the global agenda urgently require an unprecedented scale of cooperation and global leadership or catastrophe is almost certain to follow. We hope for the best, especially the resilience and mobilization of civil society accompanied by the reemergence of visionary leaders of state and non-state actors sensitive to and creative about meeting the array of global challenges.

 

What is politically feasibleat this point will not do. The peoples of the world deserve and require a politics that recognizes what is necessaryand aspires and acts to attain what is desirable.A first step in the right direction is a recognition of the vital role that could be played by greater trust in what might be called the public imagination.

 

 

 

 

 

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Attacking Syria

18 Apr

Attacking Syria

 

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

 

 

Preliminary Reflections

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Doubting the Facts

 

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

 

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

 

 

Remnants of Colonialism

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Violating International Law, Undermining the UN

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Charter Framework is Not Obsolete

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Fudging Constitutional Authorization

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Where Does This Leave Us?

 

There are several levels of response:

 

–with respect to Syria, nothing has changed.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Jerusalem Votes at the UN

23 Dec

 

 

What struck me as the most significant dimension of the Jerusalem votes in the Security Council and General Assembly has been oddly overlooked by most commentary in the media. The public discourse has, of course, been correct to identify the isolation of the United States with respect to the rest of the world as well as regarding the majority position as a defiant rejection of Trump’s leadership and bullying tactics. Although as some have noted, without the bullying by Ambassador Haley (including, I will report yes votes to the president; those that vote for the resolution will not receive economic assistance in the future; we are watching; “America will remember this day;” “the vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN.”), there might been as many as 150 positive votes for the resolution instead of 128, with fewer abstentions (35) and fewer absences from the vote (21).

 

Nevertheless, 128-9 is a clear expression of an overwhelming moral and legal sentiment, and deserves to be respected by any government that values the role of the General Assembly as the arbiter of legitimacy with respect to sensitive global issues. Although far weaker and more subject to geopolitical manipulation than is desirable, these main political organs of the UN provide the best guide that currently exists as to what global policy should be if the global and human interest is to be protected, and not merely an array of national interests and their multilateral aggregation to achieve cooperative results.

 

What this discussion glosses over in this instance without stopping to observe its significance is the degree to which issues of substance prevailed over matters of geopolitical alignment. Not one of America’s closest allies (UK, France, Germany, and Japan) heeded the fervent arguments and pleas of Haley and Trump. Beyond this, every important country in the world backed the General Assembly Resolution on December 21, 2017 regardless of geography or political orientation (China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran). This unanimity enhances the quality of the consensus supportive of the resolution repudiating Trump’s arrogant decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as ‘null and void.’ Such an impression is strengthened by listing the nine governments that voted against the resolution (Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Israel, Miscronesia, Nauru, Palau, Togo, and the U.S.).

 

Should these striking results be interpreted as the demise, or at least twilight, of geopolitics? Any such speculation would be wildly premature. What seems to have swayed many governments in this case is the negative fallout expected to follow from Trump’s unilateralism that disregards decades of international practice and agreement about the status and treatment of Jerusalem, as well as the gratuitous neglect of Palestinian rights and aspirations by taking such an initiative without even pretending to take account of Palestinian grievances. In this regard, Trump’s poor international reputation as a result of pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, decertification of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and withdrawal from negotiations to fashion an agreed approach to the global migration crisis undoubtedly help tip the scales on the Jerusalem resolution, especially among European governments. Trump’s unpopular implementation of his diplomacy of ‘America, First’ is arguably morphing into the disturbing perception of ‘America, Last’ or the United States as ‘rogue superpower.’ Consciously or not, the UN vote was a distress signal directed at Washington by friends and adversaries alike, but as near as can be told, it will be disregarded or angrily rebuffed by the White House and its spokespersons unless they decide to pass over these happenings in silence.

 

As has been observed, the Jerusalem decision was not part of a carefully crafted international approach to the Israel/Palestine struggle. It seemed mainly to be a payoff to domestic support groups of Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States (large pro-Israeli donors and Christian Evangelists wedded to a (mis)reading of the Book of Revelations), as well as a further display of post-Obama affection for Bibi Netanyahu. Apparently, for Trump being adored in Tel Aviv seems worth being discredited with allies and leading states throughout the rest of the world. As for the threatened major aid recipients (Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Africa; Kenya was absent during the vote); it was impressive that all of these states ignored the threat and voted for the resolution. If Washington follows through on withholding aid it will certainly not serve America’s strategic interests as previously understood, particularly in the Middle East, but also in Africa. Yet if it fails to carry its threat, its diplomatic posture will be seen as that of a novice poker player whose untimely bluff has been called.

 

There is also the question of ‘what next?’ Will the Jerusalem resolution be remembered as a moment in time to be superseded by contrary behavioral trends? In this regard, the U.S. now has its own chance to exhibit defiance and disrespect by quickly and ostentatiously moving its embassy to Jerusalem, which will of course give rise to further anger. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already seized the occasion to reassert its prominence in the Muslim world, first by co-sponsoring (with Yemen) the resolution, and then by explicitly calling on the U.S. Government to rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I would darkly imagine that the Trump presidency would opt for World War III before it backed down on Jerusalem.

 

As widely reported, the Jerusalem resolution is symbolic in nature, and yet it does have serious political consequences for all relevant political actors. Does it clear a political space for the European Union to play a central role in seeking to revive a diplomatic approach on a more balanced basis than what could have been expected from Washington? How does the U.S. Government negotiate the fine line between disregarding the resolution and harming its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East? How unyielding should the Palestinian Authority be about insisting on a parallel recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine before it agrees to participate in negotiations with Israel? Will Turkey seek further steps at the UN and elsewhere to back up the resolution, including possibly fashioning realignments throughout the Middle East? Will the second tier of officials in the Trump Administration create pressure to create a foreign policy that more closely reflects U.S. national interests by taking better account of the many dimensions (digital, economic, security) of global integration?

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

13 Nov

 

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a wide-ranging interview in November 2017 that that concentrates on the failure of the UN and the world to rescue the people of Syria by a timely and effective humanitarian intervention. The interview was conducted by a Turkish journalist, Salva Amor, and is to be published in a magazine, Causcasus International. The text of the interview has been slightly modified.]

 

A missed chance 

 

  1. You previously referred to Syria as “an ideal case for humanitarian intervention” however, rather than becoming a prime example of positive humanitarian intervention it has turned into one of the greatest humanitarian crises with half of the country becoming refugees or internally displaced. 

 

What turned such an Ideal case for humanitarian intervention into one of the worst humanitarian responses we have seen in recent times?

 

Answer: I do not recall this reference to Syria as ‘an ideal case,’ but I must have meant it in a hypothetical sense, that is, as if ‘humanitarian intervention’ was ever called for, it was in Syria, especially at the early stages of the conflict. And yet I am inclined to think that regime-changing intervention was at all stages a mission impossible. We should keep in mind that the record of actual successful instances of what is labeled as ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been dismal, and when successful the motivation was not predominantly humanitarian, but rather a confluence of strategic interests of one sort or another with a humanitarian challenge. In Syria the strategic interests were not sufficiently strong to justify the likely costs, especially in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Sometimes, the intervention is a cover for non-humanitarian goals, as in Afghanistan (2002), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) and may be effective in attaining its immediate goals of regime change but is extremely costly from the perspective of humanitarianism if assessed from the perspective of prolonged violence, societal chaos, and human suffering.

And only marginally successful strategically given the resilience of territorial resistance and the pressure for long-term occupation if the original gains of intervention are to be preserved.

 

At other times, the humanitarian rationale is present, as in Syria, but there is no strategic justification of sufficient weight, and what is done by external actors or the UN is insufficient to control the outcome, and often ends up intensifying the scale of suffering endured by the population. In effect, humanitarian intervention rarely achieves a net benefit from the perspective of the population that is being supposedly rescued. Perhaps, Kosovo (1999) is the best recent case where an alleged humanitarian intervention enjoyed enough strategic value to be effective, and yet seems to have left the Kosovar population better off afterwards, although even Kosovo is not a clear case.  

 

 

Failures & implications of inaction

 

  1. The humanitarian failures in Syria and for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have had far-reaching implications for the EU with millions of refugees choosing to risk their lives in order to enter Europe causing the largest exodus since WWII. 

 

Could the surge of refugees fleeing to Europe have been avoided had a more positive and organized humanitarian intervention taken place?

 

Answer: It is possible that had Syria possessed large oil reserves, the intervention against the Damascus regime would have been robust enough to topple the regime, and create stability before combat conditions prompted massive internal population displacements and gigantic refugee flows, including the European influx. In this sense, Libya with oil, did prompt such an intervention, although it was an easier undertaking, as the Qaddafi regime had much less popular support than did the Assad regime, and was less well equipped militarily and lacked regional allies. In Syria, because of regional and global geopolitical cleavages, the politics of intervention and counter-intervention was far more complicated, and inhibited potential anti-regime interveners from making large commitments. At the early stages of the conflict Turkey and the United States miscalculated the costs and scale of a successful intervention in Syria, supposing that an indirect and low level effort could be effective in achieving regime change, which misunderstood the conditions prevailing in Syria.  

 

 

The best response

 

  1. In your experience, what would have been the ideal humanitarian response to the war in Syria? And who would have been best to implement it? 

 

Answer: As my earlier responses hinted, there is no ideal response, and the current world order system is not reliably capable of handling humanitarian intervention in a situation such as existed in Syria. To have any chance of effectiveness would require entrusting the undertaking to one or more powerful states, but even then the situation that would follow, is highly uncertain. In a post-colonial setting, there is bound to be strong nationalist and territorial resistance to outside intervention and occupation, generally producing serious prolonged chaos. If the country is very small and can be overwhelmed (Granada, Panama) without counter-intervention the undertaking will sometimes work. Iraq serves as a clear example of an intervention that did rid the country of a brutal tyrant, but produced internal violence among competing regions, tribes, and generated extreme sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as a series of ethnic, tribal, and regional battles.

 

In a better governed world, which is far from existing, the UN would have acted robustly and with the support of the regional governments in the Middle East, the geopolitical actors (U.S. and Russia) would have not pursued their strategic agendas, and a politically neutral intervention would have created the conditions for a post-Assad democratic political transition, including imposing accountability for past crimes. Merely mentioning this desirable scenario is enough to reveal its utopian character. Especially in the Middle East, geopolitics of a regional and global scope badly distort all efforts to fashion a humanitarian response to repression and severe violations of human rights. In the background, but not far in the background, is the relevance of oil. The countries that have experienced massive interventions (Iraq, Libya) possessed abundant oil reserves, while those that have little or no oil have either been ignored or endured prolonged bloody conflict, of which Syria is the worst case, having become the scene of competing and offsetting interventions motivated by political and strategic ambitions with only a thin propaganda rationale associated with alleviating a humanitarian crisis, which at best, was a much subordinated goal of the interveners on both sides.

 

 

Lessons for Future

 

4a. How can the world learn from the humanitarian failures and inaction that occurred in Syria for the past 7 years? What opportunities to protect, defend or support the Syrian people have we missed?

 

Answer: In my view, it is a mistake to speak of ‘inaction’ in the Syrian context. There have been massive interventions of all sorts on both sides of the conflict by a variety of actors, but none decisive enough to end the conflict, and none primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. Of course, here and there, lives could have been saved, especially if the balance of forces within Syria had been better understood at an early stage of the conflict in the West. What intervention achieved in Syria was largely a matter of magnifying the conflict, and attendant suffering. The conflict itself was surrounded by contradictory propaganda claims making the reality difficult to perceive by the public, and therefore there was political resistance to more explicit and possibly more effective regime changing intervention. 

 

Indifference:

 

4b. Is there any correlation between the rise of Islamophobia and the world’s inaction towards Syrian people’s suffering? Has the ongoing drumming of hatred towards the Islamic religion created a generation of indifference towards those of them who are suffering? Or is such wide indifference a natural response to such overwhelming humanitarian crisis?

 

Answer: The indifference in relation to Syria is mainly a matter of public confusion and distrust. Confusion about the nature of the conflict and distrust as to the motives of political actors that have intervened on either side. The spike in Islamophobia is attributable to the interplay of the European refugee crisis and the occurrence of terrorist incidents that are perpetrated by ISIS and its supporters. Of course, the massive refugee flow was prompted by the violence in the Syrian combat zones, which has made Europe most interested in resolving the conflict even if meant allowing a criminal regime to remain in power.

 

I suppose that the indifference noted in your question is more evident in relation to the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that in response to Syria where, as I have been suggesting, the political context dominates the human suffering, and the Islamic identity of the victimized people is secondary. Also, it is worth recalling the global indifference to genocide in Rwanda (1994) that could have prevented,

or at least minimized, by a timely, and relatively small scale intervention. And on occasion, if the strategic context is supportive, the West will intervene on the Islamic side as in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and there in opposition to the Christian side.  

 

 

  1. The UN has handed over a large portion of the $4bn of its aid effort in Syria to the Syrian regime or partners who have been approved by Bashar Al Assad. How does the UN justify providing tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to one of the worst governments, that has besieged, starved, bombed and killed hundreds of thousands of its own people? 

 

Answer: I suppose the basic justification for this behavior is that from the viewpoint of the UN the Damascus regime remains the legitimate government of Syria representing the country at the UN. This is of course a legalistic justification, and evades the real humanitarian crisis as well as the crimes of Assad’s regime. So far, because there is a geopolitical standoff, regionally (Iran v. Saudi Arabia) and globally (Russia v. the U.S. and Turkey), the UN has tried to remain aloof from the ambit of political controversy to the extent possible while doing what it can to alleviate human suffering. I am not knowledgeable about whether the UN aid is reaching the civilian population as claimed. The language of your question suggests that there should be some mechanism for disqualifying a government that commits repeated crimes against its own people from being treated by the UN as a normal member state, but this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is tricky as the UN System is built around state-centric ideas of world order.

 

 

The right to torture

 

  1. The world was shocked in 2015 when the Caesar files were releasedrevealing human stories behind 28,000 deaths in Syrian prisons, most, if not all were tortured prior to their death.Two years later no action has been taken in regards to detainees and torture in prisons. There has been no action or desire to send observers to Syrian Prisons nor to investigate those who were named in the Caesar files for war crimes.What must a dictator have to do for the international community to respond to his crimes? Comparing Libyan intervention with Syria

 

Answer: I took part recently in a ceremony in Nuremberg Germany that awarded a human rights prize to the photographer, whose identity is kept secret for his safety, responsible for the Caesar Report containing photographic images of Syrian prison torture of some 11,000 prisoners, most of whom are reportedly now dead. There is no question that these images are horrifying, but serious issues have been raised as to the authenticity of this photographic archive. It has been authenticated as genuine by Human Rights Watch, but has also been used by persons closely connected with the U.S. Government to build a case for war crimes prosecutions, particularly against Bashar al Assad. I am not in a position to assess the controversy, yet do not doubt that the Damascus regime has committed many atrocities and are responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths over the course of the last six years in Syria. At the same time the anti-regime forces, which are fragmented, have also committed many war crimes.

 

These issues of criminal accountability cannot be reliably answered from a distance, or merely on the basis of media reports. What is required is a credible international fact finding commission of inquiry with adequate access to whatever evidence and witnesses remain available.

 

 

 

  1. Human rights groups have estimated that no less than half a million people have died in the last 7 years in Syria. Although there are many violent factions in Syria, more than 94% of all deaths have been caused by Syrian Government or Russian strikes. In comparison Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi had killed an 257 people including combatants and injured 949 with less than 3% being women and children when UN security council intervened. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 (2011) authorizing “regional organizations or arrangements…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya. The resolution was adopted with ten votes for, none against, and five abstentions. In hindsight, many have now questioned whether that intervention was purely to “protect civilians”. Is the UN Security Council still a reliable body that can be relied upon to protect the civilian? The UN’s Responsibility Not – To Protect the Civilian Population

 

Answer: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) UN norm is interpreted and practice is governed by the UN Security Council, and hence is completely subordinated to the manipulations of geopolitics. In this regard, the lesser humanitarian hazard in Libya led to a UN regime-changing mission because the Permanent Members opposed to intervention (China, Russia) were persuaded not to cast their veto for what was being proposed, which was a limited humanitarian mission to protect the then entrapped civilian population of Benghazi. In fact, the NATO undertaking expanded the mission far beyond the Security Council mandate from its inception, angering Russia and China that had abstained out of deference to pleas relating to the humanitarian claims put forward by the NATO members of the Security Council. They later justified their opposition to a more pro-active UN role in Syria by reference to this failure of trust, the unwillingness of the intervening states to respect the limits of the mandate.

 

What is important to appreciate is that R2P and other UN undertakings must adhere to the constraints of geopolitics. As disturbing as inaction with respect to Syria, is the UN silence with regard to the abuse of the civilian populations of Gaza and Rakhine (Myanmar). It is only when a geopolitical consensus exists, which is quite rare (e.g. failure with respect to Yemen) that it is possible for the UN to play an important humanitarian role in shaping behavior and protecting civilians.

 

 

  1. Why was The UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P ) invisible in the last 7 years in Syria? What must be done now, in order to implement an R2P operation in Syria to avoid further suffering? In past years vetoes have blocked humanitarian intervention.

 

Answer: Part of my response here has already been given in relation to the prior question. I would only add here that the abolition of the veto would be a crucial step, or even an agreement among permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from casting a veto in humanitarian contexts such as Syria. The problem is that the veto powers are extremely unlikely to give up their right of veto, partly because such states do not voluntarily give up power and partly because humanitarian issues are almost always inseparable from diverse and often antagonist geopolitical interests, and therefore the claims are not perceived as humanitarian. This is certainly the case with regard to Syria. The take away conclusion is that the international system as it now functions is rarely motivated by humanitarian considerations when they come into conflict with the strong political preferences and strategic priorities of principal states, and this is true even when the humanitarian crisis is as severe and prolonged as in Syria.

 The most constructive response, in view of these realities, is to advocate global reform, but this will not happen without a major mobilization of people throughout the world or as a frantic response to some earth-shaking catastrophe.

 

 

  1. I understand that there was a veto by Russia and thus a solution was not passed, however, in such cases, when one of the countries that is involved in the atrocities is allowed to veto, does it not raise the alarm?Surely, this situation in Syria and the human cost provides enough of a precedent for (if not the UN, those who care about preventing further atrocities) a new chapter to be drafted and implemented into the UN. –Do you believe that it is time for the UN to adopt a new chapter into itsCharter that would prevent dictators or countries with vested interest in a war from overpowering UN Security Council votes? Normalizing atrocities at the global level.

 

Answer: Yes, there was much criticism of Russia for blocking action on Syria, but Russia was acting in accord with the constitutional structure of the UN. The U.S. uses its veto in a comparable way to protect Israel and other allies, and equally irresponsibly, from a moral or humanitarian point of view. It should be remembered that the League of Nations fell apart because major states would not participate, including the United States. The idea of the veto was designed to persuade all major states to participate, with the goal of universality of membership, but at the cost of engendering paralysis and irresponsible obstructions to action whenever veto powers disagree sharply. Your questions raise the crucial issue if this was too high a price to pay for the sake of maintaining universality of participation. One consequence of this tradeoff between geopolitics and effectiveness is to weaken public respect for the UN as an agency for the promotion of justice and decency in global affairs.

 

As specified in Article 108 of the UN Charter requires the approval of 2/3rds of the entire membership of the UN as well as all five Permanent Members of the Security Council, which means that it will not happen in the foreseeable future in relation to any politically sensitive issue. When World War II ended there was the hope and illusion that countries that cooperated against fascism would continue to cooperate to maintain the peace. As should have been anticipated, it was a forlorn hope.

 

 

  1. The White House accepts Assad’s continued rule in Syria as a “political reality” while European leaders have also taken a soft approach with French president declaring he no longer saw the removal of Assad as necessary. In your view, how do such civilized countries justify good relations with Assad? ISIS the monster that invites intervention: ISIS Affects the West, Assad does not.

 

Answer: Your comment on ISIS is a way of expressing my view that these issues are dominated by geopolitical calculations. ISIS as horrible as it is has not been nearly as responsible for the quality and quantity of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people by the Damascus regime.

 

At this point, and given the unavailability of humanitarian intervention, the best Plan B for Syria is to seek a sustainable ceasefire, and this would undoubtedly require making some unpalatable compromises, including the possible retention of Assad as head of state. After all, there are many heads of state with much blood on their hands, and yet their legitimacy as rulers is essentially unchallenged. The way the world is organized makes it unable to impose criminal responsibility on the leaders of sovereign states except in special circumstances of total victory as in World War II, or more recently, in relation to the criminal prosecutions of Saddam Hussein and Milosevic, particular enemies of the West.

 

 

  1. Many Syrian groups have released statements to express their dismay at the international community for only intervening to strike ISIS. The Global Coalition’s planes hover over Deir Al Zour and Raqa to target ISIS (often causing civilian casualties) while in the same sky Assad Planes carrying deadly Barrel Bombs hover over nearby towns unperturbed. A) Is there balance in the international community’s actions in Syria? While Assad only kills or affects the lives of Syrians in Syria, ISIS became a threat to western countries. Terrorist attacks in the west killed and injured civilians in the west.
  2. B) Is there an underlying message that the West will “Fight against ISIS in Syria, because it affects people in our countries, but leave Assad because he has no impact on their own people?”

 

Answer: Yes, this is certainly a perceptive observation. When the issue is fairly large scale and internal, and where Muslims are the victims, any effort to intervene is bound to be feeble, at best, which it was in the early stages of 2011-2013 when Turkey and the U.S. cooperated in supporting Friends of Syria, which was mistakenly thought capable of shifting the balance sufficiently in Syria to produce the collapse of the Damascus regime. When that failed, it became obvious that the costs of an effective intervention were viewed in the West as too high and dangerous. Considering the Iranian and Russian alignments with the Syrian government doomed an anti-Damascus intervention.

 

And as you suggest, the West views ISIS as dangerous enemy, and is prepared to take bigger risks and bear higher costs because Western homeland security is at stake. ISIS is a proclaimed enemy of the West that is perceived as responsible for violent acts, Syria is not, being regarded, at most, as an unattractive regime, partly because in the past, hostile toward Israel. Taking account of these circumstances, the political realist seeks a ceasefire in Syria while going all out to achieve the destruction of ISIS.

 

 

  1. Please kindly note any comments, suggestions, opinions, thoughts you have on the Syrian conflict and in particular on the west’s reaction to it and the UN’s role. Also, on what you feel can and should be done from now on. Thanks so much.

 

Answer: From my earlier responses I am skeptical about what can be done beyond the obvious: give up any hope of securing support for an R2P mandate to protect the Syrian people, and pursue a ceasefire so as to end the suffering. This is not justice, but it may at least spare the Syrian people further trauma and bloodshed.

 

What the Syrian tragedy and ordeal reveals vividly is the inability of the international community, as now organized, to deal with a humanitarian crisis unless a geopolitical consensus is present in a relatively strong form, regionally and globally. Such a consensus is not even enough if the difficulties of intervention are seen as producing heavy casualties for the intervening side and would impose burdens of a prolonged occupation to achieve post-intervention political order and security.

 

Europe would benefit at this time from a Syrian ceasefire and the restoration of political normalcy. It would undoubtedly reduce the pressure on European countries created by the Syrian refugee flow, which has given right wing political parties their greatest strength and largest level of popular support since the end of World War II.

UN Under Siege: Geopolitics in the Time of Trump

1 Jul

[Prefatory Note: This post is a modified and enlarged version of a talk I gave in Geneva a week ago. The audience was a blend of students of all ages from around the world, with almost none from Europe and North America, and several NGO representatives with lots of UN experience.]

 

 Why the peoples of the world need the UN: multilateralism, international law, human rights, and ecological sustainability

 

[ISMUN (International Youth & Student Movement for the United Nations), Summer School, June 28, 2017, Geneva]

 

 A Point of Departure

 

When Donald Trump withdrew American participation from the Paris Climate Change Agreement in early June of this year a bright red line was crossed. Most obviously, there were a series of adverse substantive consequences associated with weakening an agreement that was promising to provide critical interim protection against severe harms to human wellbeing and its natural habitat threatened by further global warning. U.S. withdrawal from Paris was also a rather vicious symbolic slap at multilateralism under UN auspices. We should recall that the agreement was rightly hailed at the time as the greatest success ever achieved by way of a multilateral approach to international problem solving. The Paris Agreement was indeed a remarkable achievement, inducing 195 governments representing virtually every sovereign state on the planet to sign up for compliance with a common agreed plan to address many of the challenges of climate change in the years ahead. To reach such an outcome also reflected a high degree of sensitivity to the varied circumstances of countries, rich and poor, developed and developing, vulnerable and less vulnerable.

 

The Paris withdrawal also exhibited in an extreme form the new nationalistic posture adopted by the United States in relation to the UN System, and a major retreat from the leadership role at the UN that the U.S. had assumed (for better and worse) ever since the Organization was established in 1945. Instead of fulfilling this traditional role as the generally respected cheerleader and predominantly influential leader of most multilateral lawmaking undertakings at the UN and elsewhere the U.S. Government has instead apparently decided under Trump to become obstructer-in chief. This Trump/US assault on the UN approach to cooperation among sovereign states and global problem solving and lawmaking is particularly troubling. This manifestation of the new American approach in the policy domain of climate change is particularly disturbing. To have any prospect of meeting the climate change challenge requires the widest and deepest international cooperation, and is absolutely vital for the future of human and ecological wellbeing. Such a dramatic disruptive act by the United States strikes a severe blow to the capabilities and legitimacy of the UN at a historical moment when this global organization has never been more potentially useful.

 

The credibility and severity of the threat is magnified by an evident American-led campaign to exert financial pressure to bend the Organization to the will of major funders. When the United States behaves in this manner it indirectly gives permission to other political actors to follow suit, and exerts immense pressure on the UN Secretariat and Secretary General to give ground. Saudi Arabia has used such leverage to embarrass the UN in relation to both its human rights record at home and its responsibility for war crimes against civilians, including children, in Yemen. Israel has also been the beneficiary of such delegitimizing pressures, with the UN giving ground by softening criticism, inhibiting censure, shelving damaging reports. Such backtracking by the United Nations weakens any claim to be guided in its policies and practices by international law and international morality. The weaponization of UN funding politics should awaken public opinion to the importance of finally establishing an independent funding base for the UN by way of some variant of a Tobin Tax imposed on financial transactions or international air travel. If it is desirable to encourage the UN to conduct its operations in accordance with the UN Charter and international law, UN funding should be removed from the control of governments at the earliest possible time.

 

It needs to be acknowledged and understood that this unfortunate shift in the U.S. role at the UN preceded the Trump presidency, involving a gradual American retreat from political internationalism, which reflected the outlook of an increasingly sovereignty-oriented U.S. Congress. Even an environmentally minded Barack Obama was led at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit to insist that national commitments to reduce carbon emissions be placed on a voluntary rather than obligatory basis, which was regarded at the time as a major setback in the effort to safeguard the future from the perils of global warming. The Copenhagen approach was also a negative development with respect to international law, substituting volunteerism for obligation in this major effort to protect human and global interests. We need to appreciate that international law in its more imperative forms already suffers from the weakness of international enforcement mechanisms. Putting compliance on a voluntary basis dilutes the ethos of good faith that guides responsible governments when giving their assent to obligatory instruments of international law.

 

Beyond this, the Obama presidency boasted of its unconditional defense of Israel at the UN, regardless of the merits of criticism, and even in contexts where the U.S. was willing to voice muted criticisms directed at Israel but only in discreet language conveyed in bilateral diplomatic channels. The UN was off-limits for critical commentary on Israel’s behavior despite the long history of unfulfilled UN responsibilities toward the Palestinian people.

 

 

 

 

Why the UN is especially needed now

 

It should be obvious to all of us that the UN is now even more needed than when it was established in 1945. At least on the surface the UN enjoyed the ardent support of every important government and their publics at the end of World War II. These sentiments reflected the widely shared mood of the global public that maintaining world peace and security required the establishment of global institutions devoted to war prevention. There existed post-1945 a somewhat morbid atmosphere of foreboding with respect to the dawn of the nuclear age that took had taken the dire form of atomic bombs dropped on two Japanese cities. The concerns arising from these unforgettable events strongly reinforced and underlay the war prevention emphasis of the UN Charter, and were culturally expressed by such major works of the imagination as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and On the Beach.

 

This grim mood also lent an aura of poignancy to the memorable opening words of the Charter Preamble—“We the peoples of the United Nations are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” It was evident that when the UN was established the overriding global preoccupation of public opinion and of governments was to avoid any recurrence of major international warfare, especially in light of the possession of nuclear weapons. Of course, such an impression partly reflected the absence of adequate representation at the UN and other international venues of voices articulating non-Western priorities. From the beginning the non-Western members of the UN were far more focused on anti-colonialism, development priorities, and the reform of a rigged world economy than on war prevention.

 

It is worth pondering why the formal legitimating call establishing the UN, as set forth in the Preamble, was phrased as coming from ‘the peoples’ and not from the ‘governments.’ In fact, governments were not even explicitly mentioned in this foundational document. Yet as a practical matter, despite this language in the Preamble, the UN as a political actor has always been almost exclusively an Organization reflecting the will of ‘we the governments,’ and in many cases ‘we the Permanent Members of the Security Council.’ Iddn some situations the ‘we’ over time and in situations of global crises has been reduced to the government of the United States, sometimes joined by its European allies. In other words, the geopolitical dimension of UN operations has had the effect of moving the actions of the Organization on war/peace agenda items away from international law and the framework set forth in the UN Charter. It has instead given decisive authority to the most powerful members of the UN with the intended effect of concentrating UN authority in the Security Council, whose operations are more subject to geopolitical discipline in the form of the veto than to the mindfulness toward international law.

 

An understanding of this circumstance underscores the aspirational importance of constraining geopolitics and enhancing the role of international law. Respect for international law in framing UN policy must be increased if there is to be any hope that the UN will eventually fulfill the ambitions and expectations of its strongest supporters in civil society. As matters now stand these supporters are often caught between being seen as blind idealists that are enthusiastic about whatever the UN does or dismissive cynics who dismiss the UN as a great power charade that is a waste of time and money. Both of these outlooks seems unwarranted, inducing either an uncritical passivity toward the UN or exhibiting a lack of appreciation of the contributions being daily made by the UN and what could be done to make these contributions more robust.

 

 

The UN and a Populist Reform of World Order

 

Two important questions that all of us, and especially young people should be asking: how can the UN System be made more responsive to the needs and wishes of people and less dependent on the warped agendas of many governments? And how can the Organization be made more responsive to international law and less of a vehicle for geopolitical ambitions? To make the relevance of positive global populism more concrete we can ask: ‘Would the establishment of an assembly of civil society organizations or a global parliament along the lines of the European Parliament be helpful from the perspective of world peace and global justice?’ What follows are several daunting questions concerning the feasibility of such a proposal: “Can the political will be mobilized that would be needed to make realizable such a UN reform?” “Even if a UN Peoples Parliament were established would it be allowed to exert significant influence?” We should remember that some past successful undertakings, such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), seemed utopian when proposed, and thus we should not be easily dissuaded if a project seems worthwhile. But we should also be aware that the ICC once established and operating has been chasing the mice while ignoring the tigers, which gives rise to another version of this clash between sentimentalists overjoyed that the institution exists at all and realists who believe that the ICC has surrendered to geopolitical forces, thereby betraying its overriding mission of administering justice as called for by non-compliant behavior.

 

For several years in the 1980s I participated annually in a large public event held in Perugia, Italy under the banner of ‘A United Nations of the Peoples.’ It made me wonder at the time whether the world was not being divided up into three distinct identies: ‘the Geopolitical Person’ who was increasingly dominating world politics, including the UN, ‘the Davos Person’ who at the World Economic Forum was mounting strong pressures on all governments to privilege the interests of market forces, essentially banks and corporations, above that of their own citizens, and ‘the Perugia Person’ who was on the sidelines whispering words to the grassroots community conveying the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, and by so doing, highlighting problems of poverty, peace, environment, biodiversity, health, and justice. In one sense, my analysis is an argument for a concerted public and grassroots transnational effort to magnify the Perugia whisper until it becomes a stentorian voice that is heard and heeded within the halls and conference rooms of the UN in Geneva and New York. Is such a call for positive global populism desirable, and if so, are there practical steps to be taken to make it happen? Will states feeling UN pressure reopen the withdrawal option, and weaken the Organization from the governmental end?

 

 

Reviving War Prevention

 

As it turned out the onset of the Cold War made it exceedingly difficult for the UN to be effective as a war prevention institution almost from the day it was established, although over the years it made many quiet contributions to peace when political conditions made this possible. The effort to prevent a third world war fought with nuclear weapons was mainly left up to the rival governments of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, relying on geopolitical arrangements that on occasions of confrontation sent periodic chills of fear down the collective spine of humanity, especially in Europe and North America. Global security was conceptualized around the abstract idea of deterrence, which was most simply understood as the prevention of a major war by the exchange of mutual threats of devastating retaliatory strikes with weaponry of mass destruction by these two superpowers with capabilities that were sufficiently resistant to preemptive first strikes to keep the capacity for retaliation entirely credible. This fundamental doctrine of deterrence was called ‘Mutual Assured Destruction,’ and more familiarly known by the ironically apt acronym ‘MAD.’ It amounted to a paradoxical permanent mobilization for war with the overriding goal of preventing the outbreak of war, which did strike the peace community as rationality gone mad, really mad. MAD was tied to a destabilizing ongoing arms race justified by a security rationale. Each superpower both sought to gain the upper hand and above all acted to make sure that its rival did not acquire ways of destroying its retaliatory credibility. This unstable and permanent war footing, always susceptible to accident and miscalculation, lasted throughout the Cold War, dominating the security policy of leading UN members, and as a side effect marginalized the UN Security Council in the peace and security domain. The intense ideological antagonisms between the Atlantic Alliance and the Soviet Bloc generated a series of geopolitical standoffs that made it almost impossible for the Permanent Members of the Security Council to reach agreement about who was responsible and what to do whenever international conflicts turned violent.

 

The world has avoided such a catastrophic war up to this point by a combination of prudent statecraft and good fortune. There were several close calls that make it apparent that it is grotesquely reckless to normalize the present role of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nine current nuclear weapons states. When the path to nuclear disarmament was abandoned, the leading global states resorted to a Plan B, a nonproliferation regime tethered to the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 (NPT), negotiated under UN auspices. It was advertised as essentially a holding operation designed to give the nuclear weapons states ample time to negotiate, as they were obligated to do, a reliable supposedly disarming treaty regime. With the hindsight of almost five decades, it has become evident that the commitment to nuclear disarmament embedded in Article VI of the NPT was never implemented, and quite likely was not meant to be. Accordingly, 123 non-nuclear states have taken a new initiative to propose a denuclearizing Plan C within the confines of the UN, a step opposed by 36 members, with an additional 16 abstentions. As with the NPT, the UN is again providing the venue and encouragement for the negotiation of a draft treaty to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons (2017 BAN Treaty; Convention to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons), leading eventually to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. This initiative enjoys the support of most non-nuclear governments, but will not pose a serious challenge to nuclearism until public opinion is effectively mounted. As yet the BAN approach is not supported by any of the nuclear weapons states nor by those governments that base their security on holding a nuclear umbrella over their country.

 

Beyond this overriding concern with nuclear weapons, the Perugia Person should be using the UN to raise questions about globally unregulated arms sales and rampant militarism as practiced with post-modern weaponry and tactics, what might be regarded as a Plan D framework. In this vein, the UN and its civil society supporters could begin to explore the potentialities of a nonviolent geopolitics appropriate for a post-colonial, post-Cold War world order in which the global policy agenda finally takes seriously several biopolitical challenges with respect to which traditional instruments of ‘hard power’ are totally irrelevant, or worse. If we wish the UN to fulfill its potential it is essential that the negativity of right-wing populism be countered by affirmative visions generated by a rising progressive populism. Such progressive populists, rather far removed from traditional left politics, need to keep in mind the biblical admonition: “a people without a vision perishes.”

 

 

Serving the Human Interest

 

Overall, there has been a failure of the UN to live up to the expectations and hopes of its founders when it came to enhancing the quality of international peace and security. At the same time, the UN has vindicated its existence in numerous other unexpected ways that have made its role in human affairs now widely regarded as indispensable, but still far below what was and is possible, necessary, and desirable. The UN validated its existence early on by offering the governments of the world a crucial platform for articulating their grievances and expressing their differences. The UN became the primary arena for inter-governmental communication. The UN, especially by way of its family of specialized agencies that have evolved over the decades has done much excellent unheralded work at the margins of world politics. These activities have made vital daily, often unheralded, contributions to the global common good in such diverse areas as human rights, economic and social development, wellbeing of children, environmental protection, preservation of cultural heritage, promotion of health, assistance to refugees, and the development of international law, including international criminal law. The UN also has provided the best available venue for cooperative problem solving associated with complex issues of global scale that reflect the uneven circumstances of sovereign states. This flexible dynamic of practices within and outside the UN provides the fabric of everyday ‘multilateralism,’ that is, the reliance on collective mechanisms for policy and law formation by representatives of sovereign states that in countless ways contribute to problem solving and life enhancement in social settings ranging from the very local to the planetary.

 

 

A strong confirmation of the value of the UN arises from the fact that every government, regardless of ideology or relative wealth and power, has up to now regarded it as beneficial to become a member and remain in the UN. True, Indonesia briefly withdrew in 1965 to announce the formation of a parallel organization of ‘newly emerging forces,’ but within a year at its request was allowed to resume its membership without even passing again through the normal admission process. Within international society, the greatest sign of a recognition of diplomatic stature has become the election of a country to be a term member of the Security Council for a period of two years. This record of universal participation is truly extraordinary, especially when compared with the disappointing record of the League of Nations. There have been no sustained withdrawals from the Organization as a whole and when the former European colonies obtained political independence they shared a uniform ambition to join the UN as soon as possible and exert some influence on global policy, especially with respect to trade, investment, and development. These efforts by the enlarged Third World membership reached their peak in the late 1960s and 1970s. A vibrant Non-Aligned Movement pursued its policy goals within the UN, its energies concentrated on the effort to create a New International Economic Order that would level the playing field internationally for trade and investment. This radical reform effort was centered in General Assembly activism, and prompted a formidable backlash led by the most industrialized states. The backlash took many forms including the formation of the Trilateral Commission as a strong undertaking led by American economic elites determined to hold the line on behalf of capitalist values, procedures, practices, and above all, privileges. Membership in the UN nevertheless continues to be regarded as not only advantageous for the legitimacy it confers on states, but because it offers weaker and less experienced countries invaluable rights of participation in the full range of UN activities, including access to knowledge and technology required for successful transitions to modernity.

 

 

Global Populism as a Threat to the UN

 

Yet despite all of these achievements and contributions the UN is again under sharp attack these days, especially by its most powerful member, the United States. Donald Trump and several other autocratic leaders around the world uniformly belittle the UN role in world affairs because they regard the sovereign state to be the ultimate source of political authority and deeply resent external criticisms of their own domestic behavior. These leaders are currently promoting ultra-nationalist agendas that are chauvinistic, anti-immigrant, hostile to international law, and are especially hostile to all forms of individual accountability and state responsibility for human rights violations.

 

This is not only a problem associated with the emergence of right-wing populist leaders enjoying domestic support. It is also a feature of dynastic autocracy, most prominently associated with the kind of regional geopolitics being promoted by Saudi Arabia, seeking hegemony over the Arabian Gulf, crushing democratizing forces even if Islamic in outlook, and waging war against any political tendency perceived to be increasing Iranian influence anywhere in the region. With respect to the UN, Saudi Arabia in particular has been following the lead of the United States, hinting at withholding financial contributions, and even bluffing possible withdrawal from the Organization, if Saudi policies should become subject of critical UN scrutiny, no matter how flagrantly these policies violate international human rights standards and the norms of international humanitarian law. Israel should also be grouped with states that push back against any and all efforts to hold them accountable. This search for total impunity with respect to UN activity gains traction to the extent endorsed by leading states.

 

 

A characteristic illustration of the detrimental global effects of this recent wave of populist nationalism revolves around the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Although Paris fell significantly short of what the scientific consensus insists as necessary if global warming is to be properly limited, it still represented what a broad consensus of informed persons regarded as a crucial step in the right direction, and a serious show of commitment to the momentous task of transforming the carbon world economy into a sustainable and benign energy system in a timely manner. For this greatest of UN multilateralist achievements to be repudiated by the U.S. Government because Trump contends that it is a bad deal for America is dramatic evidence that the UN is under assault, and what may be worse, seems increasingly leaderless and ready to submit.

 

This disappointment and concern is greatly magnified by the intimations that Washington intends to withhold funds from the UN, as well as threatens to boycott and defund activities and organs that reach conclusions that do not correspond with U.S. foreign policy, especially when it comes to Israel. A prime target of this Trump demolition brigade is the work of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that is under intense attack because it is alleged to devote disproportionate attention to the wrongs and crimes of Israel. Such criticism besides sidestepping the question as to whether Israel is generally guilty as charged, also overlooks the fact that the British dumped the Palestine problem into the lap of the UN after World War II, making the fledgling Organization responsible for the transition from colonial subjugation to political independence. Such a direct responsibility was not imposed on the UN with respect to the decolonization any other national territory, and it has never been able to carry it out its assigned task in a manner consistent with the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. From a truly objective point of view, the UN has not devoted too much attention to Israel, and the Palestinian struggle, but too little. It has not gotten the basic job done, resulting in prolonged, massive, and intense Palestinian suffering with no end in sight.

 

In other words at the very time that the peoples of the world need a stronger UN to uphold the challenges of the present era, the Organization is under an unprecedented attack from ‘the Geopolitical Person.’ It is now time for ‘the Perugia Person’ to step forth with a strong sense of urgency and entitlement. Affirming this ‘necessary utopianism’ will give us confidence that the challenges of the present can be surmounted through the mobilization of people acting in collaboration with governments dedicated to upholding global public interests in tandem with their own national interests. For these revolutionary energies to be released within the confines of the UN will only happen in response to a new surge of grassroots transnational activism. Such a surge could foreground the hopes, dreams, and demands of people around the world, and especially the youth who have the most at stake. It has been both my pleasure and my honor to have this opportunity to meet with you today.

 

 

On Zbigniew Brzezinski: Geopolitical Mastermind, Realist Practitioner

3 Jun

Personal Prelude

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Brzezinski versus Kissinger

 

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

 

Post-Cold War Geopolitics: A Eurasian Scenario 

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

 

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

 

Late Brzezinski Foreign Policy Positions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Alternate Worldviews: Davutoğlu, Kissinger, Xi Jinping

25 May

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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