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Did the West Win the Cold War?

6 Nov

Did the West Win the Cold War?

 

 Posing the Question

 Such a question seems little more than a provocation until the effects of the interval between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the present are critically examined in relation to their principal effects. On closer inspection I am not quite prepared, although almost so, to say that the peoples of the world lost ground as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the United States as the so-called ‘sole surviving superpower.’

 

Generally, it was rather automatically assumed almost never challenged, that the outcome of the Cold War was a victory for liberal values, including human rights, political democracy, economic growth, and certainly world peace. There was the added popular view that since democracies supposedly do not go to war against each other, and if Communism was discredited on both ideological and materialist grounds, then democracy would spread naturally and quickly, and the world would become in the process more peaceful and its people better off.

 

It was also assumed with the end of strategic conflict among the most powerful states that substantial resources would be freed to devote more generously to improving the social and economic wellbeing, end extreme poverty, protect the environment, and invest in the renewal of aging infrastructures of countries in the West long stressed by the security rigors of the Cold War.

 

This positive sense of the end of the Cold War was powerfully reinforced by the ideological self-confidence that produced such triumphalist expressions as ‘the end of history’ or ‘the second American century.’ The outcome was seen as a moral victory for capitalist democracies and a defeat for socialist authoritarian states. Even China seemed throw in its red towel, zestfully embracing its new role as a rising star in the capitalist world market, and many countries, especially in Asia did grow at unprecedented rates, raising living standards beyond all expectations and attaining a higher status as international actors. The legitimacy of capitalism and constitutionalism were not seriously challenged as the legitimate foundations of world order for the first time in 150 years, underscoring the demoralization of the political left, and its disappearance of the left and fascist right as political forces almost everywhere.

 

Without doubt, the United States could have taken advantage of this global setting to champion a post-Cold War global reform movement in ways that would in all likelihood have been benevolent, but it chose not to do so. Instead, it gave its energies to taking short-term materialist advantage of the geopolitical vacuum created by the abrupt Soviet withdrawal from the global scene. One can only wonder how the world might have evolved if a Gorbachev-like leader who espoused a global vision was running the show in Washington while Russia produced someone with the mentality of Reagan or the elder Bush, neither of whom embraced ideas any more enlightened than making the world safe for American economic, political, and cultural hegemony.

 

 

American Geopolitical Myopia

 

In more concrete terms this meant giving priority in American foreign policy to such retrograde global goals as ‘full-spectrum dominance’ with respect to military superiority and in solidifying its global sphere of influence, what was sometimes given historical specificity as ‘the globalization of the Monroe Doctrine.’ George H. W. Bush did use the occasion of the First Gulf War in 1991 to proclaim ‘a new world order,’ by which he meant that the UN could become the geopolitical instrument of the West that it was intended to be in 1945—a peacekeeping mechanism to promote Western interests, which in that instance meant restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty after Iraq’s aggression and annexation. Washington, soon worried by seemingly vesting authority, responsibility, and expectations in the UN, even as as a geopolitical legitimating tool, and quickly abandoned the new world order, put the idea ‘back on the shelf’ as a prominent American diplomat at the time put it. Bush’s Secretary of State told a private gathering shortly after the First Gulf War that his boss made a mistake by connecting the new world order with UN peacekeeping rather than with spread of neoliberal globalization to the four corners of the planet. American global idealism, always hedged by a realist calculus, was definitely undergoing a normative eclipse.

 

If the elder Bush had seen the collapse of the Soviet Union as something more than a geopolitical checkmate, we might be living in a different, more hopeful and responsible world. He had the visionary opportunity to strengthen the UN in a variety of ways, including weakening the right of veto, increasing popular participation by establishing a world parliament, proposing a global tax to achieve more independent financing, and calling for a serious world nuclear disarmament conference that might also have directed attention toward the broader horizons of global demilitarization, but it was not to be. Militarism was too entrenched in government and the private sector. More generally, capitalism was seen as having proven itself the most robust and creative means of fostering wealth and growth, and creating decent societies, that the world had ever known. Unlike World Wars I & II, the Cold War despite the language and periodic crises and dangerous confrontations, didn’t end with widespread elite or public anxieties that it was necessary to adopt important measures to avoid any repetition, which could be construed either as Cold War II or World War II. The triumphalist mood engendered an unchallenged mood geopolitical complacency toward the future, which had the ironic effect of creating a materialist obsessiveness, a kind of market-driven Marxism (that is, neoliberal globalization) that celebrated and depended upon a consumerist ethos that disregarded the damage being done to the physical, cultural, and psycho-political environments of humanity.

 

 

 

 

Why the West Lost the Cold War

 

Why, then, even if account is taken of these emergent patterns, should we take seriously my provocation that more critically considered, the West actually lost the Cold War? I will give my responses in abbreviated form.

 

–the end of the Cold War created an open road for predatory capitalism: the collapse of socialism as an alternative approach to economic development and state/society relations cleared the ideological path, leading Western leaders to be comfortable about regarding capitalism as ‘the only game in town.’ Without the ideological challenge of socialism, backed by the geopolitical leverage of the Soviet Union, capitalism felt a declining need to show a human face, becoming a victim of its own success. In practice, this meant rolling back social protection, weakening regulation, and privileging the efficiency of capital over the wellbeing of people. [See my Predatory Globalization: A Critique, Polity Press, 1999] In other words, capitalism needed the challenges posed by socialism and a vibrant labor movement to realize its own humanist potentials. In its post-Cold War enactment, preoccupations with economic growth were useful political distractions from the rising inequality and the adoption of a precautionary approach to increasing ecological concerns.

 

–the end of the Cold War induced after twenty years a process that led to the legitimation of democratically elected autocratic leadership that manipulated public outrage over failures to raise lower and middle class living standards, while catering to the ultra-rich. In this respect, due to the disappearance of ideological cleavages, the phenomenon of ‘choiceless democracies’ discouraged political participation, making political parties unsatisfactory vehicles for divergent political views and as sources of creative solutions for societal challenges. The Democratic Party seemed pragmatically as tied to Wall Street and Goldman Sachs as were the ideologically aligned Republicans.

 

–the end of the Cold War led the United States to lose a sense of direction, seemingly adrift when it lost the Soviet Union as its ‘indispensable enemy,’ seeming essential for achieving social cohesion and a wider sense of purpose. This loss was most controversially, yet effectively, articulated by Samuel Huntington in his Foreign Affairs article, “The Clash of Civilizations.” His postulate of ‘the West against the rest,’ with particular attention to political Islam exerting pressures along the fault lines of Western Civilization, was given aa decisive, although misleadinng credibility by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the two symbolic embodiments of American power—trade and war-making. In some respects, the anarchic character of global terrorism was a more disruptive threat to the security of the established order than was the Cold War. Insecurity became pervasive, verging on hysteria, complicating lives and underscoring that after the Cold War the world had become a global battlefield with no place, however well protected by military means escaping the torments of vulnerability and the inconveniences of ‘watch lists,’ intrusive surveillance, security checks at airports, public buildings, and even hotels and stores. In this context Iran has become the statist embodiment of the indispensable enemy, with China and Russia as default options. When the indispensable enemy lacks deterrent capabilities, dangers of military confrontation heightened, especially as her, that the enemy is pronounced ‘evil,’ and such a tag is reciprocated by the weaker adversary.

 

–the end of the Cold War strengthened the political will in Washington to make the world order more congenial in light of the foregoing considerations, with particular attention to the Middle East due to a sense of dependence on access to the oil reserves of the region. What was championed as ‘democracy promotion’ was tried in the Iraq War of 2003, generating a series of disastrous reactions ranging from a costly intervention and occupation that achieved none of its strategic goals relating to democracy, containment of Iranian influence,  permanent military bases, reduced oil prices, and a victory over counterterrorism. In fact, the American occupation of Iraq was administered in a highly dysfunctional manner that not only generated national resistance, but gave rise to the most extremist non-state political formation the modern world has ever known, ISIS or Daesh, as well as to the disruptive intensification of sectarian tensions within Iraq and regionally. In effect, the end of the Cold War leading to Soviet collapse and disengagement, allowed the United States to pursue in a less restrained manner more ambitious goals, yet still leading to disastrous results. Regime-changing interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya resulted in quagmires or in political outcomes that undercut the initial goals, spread turmoil and distrust of American global leadership. Only late in 2019 does there seem to be some hope for restored regional stability due to the frustration of U.S. goals, Russian reinvolvement during the terminal stages of the Syrian ‘international civil war,’ and Saudi moving toward a possible accommodation with Iran. The unappreciated irony is that the last best hope for stability in the region is to restore a geopolitical discipline that encourages all actors to behave more cautiously.

 

–the end of the Cold War has serious diminished the quality of world order in several crucial dimension, including even the likelihood of war fought with nuclear weapons. With less incentive to ensure war prevention and maintain alliance cohesion and in light of greater political independence by many states, international cooperation has declined at the very time when it is most needed in relation to ecological protection (climate change, biodiversity, acidification and rising sea levels). Combat and climate change have induced large-scale migratory movements that have pushed many more affluent countries in ultra-nationalist directions with adverse consequences for human rights, democratic forms of governance, international law, and the authority of and support for the UN System (as expressed by withheld dues and budgetary stresses). When the Cold War raged, the West used internationalism and humanitarian diplomacy not only as venues for propaganda, but to gain the higher moral, ideological, and political terrain in relations to the Soviet Union and socialist management of the economy. With the Soviet collapse, countries pursued economic gains in imprudently in ways that produced the current crises of inequality and corruption in many countries and a general situation of ecological malaise.  

 

 

 

 

 

A Concluding Note

 

This contrarian argument does not contend that the Soviet Union (or Russia) won the Cold War, although after a period of decline and austerity, the return of Russia to the ranks of geopolitical leaders with less ideological and imperial baggage (considering the independence of countries in East Europe and Central Asia), such a case could and perhaps should be made.

 

The main claim in this essay is that the end of the Cold War was not, as triumphalists claimed, so much of a victory for world capitalism in its neoliberal modes and of constitutional democracy as it was assumed to be in the early 1990s. It became an occasion for less regulated economic globalization and for new violent political encounters that has made the world into a global battlefield in an unresolvable struggle between non-state extremist multinational networks and various established sovereign states. In the process, due to internal and international moves away from global responsibility by the United States, a global leadership vacuum has emerged while a variety of unchecked dangerous trends imperil the human future.

 

The initiial, and perhaps decisive failure to assert global leadership after the end of the Cold War involved a failure at a moment of global fluidity to seek reforms to facilitate various forms of environmental protection, denuclearization and demilitarization, and the enhancement of the normative order via a stronger UN and a greater acceptance of international law as serving the national interests of geopolitical actors. The United States enjoyed the historic opportunity to lead such an effort, but other countries were remiss in not putting forward proposals and creating pressures that might have induced more constructive American behavior at such a potentially opportune time. It seems especially a lost opportunity from the perspective of the present in which cosmopolitan sentiments have been so pervasively pushed aside by nativist forms of ultra-nationalism.

AN AMERICAN ATTACK ON IRAN WOULD BE AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER FOR THE US, IRAN AND THE WORLD: Iran War Statement

25 Jun

[Prefatory Note: The following statement on US warmongering in relation to Iran was prepared by Mark LeVine, Professor of History, University of California, Irvine and myself. Some of the early signatories are among the leading scholars in the field of Middle East Studies. Their names are listed below.

It seeks to make two major arguments: first, that the unlawful threats and coercive moves made by the United States point toward a political disaster that would include the commission of the most serious of international crimes, that of aggression via threats and uses of force that do not constitute self-defense under international law; secondly, that it is essential to shift the relationship with Iran from one based on coercive to an approach resting on restorative diplomacy involving a deliberate reversal of American Foreign Policy with the overriding objective of normalization of relations between our two countries.

If you wish to add your name to the signatories of the statement, use the link below. As there  is no space for affiliation, I suggest putting your first and last name in the first blank space, and your affiliation in the space reserved for last name.]

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/community_petitions/President_Trump_An_American_Attack_on_Iran_Would_be_an_Unmitigated_Disaster_for_the_US_Iran_and_the_World/details/

 

 

 

AN AMERICAN ATTACK ON IRAN WOULD BE

AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER FOR THE US, IRAN AND THE WORLD

 

Statement by leading Middle East/Islamic studies scholars, June 22, 2019

We, the undersigned scholars of the Middle East and North Africa and broader Muslim world, call on President Trump immediately to pull back from the brink of a war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is clear to us that the human, diplomatic, legal, political, and economic costs to both countries, the Persian Gulf and larger Middle East, the global economy and the global system of international humanitarian law of a US attack would be even more devastating than was the US invasion of Iraq sixteen years ago. We call upon the political leadership of the country, with a sense of urgency, not only to refrain from any further threats and uses of force against Iran, but also to put forward a new American diplomacy that takes steps to achieve a sustainable peace between our two countries and within the larger region.

 

We bring to the public’s attention the following points:

 

– The US-led Iraqi invasion, whose financial toll has exceeded $2 trillion in the US and at least that much in its adverse economic impact on the affected countries, led to the deaths of over 600,000 Iraqis, largely destroyed the Iraqi state and much of the country’s infrastructure, produced devastating immediate and long-term impact on the health of Iraqis and the environment, directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State and its conquest and occupation and destruction of a huge swath of Iraq and neighboring countries (especially Syria), and produced a series of governments in the region which, even when there is a veneer of democracy, are incredibly corrupt and unable effectively to govern fractured societies, while continuing routinely to commit large scale human rights violations against their citizens.

 

– Like the Iraqi invasion before it, an attack on Iran under the present circumstances would be a clear violation of international law–a crime against peace, which is an international crime of the highest order, and delineated as such in the Nuremberg Judgement. Indeed, absent a valid claim of self-defense any attack on Iran, never mind a full-scale invasion and occupation by the United States, would violate the core articles of the UN Charter (Articles 2(4), 33, 39 & 51) as well as the legal imperative to seek a peaceful settlement of all international disputes. Such “breaches of the peace” are the most serious violations of international law a country can commit, and the US doing so again less than a generation after the Iraqi invasion would situate it outside the community of nations, making it widely regarded as a dangerous and destabilizing rogue actor whose behavior is the very opposite of the self-understanding and justifications of the Trump Administration for its actions. In this regard the recent array of threats, sanctions, and provocations are themselves flagrant violations of international law even without any direct recourse to force; only self defense against a prior armed attack across as international border legally justifies a claim of self-defense. Absent this, all threats, as well as uses of force, are considered severe violations of international law.

 

Particularly in the context of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which verifiably halted the potential for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons program, and the imposition of crippling economic sanctions against the government and people of Iran without a UN Security Council mandate, the present policy of increasing pressure on Iran and irresponsibly raising risks violent confrontation that could quickly escalate to an all-out war, coupled with the inflammatory discourse of regime change championed by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, constitute clear interference with Iranian sovereignty rights as well as with the inalienable right of self-determination enjoyed by the Iranian people. As such, these policies are violations of international law and of the UN Charter, inherently destabilizing, and themselves pose unacceptable threat to peace.

 

Recent events have alarmed us, demonstrating how ill-defined policy goals, bellicose rhetoric, policies and brinkmanship, and operating outside the well-defined framework of international law can easily bring countries to the brink of mutual disaster. The ongoing global impact of the Iraqi invasion (from the rise of ISIS to the aborted Arab Spring, greater support for authoritarian rulers, and the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen and the massive wave of refugees these dynamics have caused) reminds us that the Middle East, and the world at large, cannot afford another major war in the region. Such a conflict would undoubtedly lead to a horrific toll of dead and injured, major environmental destruction, large scale forced migration, world-wide recession, as well as producing other equally dangerous and unintended consequences.

 

Finally, we note here that the Trump Administration’s bellicose policies towards Iran are inseparable from its uncritical and unrestrained support of authoritarian and repressive policies across the region, from the ever-deepening Israeli occupation to the Saudi and UAE war in Yemen, the destruction of democracy in Egypt and the frustration of democratic aspirations of citizens across the Middle East and North Africa, all of which contribute to the immiseration and increasingly forced migration of millions of people across the region and the unjustified repression of their legitimate aspirations for freedom, justice, democracy and sustainable development.

 

We therefore call upon President Trump, first, to pull back from any thought of an unsanctioned attack; second, to rejoin and implement the 2015 nuclear agreement; third, to terminate the enhanced sanctions he continues to impose on Iran; and fourth, to enter into immediate and good faith negotiations towards a normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic. Along with these immediate steps, we call for an honest appraisal of the costs of historic and current American policies in the Middle East and North Africa, and their reorientation towards support for freedom and democracy.

 

In the absence of these steps, we call on the US Congress to act swiftly and decisively to prevent the President from leading the United States into war, and call on our fellow academics, policymakers, diplomats, military officials, elected representatives, and concerned citizens to assert whatever pressure necessary to prevent the Administration from engaging in any kind of attack on Iran, or any other country, outside the bounds of international law and without the clear and explicit authorization of the UN Security Council.

 

Signed (partial list, as of June 21),

 

Beth Baron, Distinguished Professor, Director, Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center, Graduate Center, City University of New York, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus Stanford University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Laurie A. Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies University of Southern California, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Charles E. Butterworth, Emeritus Professor, Department of Government & Politics, University of Maryland

 

Juan R. Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, past President of Middle East Studies Association

 

John Esposito, University Professor, Professor of Religion & International Affairs and Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association and American Academy of Religion

 

Richard Falk, Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, former, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

 

Nader Hashemi, Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies

 

Suad Joseph, Professor of Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies at the University of California, Davis, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Mark LeVine, Professor of History, UC Irvine, Chair, Program in Global Middle East Studies

 

Zachary Lockman, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and History, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Valentine M. Moghadam, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Northeastern University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Ahmad Sadri, Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies, Professor of Sociology, Lake Forest College

 

Sputnik News Agency Interview on G20 Meeting and U.S./Russia Relations

2 Dec

 

Sputnik News Agency Interview on G20 Meeting and U.S./Russia Relations

 

(Prefatory Note:What follows are my responses to questions addressed to me by Sputnik News Agency in Moscow. These responses were submitted on December 1, 2018. Although the focus was on the ongoing G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, the real concern was the future of U.S./Russia relations and how these relations should be managed to avoid arms races, geopolitical rivalry, and ideological tensions. Ironically, of all the weaknesses in the Trump approach to the world, his apparent wish for a normalized relationship with Russia was what most antagonized the American political class, whether Democrat or Republican. Indeed, it so antagonized the established order in this country to such a degree as to undermine Trump’s apparent intention to downgrade NATO and Atlanticism while normalizing and improving relations with Russia. It is always uncertain to assess the real motivations of Trump, which here may involve some kind of vulnerability on his part for undisclosed and awkward economic entanglements or embarrassing personal behavior, but whatever the explanation, the world would be better off with a positive geopolitical atmosphere, and that means cooperative behavior with Russia and China. In our delegitimizing of Trump it is important not to lose sight of the ingredients of sustainable world peace. The Sputnik text is slightly modified.)   

  1. The talks of G20 leaders led to a possible breakthrough on the global trading system. How likely is any progress to be achieved? Will the US be onboard with this?

 

I would be very surprised if there is any outcome of the G20 meeting that can be properly called a ‘breakthrough.’ The leaders of these governments do not have a shared understanding of what would constitute a mutually beneficial world trade framework. Perhaps, such a consensus never existed, yet in the period after World War II, the United States leadership of the West was able to generate what has alternatively been call ‘the liberal economic order’ or ‘the Washington consensus.’ These arrangements rested on giving the World Bank and IMF a central role in stabilizing global conditions, including currency markets, and rested on a rule-based set of procedures. Its performance was assessed almost solely by the rate of global economic growth, which overlooked both issues of the equitable distribution of the benefits of growth and the regulation of adverse ecological side effects.

 

Since the Trump presidency, there has emerged serious ambiguities as to whether the United States, the leading world economy, was itself willing to participate any longer in the liberal world order. Such doubts arose after Trump rejected the Trans Pacific Partnership, sought the renegotiation of North American arrangements set forth in the NAFTA agreements, and adopted a series of protectionist measures inconsistent with the promotion of the most efficient use of capital, a major guideline of the neoliberal ideology that guided American foreign economic policy ever since 1945.

 

The United States, in particular, during the Trump presidency regards world trade as a s sequence of transactions rather than as systemic aggregate of institutions, rules, and procedures by which to regulate and facilitate transnational capital flows and trade relations. By this I mean, that the U.S. wants now to proceed on the basis of economic advantage for itself in each economic policy context rather than promote an overall framework that benefits all participants in the world economy. Under Trump the United States no longer perceives the more structural advantages of having a global trading system that provides a framework that binds together all countries that adhere to principle of market economics on the assumption of shared interests. Of course, such a framework is only a practical possibility if there is a strong political will on the part of leading governments to proceed in this manner. It is difficult to be confident about making assessments of government intentions, but I think most governments would still like to retain a systemic framework for the world economy with the exception of the United States, which wants to leverage its strength in a more flexible and muscular diplomatic atmosphere. We should await the final declaration from Buenos Aires before reaching firm conclusions as to whether this cleavage will be exposed or hidden from public view.

 

This is a different cleavage than existed during the Cold War when fundamental ideological differences led to dual structures for international and transnational economic relations. During the Cold War the market economies organized their trade and fiscal relations within the liberal framework established under American leadership. The Soviet bloc of countries was neither invited to join this liberal world order nor did it seek entry, but rather maintained its economic relations based on the orientation of state socialism as tempered by Soviet hegemonic leadership and the pursuit of national and regional interests.

 

  1. Meanwhile, Trump is reportedly ready to hold talks with Putin after Russia releases Ukrainian sailors. How high are hopes that the two leaders will sit down for talks in the future given the development?

 

It is important for Russian society to understand that Trump seems to be handling diplomacy particularly with Russia, but also with other countries, mainly on the basis of his calculations of domestic politics in the United States as connected with his ‘America First’ mantra. Anti-Trump forces in the U.S. have, wrongfully in my view, concentrated their criticism of Trump, including the apparent focus of the investigations of wrongdoing by the Special Counsel, on the supposedly improper relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential elections. In doing this, it overlooks the importance of establishing peaceful and constructive relations between Russia and the United States, keeping in mind that these two dominant states are the world’s leading nuclear weapons states. World peace depends on avoiding a second Cold War in any form, and this reality is obscured by the focus on alleged Russian interference in the American elections and Trump’s supposed collusion in this process.

 

Some degree of interference no doubt occurred, but it should have raised few eyebrows in Washington, have been a staple instrument of American soft power intervention in many countries over the course of several decades. Furthermore, the belligerent tone of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as well as the outlook of her closest advisors, gave good reason for Moscow to fear a Clinton victory in 2016, and do their best to avoid such an outcome. This is not intended to reject efforts to insulate American elections from manipulation from without or within. When thinking of the wrongfulness of Russian tactics we as a country tend to overlook the wrongfulness of gerrymandering, racial bias, special interests and money being used to manipulate election results in the United States. Both types of interference are incompatible with a legitimate democratic political process.

 

On the immediate prospects for productive relations with Russia following the Ukrainian incidents, I think it is likely that bilateral talks can be held in coming months, maybe even in coming weeks. It should be realized, however, that the main American focus now is in resetting the economic relationship between the United States in China in ways that avoid a trade war and do not make either side appear to be the loser in this important confrontation. In actuality, most attention at the G20 meeting in the West was given over to the question as to whether the U.S. and China could use the occasion to agree on a political compromise, which would undoubtedly benefit the world as a whole. The failure to reach such a compromise could produce detrimental effects for the world economy, as well as raise political tensions and risks of regional, and even global warfare. Therefore, the so-called ‘truce’ reportedly agreed upon by Trump and Xi Jinping were viewed positively at the G20 as constituting an informal agreement to defer American tariffs on Chinese metal exports in exchange for a Chinese commitment to purchase more exports from the United States. It is notable that this stepping back from an economic confrontation required China to make a gesture of acceptance of the American complaints as well as deferring indefinitely American efforts to gain short-term advantages by raising tariffs on goods imported from China. The central drama on the global stage is now how the United States and China will handle their conflicts in the South Asia islands and with regard to trade. The relationship of the West with Russia is of secondary importance. The status of Russia as a major political actor has been significantly restored in the era of Putin’s leadership, but it remains secondary except in certain limited spheres, such as Syria or along its own borders.

 

Unfortunately, the relationship between Trump and Putin is seen by a broad spectrum of political opinion in the West as one where the challenge being posed is how to stand up to perceptions of renewed threats of Russian expansionism. This is why the Ukrainian incident is viewed as something more serious that the event itself. There is a fear, whether justifies or not, of Russian territorial ambitions that is being relied upon by militarist forces in the West to generate anti-Russian sentiments and expanded defense spending.

 

Unfortunately, President Putin did not help those seeking more benevolent relations with Russia by his unseemly show of friendship when greeting Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS) at the G20 meetings. These images were caught on camera by journalists, and widely shown here in the United States evoking commentary that interpreted this greeting as a cynical indirect endorsement by Putin of the gruesome murder of the Saudi journalist, Kamal Khashoggi. Trump has been under pressure to react to this murder, and widely criticized for reaffirming close alliance ties between Washington and Riyadh in the aftermath of the murder, but at least in the G20 context he displayed the good sense to keep his distance from MBS at least when cameras were around, and avoided any public or personal display of friendship for this discredited foreign leader.

 

At this point, the relationship between Putin and Trump are on the American side primarily reflections of political calculations about the effects on the upcoming 2020 presidential elections. Although still two years away, these forthcoming American elections are already shaping the behavior of Trump on such delicate matters as relations with Russia, and the American mood seems now to favor the adoption of a more confrontational approach toward both Russia and China.

 

  1. What is Trump’s earlier move to cancel the meeting indicative of?

 

As I have indicated, Trump’s recent behavior is responsive to growing pressures on his leadership from within the American political system, especially due to his low popularity with the public, the prospect of a damaging report by the Special Counsel investigating Trump’s alleged improper behavior, and the loss of control of Congress due to the outcome of the recent midterm election. He no longer acts as if free to pursue a policy of accommodation with Russia even if this is what he would wish. It is true that when he ran for president in 2016 Trump’s outlook dramatically contrasted with that of Hillary Clinton on the question of relations with Russia. Many Americans then worried about a new Cold War, voted for Trump solely to avoid a rise in tensions with Russia that seems certain to have followed had Clinton been elected. At the same time there remains a strong consensus that is bipartisan in character, and included the Pentagon and CIA, that leans toward a more aggressive approach toward Russia, even more so than toward China. It is in this general atmosphere that it is best to comprehend and interpret Trump’s behavior with regard to Putin and Russia generally. The revelations of Russian interference in American elections further hardens public attitudes in an antagonist direction.

 

On the other side, it is not clear what Russia seeks to achieve during G20 meetings and in its relationship with the United States at this point, although Moscow clearly seemed earlier to be receptive to the Trump approach, and gave many indications of wanting to restore normal peaceful relations. It also seemed that Putin would have welcomed a positive political atmosphere and encouraged robust economic and cultural interactions between the two countries.

 

The fault associated with these deteriorating prospects is not only with America. Russia could achieve a more favorable image in the world if it made some constructive initiatives such as the renewal of nuclear disarmament negotiations or the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East or the establishment of a global migration compact. Perhaps, we in the West are not aware of Russian attempts to contribute to a more peaceful and just world order, in which case a greater effort needs to be made to set forth the positive content of Russian foreign policy. As matters now stand, the Russian role is viewed through the prism of bullying the Ukraine and propping up the criminal Assad regime in Syria.

 

Trump’s Idea of World Order Endangers the Human Future

12 Oct

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

 

Trump’s Idea of World Order Endangers the Human Future

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

The Future of NATO: An Interview

11 Aug

The Future of NATO: An Interview with Daniel Falcone

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

,;

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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).