Tag Archives: Foreign policy

Turkish Realignment: Prospects amid Uncertainty

3 Dec

In recent months the Turkish President, Recep Teyipp Erdoğan, and his principal advisors have not made it a secret that they are reconsidering Turkey’s relations with neighbors, with the countries of the region, and with leading geopolitical actors.

 

The Early Agenda of AKP

 When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 it set about almost immediately to fashion a post-Cold War foreign policy based on the idea that it was time to supersede the Cold War posture of almost total Turkish deference to the United States, especially within NATO and bipolar contexts, and depict a conception of Turkish interests developed in Ankara rather than adhere to Washington’s blueprint. In its early period of national leadership, the AKP seemed to pursue four interrelated international goals:

            –resolve the Cyprus conflict;

            –give priority to seeking full membership in the European Union (EU);

            –improve diplomatic and political relations with Arab World;

            –seek continuity in U.S./NATO/EU relations, but with overall independence.

 

During the Foreign Ministry of Abdullah Gul, reflecting and incorporating some of Ahmet Davutoğlu ideas and his ambitious conception of the proper Turkish international role, this new assertiveness of Turkish foreign policy achieved with impressive results. Turkey’s signature approach of ‘Zero Problems with Neighbors’ (ZPN) was initially seen as the adoption of a regional conflict-resolving perspective, and given early credibility by transforming relations with Syria from hostility to harmony. Syria became the poster child of ZPN, and the new approach was reinforced by a rapid expansion of economic and cultural relations with countries throughout the Arab World. Beyond this, Turkey extended its foreign policy with substantial economic and diplomatic success to the non-Arab parts of the Islamic World, as well as to sub-Saharan Africa. Istanbul, rather than Paris or London, quickly became the preferred hub for a wide variety of international political gatherings of interest to the Global South.

 

There was also a large emphasis placed by during the early AKP years on the acceleration of accession diplomacy with the EU, leading to an unexpected civilianizing of the Turkish government in ways that reduced the leverage of the armed forces in domestic politics and definitely moved in the direction of meeting the preconditions of human rights, democratization, and secularity that would seem to qualify Turkey to become an EU member, comparing favorably with the record of several East European countries that gained membership in the EU without confronting strong accession obstacles. The AKP also had domestic reasons to build a firewall against any future coup by the armed forces whose leadership was imbued with Kemalist belief, including a feared encroachment of political Islam on the governing process.

 

While developing a more pro-active and independent foreign policy, the AKP leadership continued to affirm its relationship with the United States, and as a staunch NATO ally. This affirmation was somewhat tested in 2003 when Washington pressed Turkey to allow a portion of the planned attack on Iraq to proceed from Turkish territory. The Turkish Parliament refused to give its consent, and the Erdoğan leadership under pressure from the United States, submitted the American request a second time with an executive recommendation of approval, but Parliament again withheld consent. It remains uncertain as to whether Erdoğan was pretending to seek parliamentary approval or was genuinely willing to allow Turkey to become directly involved in the attack upon neighboring Iraq. When the attack against Iraq proceeded without UN authorization, Turkey adopted a low profile approach that included a readiness to cooperate with the American-led occupation of Iraq, which sought to restore stability to the country. In effect, the new AKP foreign policy wanted to achieve freedom of maneuver for Turkey but without shaking the foundations of the foreign policy that had guided the ardently secular leadership of the country since the origins of the republic.

 

 

Revising AKP Foreign Policy

 Five major changes of circumstances undermined this early AKP approach to foreign policy: First of all, the deterioration of relations with Israel that became dramatically manifest at the 2009 Davos meetings of the World Economic Forum when Erdoğan sharply confronted the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, on Israel’s massive attack (Cast Lead) on Gaza, and climaxed in 2010 when Israeli commandos attacked the humanitarian flotilla bringing medical supplies to Gaza, killing 9 Turkish nationals on the Mavi Marmara, the largest ship in the flotilla of ships challenging the Israeli blockade. Clearly, Israel was sending a warning message to Turkey that it would push back against any Turkish challenge, including those of civil society, to the Israeli approach to Palestinians living under occupation. This encounter challenged Washington to seek restored normalcy in Israeli-Turkish relations so that it would not have to choose sides or juggle relations with both. Energetic diplomatic efforts by Barack Obama sought to heal this breach between these two principal strategic American allies in the region.

 

The second development involved Turkish reactions to the 2011 uprisings in the Arab World, the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ It should be remembered that Turkey was among the first countries to affirm unconditionally these uprisings against authoritarian rule, treating the political upheavals as welcome expressions of democratizing passions on the part of the citizenry. Turkish prestige in the region reached an all time high, and there was talk throughout the Middle East of the applicability of ‘the Turkish model.’ It was often overlooked that Erdoğan went to Cairo in the Spring of 2011 to encourage Egyptian political forces to follow the Turkish example of political secularism, and not try to embody religion in the governing process. This view not appreciated at the time in Egypt being interpreted as a neo-Ottoman effort to interfere with Egyptian internal rights of self-determination.

 

The third development was the gradual Turkish realization that their prospects for EU membership were declining despite their internal good faith efforts to comply with accession expectations. The main explanation for this decline involved the rise of Islamophobia in several key countries in Western Europe whose political approval by national referendum would be necessary before Turkish membership could be formally approved. With the virtual disappearance of this European option, the pragmatic case for internal political reform in Turkey was weakened while making the benefits of a geopolitically more equi-distant diplomacy more evident, being implemented through Turkish openings to Iran, Russia, India, and China. In other words, facing a demeaning rejection by the EU even if not directly expressed, Turkey partially turned eastward, or at least contemplated such a turn away from Europe and the West, given dramatic emphasis by Erdoğan’s display of embittered anger in reaction to EU criticism. This dynamic was further aggravated by the controversial 2015 agreement with the EU by which Turkey would slow the flow of Syrian refugees across its borders in exchange for a monetary payment and visa-free travel to Europe for Turks. From a human rights perspective, it should be noted, this kind of treatment of refugees, misleadingly called ‘migrants,’ is highly questionable, instrumentalizing their destiny as an inter-governmental bargaining chip rather than respecting their vulnerability by establishing a humane protective regime.

 

The fourth development relates to the various signs that Erdoğan was assuming a more authoritarian role in the Turkish governing process, especially in the aftermath of the AKP electoral victory in 2011. In these years Erdoğan overtly embraced a majoritarian view of democracy weakening the republican character of the Turkish government. This dynamic was accentuated after he became President of Turkey in 2014, and in response to a renewal of hostility with the large Kurdish minority, especially as represented by the Peoples Workers Party (PKK). Erdoğan’s blunt political style, combined with Turkey’s earlier shows of independence and break with Israel, encouraged a much more critical tone in the international media treatment of the AKP leadership in Turkey. This shift amounted to a sea change if compared to the more balanced approach taken between 2002-2011. The anti-Erdoğan hostility peaked in response to the Gezi Park incident in 2013 when Turkish police used excessive force to break up a series of Istanbul demonstrations by opposition forces. It seems notable that the criticisms of Turkish encroachments on human rights were given far greater international attention than the far worse contemporaneous encroachments by the Sisi regime in Egypt and the Saudi monarchy. This difference in international perceptions reflects the overseas influence of anti-AKP activists as well as the divergence of policy as between Ankara and Washington, Brussels, and Tel Aviv.

 

The fifth development is associated with the failed coup of July 15th.

The Turkish Government and internal Turkish public opinion were strongly convinced that the coup perpetrators were linked to the Fetullah Gülen (or Hizmet) movement, and that the United States Government had some prior knowledge, and if circumstantial evidence is to be trusted, quite possibly signaled a green light to the perpetrators. In the course of the coup, and during its aftermath, neither the US nor Europe expressed their support for the democratically elected government of Turkey, adopting a wait and see attitude that seemed poised to accept, if not welcome, the outcome had the coup been successful. Beyond this the US Government has not been responsive to the Turkish formal extradition request, failing to detain Fetullah Gülen while the legal process proceeded. Again international coverage of post-coup Turkey gives almost all of its attention to the Erdoğan crackdown on those suspected of involvement with the Hizmet movement, which while excessive and troublesome, does not depict the context in which it is reasonable for the AKP leadership to feel threatened from within by the continued Hizmet penetration of the organs of government and as a result of Kurdish militancy and ISIS terrorism. At the same time, it is fully understandable that international forces hostile to the AKP should highlight the massive dismissals from academic institutions and widespread media closures as amounting to a witch hunt.

 

 

A Turkish Foreign Policy Reset?

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that Turkey should in this period be exploring its foreign policy options. Indeed, the exploration preceded the coup attempt of the past year. The impulse to reset Turkish foreign policy reflected a retreat from the more principled and rigid foreign policy positions associated with Davutoğlu’s influence and the endorsement of a pragmatic attempt to minimize hostile regional and global tensions.

 

Most controversially from an American perspective, the pragmatic turn seemed to regard as its centerpiece improved relations with Russia. The goal was broad based cooperation with Russia in recognition of shared interests, including a possible compromise on how to establish a sustainable ceasefire in Syria. From the perspective of the American national security establishment cooperative Russian/Turkish relations were viewed as an unfavorable development at least until the electoral victory of Donald Trump. When the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming the next America president was a near certainty, there existed a general expectation that the West would soon confront Russia in a more determined way than during the Obama presidency. In Turkey this encouraged the belief that the US national security establishment was sufficiently opposed to any closeness between Russia and Turkey as to have explained its possible support for the coup attempt of last July, or at minimum, its ambivalence toward the outcome. This suspicion, although widely shared in Turkey, remains without evidence, and is purely conjectural.

 

With Trump becoming the next American president it seems more likely, but by no means assured, that relations between the West and Russia will again be guided by a realist logic of mutual interests. This prospect is also encouraged by the recent emergence in Europe of several political leaders that favor accommodation with Russia. There may be an initial collision of policies if Trump follows through on his campaign pledge to renounce the nuclear agreement with Iran or significantly increases pressure on its implementation.

 

Tensions with the EU over the migration deal and in reaction to freezing accession talks also inclines Turkey to evaluate various additional forms of realignment, including a reported consideration of joining informal international groupings that are led by China and Russia.

 

In the end, if Trump follows through with a non-interventionist approach to the Middle East, and Turkish internal stability is restored, it seems most likely that there will be a weakening of relations with Europe and the United States, but no break, and no move that deserves to be labeled as ‘realignment.’ Turkey will probably place greater emphasis on economic and diplomatic relations with Asia, as well as with a renewal of interactions within the Middle East and North Africa, minimizing ideological differences.

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

There is more uncertainty with respect to global politics than at any time since the end of the Cold War. This uncertainty reflects the rise of authoritarian leaders in many important countries that enjoy the backing of a mobilized right-wing populism that pushes against economic globalization and gives an impetus to exclusionary forms of nationalism. Turkey is part of this wider international trend, and seems caught between contradictory pressures toward continuity and discontinuity in the conduct of its foreign policy. With Trump’s ascendancy the same can be said of the United States.

 

In general, it seems encouraging that Turkey has again seems to be opting for a foreign policy that is pragmatic rather than programmatic and normative, although it is not at this time exerting the kind of wider influence and leadership in the region and beyond that characterized the Davutoğlu approach. The times are different, calling for less ambition and greater stability.

 

How this pragmatic repositioning of Turkey in relation to East and West, North and South, will finally crystallize remains highly uncertain. Whether it results in major changes in orientation depends largely on whether Turkish ties to the West are maintained, Middle East turmoil is contained, and Turkish internal politics calms down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Democratic Party Foreign Policy Fails and Will Continue to Fail

5 Mar

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared on March 2, 2016 in The Progressive Magazine. It tries to explain the entrapment of liberal Democrats in an iron cage of militarism when it comes to international security policy. The explanation points in two directions: the militarized bureaucracy at home and the three pillars of credibility constraining elected political leaders—unquestioning support for high Pentagon budgets, opposition to stiff regulation of Wall Street abuses, and any expression of doubts about unconditional support of Israel.]

 

Why Democratic Party Foreign Policy Fails and Will Continue to Fail

For six years (2008-2014) I acted as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, and found myself routinely and personally attacked by the top UN diplomats representing the U.S. Government. Of course, I knew that America was in Israel’s corner no matter what the issue happened to be, whether complying with a near unanimous set findings by the World Court in the Hague or a report detailing Israeli crimes committed in the course of its periodic unlawful attacks on Gaza. Actually, the vitriol was greater from such prominent Democratic liberals as Susan Rice or Samantha Power than from the Republican neocon stalwart John Bolton who was the lamentable U.S. ambassador at the UN when I was appointed. I mention this personal background only because it seems so disappointingly emblematic of the failure of the Democratic Party to walk the walk of its rule of law and human rights talk.

 

From the moment Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office he never tired of telling the country, indeed the world that we as a nation were different because we adhered to the rule of law and acted in accord with our values in foreign policy. But when it came down to concrete cases, ranging from drone warfare to the increasingly damaging special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the policies pursued seemed almost as congenial to a Kissinger realist as to an Obama visionary liberal. Of course, recently the Republicans from the comfort zone of oppositional irresponsibility chide the government led by a Democrat for its wimpy approach whether in response to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine, China’s moves in the Pacific, and especially the emergence of ISIS. The Republicans out of office want more bombs and more wars in more places, and seem content to risk a slide into a Second Cold War however menacing such a reality would undoubtedly turn out to be.

 

How are we to explain this inability of Democrats to follow through on a foreign policy that is linked to law and ethics, as well as to show respect for the authority of the UN, World Court, Human Rights Council, and above all, the UN Charter? Such a question can be partly answered by noticing the gap between Obama the national campaigner and Obama the elected president expected to govern in the face of a hostile and reaction Congress and a corporatized media. In effect, it is the government bureaucracy and the special interest groups especially those linked to Wall Street, the Pentagon, guns, and Israel that call the shots in Washington, and it is expected that a politician once elected will forget the wellbeing of the American people as a whole on most issues, and especially with respect to controversial foreign policy positions, if he or she hopes to remain a credible public figure. The boundaries of credibility are monitored and disciplined by the mainstream media, as interpreted to reflect the interests of the militarized and intelligence sectors of the government and the economy.

 

Obama’s disappointing record is instructive because he initially made some gestures toward an innovative and independent approach. In early 2009 he went to Prague to announce a commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, but there was no tangible steps taken toward implementation, and he kept quiet to the extent that his hopes were shattered. He will finish his presidency no nearer that goal than when he was elected, and in a backward move he has even committed the country to modernizing the existing arsenal of nuclear weapons at the hefty cost of $30 billion. The only reasonable conclusion is that the nuclear weapons establishment won out, and security policy of not only this country, but the world and future generations, remains subject to nuclearism, and what this implies about our unnecessarily precarious fate as a species.

 

Obama gave a second visionary speech in Cairo a few months later in which he promised a new openness to the Islamic world, and seemed to acknowledge that the Palestinians had suffered long enough and deserved an independent state and further, that it was reasonable to expect Israel to suspend unlawful settlement expansion to generate a positive negotiating atmosphere. When the Israel lobby responded by flexing its muscles and the Netanyahu leadership in Israel made it clear that they were in charge of the American approach to ‘the peace process,’ Obama sheepishly backed off, and what followed is a dismal story of collapsed diplomacy, accelerated Israeli settlement expansion, and renewed Palestinian despair and violent resistance. The result is to leave the prospect of a sustainable peace more distant than ever. It was clear that Zionist forces are able to mount such strong pressure in Congress, the media, and Beltway think tanks that no elected official can follow a balanced approach on core issues. Perhaps, the Democrats are even more vulnerable to such pressures as their funding and political base is more dependent on support of the Jewish communities in the big cities of America.

 

Occasionally, an issue comes along that is so clearly in the national interest that Israel’s opposition can be circumvented, at least temporarily and partially. This seems to have been the case with regard to the Iran Nuclear Agreement of a year ago that enjoyed the rare support of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Yet even such a positive and sensible step toward restoring peace and stability in the tormented Middle East met with intense resistance at home, even being opposed by several prominent Democratic senators who acted as if they knew on which side their toast was buttered.

 

It seems pathetic that the White House in the aftermath of going against Israel’s rigid views on Iran found it necessary to patch things up by dispatching high level emissaries to reassure Israel that the U.S. remains as committed as ever to ‘the special relationship.’ To prove this point the Obama administration is even ready to increase military assistance to Israel from an already excessive $3 billion annual amount to a scandalous $5 billion, which is properly seen as compensation for going ahead with the Iran deal in the face of Israel opposition. Even the habitual $3 billion subsidy is in many ways outrageous given Israel’s regional military dominance, economic wellbeing, without even mentioning their refusal to take reasonable steps toward achieving a sustainable peace, which would greatly facilitate wider the pursuit of wider American goals in the Middle East. It is past time for American taxpayers to protest such misuses of government revenues, especially given the austerity budget at home, the decaying domestic infrastructure, and the anti-Americanism among the peoples of the Middle East that is partly a consequence of our long one-sided support for Israel and related insensitivity to the Palestinian ordeal.

 

True, the Democrats do push slightly harder to find diplomatic alternatives to war than Republicans, although Obama appointed hard liners to the key foreign policy positions. Hilary Clinton was made Secretary of State despite her pro-intervention views, or maybe because of them. Democrats seem to feel a habitual need to firm up their militarist credentials, and reassure the powerful ‘deep state’ in Washington of their readiness to use force in pursuit of American interests around the world. In contrast, Republicans are sitting pretty, being certified hawks on foreign policy without any need to prove repeatedly their toughness. Until George W. Bush came along it did seem that Democrats started the most serious war since 1945, and it took a Republican warmonger to end it, and even more daringly, finally to normalize relations with Communist China, a self-interested move long overdue and delayed for decades by anti-Communist ideological fervor and the once powerful ‘China Lobby.’

 

Looking ahead there is little reason to expect much departure if a Democrat is elected the next American president in 2016. Clinton has already tipped her hand in a recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, the self-anointed voice of the East Coast American establishment. She promised more air strikes and a no fly zone in Syria and a more aggressive approach toward ISIS. Such slippery slopes usually morph into major warfare, with devastating results for the country where the violence is situated and no greater likelihood of a positive political outcome as understood in Washington. If we consider the main theaters of American interventionary engagement in the 21st century, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya we find the perplexing combination of battlefield dominance and political defeat. It is dismaying that neither Clinton nor lead foreign policy advisors are willing to examine critically this past record of frustration and defeat, and seem ready for more of the same, or as it now expressed, ‘doubling down.’ We should not forget that Clinton was the most ardent advocate of the disastrous intervention in Libya, and mainly unrepentant about her support of the Iraq War, which should shock even her most committed backers, considering that it was the most costly mistake and international crime since Vietnam.

 

Ever since the Vietnam War political leaders and military commanders have tried to overcome this record of failed interventionism, forever seeking new doctrines and weapons that will deliver victory to the United States when it fights wars against peoples living in distant lands of the Global South. Democrats along with Republicans have tried to overcome the dismal experience of intervention by opting for a professional army and total reliance on air tactics and special forces operations so as to reduce conditions giving rise to the sort of robust anti-war movement that dogged the diehard advocates of the Vietnam War in its latter stages. The government has also taken a number of steps to achieve a more supportive media through ‘embedding’ journalists with American forces in the fields of battle. These kinds of adjustment were supposed to address the extreme militarist complaint that the Vietnam War was not lost on the battlefields of combat, but on the TV screens in American living rooms who watched the coffins being unloaded when returned home.

 

Despite these adjustments it has not helped the U.S. reached its goals overseas. America still ends up frustrated and thwarted. This inability to learn from past mistakes really disguises an unwillingness that expresses a reluctance or inability to challenge the powers that be, especially in the area of war and peace. As a result not only is foreign policy stuck adhering to deficient policies with a near certainty of future failure, but democracy takes a big hit because the critical debate so essential in a truly free society is suppressed or so muted as to politically irrelevant. Since 9/11 this suppression has been reinforced by enhanced intrusions on the rights of the citizenry, a process supported as uncritically by Democrats as by the other party. Again it is evident that the unaccountable deep state wields a big stick!

 

This is the Rubicon that no Democrat, including even Bernie Sanders, has dared yet to cross: The acknowledgement that military intervention no longer works and should not be the first line of response to challenges emerging overseas, especially in the Middle East. The forces of national resistance in country after country in the South outlast their Northern interveners despite being militarily inferior. This is the major unlearned lesson of the wars waged against European colonialism, and then against the United States in Vietnam, and still later in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The balance of forces in the Global South has decisively shifted against a military reading of history that prior to the middle of the last century was the persuasive basis of defending the country against foreign enemies, as well as providing imperial ambitions with a cost efficient means to gain access to resources and market in underdeveloped parts of the world. National resistance movements have learned since 1945 that they are able to prevail, although sometimes at a great cost, because they have more patience and more at stake. As the Afghan saying goes, “You have the watches, we have the time.”

 

The intervening side shapes its foreign policy by a crude cost/benefit calculus, and at some point, the effort does not seem worth the cost in lives and resources, and is brought to an end. For the national resistance side the difference between winning and losing for a mobilized population is nearly absolute, and so the costs however high seem never too high. The most coherent intervention initiated by the Obama presidency in 2011 did succeed in driving a hostile dictatorship from power, but what resulted was the opposite of what was intended and expected by Washington: chaos and a country run by warring and murderous tribal militias. In other words, military intervention has become more destructive than ever, and yet its political goals of stability and a friendly atmosphere remain even more elusive than previously.

 

For Democrats to have an approach that learns from this experience in the period since the end of World War II would require leveling with American people on two main points: (1) military intervention generally does not reach its proclaimed goals unless mandated by the UN Security Council and carried out in a manner consistent with international law; and (2) the human concerns and national interests of the country are better protected in this century by deferring to the dynamics of self-determination even if the result are not always in keeping with American strategic goals and national values. Such a foreign policy reset would not always yield results that the leaders and public like, but it is preferable to the tried and tested alternatives that have failed so often with resulting heavy burdens. Adopting such a self-determination approach is likely to diminish violence, enhance the role of diplomacy, and reduce the massive displacement of persons that is responsible for the wrenching current humanitarian crises of migration and the ugly extremist violence that hits back at the Middle East interveners in a merciless and horrifying manner as was the case in the November 13th attacks in Paris.

 

Despite these assessments when, hopefully, a Democrat is elected in 2016, which on balance remains the preferable lesser of evils outcome, she has already announced her readiness to continue with the same failed policy, but even worse, to increase its intensity. Despite such a militarist resolve there is every reason to expect the same dismal results, both strategically and humanly. The unfortunate political reality is that even Democratic politicians find it easier to go along with such a discredited approach than risk the backlash that world occur if less military policies were advocated and embraced. We must not avoid an awareness that our governmental security dynamics is confined to an iron cage of militarism that is utterly incapable of adjusting to failure and its own wrongdoing.

 

We must ask ourselves why do liberal minded Democratic politicians, especially once in office follow blindly militarist policies that have failed in the past and give every indication of doing even worse in the future because the international resistance side is more extremist and becoming better organized. Dwight Eisenhower, incidentally a Republican, gave the most direct answer more than 50 years ago—what he called ‘the military-industrial complex,’ that lethal synergy between government and capital. Such a reality has become a toxic parasite that preys upon our democratic polity, and has been augmented over the years by intelligence services, the corporatization of the media and universities, public policy institutes, and lobbies that have turned Congress into a complicit issuer of rubber stamps as requested.

Under these conditions we have to ask ourselves ‘What would have to happen to enable a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party to depart from the foreign policy failures of the past? That is, to escape from the cage within which foreign policy is now imprisoned: Nothing less than a transforming of the governing process from below that would sweep away this parasitical burden that is ever

more deforming the republic and spreading suffering and resentment to all corners of the planet. American foreign policy is having these harmful effects at a time when decent people of all parties should be exerting their political imagination to the utmost to meet the unprecedented challenges mounted by the accumulating dangers of climate change and the moral disgrace of mounting extreme economic inequalities despite as many as 3 billion people living on less than $2.50 per day.

 

Not only is the Democratic Party failing the nation by its refusal to meet the modest first principle of Florence Nightingale—‘do no harm’—but it is not rising to the deeper and more dangerous threats to future wellbeing and sustainability directed at the nation and the ecological health of the planet, and also of menace to peoples everywhere. What the United States does and does not do reverberates across the globe. Political responsibility in the 21st century does not stop at the border, and certainly is not fulfilled by walls and drones. If political parties cannot protect us, then it is up to the people to mount the barricades, but this too looks farfetched when the most vital form of populism now seems to be of a proto-fascist variety activated so viciously by the candidacy of Donald Trump, and reinforced more politely by his main Republican rivals.

 

 

Obama’s Legacy: “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”

6 Jun

 

 

            So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be for the century to come….The question we face..is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

 

                        President Barack Obama’s Commencement Address, West Point, May 22, 2014

 

            I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also, I am myself just as evil as good, and my nation is…

Walt Whitman

 

 

            Cautioning against militarism at West Point President on May 22nd Obama in a speech mostly notable for its reassertion of what might be best understood as imperial nationalism of global scope declared the following: “Just because we have the best hammer [that is, military dominance] does not mean that every problem is a nail [that is be selective].” Remembering the failure of military intervention in Iraq, positive about achieving a possible diplomatic breakthrough in Iran, and burned by the paucity of results from his strongly endorsed troop surge in Afghanistan early in his presidency, Obama is reminding the graduating cadets, the future commanders of the American military organization, that leadership on the global stage should no longer be conceived as nothing more than a hard power geopolitical game. Interpreted in context, such a statement can and should be appreciated as an embrace of what some call ‘smart power’ shaping policy by a careful understanding of what will work and what will fail, that is, exhibiting a sensitivity to the limits as well as the role of military power in pursuing the American foreign policy agenda.

 

            For the wildly hostile Republicans such language is warped to justify their attack on Obama’s foreign policy as wimpy, exhibiting a declinist mentality that is partially admitted by the sleazy phrase used by the White House during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, ‘leading from behind.’ The Republicans, resorting to their typically irresponsible hawkish opposition rhetoric, chided Obama for not proceeding to bomb Syria after alleging that they had crossed the red line in 2013 when chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta resulting in heavy civilian loss of life. From such neocon perspectives America only loses wars when is loses its nerve. From this perspective every failure of military intervention since Vietnam exhibits not the limits of hard power, but the refusal to do what it takes to achieve victory by which is meant a mixture of weaponry and fortitude. Fortunately, most often when in office the Republicans have a record of finishing the wars that Democrats start. This was what Eisenhower did in the Korean War, and Nixon in the Vietnam War. Republicans bark more often than they bite, while Democrats do the opposite.

 

            Obama’s rejection of mindless militarism is most welcome, but insufficient. Given this American record of demoralizing defeats, those on the right end of the political spectrum should feel reassured by his ultra nationalist language used to describe America’s global dominance: “Our military has no peer. America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth…Each year we grow more energy independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations.” Recalling the oft-quoted boast of Madeline Albright, Obama went on to insist, “So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.”

 

            To exhibit national pride is understandable for a political leader, but the absence of any expression of national humility creates an overwhelming and deeply troubling impression of hubris, especially when the speaker heads the biggest military power in history and his country has its forces spread around the world so as to be ready to strike anywhere. We should be aware that for ancient Greeks hubris was a tragic flaw that makes the powerful complacent about their points of vulnerability and hence destined to freefall from dizzying heights to swampy depths. Such an interpretation is reinforced by Obama’s vision of the place of war making in American foreign policy: “The United States will use force, unilaterally, if necessary, when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.” What is so stunning here is the absence of any even pro forma acknowledgement of a national commitment to carry out foreign policy in a manner respectful of international law and the authority of the United Nations. Deeply disturbing is Obama’s contention that war might be the appropriate way to go if “our livelihoods are at stake,” which seems to revive the dreams of economic imperialists who seize resources and safeguard unjust enrichment from foreign resources.

 

            With words that echo those of George W. Bush, Obama admits that “[i]nternational opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our homeland and our way of life.” If America should never ask, is that true for others, for say Russia when it protects its homeland and way of life in Ukraine? To be fair, Obama does seem to qualify his unilateralism by saying that before leaping into war “we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just,” but these lofty sentiments are coupled with the glaring omission of the words “and legal.” Obama does advocate “appeals to international law” in the speech, but revealing only as one of several tools of American diplomacy that might be useful in mobilizing allies to join in multilateral recourse to military action against common adversaries.

 

            Toward the end of the speech Obama removes any ambiguity about the kind of prideful realism that he appropriates for the United States, and implicitly disallows to others, acknowledging lofty pretensions on a truly global scale: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional in not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Are we stupid? After lauding militarism and unilateralism early in the speech only later to give this Wilsonian spin to the more self-serving meaning of American exceptionalisn the Obama language exhibits a disturbing blend of confusion and hypocrisy. Even the slightest familiarity with America’s use of force in international life over the course of recent decades, including during the Obama presidency, would lead any close observer to conclude that the only honest way to identify American exceptionalism is above all its “ability to flout international norms and the rule of law.” And not only ability, willingness as well, whenever expedient (consider global surveillance, drone warfare) from the perspective of national interests to engage in combat.

 

            As always there is in Obama’s comprehensive statements some visionary language meant to be uplifting. For instance, what he describes as the “final element in American leadership: our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.” Where exactly? In response, to the oppressive rulership of Sisi’s Egypt? In relation to the civilian population of Gaza so long victimized by Israeli collective punishment? The only plausible answer to the first of these questions is ‘where and when it suits American interests, and not otherwise.’ In fairness, could be expect otherwise in a state-centric world.

 

            There is an awkward reference in the speech to Egypt that makes a mockery of any talk about human dignity and a foreign policy responsive to the claims of justice. Obama employs a strange phrase, perhaps to convey the sense of awkwardness, by starting his explanation of policy with the words “in countries like Egypt.” Such a phrase implies that there are other such countries, which itself seems dubious. We do not receive any hints as to which countries he means to include. Possibly Obama is referring to all those states with deplorable human rights records whose leaders are guilty of crimes against humanity in relation to their own citizens, but whose orientation is favorable to the West. Obama goes on to imply some misgivings about the positive American relationship with Egypt, “we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests, from peace treaties to Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism.” And then with hypnotic indifference to the tension between words and deeds, he explains, “[s]o we have not cut off cooperation [read as military assistance] with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.” How should we deconstruct this combination of reassurances and pressures to establish democracy, the rule of law, and human rights? I would say to paraphrase Obama that this strikes me as a callous example of ‘following from behind.’

 

            On such other issues as terrorism, drones, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine Obama affirms mainstream foreign policy positions with nothing new, not daring to endorse any initiative that would break fresh ground. There were some obvious opportunities that would have created a bit of credibility for the basic claim made by Obama that America, and America alone was capable of providing the world with benevolent leadership. Surely, Obama could have proposed that Iran join in an effort to end the war-threatening atmosphere relating to Syria and in view of Western objections to Iran’s nuclear weapons p. Or suggest that Israel’s refusal to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem had doomed, once and for all, any hope of a negotiated and just end to the search for peace in Palestine and Israel that would benefit both peoples instead of voicing mild disapproval and stepping to one side. Or welcome the formation of a unity government that could finally represent the Palestinian people as a whole. Or recognize the complexity of competing national claims in Ukraine, acknowledging that the West as well as Russia was responsible for escalating tensions, thereby inhibiting prospects for a mutually beneficial accommodation. Or Obama might even have chosen such a moment to revive his 2009 Prague initiative by proposing that the time had come to table a draft treaty of nuclear disarmament.

 

            Such innovative steps would have stirred excitement as well as compromise, controversy, and debate. Such moves would have at least encouraged the hope that Obama’s vision of American leadership meant something for the world beyond a watered down neoconservative global agenda. To be sure, it is less belligerent in language and policy than what was being advocated during the Bush presidency. The Obama outlook is certainly more receptive to partnership, alliances, and multilateralism in managing global affairs. Ironically, the Obama conception of American leadership is depressingly similar in some of its essential features to the commencement address given by George W. Bush at West Point twelve years earlier: We were good, they are evil. Terrorism is the main security threat. We will act as we wish when our security and vital interests are at stake. No signs of deference to international law or the UN unless it reinforces American foreign policy. When American policies are challenged, it is up to the political leadership to decide what is right and wrong, but governments that are adversaries of the West should continue to be judged and punished by international procedures, including the International Criminal Court. No humility, and no retreat from the global projection of force as an American entitlement that others welcome.

 

            Perhaps, after all Hilary Clinton was right when she taunted Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign: “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” To clarify, not the heat that Clinton meant, but the heat that would be generated if Obama made a serious attempt in these last years of his presidency to translate his visionary language into concrete policies that addressed injustices and disciplined American foreign policy choices by an acceptance of the authority of international law and the UN. One can only daydream about such a legacy for the presidency of Barack Obama. Instead rather than the legacy of forbearance that he seems determined to leave behind, summarized by his own self-professed operating logic—‘don’t do stupid stuff.’

 

Toward a Gandhian Geopolitics: A Feasible Utopia?

25 Jul

 

            There has been serious confusion associated with the widespread embrace of ‘soft power’ as a preferred form of diplomacy for the 21st century. Joseph Nye introduced and popularized the concept, and later it was adopted and applied in a myriad of settings that are often contradictory from the perspective of international law and morality. I write in the belief that soft power as a force multiplier for imperial geopolitics is to be viewed with the greatest suspicion, but as an alternative to militarism and violence is to be valued and adopted as a potential political project that could turn out to be the first feasible utopia of the 21st century.

 

            Significantly, Nye first introduced the concept of soft power in Bound to Lead, published in 1990, reaffirming confidence in the United States as the self-anointed leader of the world for the foreseeable future based on its military and economic prowess, as well as due to its claimed status as an exemplary democracy and the global outreach of its popular culture from jeans to Michael Jackson . Nye has been a consistent advocate of what Michael Ignatieff christened as ‘empire lite’ a decade or so ago, and Nye’s invocation of soft power is essentially calling our attention to a cluster of instruments useful in projecting American influence throughout the world, and in his view under utilized. Although less so, perhaps, since the advent of drones. It should be appreciated that Nye’s influential career as a prominent Harvard specialist in international relations was climaxed in the 1990s by serving the government in Washington both as Chair of the National Intelligence Council, making policy recommendations on foreign policy issues to the American president, and as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Clinton presidency. He is an unabashed charter member of and valuable apologist for the American foreign policy establishment in its current embodiment, although the policies of the Bush presidency often displeased him.

 

            The idea of soft power was unveiled for the benefit of the American establishment in Nye’s 1996 Foreign Affairs article, “America’s Information Edge,” appropriately written in collaboration with Admiral William Owens, a leading navy planner who rose to be Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The main argument of the article was the need to realize the revolutionary relevance of mastering the technologies of information if the American global domination project was to be successful in the years ahead. This emphasis on the role of information and networking was also certain to lead to a  ‘revolution in military technology.’ Soft power was not, as the words seem to suggest, a turn away from imperial geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War, but rather the opposite. It was more in the spirit of a geopolitical cookbook on how to remain in control globally despite a rapidly changing political and technological environment. The recommended soft power breakthrough can be summarized as the recognition of the role to be played by non-military forms of global influence and capabilities in reinforcing and complementing the mandate of hard power.

 

            The final section of the Nye/Owens article is aptly title “The Coming American Century,” insisting that the famous claim made a generation earlier by Time publisher, Henry Luce, that the 20th century was ‘the American century,’ would turn out to be a gross understatement when it came to describing the 21st century. Their expectation is that America will be more dominant internationally in the emerging future, thanks mainly to this superiority in information technology, anticipating that if their views are adopted by robust military applications of soft power it will have a huge foreign policy payoff for the country: “The beauty of information as a power resource is that, while it can enhance the effectiveness of raw military power, it ineluctably democratizes societies.” This unabashed avowal of imperial goals is actually the main thesis of the article, perhaps most graphically expressed in the following words—“The United States can increase the effectiveness of its military forces and make the world safe for soft power, America’s inherent comparative advantage.” As the glove fits the hand, soft power complements hard power within the wider enterprise of transforming the world in America’s image, as well as embodying the ideal version of America’s sense of self.

 

            Nye/Owens acknowledge a major caveat rather parenthetically by admitting that their strategy will not work if America continues much longer to be perceived unfavorably abroad as a national abode of drugs, crime, violence, fiscal irresponsibility, family breakdown, political gridlock.  They make a rather empty and apolitical plea to restore “a healthy democracy” at home as a prelude to the heavy lifting of democratizing the world, but they do not pretend medical knowledge of how national health might be restored,  offering no prescriptions. And now sixteen years after their article appeared, it would seem that the Burmese adage applies: “disease unknown, cure unknown.”

 

            There is much that I would object to about this line of advocacy that waves the banner of soft power so triumphantly. First of all, the idea of using power of any kind to democratize other sovereign states is an imperial undertaking at its core, and completely disregards the post-colonial ethos of self-determination widely affirmed as the inalienable right of all peoples.  This right of self-determination is given pride of place in common Article 1 of the two major international human rights covenants. The Nye/Owens assumption that ‘democracy’ means ‘made in the USA’ is an ideological claim that seems increasingly questionable given the reality of political life in America.  This is the case even if the country somehow miraculously heeds the Nye/Owens call to restore national health to its democracy. Is it open to doubt as to whether an elective plutocracy, which America has surely become, can qualify as the sort of democracy that merits being exported abroad. And since the 9/11 attacks the corporatizing of democratic space has been complemented by a series of governmental encroachments on traditional liberties in the name of ‘homeland security.’ While it might have seemed unproblematic in 1996 for Nye/Owens to write about planting the seeds of American democracy throughout the world, by 2012 such a project has become nothing less than diabolical. The best the world can hope for at this point is not a somewhat less aggressive version of soft power geopolitics but an American turn toward passivity, what used to be called ‘isolationism,’ and was perhaps briefly abortively reborn by the Obama posture during the 2011 Libyan intervention of ‘leading from behind,’ as if that is leading at all. Of course, such a realistic retreat begets the fury of the Republicans who seem to have not lost any of their appetite for the red meat of military adventures despite a string of defeats and their constant wailing about the fiscal deficit. When it comes to militarism their firepower is directed at the alleged defeatism and softness of American foreign policy in the hands of a Democratic president.

 

            There is a second sense of soft power that I advocate, which is in its most maximal form, represents the extension of Gandhian principles to the practice of diplomacy. A weaker form of Gandhian geopolitics may seem more consistent with the world as it is, restricting the role of hard power to self-defense as strictly limited in the UN Charter and to UN humanitarian interventions in exceptional circumstances of genocidal behavior or the repeated commission of crimes against humanity. In such instances uses of hard power would remain under the operational control of the UN Security Council, and enacted by a UN Peace Force especially trained in conflict resolution to minimize recourse to violence.

 

            If we decide to respect the politics of self-determination (as the preferred alternative to military intervention) then we need to be prepared to accept the prospect of some tragic struggles for control of national space. Geopolitical passivity, as validated by international law, needs to be recognized as an essential political virtue in this century. Such an imperative also mandates reliance on the greater wisdom of collective procedures subject to constitutional constraints as a necessary adjustment to the realities of a globalizing world, and offers an alternative to unilateralist and oligarchic claims (‘coalitions of the willing’) to act in defiance of law and world public opinion.  Such an empowerment of ‘the global community’ may go awry on some occasions but it seems a far preferable risk than continuing to entrust world peace and security to the untender mercies of global and regional hegemonic sovereign states even should their domestic democratic credentials are in good order, which happens not to be the case.

 

            There is no doubt that I would like to live in a borderless soft power world that was consistently attentive to human suffering, protective of the global commons, and subject to the discipline of global constitutional democracy. As global conditions now confirm, such a benign fantasy lacks political traction at present, and is thus an irresponsible worldview from the perspective of humane problem solving. The most we can currently hope for is a more moderate regime of global governance presided over by sovereign states that exhibits a greater sense of responsibility toward the wellbeing of the peoples of the world, identifies and works to correct dysfunction and corruption, and is thus less swayed by the reigning plutocracy that now sets global policy. Such moderate global governance, while far from the desired Gandhian model would at least become more respectful of international law and responsive to transnational movements dedicated to human rights and the preservation of the global commons. Nye’s soft power geopolitics provides a roadmap for those comfortable with currents hierarchies of dominance and privilege, while even the minimal version of a nonviolent and non-imperial alternative could help humanity greatly in the deepening struggle to find a world order path that leads to peace, justice, and development.