Tag Archives: geopolitics

Asking Foolish Questions About Serious Issues

7 Mar

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Erasing the UN

3 Mar

 

Donald Trump has articulated clearly, if somewhat vaguely and incoherently, his anti-globalist, anti-UN approach on foreign policy. For instance, in late February he told a right-wing audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency, or a global flag. This is the United States that I am representing. I am not representing the globe.” A similar sentiment was expressed to Congress a few days later in a tone of voice and choice of words praised by media wonks as ‘presidential.’ On this occasion Trump said, “[m]y job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” Such rhetoric coming from a normal American leader would probably be interpreted as an expression of geopolitical humility, implicitly rejecting the standard insistence on American exceptionalism, exemplified in recent times by the project to create and maintain the first global state in human history.

 

This potentially self-limiting language might even be understood as renouncing earlier claims to assert American global leadership as the keystone of world order. George W. Bush in 2002 gave this bold leadership claim a sharp edge when he insisted the that only the US model of market-based constitutionalism was a legitimate form of governance for sovereign states in the 21st century. Or even more grandiosely, in the spirit of Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman, that the United States as a consequence of its martial strength, technological prowess, democratic values and institutions, and skills of leadership provides the world with the benevolent reality of virtual ‘world government.’ Let’s face it, Donald Trump is not a normal political leader, nor is he someone disposed to embrace humility in any form, so we should take his pledge to represent American interests while leaving the world to fend for itself with many grains of salt, especially if we consider the specifics of the Trump worldview. What Trump seems to be offering is maximum disengagement from international and global arrangements designed to institutionalize cooperation among sovereign states, and that is where the UN figures in Trump’s unfolding game plan.

Even before being sworn in as president Trump engaged in UN-bashing on behalf of, and in concert with the Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu. His dismissive comment contained in a tweet is rather revealing: “The UN has great potential, but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time. So sad!” Of course, we are not told what Trump thinks might bring into being this ‘great potential’ of the UN. Also not surprisingly, the tweet was provoked by Security Resolution 2334, adopted December 23rd by a 14-0 vote, which sharply criticized Israeli settlement expansion as unlawful and as creating a major obstacles to establishing peace with the Palestinians. The Obama presidency was sharply criticized by Trump and others, including many Democrats, for allowing passage of this resolution at the UN by failing to do what it had consistently done for the prior eight years, shield Israel from often fully deserved, and long overdue, UN censure by casting a veto. It seems that Trump, a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and the new US Representative at the UN, Nikki Haley evaluate the usefulness of the UN through an ‘Israel first’ optic, that is, the significance of UN is actually reduced to its attitude toward Israel, which is viewed through Israeli eyes, and is unmindful toward the wide spectrum of UN activities and contributions to human wellbeing.

 

It must be acknowledged that the Obama presidency did only slightly better when it comes to both the UN and Israel. True, Barack Obama in his annual addresses to the General Assembly affirmed the importance and contributions of the UN by concrete reference to achievements, and used these occasions to set forth his vision of a better world that included a major role for the UN. Also, Obama recognized the importance of the UN in dealing with the challenge of climate change, and joined with China to ensure a multilateralist triumph under UN auspices by having the 194 assembled government successfully conclude the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. However, when it came to war/peace issues such as drone warfare, threats of war directed at Iran, modernization of nuclear weapons, and the defense of Israel, the Obama Administration flexed its geopolitical muscles with disdain for the constraining limits imposed by international law and international morality. In this core respect, Trump’s approach, while blunter and oblivious to the etiquette of global diplomacy, appears to maintain fundamental continuity with the Obama approach.

 

With respect to defending Israel even when it faces responsible criticism, I can report from my own experience while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, that the defense of Israel’s unlawful behavior within the UN during the Obama years was unconditional, and deeply irresponsible toward respect for international legal obligations, especially in relation to upholding international humanitarian law and norms governing recourse to non-defensive force. American chief representatives at the UN, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, both called for my dismissal from my unpaid post in vitriolic language without ever confronting the substance of my criticisms of Israel’s murderous periodic attacks on Gaza, its excessive use of force in sustaining the occupation, its expansion of unlawful settlements, and its discriminatory administration of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I mention this personal experience to underscore the willingness of the Obama presidency to go all in with Israel despite the awkward fact that Obama was being harshly attacked in Israel, including by government leasers, and hence also in the US. Obama was being wrongly accused of being unfriendly to Israel as compared to earlier American presidents. Israel has high expectations that Trump will sway with the wind from Tel Aviv.

 

More to the point, Trump’s view of foreign policy at this stage appears to be a primitive mixture of state-centrism, militarism, nationalism, overall what had qualified until World War I as realpolitik. There was back then no UN, few international institutions, no international law prohibition on aggressive war, no Nuremberg Principles imposing criminal accountability on political and military leaders, no tradition of protection for international human rights, and no affirmation of the inalienable right of all peoples to self-determination. It was a Eurocentric state system that combined the interaction of sovereign states in the West with colonial rule extended directly and indirectly to most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Of course, now the colonial system has formally collapsed, China, Russia, and India have risen, Europe has declined, nuclear weapons continue to shadow human existence, and the specter of global warming dangles a sword of Damocles over the human condition. Trump seeks to restore a simpler world with his raucous rally cries of ‘America First.’ This is to be accomplished by carrying out a series of promises: to renegotiate trade arrangements, build walls, crush terrorism, terrorize undocumented immigrants, liberate police from accountability, bar Muslim immigration, and develop the world’s most feared nuclear arsenal. It is not a pretty picture, but also it involves a reckless disregard of the fragility of our interconnected and networked world order that mandates a globalizing framework for common problem-solving rather that a retreat to a glorious past that never was.

 

Of course, it would be misleading to leave the impression that the Trump worldview is bereft of any constructive thoughts about how to engage with the world. Trump’s controversial connections with Putin and Russia impart a contradictory impression: what is favorable is an evident interest in exploring prospects for a cooperative relationship, which goes against the grain of the American national security establishment, including several Republican heavyweights, which seemed likely in an expected Clinton presidency to be readying the country for a dangerous plunge into a second cold war. It would be ignited with reckless bravado by confronting Russia along its borders; in contrast, what is dubious about the Trump overtures to the Kremlin are the backdoor dealings with Russian officials during the presidential campaign and subsequently, reinforced by the ‘golden shower’ innuendo and unresolved concerns that Trump’s withheld tax returns might reveal awkward information about indebtedness or business dealings or both.

 

Whether Trump is going to abandon this effort to smooth things with Moscow under this pressure from the US intelligence and security bureaucracy will be a defining feature of whether his foreign policy gets early stuck in the Washington swamp, or risks the governmentally unsettling effects of discontinuity with the past. There are some cynical interpretations of Trump’s opening to Russia as primarily intended to set the stage for intensified confrontations with China. If this view is even partially correct it could easily generate a cold war of its own, although with new alignments. It might quickly lead to hot battlefield incidents that could further escalate, giving rise to renewed fears of nuclear war.

 

Trump occasionally expresses an appreciation of international cooperation for mutual benefit with other states, as well as recognizing the benefits of keeping traditional alliances (NATO, Japan, South Korea) alive and threatening those countries that menace the global or regional status quo (North Korea). What is totally absent is any acknowledgement of global challenges that cannot be met by states acting on their own or cooperatively through bilateral arrangements. It is here where the erasure of the UN from political consciousness is so troublesome substantively as well as symbolically. To some degree this erasure preceded Trump and is widespread. It has not been challenged as yet by even the Sanders’ end of the political spectrum in the US. I found it telling that Obama made no reference to the UN in his Chicago farewell speech, which can be most accurately understood as a more positive and polite version of Trump’s ‘America First’ engagement with the world.

 

Even better, on an abstract level, Trump expressed some sentiments that if concretized could overcome some of the forebodings being voiced here. In his speech to Congress on February 28th Trump said “[w]e want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace wherever peace can be found.” He went on to point out that “America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite sides of these World Wars. This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world.” If this outlook ever comes to inform the actual policies of the Trump presidency it would give grounds for hope, but as of now, any such hopes are mere indulgences of wishful thinking, and as such, diversions from the one true progressive imperative of this historic moment–political resistance to Trumpism in all its manifestations.

 

Dark lines of policy have also been set forth by Trump. The angry defiance of his Inaugural Address, the belligerence toward China, threats toward North Korea, exterminist language in references to ‘radical Islamic’ extremism and ISIS. Trump’s belligerence toward the world is reinforced by lauding military virtues and militarism, by appointing generals and civilian advisors to top positions, and by boosting the military budget at a time when the United States already spends almost as much on its military machine as is the total of military expenditures by all other countries, and has only a string of political defeats to show for it.

 

These contrasting Trump imaginaries create an atmosphere of foreboding and uncertainty. Such a future can unfold in contradictory ways. At present, the forebodings clearly outweigh the hopes. Although Trump speaks of fixing the decaying infrastructure of the United States and not wasting trillions on futile wars, especially in the Middle East, his inclinations so far suggest continuity in such brutal war theaters as Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

 

We have reached a stage of human development where future prospects are tied to finding institutional mechanisms that can serve human and global interests in addition to national interests, whether pursued singly or in aggregate. In this central respect, Trump’s ardent embrace of American nationalism is an anachronistic dead end.

 

What I find particularly discouraging about the present bipartisan political mood is its near total erasure of the United Nations and international law. These earlier efforts to modify and ameliorate international anarchy have virtually disappeared from the political horizons of American leaders. This reflects a loss of the kind of idealism that earlier energized the political imagination of those who spoke for the United States ever since the American Revolution. There was admittedly always much hypocrisy and self-deception attached to this rhetoric, which conveniently overlooked American geopolitical ambitions, slavery, and devastation visited on native Americans. It also overlooked imperial maneuvers in the Western Hemisphere and the ideologically driven foreign policy of the Cold War era that brought death, destruction, and despair to many distant lands, while keeping a dying European colonialism alive for many years by deferring to the warped logic of the Cold War.

 

Finally, I believe that the agenda of resistance to Trumpism includes a defense of the United Nations, and what its Charter proposes for the peoples of the world. We need a greatly empowered UN, not an erased UN.

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

18 Dec

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation

7 Dec

[Prefatory Note: The post below is an introduction to a series of articles on the theme of assessing the Arab Spring jointly written with the prominent Turkish scholar, Bülent Aras, whose bio-sketch appears below. It was published in the Third World Quarterly, 37 (No. 12): 2258-2334 (2016).]

 

Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation

Bülent Aras  and Richard Falk

a Professor of International Relations, Sabancı University, Turkey bRichard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, United States.

[Abstract: A new political geography has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after the Arab Spring. The transformative impact of the popular upheavals appeared to put an end to long-term authoritarian regimes. Today, the region is far from stable since authoritarian resilience violently pushed back popular demands for good governance and is pushing to restore former state structures. However, the collective consciousness of the popular revolts endures, and a transformative prospect may emerge on the horizon. The chaotic situation is the result of an ongoing struggle between those who seek change and transformation and others in favor of the status quo ante. A critical evaluation of the Arab Spring after five years indicates a continuous process of recalculation and recalibration of policies and strategies. There are alternative routes for an eventual settlement in the MENA region, which are in competition against both regional and transregional quests for a favorable order.]

 

 

The transformative impact of the Arab Spring on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) symbolizes a turning point in the recent history of the region. The change is obviously visible, although five years is not long enough to see the full effects of a popular movement with the transformative goals of the Arab Spring. The protests and the immediate aftershocks remain confined within regional boundaries, which affect only Arab countries, although the anti-authority discourse has reached a wider resonance. In this sense, one obvious dimension of this novel political development has been the “Arabness” of its core mobilization.

In more specific terms, the MENA region faces transformations on a range of fronts, from state-society relations to resilience of authoritarian regimes, from state failures to shifting alliances in the region. This complex picture is the result of interaction and socialization of new and old actors in the domestic to regional and regional to global flows. The domestic environments in the regional contagion range from failed transitions to civil wars, while regional order as a whole is almost a perfect example of “the anarchical society” without the existence of any overarching authority and institution capable of enforcing rules and establishing order.

On the domestic fronts, the Arab Spring brought the analyses of democratization and robustness of authoritarianism to the fore with a rich variety of cases for discussion. We put forward the idea that the Arab Spring represents a search of the masses under authoritarian regimes for honor, dignity, liberty, good governance, and accountability of rulers. These uprisings created a new collective consciousness or subjectivity strongly influenced by the transnational diffusion of international norms of governance, freedom, and equality. The uprisings in various authoritarian states thus made sense beyond the geography of immediate impact and created a strong transnational impetus for change in a series of countries outside the Arab World. The demands for change, search for representation, and struggle for honor created a new collective consciousness that provides motivation, solidarity, belief, and strategy in various national contexts to engage in similar struggles against rulers. Societal groups enjoy the empowerment of sub-state actors and benefit from state vulnerabilities in undertaking political initiatives within authoritarian settings. The opposition to authoritarian rule also finds its expression in a relatively democratized context, giving rise to further political demands, especially for stronger societal participation. Throughout the different phases of the Arab Spring, the masses have faced several challenges and difficulties associated with imposing their new collective consciousness on rule and transforming authoritarian regimes in desired directions.

The first challenge was the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East and the differential ability of rulers to learn and recalibrate policies to preserve their hold on power. Second has been the lack of support from the international community in the struggle for freedom and liberties despite the fact that these ideas have been promoted with “universal” validity. The third challenge has been the fragility and fracturing of the societal consensus that has unleashed the uprisings, which underscores the vitality of sustainable coalitions that could have functioned as a social glue for realizing the transformative goals in its aftermath. The original consensus that gave rise to the new collective consciousness was severely challenged and even broken in some cases when it came to reforming the governing process along more democratic lines. When the popular expectations accompanying the uprising were dashed, active social forces backing the revolution became divided and certain elements indeed turned against the revolution to settle for what has been a reversal of the uprisings in the form of a counterrevolutionary backlash. This was actually what happened in Egypt after the election and overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reactions of the ruling regimes vary according to their receptivity and resistance to the transformative claims set forth by the new collective consciousness. The Arab Spring has also been a learning process for all sides in terms of new calculations, recalibration of policies, and the development of effective strategies to cope with the new political atmosphere. The rulers and establishment elites as well as the popular movements also face fundamental challenges. Above all is the challenge of meeting societal demands for change in the domestic political order and the governing process. A second challenge concerns the transnational nature of the Arab Spring. This makes countries vulnerable to the potentially subversive transnational diffusion of the new collective consciousness. Inside/outside differences in policy-making have been more fluid than ever during this period. A third challenge has arisen when Arab rulers have found themselves with a capacity and incentive to exert an influence for or against the transformation of other states while at the same time facing a similar situation at home. Attitudes toward transformation of neighbors usually conform to the positions adopted at home. Rulers tend to support resistance to change outside if they adopt status quo policies at home: Most leaders seek outcomes that resemble as much as possible their domestic policies and are in conformity with their interests.

The fourth set of challenges may be the most confusing. The new transnational web of regional and international relations occurs within an atmosphere of flexible alliances and shifting alignments and priorities. Yesterday’s enemy may selectively become today’s friend. The contradictions and multiple dimensions of conflict that have risen to the surface in Syria during the last five years highlight this concern. A number of countries in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, have reacted to the situation elsewhere in the region to raise firewalls to protect their hold on power at home. A fifth set of challenges follows from the involvement of global political actors, mainly Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. The aspirations of these actors are not always clear, and may alter under pressure and in response to national shifts in the balance of forces. This further complicates an assessment of internal strife, exhibiting both mixed signals coming from some of these actors and rigid attitudes from others. The relations of Middle Eastern countries with these external actors have often become strained by the shifts and turns in response to the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring is now at a critical phase as both popular forces and the ruling elites are recalculating their policies and reshaping attitudes toward change and the option of resistance. This is a distinctive moment in history that is showing the limits of creativity to meet the challenges of the Arab Spring, which ranges from the particularistic such as determining the future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to broader issues of the role of Islamism such as the legitimacy and role of the pro-democracy Ennahda movement in Tunisia. The mobilization of new political movements in Iraqi Kurdistan and Northern Syria, or the Saudi attempts to empower the administration in Bahrain and shape an anti-Houthi outcome in Yemen also undermine the political order of the region in different ways. It is possible to analyze the Arab Spring within four subsystems, categorizing their adaptability and resistance to the diffusion of transnational values. The four categories that we set forth are the Arab I and Arab II, Turkish-Iranian complex, and Kurdish de facto autonomy systems.

The Arab System I refers to those Arab states that share the commonalities of high population and low natural resources. These countries have been vulnerable to popular revolts and possess a limited ability to address societal challenges through peaceful means. The Arab System II consists of Arab states having a small population and a strong resource base. They exert more control over societal demands and also enjoy surplus financial capacity to influence political outcomes in other countries. The societal demands are more basic in terms of democratization and appropriation of civil rights and liberties. The state-society tension, in general, has risen to unstable levels and in some cases has led to the outbreak of civil war. One could depict several sub-regions within these subsystems. Furthermore, these two Arab configurations of states are not mutually exclusive. There occur complex and multiple interactions with each other that are further complicated by extra-regional involvements. The “Syriraq” crisis, the rise of Daesh, and the Saudi-led coalition’s air war against Yemen, among others, are issues concentrated in the Arab System I, although these events are also of clear relevance to the Gulf Kingdoms of the Arab System II that are preoccupied with maximizing authoritarian survival beyond their own borders, and devote resources to ensuring the persistence of an authoritarian neighborhood.

The Turkish-Iranian system is different than the Arab systems in reference to political institutions and societal demands. The 1979 revolution put an end to the authoritarian monarchy in power, replacing it with Islamic rule. Iran has regular elections, a diverse civil society, and a functioning parliament. Despite these moderating features of the governing process, the Iranian opposition seeks greater democratization, protection of human rights and basic freedoms. Thus the fundamental questions in Iranian politics are how to secure free and fair elections, political liberalization, the empowerment of civil society and politicians, and normalization of relations with the West against the stronghold of the establishment. In 2009, people protested against the presidential elections with the slogan “Where is my vote?”, yet were suppressed in the name of raison d’etat. The Iran nuclear deal seems to be a game changer since it carries the potential to put an end to Iran’s international isolation and turn Iran into a legitimate actor in regional politics. Iran’s new status helped it to have a psychological upper hand in the course of the scaling down of the U.S. presence in the Middle East, which lessens the likelihood of any new hegemonic order in the region for the foreseeable future. The region will now become even more prone to rivalries, conflicts, and protracting crises as regional actors pursue contradictory goals. This is what has happened during the five years after the Arab Spring. The geopolitics of the Middle East is now being manipulated predominantly within a framework of sectarian conflict and the overall rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.

The Turkish situation is more about the enhancement of democracy, fine-tuning, and active participation in decision-making processes and a fundamental emphasis on economic development.. The societal demands are centered on the call for transparency, accountability, freedom of expression, and further civil rights. There is also an issue of cultural and language rights sought by Kurdish political forces. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 are exemplary in this sense of Turkish unrest. Young people resisted the building of a shopping mall in one of the few green parks in the urban center of Istanbul. The Turkish subsystem, compared to the others, despite its shortcomings, comes closest in the region to institute a democratic order. Turkey has taken strides in good governance and economic development, but has ever since been haunted by the quest for sustaining a democratic transition. In that sense, societal demands for better representation, checks on the political leadership, and the desire to control and limit political excesses fits into the general spirit of the new collective consciousness that has already been in motion within the dynamics of the Turkish system. The challenging issues for Turkey are responding demands for wider representation, addressing growing societal polarization and consolidating democratic institutions against a counterproductive trend in favor of reaching political goals through violence in the Kurdish problem and an undefined social call for security in the face of terrorist attacks launched by the extremists including Daesh.

The failed attempted coup of July 15, 2016 in Turkey can be connected to the Arab Spring experience, including the aftermath, in several significant ways. The most obvious reverberation of 2011 was the degree to which the leader was able to summon the people of Turkey to exhibit historical agency by displaying their support for the existing government and sacrificing their bodies to uphold the elected political leaders of the country. At first glance, the contrasts with Egypt are most striking. In 2011, the Egyptian masses in their revolt against Mubarak’s rule proved themselves and to the world their historical agency by opposing an unelected authoritarian government, and following the overthrow of the regime in Tunisia, catalyzed uprisings throughout the region. Then in 2013, disappointed by the failures of the elected leadership to perform, the Egyptian people were again mobilized effectively, this time to support a military coup against the elected leadership. In these fundamental respects, what happened in Turkey on July 15th is the exact opposite of the second Egyptian uprising that brought General Sisi to power, an outcome later ratified by elections conducted unreliably in a post-coup atmosphere of repression focused on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood that had won the prior nationwide elections held in 2012.

The situation in Turkey remains uncertain as the aftermath of failed coup has created contradictory signals about what to expect from the perspective of stability, human rights and democracy. In the early post-coup atmosphere in Turkey was dominated by a problem unique to the region, the deep penetration of all governmental institutions by the Gulenists, the followers of Fethullah Gülen who resides in the U.S. This left the Turkish government led by its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the formidable task of rebuilding the Turkish state without destroying Turkish democracy. On the one side, there are encouraging signals suggesting a new and welcome willingness of the main political parties to work together to preserve constitutional democracy in the country while restoring confidence in the security apparatus of the state. On the other side, there is challenging task of dealing with the detentions of Gülenist suspects from the various branches of government including the armed forces along with mass dismissals from educational institutions and an array of interferences with journalists and writers in a situation of state of emergency.

How these dramatic developments will play out in the region remains to be seen. Even before the coup, Turkey was engaged in a foreign policy reset, featuring successful efforts to renew normal diplomatic relations with Russia and Israel, which had become antagonistic in the prior five years. The Turkish relationship with the United States is also under unprecedented pressure due to the coup as its accused leader, Fethullah Gülen, resides in the United States. The Turkish government has formally requested extradition in accordance with a bilateral treaty, and whether it is granted or denied could affect the future of U.S./Turkish relations, as well as the coherence of NATO.

The Kurdish system is the most problematic challenge confronting Turkey. Although the Kurds do not have a state of their own, they have been empowered in their respective geographies during the Arab Spring, which has raised their expectations. Kurds are a minority group in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. There are three Kurdish sub-systems emerging within the atmosphere of change and transformation in the Middle East. First is the Syrian-Iranian sub-system, which seems best characterized by war and survival. Second is the Iraqi subsystem, which is a quasi-state structure that faces the challenges of securing the autonomy and consolidation of political and economic order, which may require an opening up of its political structure to satisfy societal demands. Third is the Turkish subsystem, which oscillates between war against the PKK and a peace process with Kurdish political representatives in an environment of a relatively advanced political structure. In the last year or so there has been a definite move away from peace and diplomacy and a firm embrace of armed struggle tactics.by both sides

Against this backdrop, Emirhan Yorulmazlar and Bülent Aras deal with the geopolitics of the Arab Spring and develop a framework to combine the factors that brought the previous regional order to an end. The domestic to regional and regional to global flows are examined in detail as the authors analyze and assess the regional disorder that emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Ever since the regional political landscape appears to have been completely altered. The article identifies the emerging subregional systems in the Middle East, which could pinpoint the basis for further changes and evolve to constitute the prospective regional order.

Fuat Keyman deals with the regional crisis and explains how this contributes to global turmoil. In this regional to global flow, regional problems are elevated to matters of international security. Keyman analyzes Turkey’s dilemma specifically, facing both the rise of Daesh and the refugee problem. He rejects the idea that Turkey is a buffer zone and encourages a more constructive and integrative dialogue between both Turkey and EU and Turkey and the U.S. with the objective of addressing these issues.

Pınar Akpınar focuses on the limits of mediation with respect to conflict resolution in the five years of Arab Spring. Akpınar’s focus on the effects of the multi-actor environment, the results of various trials of mediation, and a particular consideration of the mediation attempts in Syria underlines the necessity to rethink the means, nature, and capability of mediators as an alternative to chaos and armed struggle.

Halil Ibrahim Yenigün explores the repercussions of the purported failure of Islamist experimentations with democracy during the Arab Spring in terms of the inclusion-moderation hypotheses with a specific focus on the Egyptian case. He puts forward that moderation can only go so far because of the relevance and limits of Islamists’ political theology and further democratization may be dependent on a more viable Islamist political theology that accords better with rights and freedoms than a simplistic understanding of majority principle.

Richard Falk evaluates the aftermath of the Arab Spring through the dual optic of a regional phenomenon and a series of country narratives. These narratives are categorized by reference first to the secular states that found a path to stability after experiencing strong uprisings that drove rulers from power , second to the states in which the uprisings generated prolonged resistance and continuing acute instability, and third to the monarchies that neutralized the uprisings at their inception and restored stability. When other dimensions of conflict are taken into account it seems likely that the Middle East will continue to experience chaos, intervention, and counterrevolution for years to come, and possibly even a second cycle of uprisings directed at the evolving order.

 

Notes on Contributors

Bülent Aras is Senior Scholar and Coordinator of the Conflict Resolution and Mediation stream at Istanbul Policy Center, Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabancı University and Global Fellow at Wilson Center. He is Academic Coordinator of POMEAS (Project on the Middle East and Arab Spring). His current research interests include geopolitics of Arab Spring, non-state actors in peacebuilding and bridging the gap between theory and practice in foreign policy. Recent work has been published in Middle East Policy, International Peacekeeping, Political Science Quarterly, International Journal, Journal of Balkans and Near Eastern Studies, Journal of Third World Studies, Third World Quarterly.

 

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus at Princeton University where he was a member of the faculty for forty years (1961-2001). He is Chair of International Board of Advisers of POMEAS. Between 2002 and 2013 he has been associated with Global & International Studies at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California, and is continuing to direct a research project on ‘Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy’ in his role as Fellow of the Orfalea Center. Professor Falk has been the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine for the United Nations Human Rights Council between 2008 and 2014. He served as Chair of the Board, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2004-2012, and is now its Senior Vice President. In 2008-2009 he was appointed expert advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly. Over the years, Falk has published more than 50 books. The most recent one is Power Shift: On the New Global Order (2016).

 

* Corresponding author. Email: bulent@sabanciuniv.edu

An Unlikely AMEXIT: Pivoting Away from the Middle East  

14 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The post that follows is a modified version of an opinion piece that was published by Al Jazeera English on July 10, 2016; it examines the argument for disengagement from the Middle East by analogizing a plausible AMEXIT to BREXIT.]

 

The Case for Disengagement

 

A few years ago Barack Obama made much of an American pivot to East Asia, a recognition of China’s emergence and regional assertiveness, and the related claim that the American role in Asia-Pacific should be treated as a prime strategic interest that China needed to be made to respect. The shift also involved the recognition by Obama that the United States had become overly and unsuccessfully engaged in Middle Eastern politics creating incentives to adjust foreign policy priorities. The 2012 pivot was an overdue correction of the neocon approach to the region during the presidency of George W. Bush that reached its climax with the disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq, which continues to cause negative reverberations throughout the region. It was then that the idiocy of ‘democracy promotion’ gave an idealistic edge to America’s military intervention and the delusion prospect of the occupiers receiving a warm welcome from the Iraqi people hit a stone wall of unanticipated resistance.

 

In retrospect, it seems evident that despite the much publicized ‘pivot’ the United States has not disengaged from the Middle East. Its policies are tied as ever to Israel, and its fully engaged in the military campaigns taking place in Syria and against DAESH. In a recent article in The National Interest, Mohammed Ayoob, proposes a gradual American disengagement from the region. He makes a highly intelligent and informed strategic interest argument based on Israel’s military superiority, the reduced Western dependence on Gulf oil, and the nuclear agreement with Iran. In effect, Ayoob convincingly contends that circumstances no longer justify a major American engagement in the region, and that to maintain the commitment at present levels adds to Middle East turmoil, and its extra-regional terrorist spillover, in ways that harms American interests.

 

Why Disengagement Won’t Happen

 

Ayoob’s reasoning is flawless, but disengagement won’t happen, and not because Americans are not smart enough to recognize changed circumstances. The pivot to East Asia was a recent instance of such an adjustment based on an assessment of changed geopolitical circumstances. Actually, the high degree of American involvement in the Middle East was itself the result of an adjustment to changed circumstances. After the Soviet collapse, the earlyier geopolitical preoccupation with Europe seemed superfluous and outmoded, and the Middle East with its oil, Israel, expanding Islamic influence, risky nuclear proliferation potential seemed then like a region where a strong American commitment would solidify its role as global leader. This perception was reinforced after the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which gave neocon hawks a pretext for a regime-changing attack on Iraq, which the neocons hoped was but a prelude to a more elaborate political reconfiguring of the region by way of regime-changing interventions. [See ‘Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’ (1996) for a fuller understanding of the Israeli oriented neocon mindset] The Iraqi undertaking failed miserably during the state-rebuilding occupation that followed upon the attack and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. The master plan involved reconstructing the government and economy of Iraq to serve Western interests while at the same time supposedly democratizing the country. It totally backfired. This American pivot to the Middle East after the Cold War was based on the geopolitical opportunism of Washington in a context of a persisting failure to understand the changing circumstances of the post-colonial world, and especially the altered balance between the military superiority associated with foreign intervention and the resourcefulness of territorial resistance.

 

So why the inflexibility with respect to the Middle East when disengagement brings immediate major practical advantages? Part of the explanation is surely governmental inertia, reinforced by the belief that the changes in conditions are not as clear and favorable as Ayoob contends, making disengagement seem geopolitically vulnerable to future charges that the Obama presidency was responsible for ‘losing the Middle East,’ as if it was ever America’s to lose!

 

More to the point is a range of other reasons militating against disengagement. Perhaps, most significant, is the militarist bias of American foreign policy that is even unable to acknowledge that the attacks on Iraq or Libya were failures. This refusal to think outside the military box prevails in American policy circles, making the debate on what to do about Syria or DAESH center on the single question of how much American military power should be deployed to resolve these conflicts. What Eisenhower called the military industrial complex has come to dominate the machinery of government in Washington, further abetted by the accretion of a huge homeland security bureaucracy since 9/11. Real threats to American interests exist in the Middle East, and given this unwillingness to rely on political or diplomatic solutions for the resolution of most disputes, virtually requires the United States to retain its military presence to ensure the availability of options to intervene militarily whenever the occasion arises.

 

Then there is the anti-international mood that has taken over American domestic politics. It is hostile to every kind of international commitment other than military action against real and imagined Islamic enemies. Additionally, the US Congress has been completely captured by the Israeli Lobby, which puts a high premium on maintaining the American geopolitical engagement so as to share with Israel the burdens and risks associated with the management of regional turbulence. As neither the Arab uprisings of 2011 nor the robust counterrevolutionary aftermath were anticipated, it is argued that there is too uncertainty to risk any further disengagement. This is coupled with the claim that the rapid drawdown of American combat forces in Iraq was actually premature, and led to a resurgence of civil strife that has persuaded the Obama administration to redeploy American troops both to aid in the fight to regain territory occupied by ISIS and to help the government to establish some degree of stability.

 

Why Disengagement Should Happen

 

Neither realist arguments about interests nor ethical considerations of principle will lead to an overdue American disengagement. Washington refuses to understand why intervention by Western military forces in the post-colonial Middle East generates dangerous extremist forms of resistance (e.g. DAESH) magnifying the problems that prompted intervention in the first place. In essence, the intervention option is a lose/lose proposition, but without it American engagement makes no sense.

 

Unfortunately, for America and the peoples throughout the Middle East the US seems incapable of extricating itself from yet another geopolitical quagmire that is partly responsible for generating extra-regional terrorism of the sort that has afflicted Europe in the last two years. And so although disengagement is a sensible course of action, it won’t happen for a long, long time, if at all. Unlike BREXIT, for AMEXIT, and geopolitics generally, there are no referenda offered the citizenry.

 

##

 

Why Arms Control is the Enemy of Nuclear Disarmament

9 Jul

No First Use: Arms Control versus Disarmament Perspectives

 

I have long believed that it is important to disentangle the advocacy of nuclear disarmament from the prevailing arms control approach. The core difference in perspective can be summarized as follows: arms controllers seek to stabilize nuclearism, reserving nuclear weapons for use as deterrent weapons of last resort; nuclear disarmers seek to get rid of nuclear weapons as reliably as possible, and forever; disarmers regard their possession, development, and potential use as deeply immoral as well as dangerous from the perspective of long-term human security.

 

President Barack Obama ever since his 2009 speech at Prague projecting a vision of a world without nuclear weapons has confused public understanding by straddling the fence between these two incompatible perspectives. He often talks like a potential disarmer, as during his recent visit to Hiroshima, but acts like an arms controller, as in the appropriation of $1 trillion for the modernization of the existing nuclear weapons arsenal over the next 30 years or in NATO contexts of deployment.

 

There is a quite prevalent confusion among those constituencies that purport to favor nuclear disarmament of supposing that the adoption of arms control measures is not only consistent with, but actually advances toward the realization of their objectives. Such reasoning is deeply confused in my view. It is not just that most formulations of arms control regard nuclear disarmament, if at all, as an ‘ultimate’ goal, that is, as no goal at all falling outside the domain of policy feasibility.

Obama signaled his own confusion in two features of his Prague speech: first, indicating without giving any rationale (there is none) that achieving nuclear disarmament might not be achieved in his lifetime; secondly, avoiding any mention of the legal imperative of a good faith commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament that was unanimously endorsed by an otherwise divided court in the International Court of Justice historic Advisory Opinion of 1996.

 

Incidentally, the label ‘advisory’ is deeply misleading as this legal pronouncement by the highest judicial body in the UN System is the most authoritative interpretation attainable of relevant international law by distinguished jurists drawn from the main legal and cultural traditions active in the world. For such a diverse group to agree on the legal imperative of disarmament is notable, and for it to be ignored by a supposed advocate who is in a position to act is both revealing and irresponsible.

 

My view of the tension between the two perspectives can be briefly articulated: arms control measures unless tied to a disarmament scenario make the retention of nuclear weapons less prone to accident, inadvertent use, and unnecessary missions while reinforcing the logic of deterrence and indirectly expressing the view that a reliable nonproliferation regime is the best that can be hoped for ever since the nuclear genie escaped confinement. Such an approach makes the advocacy of nuclear disarmament

appear to be superfluous idealism, at best, and an imprudent

challenge to deterrence and realism, at worst. There is a coherent argument for such a posture, but it is not one that credible supporters of a nuclear zero or nuclear disarmament should feel comfortable with as it undercuts their supposed priority to eliminate the weaponry once and for all, although moving to zero by verified stages. This contrasts with the central undertaking of the arms control community to live with nuclear weapons as prudently as possible, which translates into nonproliferation, safety, prudent foreign

policy, non-provocative weapons development and deployment, and trustworthy crisis management.

 

Printed below is a recent editorial of the Arms Control Association proposing the American adoption of a no first use policy as a crucial declaratory step in advancing their agenda of nuclear prudence. Its line of argument well illustrates the overall nuclearist logic of the arms control establishment, which also tries to justify its proposal by showing that nuclear weapons are not needed to fulfill America’s worldwide geopolitical ambitions. These ambitions can be satisfied in all circumstances, it is alleged, except a nuclear attack by a nuclear weapons state, by relying on U.S. dominance in conventional weaponry.

 

Here is a further issue raised: for states that possess or contemplate the possession of nuclear weapons, yet are vulnerable to conventional weaponry of potential adversaries, the implicit rationale of the Arms Control Association editorial is that such states have strong

justifications for retaining, and even for developing such weaponry. In effect, countries such as Iran and North Korea can read this editorial as suggesting that they need nuclear weapons to deter surrounding countries with superior conventional weaponry from exerting undue influence via intervention or coercive diplomacy. In effect, the Arms Control Association no first use position, by treating that the U.S. Government and think tank policy community as its target audience, is undercutting the ethical and political rationale for nonproliferation as a rule of world order. As security is the acknowledged prime value in state-centric world order, an argument justifying nuclear weapons for the leading military power in the world is in effect providing non-nuclear states that feel threatened with a powerful

argument for acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

 

A final clarification: I have long favored the adoption of a no first use policy on its own merits, including at the height of the Cold War. It not only underscored the immorality and criminal unlawfulness of any initiating use, but if properly explained could be taken as a vital step in a disarming process. As long as no such posture was adopted even by the United States, with its formidable conventional military options, it meant that the potential use of nuclear weapons was never taken off the geopolitical table. This meant, as well, that the nuclear weapons labs were encouraged to envision potential roles for these weapons of mass destruction and design weaponry configured to carry out such missions.

 

In effect, a nuclear disarmament position also entails a repudiation of geopolitical ambitions to project worldwide military power as the United States has done ever since the end of World War II. This grandiose undertaking has weakened the UN, undermined respect for international law, and subverted democratic institutions within the United States and elsewhere, all while making the country more insecure than at any time in its history and its enemies more bold and aggressive. The common flaw of dominant political actors is to underestimate the will and capability of its militarily weaker adversaries to develop effective modes of resistance. Both the Vietnam experience and 9/11 should have imparted this basic message that the United States was endangering its future (and that of the world) by its posture of geopolitical hubris built on the false belief that the effective agent of change in the twenty-first century is military

dominance. The nuclear dimension of this hubris is particularly dangerous, and ultimately debilitating.

 

It is long overdue to distinguish arms control from disarmament. Arms controllers have made such a choice, purging genuine advocates of disarmament from their ranks as dreamers. The arms control voice is welcome in government even when their proposals are rejected because they collide with geopolitical goals. In contrast, the voice of disarmers is popular among the peoples of the world. Obama’s Prague speech made such a worldwide social impact, and continues to resonate, because it was widely heard (incorrectly) as putting the United States firmly on a disarmament path.

 

Unfortunately, after eight years of an Obama presidency it is as clear as ever that it is civil society alone that carried the disarmament torch during this period, somewhat backed by a series of non-nuclear governments that are not complicit beneficiaries of America’s nuclear umbrella (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan). In this spirit, although not always sufficiently clear about the policy implications of their nuclear disarmament agenda, the best vehicle for those favoring nuclear disarmament is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and such initiatives as Chain Reaction 2016 and the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.

 

*********************************************************************

 

Editorial Published on Arms Control Association (http://www.armscontrol.org); posted June 30, 2016

 

Take Nuclear First-Use Off the Table

The Cold War standoff that gave rise to tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ended a quarter century ago, and U.S. and Russian deployed arsenals have been slashed through verifiable arms control agreements.

Unfortunately, the risks of nuclear weapons use are still far too high, in part because the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use remain largely the same.

President Obama in 2009 at Hradčany Square Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: White House)

Early in his presidency, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”

On June 6, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes pledged that the president “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use.”

One very important step would be for Obama to declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking and greatly strengthen U.S. and global security.

Limiting the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons was a goal laid out by the “Nuclear Posture Review Report” in 2010, which said the United States should pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of the nuclear arsenal.

Nevertheless, current policy still leaves several dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons-use options on the table, including the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict to pre-empt a real or suspected nuclear attack, to counter the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, or to halt a massive conventional military threat against U.S. forces or allies.

Today, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of bombers, missiles, and submarines. Current U.S. strategy requires that there are enough nuclear forces available to destroy nearly 1,000 enemy targets, many in urban areas, and that these weapons can be launched within minutes of a decision to do so.

Maintaining such a capability plays a large role in compelling Russia—and may soon help to lead China—to field a sizable portion of their nuclear forces in a launch-under-attack mode in order to avoid a disarming nuclear strike. This, in turn, increases the chance that nuclear weapons might be used or dispersed by U.S. adversaries in a crisis.

As Obama correctly said in 2008, the requirement for prompt launch is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States could positively influence the nuclear doctrines of other nuclear-armed states, particularly in Asia. Such a shift in U.S. declaratory policy could also alleviate concerns that U.S. ballistic missile defenses might be used to negate the retaliatory potential of China and Russia following a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack against their strategic forces.

Shifting to a no-first-use policy would not, in any way, undermine the U.S. ability to deter nuclear attack by another state. It is well established that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack, and given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Given the overwhelming U.S. conventional military edge, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. U.S. nuclear weapons are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyberattack by state or nonstate actors.

A no-first-use policy would not undermine confidence in U.S. defense commitments to key allies. Even if there were to be a conventional military conflict with a nuclear-armed state, such as Russia in the Baltic Sea region or elsewhere, the employment of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it would trigger an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation of nuclear weapons use. As a result, the threat of nuclear weapons first-use to counter non-nuclear attacks lacks credibility.

In remarks delivered in Hiroshima May 27, Obama declared that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Yes, we must.

A U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, improve the prospects for further Russian nuclear cuts, and draw China into the nuclear risk reduction process. It would put a spotlight on the dangerous nuclear doctrines of Pakistan and North Korea, where the risk of nuclear weapons use is perhaps most severe, and challenge them to reconsider the first-use option.

By encouraging a new norm against first-use of nuclear weapons, Obama could help ensure, for this generation and those to come, that nuclear weapons are never used again.

 

 

A Weak UN Ensures a Weak Secretary General

13 Jun

 

 

There are many angles of interpretation relevant to the startling admission by Ban Ki-moon that he succumbed to undisguised diplomatic pressure when removing Saudi Arabia from the ‘shame list’ of countries whose armies are found responsible the maiming and killing of children, earning them dishonorable mentioned in an annex to the annual UN report on violations of children’s rights. The scale and severe nature of such violations, committed in the course of the Yemeni intervention carried out by the Saudi led coalition of countries is beyond serious doubt, detailed in the UN report and strongly endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These most respected of human rights NGOs reacted with moral outrage that the SG would give way to such unseemly and crude pressure, which has the effect of undermining the precarious stature of the UN making visible for all to see how geopolitical considerations outweigh even these most fundamental of humanitarian concerns, the protection of children in war zones..

 

There is more to this incident than one more demonstration that this particular SG lacks the political will to uphold the integrity and autonomy of the UN. On display, as well, was the crude manner in which the UN Saudi ambassador, Abdullah al-Mouallami, threw around his political weight without enduring any backlash. This diplomat openly is accused of threatening the UN with ‘adverse consequences,’ and also with issuing a warning that UN emergency programs in such distressed areas as Gaza, Syria, and South Sudan would lose their Saudi (and Gulf coaltion) funding. Apparently, rather pathetically, Ban Ki-moon, thought it better to give ground, and so explained removing Saudi Arabia from the shame list until a joint review determined what to do as the lesser of evils. The greater evil the SG suggested would be to lose financial support for vital programs that affect a far greater number of children.

 

The ambassador made clear that this face saving procedure to review the listing was not to be construed as consenting to an objective inquiry, declaring that the removal of Saudi Arabia from the list was ‘unconditional and irreversible.’ Whether the disclosure of these sordid happenings will challenge the Saudi insistence remains to be seen. What is evident, and offers the world a glimmer of encouragement, is that Saudi Arabia, despite its notorious human rights record, takes seriously enough its international reputation as to make such use of strong arm tactics that are as demeaning as the UN report itself. The SG retreat also shows to the world that being a monetary heavyweight can matter in the UN as much as being a P-5 member or geopolitical leader.

 

What Saudi Arabia had achieved by relying on its economic leverage, Israel and the United States manage to gain more subtly by persuasion. Both governments leaned heavily on the SG to ensure that Israel would not be on the shame list in view of its violations of the rights of children in the course of the bloody 2014 Gaza War. In an earlier massive attack started at the end of 2008, the SG dutifully buried a report strongly condemning Israel for deliberately targeting UN facilities where Palestinian civilians were receiving shelter. So it is important to appreciate that Saudi Arabia is not by any means alone in applying extra-legal pressure to avoid losing face by adverse findings. The fact that the U.S. special relationship with Israel includes helping Israel cover up such serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards is also an added reason for disappointment.

 

The good news is that governments do their upmost to avoid moral and legal opprobrium as a result of UN initiatives, and this is because it matters. Recall the furious Israeli reaction to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that found Israel guilty of numerous violations of the law of war in the course of its attack on Gaza months earlier, which had the effect of burying the report’s recommendations for further action but did validate the allegations of criminality made in civil society, contributing to the discrediting of Israel’s occupation policies and practices, especially as enacted in Gaza. The bad news is that the leverage of the powerful and rich consistently leads the UN to buckle beneath the weight of backroom influence.

What gives this Saudi event salience is the transparency and effectiveness of the inappropriate behavior, which includes the SG’s unusually candid acknowledgement of what took place, producing a media shout out that encourages a critical assessment of the UN and its leadership. Perhaps, Ban Ki-moon in his final months as SG has decided to tell it like it is, having kept his mouth shut and mostly doing what he was told to do for the nearly ten years that he occupied the highest UN post.

 

There are two ways to view Ban Ki-moon’s handling of Saudi pressure. The first impulse is to condemn the SG for cavalierly disregarding the values of the UN Charter, human rights, and international law. From this perspective, Ban Ki-moon reinforced his overall image throughout his two terms as a weak international civil servant who is blown in whatever the direction of the prevailing wind happens to be. A second line of interpretation is more charitable, suggesting that Ban Ki-moon was confronted by a ‘Sophie’s choice’ dilemma: either to insist on the integrity of the shame list or balance the competing costs, and thus exhibit flexibility by opting to keep the economic assistance flowing to places of dire need.

 

What both interpretations suggest is the subordination of UN operations to geopolitical realities, not only as this incident unfolded, but also more tellingly with respect to the underlying structural characteristics of the UN. The manner of choosing a SG, requiring endorsement by each of the P-5, virtually guarantees the selection of a person of weak character and strong ambition. The fact that there have been some partial exceptions among the eight SGs that have so far served is mainly an indication that the gatekeepers have not always succeeded in doing their job of making sure that a person of unshakable moral character is ever selected. Political astuteness, which is understood to me a realistic willingness to be responsive to geopolitical pressures has been part of the job description all along. We can still hope for another Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, or Kofi Annan who will somehow get through the gate, imparting dignity once more to the office of Secretary General, but from a structural point of view such a happy outcome must still be viewed essentially as an accident.

 

Closely related is the even more fundamental recognition that the funding supply chains of the UN are tied directly to these geopolitical levers of influence. The UN is kept on a short financial leash so that the leaders of the Organization will not get the wrong idea, and think of themselves as independent political actors owing primary loyalty to the UN Charter and the ideals set forth in its Preamble. It would be a simple matter to impose a tax on international financial transactions or international flights that would generate the revenue needed to fund the entire UN system. This idea has been around for decades, earlier discussed as ‘the Tobin tax,’ named after the Yale Nobel Prize economist, James Tobin, who is credited with first proposing such a tax in 1972. Why it has never happened should not be a mystery. Those who control the UN have no incentive to loosen their grip. Civil society, although supportive of such an initiative, has never been sufficiently motivated to mount the sort of transnational campaign that succeeded in getting the International Criminal Court established despite geopolitical resistance. Absent political will from above or mobilization from below there is no prospect of achieving the degree of financial independence that would allow a SG in the future to react with anger to the sort of demand made effectively by the current Saudi Arabia ambassador.

 

It is evident that the combination of a discretionary veto conferred upon the P-5, which is a legalized exemption of unlimited scope from UN authority, and the leverage provided by the way the Organization is financed, ensures the primacy of geopolitics in the principal operations of the UN. This is what was intended from the beginning of the UN, and this is what has happened all along. It is written into the UN Charter, which provides the constitutional framework and is veto proof against any geopolitically unwanted modification intended to make the UN more responsive to international law rather than to the grand strategies of its dominant members and their closest friends.

 

Despite such disappointments and shortcomings, the UN plays a vital role on the global stage, and its contributions, actual and potential, should not be overlooked. The UN provides a forum available to all states, raising to global visibility the concerns of the weaker governments in a manner that can make a difference. The UN also provides the principal auspices for multilateral diplomacy, as in relation to such lawmaking events as the Paris Climate Change Agreement of a year ago.

 

As an organization of states, the UN fails to address the agendas of the peoples of the world, especially those so marginalized and vulnerable as not to be adequately represented by governments. Proposals for the establishment of a Global Peoples Assembly, parallel to the General Assembly, have been forward over the years, but have not been realized because opposed by the representatives of a state-centric world order that are unwilling to share the formal stage of authority with civil society representatives even as the actualities of globalization have drained power and energy away from states.

 

Perhaps, the most overlooked, yet significant role of the UN is to be a major player in Legitimacy Wars, throwing their weight on one side or the other in the many ongoing struggles around the world. The UN can also issue reports and gather reliable information that disclose ‘inconvenient truths,’ which are influential with world public opinion, and provoke the sort of awkward responses that led to Saudi embarrassment, followed by anger, leading to the even more embarrassing accommodation by a much compromised Ban Ki-moon. At the same time, the incident also called wider attention to the abuse of children in the Yemen intervention than would have followed by its inclusion in a UN report. Political influence and change work in strange ways, and we cannot yet know whether the disgraceful, yet understandable, behavior of the SG will yet persuade the Saudi led coalition to abandon quietly their intervention in Yemen, or at least modify their tactics.

 

What needs to be understood is that symbolic issues with law, morality, and justice have exerted a major impact on the resolution of conflicts since 1945. It is the normative revolution principally brought about through the achievement of the right of self-determination that has changed the map of the world, and indicated that the anti-colonial flow of history has shaped the narrative of recent decades to a greater extent even than the series of startling innovations in the weaponry and tactics of warfare. The UN seems weak when challenged by geopolitics, yet its mark on the history of our time is the clearest demonstration that its presence still matters, and will continue to do so despite the likelihood of future weak SGs and in the face of its deep structural failings to fulfill the promise of the stirring words set forth in the Preamble of the UN Charter.