Tag Archives: United States

Why Okinawa Should Matter

12 Oct


[An earlier version of this post appeared in the Japanese publication, Ryukyu Shimpo. The article is devoted to a critical discussion of Okinawa’s role in serving American and Japanese strategic interests. Since the end of World War II Okinawa has been a mostly unhappy host of American military bases, and the issue has been prominent at times on the agenda of the Japanese peace movement. The interplay of overseas bases and U.S. foreign policy is a crucial and often hidden dimension of the global projection of American power, which gives rise to friction with and opposition from the peoples living in the vicinity of the bases. This has certainly been the case in relation to Okinawa. The essay below offers some reflections on this underlying reality, as well as the linkage between this network of foreign military bases and the emergence of the first global state in history, a new political phenomenon that should not be confused with ‘empires’ of the past.]


Remembering Okinawa


When President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in May of 2016 there was an effort to persuade him to put Okinawa on his travel itinerary, but as has happened frequently throughout the long tortured history of Okinawa, the request was ignored, and the people of the island were once more disappointed. In an important sense, Okinawa is the most shameful legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II, exceeding even the sites of the atomic attacks by its daily reminders of a continued colonialist encroachment on Okinawan national dignity and wellbeing.


Actually, Okinawa is being victimized by overlapping exploitations with that of the United States reinforced and legitimized by mainland Japan. For the United States Okinawa serves as a hub for its strategic military operations throughout the Pacific, with at least 14 separate military bases occupying about 20% of the island, with Kadena Air Base having been used for B-29 bombing missions during the Korean War more than a half century ago, the island being used as a major staging area throughout the Vietnam War and as a secret site for the deployment of as many as 1,000 nuclear warheads in defiance of Japanese declared no-nukes policy. Actually, in recent years Okinawa rarely receives global news coverage except when there occurs a sex crime by American servicemen that provokes local outrage, peaceful mass demonstrations followed by the strained apologies of local American military commanders.


Japan’s role in the misfortunes of Okinawa is more than one of a passive acceptance of the enduring side effects of its defeat and humiliation in World War II. After a series of military incursions, Japan finally conquered Okinawa and the Ryukyu island chain of which it is a part in 1879, and then imposed its rule in ways that suppressed the culture, traditions, and even the language of the native populations of the islands. What is virtually unknown in the West is that Okinawa was the scene of the culminating catastrophic land battle between the United States and Japan in the Spring of 1945 that resulted in the death of an astounding one-third of the island’s civilian population of then 300,000, and its subsequent harsh military administration by the United States for the next 27 years until the island was finally turned back to Japan in 1972. Despite an estimated 60-80% of Okinawans being opposed to the U.S. bases, confirmed by the recent election of an anti-bases governor of prefecture, the government in Tokyo, currently headed by a dangerous militarist, Shinzo Abe, is comfortable with the status quo, which allows most of the unpopular continuing American military presence to be centered outside of mainland Japan, and hence no longer a serious political irritant within the country.


What the plight of Okinawans exemplifies is the tragic ordeal of a small island society, which because of its small population and size, entrapment within Japan, and geopolitical significance, failed to be included in the decolonizing agenda that was pursued around the world with such success in the last half of the 20th century. This tragic fate that has befallen Okinawa and its people results from being a ‘colony’ in a post-colonial era. Its smallness of current population (1.4 million) combined with its enclosure within Japanese sovereign statehood and its role in pursuing the Asian strategic interests of the United States, as well as joint military operations with Japan make it captive of a militarized world order that refuses to acknowledge the supposedly inalienable right of self-determination, an entitlement of all peoples according to common Article 1 of both human rights covenants. In this respect Okinawa, from a global perspective, is a forgotten remnant of the colonial past, which means it is subjugated and irrelevant from the perspective of a state-centric world order. In this respect, it bears a kinship with such other forgotten peoples as those living in Kashmir, Chechnya, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Palau, Marianas Islands, among many others.


There are other ways of being forgotten. I have for many years been concerned about the Palestinian ordeal, another geopolitical and historical casualty of Euro-American priorities and the colonialist legacy. Here, too, the indigenous population of Palestine has endured decades of suffering, denials of basic rights, and a dynamic of victimization initiated a century ago when the British Foreign Office issued the Balfour Declaration pledging support to the world Zionist movement for the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in historic Palestine, later placed under the tutorial role of the United Kingdom with the formal blessings of the League of Nations until the end of World War II. Instead of Japan playing the intermediate role as in Okinawa, it is Israel that pursues its own interests and teams with the United States and Europe as a strategic partner to carry forward its shared geopolitical goals throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Of course, there are crucial differences. Japan is constrained as a partner by its postwar peace constitution, which Abe is keen to circumvent and dilute, while Israel has become a military powerhouse in the region, enjoying a special relationship with the United States that includes the incredible assurance by Washington of a military capability capable of defeating any foreseeable combination of Arab adversaries. Also, unlike Okinawa, there are no American military bases in Israel. There is no need for them. Israel acts as an American surrogate, and sometimes even vice versa. Yet the result is the same—force projection unconnected with self-defense, but vital for upholding regional strategic interests that involves maintaining a visible military presence and offering allies in the region credible promises of protection.


When we raise questions about the future of Okinawa, we come face to face with the role and responsibility of global civil society. The Palestinian goals appear to remain more ambitious than those of the Okinawans, although such an impression could be misleading. The Palestinian movement is centered upon realizing the right of self-determination, which means at the very least an end to occupation and a diplomacy that achieves a comprehensive, sustainable, and just peace. For Okinawans, long integrated into the Japanese state, earlier dreams of independence seem to have faded, and the focus of political energy is currently devoted to the anti-bases campaign. Taking moral globalization seriously means conceiving of citizenship as borderless with respect to space and time, an overall identity I have described elsewhere under the label ‘citizen pilgrim,’ someone on a life journey to build a better future by addressing the injustices of the present wherever encountered.


In this respect, acting as citizen pilgrims means giving attention to injustices that the world as a whole treats as invisible except when an awkward incident of lethal abuse occurs. Okinawa has been effectively swept under the dual rugs of statism (Okinawa is part of the sovereign state of Japan) and geopolitics (Okinawa offers the United States indispensable military bases), and even the mainly Japanese peace movement may have grown fatigued and distracted, being currently preoccupied with its opposition to the revival of Japanese militarism under Abe’s leadership. Whether attention to the plight of Okinawa will give rise to false hopes is a concern, but the aspiration is to produce an empowering recognition throughout the world that for some peoples the struggle against colonialism remains a present reality rather than a heroic memory that can be annually celebrated as an independence day holiday. Until we in the United States stand in active solidarity with such victims of colonialist governance we will never know whether more can be done to improve prospects of their emancipation. This awareness and allegiance is the very least that we can do if we are to act in the spirit of a citizen pilgrimage.

The Uses and Abuses of Uncertainty: The Case of Turkey

9 Sep



Webs of Uncertainty


One of the paradoxes of the digital age with its real time awareness is the degree to which information overloads clouds our imagination with cheaply achieved and false clarity, which in political contexts is often the Mad Men work of selective interpretation or deliberate manipulation. There are two types of uncertainty that complicate our perceptions of reality. There is, first of all, the ontological problems associated with a variety of uncertainties embedded in the unresolvable complexities of our experience in such ways that we make important decisions in the face of serious doubts. And secondly, there are often predispositional problems associated with the sources we choose to rely upon, the intrusion of our opinions, and under the influence of the worldview we adopt that biases understanding, sometimes intentionally, but usually, unwittingly.


A fundamental aspect of the human condition, philosophized brilliantly by Jacques Derrida, is a pervasive good faith uncertainty and undecidability that confusingly overlaps with the almost continuous need to act in the lifeworld, and then, despite this, assume responsibility for whatever decisions are taken. In effect, this makes the human condition ‘impossible’ because of this rooted unintelligibility of our experience, depriving the most momentous decisions of our daily life of any firm foundation in decidable fact. This realization is so deeply unsettling as to make its denial a sign of normalcy. Most of us arrange our lives so that this liminal uncertainty can be overlooked most of the time.


What is equally disturbing is the degree to which the technicians of public order are shaping our collective future from behind such a dark veil. Of course, this has long been true, but in the past the wider social consequences of disastrous choices tended to be relatively local and the leaders depended on special powers. Now leaders are expected to be ‘certain,’ as well as ‘objective,’ which means the job description includes a willingness to wear a mask of certainty that covers a face that is lined with tensions caused by acute doubt. Such expectations produce dishonesty in the political arena, but like our effort to minimize private uncertainty, many politicians are opportunistically able to treat the uncertain as certain, and by so doing, we drift as a species toward the abyss.


In modern times, the magnitude of technological capabilities have been continuously generative of unprecedented catastrophic dangers at the unfamiliarly grand scale of the species as well as habitual human threats and pitfalls experienced at various sub-species levels (nation, family, community). The warnings about climate change have raised this issue to a heightened level of global awareness, accompanied by a fatalistic denialism, as well as a set of politicized responses that up to this point fall well below what is required for a reasonable assurance of species sustainability.



The Turkish Internal Consensus


The experience of political rupture is another circumstance that exposes claims of certainty as pompous posturing, but also can bring forth distinctive forms of denialism that pretends that what is rather certain is mired in the swamps of uncertainty, and what is clear beyond a reasonable doubt, is to be treated as uncertain. Behind this manipulation of uncertainty is a political agenda, usually unacknowledged.


These reflections have been prompted by the various reactions to the failed July 15th coup attempt in Turkey. Within Turkey there is a strong consensus (estimated at between 80 and 90%) embracing most of the opposition forces in the country, but with exceptions. The consensus includes even many embittered secular opponents of Erdoğan’s leadership, believing that the attempted coup was the work of the Fethullah Gülen movement and that its leader in residence in the United States should be turned over to the Turkish government to face criminal prosecution for involvement in crimes of terror, murder, treason. Above all, the consensus proudly regards the defeat of the coup attempt as a great patriotic moment of mass support for Turkish democracy. The second element in this consensus is that the United States is somehow involved, and hence is almost certain to find an excuse to avoid extradition or deportation, and distract attention by harping on the importance of protecting the human rights of all Turks. The third element is that it is essential that the Turkish government, to restore a sense of security about the future, eliminate from various sectors of society adherents and operatives of the movement led by Fethullah Gülen. The fourth element is that the attempted coup was carried out in a bloody manner, killing and wounding many innocent civilians, and failed only because initiated ahead of schedule and poorly executed: Erdoğan escaped assassination by a mere 15 minutes and was then able to mobilize quickly the citizenry to take over public spaces in a bold, massive, and brave manner unprecedented in the context of coup politics, and indicative of the depth of anti-coup sentiment among the Turkish people and the intense support bestowed on Erdoğan for defeating the attempt with polls showing his post-coup popularity to have surged to 70% or more. I would maintain that this consensus in Turkey should be treated until reliably refuted as a generally authoritative account of the relevant events, while admitting that there are many complications that emerge if we look more deeply into the full implication of each of these four elements.




Erdoğan’s Critics: Governmental and Civil Society



In opposition to this consensus, the world press and Western governmental reaction basically ignores this consensus, and treats the coup events as if mired in uncertainty, an outlook coupled with antipathy toward Erdoğan and an overall ambivalence toward Turkey as a legitimate member of Western society despite its NATO membership and its support for the struggle against ISIS. I think there are important differences between the reasons underlying these attitudes that motivate overseas secular and Gülen Turks (and their influential friends around the world) and those that explain the somewhat convergent attitudes of Western governments.


To consider the prevailing attitudes of overseas Turks, it starts with hostility toward the Erdoğan leadership, contending corruption, authoritarianism, a hidden Islamic agenda, social conservatism, and a murderous war against Kurdish militants associated with the PKK, as well as against the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG). This is enough to generate antipathy that expresses itself by either ignoring or rejecting the consensus depicted above as dominating public opinion in Turkey. In this sense, the role and effect of the Gülen movement is either downplayed or problematized, and basically treated as either irrelevant or unproven, and criticism is mounted against all efforts of the Turkish government to rid itself and Turkish society of a secretive religious sect that preaches a message of peace and moderation, while acting subversively and violently. As well, the apparent links between Gülen and the CIA are not even considered worthy of mention.


When it comes to Western governments the response also revolves around distrust of Erdoğan, claiming that he is a Putinesque autocrat, but seeming to have their deepest concerns because Turkey is an unreliable ally that no longer can be trusted to follow the diktats of Washington. In this regard, Turkey’s recent turn toward Russia and Iran, initiatives that preceded the coup attempt, are viewed by the United States and Europe as geopolitically unwelcome. Already by 2010 Turkey worried Washington by turning strongly against Israel and by trying in collaboration with Brazil to resolve tensions with Iran by working out an agreement to store Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country. Then, of course, there was the tie to Fethullah Gülen and his movement, the dispersion of influential Gülenists around the world that often impacted on public official perceptions, and the mutually reinforcing distinct viewpoints associated with Gülenists and secularists together have created an informal international media counter-consensus to what is believed within Turkey.


I became personally suspicious of the ties with the CIA initially in 2010 when Fethullah Gülen personally and organizationally sided with Israel in the dispute with Turkey arising from Israeli commando attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel that was part of ‘a freedom flotilla’ seeking to break the blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian assistance to the entrapped Palestinians. It seemed a peculiar stand to be taken by a movement that purported to be devoted to peace and the spread of Islamic values. Then a couple of years later when invited to meet with some Gülen people in Istanbul my suspicions rose to near certainty. We were shown a short documentary in which James Baker, Madeline Albright, and Bill Clinton, that is, the reigning luminaries of both political parties, made separate appearances in the film to heap praise on Fethullah Gülen and his movement. I have been around long enough to know that this kind of promotional documentary was not an innocent and spontaneous display of enthusiasm for a secretive cult movement led by a mysterious Islamic preacher by the most prominent members of the American political establishment. It could not have happened without a strong government push, and one can only wonder why.


I did not believe, at the time, that these signs of governmental engagement was a prelude to a coup, but rather in the nature of a Plan B option in the event that Erdoğan slipped further from favor, and maybe served other purposes as well. There was also the possibility that the Gülen schools all over the world were being used as an effective means to penetrate some societies, such as those in Central Asia, places where American intelligence was weak. It is reported that Graham Fuller, who effectively backed Fethullah Gülen’s controversial request for a green card over the opposition of the State Department and the FBI, believed that such an educational network could be useful in gaining access to and recruits in otherwise closed foreign societies. Fuller had been CIA station chief in Istanbul before his retirement. Fuller claims a purity of intentions, and I have seen no hard evidence to the contrary, but the strong personal connection with Gülen given other confirming circumstantial evidence makes it reasonable to be suspicious.

As with the Turkish critics, the Western governments ignore the context of the coup attempt, and devote most of their attention to the post-coup crackdown on all suspected of any Gülen affiliation. Also, during the coup, diplomatic support for Ankara was not forthcoming, and a wait and see attitude seemed to carry the day. It may be that the West supposed that the coup attempt was the work of discontented Kemalists in the army and elsewhere, and its success would have been welcomed (as with Egypt in 2013). This distancing angered the Turkish government and people, and confirmed for many Turks suspicions about an American involvement as well as its unwillingness to lend support to a popularly elected government.


These suspicions are further confirmed by the evident reluctance of the United States to cooperate fully in seeking to grant extradition, which it must be said, does face legal obstacles in the best of circumstances. At the same time, if the U.S. Government wanted to back Turkey in this post-coup attempt atmosphere it could at least put Fethullah Gülen under temporary arrest or consider deporting him. One can only imagine the American reaction if Turkey was seeming to shield a person who was strongly believed by most Americans to be behind a coup attempt or major terrorist incident in the United States. Legalistic excuses would not begin to satisfy the American people in such a situation, and it will not satisfy, much less convince the Turkish people and their leadership given the near certainty, which has been attached to the allegation that Fethullah Gülen masterminded the events of July 15th. It should be recalled that the Russian grant of sanctuary to Edward Snowden was seen in the United States as an unfriendly act that harmed relations between the countries even though the nature of his alleged crime was distinctly ‘political’ in nature, and hence, non-extradictable.


An Uncertain Future


Among the uncertainties relevant to assessing the situation in Turkey is how the near future unolds. Will the West live with a Turkey that claims the prerogative of a sovereign state to pursue independently its own interests? Will the anti- Erdoğan campaign carry the day in the struggle for the control of world public opinion and shape Western policy toward Turkey? And, of course, will the Turkish government conform formally and in good faith to due process and the rule of law in the course of identifying those who can be reasonably charged with direct and indirect complicity in the coup attempt? (It worth noting that of the 55,000 or so who were originally subject to suspension or detention more than half have been restored to employment or released, according to the Minister of Interior). It is also most important, if Turkey is to regain respect beyond its borders, that it not mingle its legitimate grievances against the Gülen militants, operatives, and financial backers with separate concerns it might have about the opinions and loyalty of pro-Kurdish activists and ardent Kemalists.


This unfolding future should gradually tell us which mix of certainties and uncertainties will govern the Turkish internal and international future, and on that may hinge Turkey’s security and overall regional and global orientation, including the future of its relations with the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and its own regional neighborhood. Perhaps, underneath the immediacies of the situation, there are deeper forces at work in Turkey and elsewhere that are seeking to find new alignments that befit the realities of the post-Cold War world order. If this possibility were at the core of what is taking place, then it would not be startling to witness Turkey pulling slowly away from NATO, and finding its own path between East and West. At present, this seems unlikely as there remains in Ankara a strong bonding with the West despite these recent strains, but surely international relations have witnessed far stranger realignments over the course of the past century.

Smearing BDS Supporters

4 Jul



[Prefatory Note: An earlier version of this post was published with the title, “The Palestinian Struggle for Self-Determination: A New Phase?” in Middle East Eye, June 26, 2016. This version stresses the misappropriation of anti-Semitism as a propaganda weapon to smear pro-Palestinian activists, especially those supportive of the BDS Campaign. It also clarifies the issues of representation by explaining the formal differences between the PLO and PA, which do not seem presently consequential in my understanding; I am indebted to Uri Davis for bringing the distinction to my attention although he may not agree with my way of handling it.]


End of the Road?


There are many reasons to consider the Palestinian struggle for self-determination a lost cause. Israel exerts unchallenged paramilitary control over the Palestinian people, a political reality accentuated periodically by brutal attacks on Gaza causing massive civilian casualties and societal dislocation. Organized Palestinian armed resistance has all but disappeared, limiting anti-Israeli violence to the desperation of individual Palestinians acting on their own and risking near certain death by striking spontaneously with primitive knives at Israelis encountered on the street, especially those thought to be settlers.


Furthermore, the current internal dialogue in Israel is disinclined to view ‘peace’ as either a goal or prospect. This dialogue is increasingly limited to whether it seems better for Israel at this time to proclaim a one-state solution that purports to put the conflict to an end or goes on living with the violent uncertainties of a status quo that hovers uncomfortably between the realities of ‘annexation’ and the challenges of ‘resistance.’ Choosing this latter course means hardening the apartheid features of the occupation regime established in 1967. It has long had the appearance of a quasi-permanent arrangement that is constantly being altered to accommodate further extensions of the de facto annexations taking place within the Palestinian territorial remnant that since the occupation commenced was never more than 22% of British administered Palestine. It is no secret that the unlawful Israeli settlement archipelago is constantly expanding and Jerusalem is becoming more Judaized to solidify on the ground Israel’s claim of undivided control over the entire city.


Israel feels decreasing pressure, really no pressure at all aside from the ticking bomb of demographics, to pretend in public that it is receptive to a negotiated peace that leads to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The regional turbulence in the Middle East is also helpful to Israel as it shifts global attention temporarily away from the Palestinian plight, giving attention instead to ISIS, Syria, and waves of immigrants threatening the cohesion of the European Union and the centrist politics of its members. This gives Israel almost a free pass and Palestinian grievances have become for now a barely visible blip on the radar screens of public opinion.


Recent regional diplomacy strengthens Israeli security. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey seek normalized relationships with Israel, Egypt is again supportive of Israeli interests, and the rest of the region is preoccupied with internal strife and sectarian struggles. Even without the United States standing in the background giving unconditional security guarantees, ever larger aid packages, and serving as dutiful sentry in international institutions to block censure moves, Israel has never seemed as secure as it is now. The underlying question that will be answered in years to come is whether this impression of security is appearance or reality.


Yet even such a reassuring picture from Israel’s perspective, while accurate as far as it goes, creates misimpressions unless we consider some further elements. There exist a series of reasons for the Palestinians to believe that their struggle, however difficult, is not in vain. Although the French initiative to revive bilateral negotiations is unlikely to challenge effectively Israel’s unilateralism, it does suggest a possibly emerging European willingness to raise awkward questions about the continued viability of the United States claim to be exclusively entitled to act as the international intermediary of the conflict. The Oslo framework that has dominated international diplomacy since 1993 was fatally flawed from its inception by allowing the United States to play this brokering role despite its undisguised partisanship. How could the Palestinians ever be expected to entrust their future to such a skewed ‘peace process’ unless compelled to do so as a result of their weakness? And from such weakness and skewed diplomacy only fools and knaves would expect a sustainable peace based on the equality of the two peoples to follow.


This diplomacy was exposed for the charade it was, especially by the subversive impact of continuous Israeli unlawful settlement expansion that was dealt with by Washington with diminishing expressions of disapproval. And yet this diplomatic charade was allowed to go on because it seemed ‘the only game in town’ and it had the secondary political advantage of facilitating without endorsing Israel’s ambitions with respect to land-grabbing.


A question for the future is whether the French, or the Europeans, can at some point create a more balanced alternative diplomacy that serves both parties equally and conditions diplomatic engagement upon compliance with international law. Such a possibility seems at last to being tested, however tentatively and timidly, and even this modest challenge seems to be worrying Tel Aviv. The Netanyahu leadership is suddenly once more proposing yet another round of futile Oslo negotiations with the apparent sole purpose of undermining this French innovative gesture in case it unexpectedly gains political traction.


Realistically viewed, there is no present prospect of a political compromise achieving a sustainable peace. There needs first to be a change of leadership and political climate in Israel coupled with a more overall balance of international forces than has existed in the past. It is here we witness the beginnings of a new phase in the national struggle that the Palestinians have waged ever since the nakba occurred in 1948. Gone are the hopes of Palestinian rescue by the liberating armies of Arab neighbors or later, through organized Palestinian armed resistance. Gone also is the vain hope of a negotiated peace that delivers on the vain promise of an end to Israeli occupation and the birth of a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state within 1967 borders.


Palestinian ‘Statehood’


The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)/Palestinian Authority (PA) [PLO represents the entirety of the Palestinian people whereas the PA technically represents only those Palestinians living under occupation; as a practical matter the two entities overlap, even merge, as Mahmoud Abbas is both Chair of the PLO and President of the PA; it is possible that as some point these two Palestinian organizations will act and operate separately and even at odds with one another] continue to represent the Palestinian people in global settings, including at the UN. Many Palestinians who are living under occupation and in exile consider the PA/PLO to be both ineffectual and compromised by corruption and quasi-collaboration with the occupiers. The PA/PLO on its side, after going sheepishly along with the Oslo process for more than twenty years, has begun finally to express its disillusionment by pursuing a more independent path to reach its goals. Instead of seeking Israel’s agreement to a Palestinian state accompanied by the withdrawal of its military and police forces, the PA/PLO is relying on its own version of diplomatic unilateralism to establish Palestinian statehood as well as trying to initiate judicial action to have Israeli policies and practices declared unlawful, even criminal.


In this regard, after being blocked by the United States in the Security Council, the PLO/PA obtained a favorable vote in the General Assembly according it in 2012 the status of ‘non-member statehood.’ The PA used this upgrading to adhere as a party to some widely ratified international treaties, to gain membership in UNESCO, and even to join the International Criminal Court. A year ago the PLO/PA also gained the right to fly the Palestinian flag alongside the flags of UN members at its New York headquarters.


On one level such steps seem a bridge to nowhere as the daily rigors of the occupation have intensified, and this form of ‘statehood’ has brought the Palestinian people no behavioral relief. The PLO/PA has established ‘a ghost state’ with some of the formal trappings of international statehood, but none of the accompanying governance structures and expectations associated with genuine forms of national sovereignty. And yet, Israel backed by the United States, objects strenuously at every step taken along this path of virtuality, and is obviously infuriated, if not somewhat threatened, by PLO/PA initiatives based on international law. Israel’s concern is understandable as this PLO/PA approach amounts to a renunciation of ‘the Washington only’ door to a diplomatic solution, and formally puts Israel in the legally and morally awkward position of occupying indefinitely a state recognized by both the UN and some 130 governments around the world. In other words, as we are learning in the digital age, what is virtual can also become real.



Recourse to BDS


There are other potentially transformative developments complicating an overall assessment. Partially superseding earlier phases of the Palestinian struggle is a growing reliance on global civil society as the decisive site of engagement, and a complement to various ongoing forms of non-cooperation, defiance, and resistance on the ground. The policy focus of the global solidarity movement is upon various facets of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign (or simply BDS) that is gaining momentum around the world, and especially in the West, including on American university campuses and among mainstream churches. This recourse to militant nonviolent tactics has symbolic and substantive potential if the movement grows to alter public opinion throughout the world, including in Israel and the United States. In the end, as happened in South Africa, the Israel public and leadership just might be induced to recalculate their interests sufficiently to become open to a genuine political compromise that finally and equally safeguarded the security and rights of both peoples.


At this time, Israel is responding aggressively in a variety of rather high profile ways. Its official line is to say that its continued healthy rate of economic growth shows that BDS is having a negligible economic impact. Its governmental behavior suggests otherwise. Israeli think tanks and government officials now no longer hide their worries that BDS poses the greatest threat to Israel’s preferred future, including increasing isolation and perceptions of illegitimacy. As one sign of the priority accorded this struggle against BDS, the Israeli lobby in the United States has enlisted the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate has signed up to bea militant anti-BDS activist. At the heart of this anti-BDS campaign is what is being increasingly identified as ‘a new McCarthyism,’ the insidious effort to attach punitive consequences for those who are overtly pro-BDS.



Smearing BDS


In this vein, Israel has launched its own campaign to punish and intimidate those who support BDS, and even to criminalize advocacy. The Israeli lobby has been mobilized around this anti-BDS agenda in the United States, pushing state legislatures to pass laws that punish corporations that boycott Israel by denying them access to the domestic market or declare that BDS activism is a form of hate speech that qualifies as virulent anti-Semitism. Israel is even seeking common cause with liberal Zionist J Street in the US to work together against BDS, an NGO that it had previously derisively dismissed. Support for Israel from the Clinton presidential campaign includes two disgraceful features: an explicit commitment to do what it can to destroy BDS and a promise to upgrade the special relationship still further, openly overcoming the friction that was present during Obama presidency.


It is not new, of course, to brand critics of Israel as anti-Semites. Those of us who have tried to bear witness to Israeli wrongdoing and promote a just outcome have been attacked with increasing venom over the course of the last decade or so. The attack on pro-Palestinian members of the British Labour Party as anti-Semites is part of this Zionist pushback. What is particularly disturbing is that many Western political leaders echo these defamatory and inflammatory sentiments, including even the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who seems to be making some feeble amends as his term nears its end. Israel has no compunctions about attacking the UN as hostile and biased, while when convenient invoking its authority to discredit critics.


This inflation of the idea of anti-Semitism to cover activities protected by free speech and in the realm of responsible debate and citizen activism is on its own a regressive maneuver that deflects attention from the virulent history and outlook of those who hate Jews as individuals and support their persecution as a people. To attenuate the meaning of anti-Semitism in this way is to make the label much less ethically clear as it is improperly used to denigrate what should be permissible and even favored as well as what is properly condemned and socially rejected. To blur this boundary is to weaken the consensus on anti-Semitism that formed throughout the world after the Holacaust.


It is notable that this latest phase of Palestinian national struggle is mainly being waged nonviolently, and in a manner that accords with the best traditions of constitutional democracy. That Israel and Zionist hardliners should be opposing BDS by an ugly smear campaign exposes Israel’s vulnerability when it comes to the legitimacy of its policies and practices, and should give the Palestinians hope that their cause is far from lost.

A Moral Revolution? Reflections on President Obama’s Visit to Hiroshima

5 Jun

There is no doubt that President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima this May crossed some thresholds hitherto taboo. Above all the visit was properly heralded as the first time a sitting American president has dared such a pilgrimage, which has already been critically commented upon by patrioteers in America who still think that the Japanese deserved such a punishment for initiating the war or believed that only such ‘shock and awe’ could induce the Japenese to surrender without a costly invasion of the mainland. As well many in Asia believe that Obama by the visit is unwittingly letting Japan off the accountability hook for its seemingly unrepentant record of atrocities throughout Asia, especially given the perception that the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is doing his conservative best to reinvigorate Japanese nationalism, and even revive imperial ambitions.


Obama is a gifted orator who excels in finding the right words for the occasion, and in Hiroshima his rhetoric soared once more. There he noted “[t]echnological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of the atom requires a moral revolution as well.” Such stirring words would seem to be a call to action, especially when reinforced by a direct challenge: “..among 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.” Obama at Prague in 2009, shortly after being sworn in as president, set forth an inspiring vision along the same lines, yet the small print there and now makes us wonder whether his heart and head are truly aligned. The words flow with grace and even passion, but where are the deeds?


As in Prague, Obama expressed the cautionary sentiment in Hiroshima that “[w]e may not realize this goal in my lifetime.” At which point Obama associates himself with the stabilizing agenda of arms control, reducing the size of the stockpile, making the weapons less obtainable by ‘fanatics,’ and implementing nonproliferation goals. Apparently, neither Obama nor the media take note of the tension between eliminating the weaponry and these proposals designed to stabilize the nuclear weapons environment by making it more reliably subject to prudent and rational policies of control. Yet at the same time making proposals to eliminate the weaponry seem less needed, and even at risk of threatening the stability so carefully constructed over the course of decades.


The real reason for skepticism about Obama’s approach is his unexplained reasons to defer the abolition of nuclear weaponry to the distant future. When Obama declares that a world without nuclear weapons is not likely to happen in his lifetime without telling us why he is changing his role from an advocate of the needed ‘moral revolution’ so as to achieve the desired political transformation to that of being a subtle endorser of the nuclear status quo. Of course, Obama may be right that negotiating nuclear disarmament will not be easy or quick, but what is the argument against trying, why defer indefinitely?


The global setting seems as favorable as it is likely to get. We live at a time when there are no fundamental cleavages among leading sovereign states, all of whom seek to benefit from a robust world economy and to live together without international wars. It would seem to be an overall situation in which dramatic innovations of benefit to the entire world would seem politically attractive. In such an atmosphere why could not Obama have said at Hiroshima, or seven years earlier at Prague, “that during the Cold War people dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons, but the tensions, distrust, and rivalry precluded a reliable disarming process, but now conditions are different. There are no good reasons not to convert dreams of a world without nuclear weapons into a carefully monitored and verified disarmament process, and there are many important reasons to try to do so.” What holds Obama back? Why does he not table a proposal or work with other nuclear governments to produce a realistic timetable to reach nuclear zero?


Worse than the seeming absence of what the great theologian, Paul Tillich, called ‘the courage to be’ is the worrisome evidence of double dealing—eloquent words spoken to warn us of the menace of nuclearism coupled with deeds that actually strengthen the hold of nuclearism on the human future. How else should we interpret by plans of the U.S. Government to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years for the modernization and further development of the existing nuclear weapons arsenal, including provocative plans to develop nuclear weapons with potential battlefield, as opposed to deterrent, missions? Such plans are provocative because they weaken inhibitions on use and tempt other governments to emulate the United States so as offset feared new vulnerabilities to threat and attack. What stands out is the concreteness of the deeds reinforcing the nuclear established order and the abstractness of the words challenging that same order.


Beyond this, while calling for a moral revolution, Obama seems at the same time to give his blessings to nuclear energy despite its profound moral shortcomings. Obama views nuclear energy as a contribution to reducing carbon emissions in relation to global warming concerns and as a way to sell nuclear technology abroad and at the same time satisfy the energy goals of countries, such as India, in the global South. What is not acknowledged by Obama is that this nuclear energy technology is extremely dangerous and on balance detrimental in many of the same ways as nuclear weapons, prone to accidents of the sort associated with the incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, subject to the hazards of accumulating and disposing of nuclear wastes, vulnerable to nuclear terrorism, and creating the technological capacity for the development of the weapons in a series of additional states.


Obama made a point of announcing before visiting Hiroshima that there would be no apology for the attacks by the United States. Clearly, Obama was unwilling to enter a domain that in America remains inflamed by antagonistic beliefs, interpretations, and priorities. There is a scholarly consensus that the war would have soon ended without an invasion or the atomic bomb, but this thesis continues to be challenged by veterans and others who think that the bomb saved American lives, or at minimum, ended the captivity of captured soldiers far sooner than would have been the case without the attacks.


In fairness, Obama did acknowledge the unspeakable tragedy for Japanese civilians that experienced the Hiroshima bomb, and he showed real empathy for survivors (hibakusha) who were there in the front rows when he spoke in Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, but he held back from saying the use of the bomb was wrong, even the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Obama’s emphasis, instead, was on working together to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. In this sense, Obama was indirectly legitimating the impunity that was accorded to the victors after World War II, which contrasted with the punitive measures of accountability used to deal with the crimes committed by the surviving leaders of defeated Japan and Germany. The main value of an apology is to bring a degree of closure to those directly and indirectly victimized by those terrible, events that took place more than 70 years ago. By so doing the United States would have moved a bit closer to suspending its self-serving insistence on impunity and this would have withdrawn geopolitical legitimacy from the weaponry.


There is something disturbing about America’s unwillingness to live up to the full horror of its past actions even while making a never again pledge. In another recent development that is freighted with similar moral ambiguities, former Senator Bob Kerrey was named the first Chair of the Board of the new Fulbright Vietnam University, a laudable joint educational project of the two countries partly funded by the U.S. Congress, despite his apparent involvement in a shameful atrocity committed during the war. The incident occurred on February 25, 1969 in the village of Thang Phong where a unit of Navy SEALS was assigned the task of assassinating a Viet Cong leader believed to be in the vicinity. Instead of a military encounter, 20 civilians were killed, some brutally. 13 were children and one a pregnant woman.


Kerrey contends that the carnage was a result of mistakes, while both a fellow member of the SEALS squad and village residents say that the killing of the civilians was a result of deliberate actions, and not an accident in the darkness. Kerrey received a Bronze Star for the mission, which was reported falsely to his military superiors as resulted in killing 21 Viet Cong militants. What is almost worse, Kerrey kept silent about the incident for more than 30 years, and only spoke about it in public after learning there was about to be a published piece highly critical of his role. Kerrey now says “I have been haunted for 32 years” and explains, “It was not a military victory, it was a tragedy, and I had ordered it.” The weight of the evidence suggests that Kerrey participated as well as ordered the killings, and that although certainly a tragedy it is more properly acknowledged as a severe war crime amounting to an atrocity.


We can only imagine what would be the American or Chinese reaction if Japan sent to the United States or China a comparable person to provide an honorific link between the two countries. For instance, sending a Japanese officer to the U.S. who had cruelly administered a POW camp where Americans were held captive and tortured or sending to China a Japanese commander who had participated in some of the grisly happenings associated with ‘the rape of Nanking.’ It is good that Kerrey is finally contrite about his past role and appears to have been genuinely involved in promoting this goodwill encouragement of quality education in Vietnam, yet it seems unacceptably insensitive that he would be chosen to occupy such a position in an educational institution in Vietnam that is named after a prominent American senator who is particularly remembered for his efforts to bringing the Vietnam War to an end.


What connects these two seemingly distinct concerns is the steadfast refusal of the United States Government to take responsibility for its past crimes, which ensures that when future political pressures push toward immoral and unlawful behavior a similar disregard for minimal decency will be papered over. Obama’s refusal to consider accountability for the unabashed reliance on torture during the presidency of George W. Bush similarly whitewashes the past while unconvincingly promising to do better in the future. Such a pattern makes a mockery of claims made by Obama on behalf of the United States that unlike its adversaries this is a country that reveres the rule of law whenever it acts at home or abroad. From the pragmatic standpoint of governing America, in fairness, Obama never really had a choice. The political culture would have rebelled against holding the Bush administration accountable for its crime, which brings us closer to the truth of a double standard of suspending the applicability of international criminal law with respect to the policies and practices of the United States while championing individual legal responsibility for its adversaries as an expression of the evolution of moral standards in international life.


I believe that double standards has led Obama to put himself forward both as a visionary who seeks a transformed peaceful and just world and also as a geopolitical manager that accepts the job description of the presidency as upholding American global dominance by force as necessary. Now that Obama’s time in the White House is nearing its end we are better able to grasp the incompatibility of his embrace of these two roles, which sadly, and likely tragically, leads to the conclusion that the vision of a world without nuclear weapons was never meant to be more than empty words. What the peoples of the world need to discover over and over again is that the promising words flow easily from the lips of leaders have little significance unless supplemented by a robust movement from below that challenges those who are governing from above. As activists in the 1960s began to understand is that only when the body pushes against the machine will policies incline toward peace and justice, and we in the 21st century will have to rediscover this bit of political wisdom if hope for a nuclear free world is to become a genuine political project.


If more than rhetoric is attached to the call for a “moral revolution,” then the place to start would be to question, prior to abandoning, the mentality that is comfortable with double standards when it come to war making and criminal accountability. The whole idea of impunity for the victors and capital punishment for the losers is morally regressive. Both the Obama visit to Hiroshima, as significant as it was, and the Kerrey relationship to the Fulbright Vietnam University, show that American society, even at its best, is far from prepared to take part in the necessary moral revolution.



An Anecdote About Fascism

19 Apr



Recently I participated in a conference on global inequality and human rights held at the University of Texas in Austin, a lively quite cosmopolitan city. During the lunch break I was talking with a young PhD student from Israel who had just presented an informative paper on inequality in the Philippines. I asked her about her career plans and how it was like to be living in Israel these days. She told me that she was married to an Israeli and planned to return to finish her studies in Tel Aviv after a fellowship year at UT.


I tried to engage her in conversation about evolving Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinians and the related failed diplomacy, but she seemed rather uninformed and perhaps even disinterested as if the peace agenda was not really present in her active consciousness. Then all at once she said something that surprised me. “I am not looking forward to returning to Israel, it is becoming a fascist state.”


What made this strong statement surprising was that it contrasted with the blandness of everything that had preceded it. I asked inquisitively, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, “What makes you say that?”


She pondered the question as if it had come to her from the wild blue yonder. It seemed as if she had never thought about it before, and maybe it was just a spontaneous assertion that she was articulating for the first time. After a pause, she answered somewhat hesitantly: “Because the army is the most powerful and admired institution in Israel, and the government controls everything, it is acting as a totalizing force.” I suppose that gets you to Franco style fascism that prevailed for so long in Spain, but not the more virulent forms of fascism associated with Mussolini’s Italy and especially Hitler’s Germany.


I agreed with the young woman about the hegemony of the armed forces, both institutionally and psychologically, but I was less sure about the totalizing reach of the government. After all, Haaretz continues to publish Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, and they are both outspoken critics of Israeli policies and leaders, but then again there seems to be mounting pressure in Israel against human rights NGOs and peaceful protests, and an official tone of belligerence toward the BDS movement that even South African apartheid racists never exhibited.


The Israeli young woman in Texas never mentioned the oppression of the Palestinians as one dimension of this Israeli drift from democracy to fascism, although many progressive Israelis believe that it is the prolonged occupation of Palestinian territory that has pushed the country toward or over the precipice of fascism. Jeff Halper, author of War Against the People: Israel, Palestinians, and Global Pacification (2015), a leading Israeli activist scholar who emigrated from the U.S. decades ago and has fearlessly placed his body in front of bulldozers to block the demolitions of Palestinian homes, has a different way of putting his concerns about what is happening to the Israeli governing process. “Israel is a vibrant democracy if you are Jewish.” But even for Jews there is pushback, according to Halper, making it “harder and harder to protest.”


What of others living in Israel, especially the Palestinians? Those living in Israel or under occupation are given a fugitive identity by being called ‘Arabs,’  a designation that functions as a way of denying nationalist claims based on a ‘Palestinian’ primary identity. As is well known, Israel uses the legalities of citizenship strategically. It has been recently offering the 25,000 Druze residents of the Golan Heights Israeli citizenship, apparently to neutralize their antagonism toward Netanyahu’s land grab, which defies international law by insisting on permanent Israeli sovereignty over conquered and occupied Syrian territory. So far few Druze have accepted this offer of Israeli citizenship, but this could change if Israel is able to sustain its claim.


As Palestinians know from bitter experience, the privileged societal status of Jews within and without Israel is mostly achieved by way of nationality laws that are ethnically framed to favor Jews, while Israeli citizens, whether or not Jewish, enjoy formal equality that doesn’t count for much when it comes to rights and legal protection. The most notorious of the many ethnographic discriminations in Israeli law is between Jews who are granted an unlimited right of return wherever they live in the world and however tenuous their links to Israel, while Palestinians and other minorities do not have any right of return even if the Palestinian roots of their families go back many generations. Israeli apologists contend that as a Jewish state Israel can do what many other states do, and be selective about its policies toward immigration, and privilege whoever it wishes, and further that the historical context of Zionist was shaped by the aspiration to create a sanctuary for Jews so long targeted for persecution. What this rationale leaves out is that this sanctuary was created by the displacement of the majority of the indigenous population of Palestine, and surely those Palestinians who remain in Israel should not be disadvantaged in their own homeland.


There are other ways in which the fascist tendency toward racism and purification are manifest. The apartheid structures of occupation, differently maintained in the West Bank and Gaza impose systematic and severe discrimination and a miserable status of stateless rightlessness on the Palestinians while according internationally unlawful Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem the full panoply of rights associated with ‘the rule of law’ as bestowed by most constitutional democracies. Also, Israel’s consistent reliance on excessive force against Palestinian protests and resistance activities is also a sign of fascist disrespect for adversary ethnic and religious identities, and even of the right to dissent and display a posture of opposition to the state.


Of course, whether Israel is or is becoming fascist or not in the end is a matter of interpretation, but sadly, it is no longer an extremist assertion or a sign of anti-Semitism to regard Israel as a fascist state. And by way of contrast, it is extreme whitewashing to keep insisting that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’


Some years ago, Henry Seigman, seemed to imply a similar set of circumstances when he argued that Israel had become an ‘ethnocracy,’ that is, a Jewish state in which non-Jews were at best subordinated, and at worst scapegoated in such a way as to make involuntary population transfers an increasingly popular option with the public. Seigman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, also wrote that instead of being the only democracy Israel has become the ‘only apartheid regime in the Western world.”


Of course, the question of the American drift toward fascism has also been noted for several decades. To some extent, the awareness that ‘perpetual war’ is incompatible with the maintenance of real democracy was part of this concern. Peter Dale Scott’s explorations of ‘the deep state’ with its unaccountable dark forces of secrecy that pulled the strings of the national security was an indictment of the merger of covert intelligence and special ops with the underworld of crime and drugs that have intensified fears of the erosion of democratic governance. And we not must overlook Edward Snowden’s brave disclosures of the webs spun by the surveillance state that potentially entangle every person on the face of the earth or the special bonds connections the hedge fund moguls of Wall Street with the bureaucratic elites in Washington that are doing their assigned job of keeping the citizenry on an extremely short leash. This may help explain the anger in America bubbling to the surface during a time when profits continue to rise geometrically while wages remain either flat or keep declining in constant dollars.


And then came Trump, unleashing the dormant underbelly of populist fascism in America, surfacing in various virulent forms: Islamophobia and xenophobia being the most obvious. Just as some understanding of white racism was finally seeping into liberal consciousness by the much belated recognition that ‘black lives matter,’ it was also becoming clear that Muslim lives don’t matter, or matter even less, and Latino lives were becoming problematized by the sudden passion for upholding the law that was sweeping across the American plains, lending strident support to those calling for the punishment, and the massive deportation of those categorized as ‘the illegals.’


The caustic cultural critic and ardent American Zionist, Leon Wieseltier, recently commented on Trump: “Someone asked me if I thought he was a fascist, and I said, ‘he says fascistic things, but to call him a fascist imputes too great a degree of intellectual coherence to him.” And then condescendingly added, “There is no belief system there. I mean he is not wrong. He’s pre-wrong.” He went on to say that Clinton also worried him as a candidate, not because of her hawkish views and record, but people might not vote for her because she was unlovable. As Wieseltier caustically put it, “I’m getting exceedingly nervous about her ability to beat that monster Trump. She’s not very nimble and nobody loves her.” Of course, no mention of Sanders as a glimmer of light, at least on the American horizon.


Instead Wieseltier instructs his 13-year old son “that presidential elections are lesser of evil exercises. I have never once voted happily.” Of course, this is not such an outlandish assessment, although as a candidate eight years ago, I still feel that Barack Obama was not the lesser of evils, but his candidacy represented an extraordinary breakthrough. Although often deeply disappointing later, as president, especially in the domains of security, neoliberalism, and the Middle East, the Republican extreme antipathy toward the man and his policies has fascist, as well as racist, undertones. And why wouldn’t even Wieseltier want to cheer his son up a bit by mentioning Bernie Sanders, who may not be the revolutionary he claims to be, but he is authentically talking some truth to power in ways that defy the mores of the American plutocracy? The American media and liberal mainstream, especially among older folks, is understandably preoccupied with the rightest surge, and is unabashedly counting on a Clinton victory. It is not nearly ready to ditch Democrats linked to Wall Street, Pentagon, and Israel in the manner of Clinton. In fact, most Clinton supporters see little, if any, substantive problem with her, but if critical at all, lament her lack of charm or go ‘tut, tut’ if anyone brings up her past support for the Iraq War, the Libyan intervention, and various authoritarian moves in Central America, most notably Honduras.


Robert Paxton, the author of one of the best books on fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), is reluctant to give a definition of fascism, both because there are many varieties and because it tends to essentialize fascism, which is better comprehended, he believes, as a process that evolves rather than as a system with certain defining attributes. Paxton at the very end of his book relents, offering a list of characteristics that he believes are shared by historical instances of fascism. I believe it is worth reproducing Paxton’s list [219-220], although its application to the U.S. and Israel depends on nuanced interpretation:


–“a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution;”

–“the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;;”

–“the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;”

–“dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;”

–“the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, by exclusionary violence if necessary;”

–“the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male(, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;”

–“the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;”

–“the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;”

–“the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterior of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”


It makes little difference as to whether we explain this militarist drift observed in Israel and the United States as the outcome of decades of high alert geopolitics or the impoverishment of tens of millions due to the cruel dynamics of neoliberal capitalism or primarily as a response to the changing paradigm of global conflict with its borderless battlefields and extremist non-state, transnational political actors. Widespread violent discontent and highly coercive security structures of state power seem here to stay, and so it becomes prudent to fear resurgent forms of fascism reconfigured to correspond with the parameters of the digital age. Reading through Paxton’s list is a chilling reminder of how fascist regimes destroy the fabric of humane societies, but the list also may be read as a cautionary reminder that what exists in Israel and the United States is best understood as pre-fascist, and that there remain anti-fascist political spaces to turn the tide of events in more progressive directions.

A New World Order? ISIS and the Sykes-Picot Backlash

17 Dec




One of the seemingly permanent contributions of Europe to the manner of organizing international society was to create a strong consensus in support of the idea that only a territorially delimited sovereign state is entitled to the full privileges of membership. The United Nations, the institutional embodiment of international society recognizes this principle by limiting membership in the Organization to ‘states.’ Of course, there is an enormous variation in the size, population, military capabilities, resource endowments, and de facto autonomy among states. At one extreme are gigantic states such as China and India with populations of over 1 billion, while at the other are such tiny countries such as Liechtenstein or Vanuatu that mostly rely on diplomacy and police rather than gun powder and armies for security. All four of these political entities have the same single vote when it comes to action in the General Assembly or as participants at global conferences such at the recently concluded Paris Summit on climate change, although the geopolitics is supreme in the Security Council and the corridors outside the meeting rooms.


From the point of view of international law and organizational theory we continue to live in a state-centric world order early in the 21st century. At the same time, the juridical notion of the equality of states that is the foundation of diplomatic protocol should not lead us astray. The shaping of world order remains mainly the work of the heavyweight states that act on the basis of geopolitical calculations with respect for international law and morality displayed only as convenient. Yet the political monoculture of territorial states remains formally the exclusive foundation of world order, but its political reality is being challenged in various settings, and no where more so than in the Middle East.


This is somewhat surprising. It might have been expected in past decades, especially in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa where the ‘states’ were often arbitrarily imposed a century or more ago to satisfy colonial ambitions and took little or no account of the wishes and identities of the people living in a particular geographic space. Yet without exception nationalist movements and their leaders throughout the world, although aware that the colonial demarcations of boundaries were arbitrary and exploitative, thus lacking the legitimacy of ethnic, religious, and historic experience, nevertheless refrained from challenging the idea that a politically independent state should be delimited by the same boundaries as the prior colonial state. It seems that this worldwide acceptance of the territorial status quo reflected two different considerations. Questioning colonial boundaries would open a dangerous Pandora’s Box filled to overflowing with nasty ethnic conflicts and contradictory territorial claims. Beyond this, achieving control over an existing territorial state was seen in international law as the proper fulfillment for a people seeking liberation through the exercise of their right of national self-determination. Such an outcome was increasingly endorsed as the proper goal of nationalist movements throughout the global South, regardless of whether the ideological animus of a given movement leaned left or right. This conception of self-determination was also endorsed at the United Nations, thereby reversing the earlier acceptance of colonial rule as consistent with international law.


Of course, here and there were some rough edges and intense splits at the dawn of the post-colonial era, but surprisingly few of such a character as to produce new delimitations of territorial domain. Malaya split into Malaysia and Singapore, and more significantly, Pakistan broke off from India, and then Bangladesh later split from Pakistan in a bloody struggle. Yet in all these instances the result of political fragmentation was the establishment of an additional coherent territorial sovereign state that had some sort of cultural, religious, or historical rationale. There remain several thwarted movements of national liberation, most notably Palestine, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Tibet, Chechnya, Kurdistan, that is national movements to create independent states that have been under prolonged occupation. It is appropriate to regard these peoples as living in ‘captive nations’ contained by oppressive structure imposed by the dominating state. There is a small degree of ambiguity present as the right of self-determination cannot supposed be validly exercised in any manner that results in the fragmentation of an existing sovereign state. For clarification see UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 on International Law Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, with particular attention to the commentary given with respect to the principle of self-determination. In practice, however, when fragmentation results from successful movements of secession, the new political entities are accepted as ‘states’ for purposes of membership in international society. The breakup of Yugoslavia into component parts illustrates the subordination of the legal principle of state unity to the political realities of fragmentation.


There seemed to be no other concept of sovereign political community that challenged the European notion of the state as it evolved out of the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Again there are a few inconsequential exceptions. The Vatican despite being an essentially religious community is acknowledged for some purposes as a state, although denied full membership in the UN. More recently, as a result of decades of frustration, Palestine has succeeded in being accepted by the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state, but without any right to vote or participate as a member in debates within the General Assembly or Security Council. Palestine as a kind of ‘ghost state’ is accepted as a member of UNESCO, as a state party at the International Criminal Court, and even allowed to fly its national flag outside of UN Headquarters.


Perhaps, the most fundamental formal challenge to a purely statist world order arose from the emergence of the European Union. The EU does represent the interests of its 25 member states for many purposes, including at some international conferences. And yet the EU has not been given membership or an independent vote at the UN, nor have there been objections to the permanent membership of both the United Kingdom and France in the UN Security Council. Despite recent tensions associated with fiscal policy, counter-terrorism, and statist reactions to refugee flows, the EU retains the possibility of evolving at some point into some novel kind of post-Westphalian regional polity that represents its members in a variety of global venues, and thus challenges the foundational principles of state-centric world order. Just now the European Commission has issued new rules strengthening European border control in a manner given precedence over Westphalian traditions of national border control.


More challenging at present is the meta-territorial operational provenance of the United States, with its vast network of foreign bases, its naval and space capabilities able to target any point on the planet, and its claim of ‘presence’ in all regions of the world. The United States is the first ‘global state’ in world history, with its territorial sovereignty only the psychophysical basis of its non-territorial global reach. It is not an empire as that term was understood to rest on formal and overt control, yet it far from being a normal state that generally confines its security operations and diplomatic claims to its geographic boundaries unless it finds itself involved in a distant war.


Sporadic efforts to endow civil society with international status have not gained political traction despite widespread support for the establishment of a ‘global peoples parliament’ modeled on the European Parliament. Populist support for some kind of policy role for civil society at a global level has been reffectively esisted by governments and international institutions opposed to any dilution of the Westphalian template.




It is against this statist background that some recent Islamic practices with regard to political community and world order is innovative and challenging. When explaining the revolutionary process in Iran that unfolded in 1978-79, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted that what was happening in Iran should be treated as an ‘Islamic Revolution’ rather than an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ What was being asserted was that the most relevant community was the Muslim umma, which has not been actualized in recent times but deserves the primary loyalty and adherence of believers whatever their location in national space happens to be. Such a view was more aggressively articulated in the declarations of Osama Bin Laden whose worldview was Islamic, transcending the secular realities of statehood and nationalism, and expressing what might be described as an Islamic Cosmopolitan worldview.


The most significant challenge of all directed toward state-centricism has been mounted by ISIS, and especially its proclamation of a new caliphate in the Middle East, whose contours were based on its de facto territorial governance patterns in Syria and Iraq rather than on the boundaries of existing sovereign states. ISIS leaders also boasted of ‘the end of Sykes-Picot,’ the Anglo-French originally secret agreement in 1916 that led to the formation of the modern statist Middle East in the territories formerly administered by the Ottoman Empire. It was this Sykes-Picot colonialist vision that successfully undermined Woodrow Wilson’s post-colonial advocacy of self-determination as the organizing basis delimiting the Middle East after World War I. So far, ISIS has made good on its claim to govern the area it controls by sharia law strictly applied, and has thus managed to defy the sovereign territorial authority of both Syria and Iraq. ISIS is sometimes described as a ‘quasi-state’ because of its territorial control but utter lack of international diplomatic legitimacy, and perhaps because its durability has not been established for a sufficient length of time.


There are at least three elements of this non-state pattern of control that are worth noticing. First, ISIS seems to have no current goal or prospect of being internationally accepted as a state or to be treated as a vehicle of self-determination for Syrians and Iraqis living under its authority. ISIS rests its authority to govern exclusively on a sectarian Sunni claim to be applying sharia to those living under its authority. Secondly, by discrediting those Sykes-Picot states that were imposed on the region after World War I ISIS is claiming for itself a superior political legitimacy to that conferred by international diplomatic procedures or through admission to the United Nations, and the claim has some resonance for those living under its dominion. Thirdly, significant portions of the Sunni population that is dominant presence in the ‘caliphate’ welcomed ISIS, at least at first, as a liberating force freeing the population from Shia oppression and discrimination and more effectively offering social services at a grassroots level.


In effect, ISIS has effectively, if harshly, raised questions about the political legitimacy of states imposed by colonial authority and accepted by indigenous nationalist movements during the process of achieving political independence. This questioning of European statism in the Middle East is likely to be more enduring than ISIS itself. From an ethnic angle, the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, never having been content with Sykes-Picot borders are now constituting new ethnically delimited political communities that in Iraq and Syria possess the attributes of de facto states. As with ISIS, these emergent entities are being called quasi-states or states within states. In other words we are so entrapped in statist language that we must misleadingly link these innovative political realities to the statist framework.


From this perspective it is worth noticing the double proposal of the neocon former American ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. [See “To Defeat ISIS, Create a Sunni State,” NY Times, Nov. 24, 2015] As a resolute interventionist, Bolton wants the West to go all out to destroy the ISIS caliphate, but couples this militarist initiative with the rather startling assertion that Iraq and Syria have lost their statist entitlement to reclaim these territories. Instead, “Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and Western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.” As might be expected, Bolton’s rationale is totally neo-colonial in conception and implementation, proposed by a Washington insider, designed to keep Moscow out, to restore U.S. influence in the region, and to support indirectly the anti-Shiite goals of the Gulf monarchies. In other words, what Bolton favors is remote both from Westphalian logic and from the practice of self-determination.


True, Bolton’s Sunni state is an externally imposed political construction that is expected to be accepted as a traditional state with authority limited to its international borders. This contrasts with the ISIS caliphate that claims authority based on its extreme Salafi interpretation of Islam, and while it maintains and guards the borders that define the territory under its control, its claimed community of adherents is non-geographical, and notions of citizenship and nationality do not apply. It is suggestive that even Bolton opposes an American approach based on “striving to recreate the post-World War I map.” What makes Bolton’s proposal of interest is only that it unwittingly confirms the ISIS challenge to the legitimacy of how Europe constructed the post-Ottoman Middle East in the colonialist atmosphere that remained dominant after World War I.




It seems obvious when considering the complexity of the world as it now functions that the Westphalian model of state-centricism is no longer, if it ever was, descriptive. To take account of the realities of the U.S. global state, the EU, and ISIS requires a more hybrid framework of concepts, policies, and practices that also is more sensitive to multi-level linkages of authority and power, as well as the elaborate patterns of transnational networks and localized systems of control that produce the complex governance structures that provide billions of people with order and stability on a daily basis. A fuller inquiry into these diverse organizational structures would also need to incorporate the role of transnational corporations and financial institutions that create the operational and exploitative realities of neoliberal globalization.  


Kissinger: A Hero of Our Time

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The essay on Henry Kissinger’s World Order (2014) below was initially published in Millennium: Journal of International Studies 2015, Vol. 44(1) 155–164. For me, Kissinger was the anti-hero, somehow available to justify the unjustifiable, and situate himself in a tradition of statecraft that celebrated the European invention of modern international relations in the 17th-19th centuries. This self-styled realist tradition marginalizes law and morality, posits a fatalistic sense of human destiny, and is dismissive of the pursuit of peace and justice. In Kissinger’s case he climbed to the pinnacles of American state power, and was far from the worst advocate of global primacy based on military superiority. The fact that he owed his prominence to setting forth an argument supporting the feasibility of limited nuclear war branded him with the mark of Cain while still making his way behind the ivy of Harvard University. At the same time, we should not neglect Kissinger’s worldview just because it is antipathetic, especially as he has some important observations about how China’s rise to prominence in world history contrasts with the way in which Europe gained ascendancy.]





Henry Kissinger: A Hero of Our Time


“A Hero of Our Time, my dear readers, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man. It is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom. You will again tell me that a human being cannot be so wicked, and I will reply that if you can believe in the existence of all the villains of tragedy and romance, why wouldn’t you believe that there was a Pechorin? If you could admire far more terrifying and repulsive types, why aren’t you more merciful to this character, even if it is fictitious? Isn’t it because there’s more truth in it than you might wish?”

Mikhail Lermontov, Preface, A Hero of our Time


Combining the features of savant and war criminal, as well as renowned the world over as master statesman, Henry Kissinger deserves the dubious accolade of being ‘a hero of our time’ in the fully ironic sense meant by the Russian novelist, Mikhail Lermontov. Kissinger seems indictable for a series of offenses that deserve accountability in a law-abiding world: deliberate killing of civilians in Indochina; overt complicity in relation to mass killing in Bangladesh; positive association with plan to assassinate a major official in Chile; involvement in conspiracy to kill the head of state in Cyprus; incitement to genocide in East Timor; and direct involvement in plans to kidnap and kill a journalist living in Washington DC.[1] That Kissinger remains not only at large, but the object of reverence the world over, tells us quite a bit about the degree to which geopolitical celebrity trumps accountability and justice when it comes to status and reputation on a global scale.


Additional to Kissinger’s apparent criminality associated with his role as a governmental official developing and implementing American foreign policy in a variety of crucial settings was his earlier assertions of influence as a policy oriented intellectual at a leading American university. Kissinger, as a Harvard professor of international relations, skillfully professed views that proved useful to men who coveted and exercised power on behalf of the United States. Even before he entered government as Richard Nixon’s expert on foreign policy, the Council on Foreign Relations, a gatekeeping venue for the highest echelons of government, otherwise known as ‘the establishment,’ had bestowed stardom on Kissinger in recognition of these contributions to the policy forming community. His initial notoriety rested on an early book arguing the case for accepting the prospect of limited nuclear war as a means of offsetting Soviet superiority in conventional warfare in Europe.[2]



Later when serving as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Kissinger exerted an enormous influence on the development of American foreign policy. He managed to surround his undertakings with an aura of the invincible maestro of realpolitik, a contemporary counterpart of his own illustrious mentors, Machiavelli and Richelieu.[3]


A weird part of Kissinger’s claim to heroic stature was his extraordinary capacity to be repeatedly wrong about almost every major foreign policy decision made by the United States Government over the course of the last half-century, and yet manage continually to enhance his reputation and influence as the nation’s wisest guide on how the country should shape its role and behavior overseas when facing the next crisis. Kissinger was a supporter of the Vietnam War from start to finish, he even favored the disastrous Iraq War, and of course, the Afghanistan War. To leave us in no doubt as to his deepest inclinations, Kissinger even goes out of his way in this book to laud the presidency of George W. Bush by affirming his “continuing respect and personal affection for President George W. Bush, who guided America with courage, dignity, and conviction in an unsteady time. His objectives and dedication honored his country even when in some cases they proved unattainable within the American political cycle.” [324-25]. Phrase by phrase this is a remarkable encomium considering the degree to which Bush’s core policies turned out to have been such a disaster by almost any measure, with the 2003 attack and subsequent occupation of Iraq being a major contributing cause to the regional turmoil that has brought such massive suffering and political chaos to the Arab world, as well as seriously compromising U.S. goals in the region. To give his blessings to such a failed presidency is mystifying unless one takes into account of Kissinger’s worshipful attitude toward the high and mighty in the conservative American political establishment, and his extraordinary Teflon protective coating that has inoculated him over the years against the normal consequence of policy failures and ugly misdeeds.


It is fair to wonder at this point why I should be writing a review Kissinger’s ideas if I regard him as a disreputable public figure. My answer centers upon an appreciation of the man as an emblematic representative of global leadership in our historical era, and hence of Kissinger as truly ‘a hero’ worthy of our attention. It is not that his ideas are sympathetic, compelling, or even innovative, but rather that despite his long record of wrongdoing, Kissinger’s words continue to be taken seriously as policy guides entitled to the utmost respect by opinion-makers around the world.[4] Beyond this, his comprehensive presentation of the contours of past, present, and possible future world orders, while pretentious and superficial, does provide a helpful commentary on policy choices of immense significance, offering readers a useful platform for dialogue as to the global political future. Despite my reservations, the World Order offers a good basis for seminar discussions in an international relations course or for a reading group of attentive citizens who gather on a monthly basis to ponder the state of the world.


Kissinger is something more than a public figure that has guided and advised some of America’s most influential world leaders. He is also a student of international relations with a rare combination of diplomatic experience at the highest level, a broad historical knowledge of the conceptual underpinnings of statecraft in the modern world, and a street smart talent for gaming the system to his personal advantage. In this respect, the book under consideration, World Order, is likely to be treated as the culminating expression of Kissinger’s worldview and intellectual legacy.[5] And while it is devoid of empathy for the vulnerable or an appreciation of the ecological dangers facing humanity, it does frame debate on global policy in this post-colonial, post-Cold War setting in some useful ways if account is taken of its limitations.


Kissinger’s diagnosis of the present historical situation poses an intriguing puzzle that adopts an unexpected outlook, given its source. For this sage who earlier believed that the European West had evolved a diplomacy that reflected the eternal verities of statecraft it is now surprising to find Kissinger at the start of this book issuing a dire warning to his readers: “Our age is insistently, at times almost desperately, in pursuit of a concept of world order.” Such a sentiment is followed by a haunting question that obviously worries Kissinger: “Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future?” (2) Kissinger can be read as saying that the dangers posed are a result of the failure of the major world political actors not to have on their own recognized and implemented the Westphalian logic within their own civilizational and religious spheres of influence. Such a lament is conditioned by the realization that in this post-colonial era a belated embrace of some kind of global Westphalian system of world order, while the best we can hope for, cannot happen without its spontaneous adoption by non-Western political actors doing what seems best to achieve their goals in ways that correspond with the deeply embedded cultural values.


What troubles Kissinger most is the disorder that exists in the post-colonial world where the West can no longer run the global show by itself. He believes that the present challenge is to blend “divergent historical experiences and values” into “a common order.” (10) In his view “[a] reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time.” (371) Without this challenge being met Kissinger envisions a “struggle between regions” that might turn out to “be more debilitating than the struggle between nations has been.” (371) He is also worried by the challenges associated with the rise of non-state political actors that do not fit within the template of the only world order that Kissinger knows, the one constituted by the interplay of territorial sovereign states.


In setting forth the nature of this defining quest Kissinger posits several requirements that he never reconciles. He insists that a new global order to be successfully established requires that its central rules and limit conditions are the result of a participatory, non-hegemonic process of relevant actors. Kissinger asserts that only by way of such an existential bonding process will a re-framing of world order have the legitimacy to engender commitment and adherence in a historical situation where the West has lost its dominion over the non-West. In Kissinger’s words: “Any system of order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just—not only by the leaders but also by citizens. It must reflect two truths: order without freedom, even if sustained by momentary exaltation, eventually creates its own counterpoise; yet freedom cannot be secured or sustained without a framework of order to keep the peace.” (8) This passage is illustrative of the degree to which throughout this text the abstractions of language provide Kissinger with a useful comfort zone of obscurity. In over 400 pages we look in vain to find out what ‘freedom’ means beyond a vague affirmation of the American political experience. (e.g. 235-36).


The tone and message of World Order rests in the end on an affirmation of American exceptionalism as interpreted by Kissinger. The opening lines of the book describe a visit of homage made in 1961 to Harry Truman while Kissinger was a “young academic.” Truman was of course the former American president that took over from Franklin Roosevelt at the end of World War II and then did his part to launch the Cold War. Kissinger admiringly quotes Truman to disclose the distinctive essence of America’s political character: “That we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations. I would like to think that only America would have done this.” (1)


With the blinkered vision of a true believer, Kissinger adds his own gloss: “All of Truman’s successors have followed some version of this narrative and have taken pride in similar attributes of the American experience.” (1) Such a portrayal of the American global role inflicts a notorious distortion on innocent readers. The truth is that United States has often been vindictive in the aftermath of wars and often not at all willing to help adversaries recover from devastating wartime experiences. For instance, in the lengthy negotiations ending the Vietnam War conducted on behalf of the United States by Kissinger, the reparations agreed upon were neither paid nor any subsequent effort made by Kissinger or the White House to have Congress uphold this clear diplomatic promise, which also was a recognition of a simple moral duty. In the aftermath of the First Gulf War (1991) the United States imposed a punitive peace on Iraq that included maintaining strict sanctions against a people that reportedly cost an additional several hundred thousand Iraqi civilian lives. And historically, the punitive peace imposed on Germany after World War I was undertaken with the deliberate intention of doing the opposite of what Truman claimed for American diplomacy after World War II. In part Truman’s postwar diplomacy represented his effort to avoid repeating the mistakes of Versailles that had earlier contributed to the rise of Hitler and the onset of a major war, as well as gave rise to a severe global economic depression. The disruption, oppression, and extremism that is now the tragic destiny of the Middle East can also be blamed on a ‘peace’ diplomacy one hundred years ago that distributed the spoils of war on the basis of colonial ambition rather than the wellbeing of peoples. How Kissinger, the purported student of history can overlook these features of the American role over its lifetime as a country, can be partly explained by his tendency to obtain historical impunity by invoking abstractions that have no discernible connection with the concrete realities that are supposedly encompassed by this overarching narrative of America’s global benevolence.


Kissinger associates the American goals in the world with the well-intentioned global projection of his idealized image of constitutional democracy as it functions in the United States. He clarifies this image as embodying “an American consensus—an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, foreswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance.” (1) Where has this man been? He makes no effort to disentangle myth from performance as it has played out as the American global story has unfolded. Any casual student of history would know that the United States, almost from its birth, has been intervening throughout the Western Hemisphere, and since 1945 has intervened covertly and overtly in many parts of the world, and often with the purpose of dislodging democratically elected governments as it did

in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973), the latter while Kissinger was making policy from his White House office.


It is true that Kissinger does fault the idealistic tendencies of American foreign policy, which he believes reached the peak of unknowing during the latter years of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. In appraising American political leaders Kissinger contrasts those he most admires (Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, and Nixon) with those he finds dangerously naïve (especially Wilson, but also Carter, Clinton, Obama). Essentially, Kissinger affirms those political leaders that share his belief that hard power is the main agent of historical change, as well as the capstone of stability and ‘peace’ (understood minimally as the absence of major war), and in this regard, he finds the ideas that were launched in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia as the only workable foundation for international order. This Westphalian worldview in Kissinger’s presentation rests on two organizing principles: respect for territorial sovereignty and reliance on countervailing power as necessary to deter potential aggression. As indicated, Kissinger recognizes that this statist framework was European in origin, and if it is to work in a post-colonial era of globalization it will have to be endorsed by civilizational experiences that are quite different from that of Europe and North America. This is the challenge, as Kissinger sees it, of making the logic of Westphalia sufficiently attractive to China, India, and the Islamic community, so as to induce their governments to choose such a blend of respect of others with cooperation for mutual benefit as the one basis of 21st century world order that might work.


There are several problems with this formulation of the contemporary world order problematique. For one thing, it overlooks the vertical dimension of the Westphalian experience that has all along relied for order on the managerial roles of hegemonic claims and structures. This has been especially so for relations between the West and non-West, making it difficult for many countries and some regions to create political communities except through brute force. For another, Kissinger seems mostly blind to the fundamental challenge posed by nuclear weaponry and climate change, and hence sees no important role for international law or the United Nations.[6] In fact, one would look in vain for any sustained discussion by Kissinger of whether a global rule of law and strong central institutions are needed to protect the global interest against the predatory behavior of a world of national governments led by officials with very uneven endowments and perceptions.[7] There is absent any consideration of how to create global governance without the commitment of political actors to uphold human interests on the basis of species identity. Even more striking is the failure to discuss the viability of capitalism as means to achieve the desired ends of world order based on the recognition that sustainable order presupposes legitimate order.[8] One wonders how this market-based system can be deemed even potentially legitimate given the persistence of mass poverty, gross inequalities, widespread corruption, the predatory plundering of the resources of the planet, and increasingly dire expectations of water scarcities and multiple forms of ecological decay.


Overcoming such obstacles presupposes that the values of the main competing centers of regional civilizational identity can be embodied in the new world order. In Kissinger’s view this would now entail combining power and legitimacy on a worldwide basis, and not just offering to organize the world along pre-European Union lines. In the prior historic periods, there were distinct regional forms of order of which central attention is given to that evolved by China and the Islamic world. These are also alternative conceptions of world order to that developed by the West, although challenged and encroached upon by colonialism. Kissinger makes clear that he is particularly drawn to the Chinese soft power foundations of its national greatness, which enjoys the capacity to overwhelm others essentially by reliance on its cultural superiority and the sheer density of its demographic and geographic reality.[9] According to Kissinger, China has succeeded in neutralizing those barbarian forces that have from time to time penetrated its borders by sheer patience, and although it has expressed a defensive mentality by the immense undertaking of the Great Wall, and yet unlike the West, conquest and missionary belligerence has not been its style.


In contrast, Islam has a totalizing vision that associates its domain with peace and righteousness (‘dar al-Islam’), and all else as the domain of infidels and war (‘dar al-harb’). With its religious sense of political community as bases on the umma, the extension of the Western state system to the Islamic world has been problematic and hence illegitimate, especially for those states that are products of colonial ambition as in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Whether such states can even retain their current territorial boundaries is one of the unanswered questions. If not, the likely near term reality is the reemergence of ethnically and religiously bounded communities that either exist autonomously within existing borders or break away to form their own states. In effect, without historical or philosophical depth, Kissinger depicts the Arab world, in particular, as a region of ‘failed states’ for which there is no solution other than military containment and intervention to prevent the disorder spilling over as with the 9/11 attacks.


In the end Kissinger seems to hope that a form of global Wesphalian world order will emerge because states everywhere seek to preserve as much of their autonomy as possible while cooperating to promote common interests in trade and investment. This duality exhibits both a recognition of the realities of economic globalization as conditioned by the non-viability of major warfare given the existence of nuclear weaponry. Kissinger is fully conscious of the extent to which the European invention and development of the state system in the middle of the 17th century responded to distinctively European circumstances, especially an interest in overcoming deadly religious wars and the formation of political communities that were large and stable enough to support efficient economic growth. This Westphalian innovation cannot be globalized despite the intensifying functional imperatives to do so unless the other main political actors on the world stage can agree that such an order serves their interests and is consistent with their values. It also must be perceived as a joint undertaking, not a plan hatched in the West or a byproduct of the American reality as the world’s only global state. World order of global scope in its architectural phases becomes an inter-civilizational soft power project that contrasts with the earlier hard power structures imposed by the global reach of European colonialism. However for Kissinger, seeming unperturbed by contradiction, this new undertaking still presupposes the stabilizing reinforcement of hard power diplomacy and warmaking capabilities, with the United States acting in a meta-regional managerial role.


Kissinger, not without reason, thinks that his world order scheme will only happen if China and the United States are able to make their relationship rest principally on the benefits of cooperation and partnership rather than rivalry and competition. In other words, not a second Cold War, but a new kind of geopolitical relationship that is sensitive to the importance of balancing and equilibrium, but without any ideological dimension of hostility toward the domestic public order system of the other. Kissinger is aware that wars often have broken out in the past when an emerging state seeks to revise the hierarchy of privilege and status that is encoded in the status quo or the hegemon threatened with displacement strikes before the challenger gets too strong. He wonders aloud whether the rising claims of China can be met without either ignoring their ambition or provoking a disastrous military confrontation.


Kissinger considers the United States, despite everything from Hiroshima to drones, as continuing to be the main benevolent force active in history over the course of the last hundred years, especially to the extent it is able to suppress its national proclivity to indulge idealistic temptations that ignore Westphalian parameters. Kissinger appears to believe still that only military capabilities can serve as the ultimate guardian of the public good. In this regard he sees the American leadership role as at once “indispensable” and “ambivalent,” caught between the unrealistic wishful thinking of Woodrow Wilson and the creative realism of Teddy Roosevelt or Richard Nixon, the poles of thought and action that characterize the American global role over the course of its existence as an independent state. Kissinger wants to reconcile these antagonistic energies, and above all he remains deeply opposed to any further American retreat from the responsibilities of global leadership—in contemplating the American role, he says “[w]hat is does not permit is withdrawal.” (370) Kissinger insists that in the interactive reality of the present global situation any renewal of American isolationism would be a self-destructive dead end, and more to the point, he argues that the world needs a globally engaged United States as an offshore balancer that alone can provide the countervailing force that is needed in all regions of the world as a check on dangerous types of expansionism.


In effect, what Kissinger would like to see emerge is a series of regionally based political orders in which the United States is involved as a balancing presence, including in China’s backyard of Asia. This kind of formula pretends to avoid any effort to establish regional hegemony in any part of the world, and disavows an American search for dominance. In this sense Kissinger is arguing for a Westphalian order anchored in the actuality of the United States as the first global state in world history. It is a global state by virtues of its already established military presence throughout the world, reinforced by the dollar as a global currency, English as a global language, and American popular culture and consumerism as influential behavioral constructs everywhere. What Kissinger is proposing with a good deal of commentary on the necessity of taking account of existing diversities linked to demands for participation in the construction of such a legitimate world order is a system of global scope that is neither centralized by law or power. In this way, he acknowledges the interplay between political decentralization and a variety of globalizing tendencies without succumbing to what he would regard as utopian or totalizing traps. Rather cunningly, there is no discussion of how, given its capabilities and assigned leadership role, the United States would be deterred or its ambitions neutralized, or even whether this is necessary. When surveying the terrain of American politics this is a disabling flaw as it is entirely plausible to imagine a militarist Republican president taking over in 2016 with a mandate for safeguarding the nation and the world by waging continuous wars.



[1] This enumeration follows the list of indictable crimes provided by Christopher Hitchens in the Preface to his important book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London, UK: Verso, 2001). Hitchens offers considerable evidence to back up these allegations, as well as a rationale for why such it is important to conduct this exercise in symbolic accountability, for the latter see especially p. xi.



[2] Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Council on Foreign Relations by Harpers, 1957), appropriately written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations, which was responsible for bringing Kissinger to the attention of the political elite in the United States. Kissinger with his Harvard credentials, conservative Cold War politics, and unsentimental approach to the pursuit of national interests on the basis of hard power was a valuable advisor for those of Republican Party persuasion who sought the highest political office in the country.

[3] There is a consensus that the most important scholarly contribution made by Kissinger was his initial book on the mechanisms of the balance of power as operative in 19th century Europe based on the interplay between military capabilities and dynastic legitimacy, as well as admiring portrayals of the statesmen who grasped the Hobbesian logic that made this system work to sustain the established order. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problem of Peace, 1812-22 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1957

[4] Illustrative of such influence is full page assessment of the controversial framework agreement tentatively reached in April 2015 with respect to the international regulation of Iran’s nuclear program. It is rare for the Wall Street Journal to devote its entire opinion section to a single article, and although George P. Shultz is listed as a co-author, the attention accorded to the article is a reflection of Kissinger’s unique stature as foreign policy guru. Kissinger & Shultz, “The Iran Deal and Its Consequences,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2015, A13.

[5] Such earlier books as Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984) and On China (New York, Penguin Press, 2011) are part of his effort to write conceptual memoirs that argue the case for the rightness of his policies and even more so, for his understanding of how the world is organized and operates. All of Kissinger’s writing, carried on in tandem with his work as consultant to the rich and powerful throughout the world via his firm Kissinger Associates founded in 1982. These undertakings share a single minded devotion to self-serving efforts to nail down his reputation as the hero of the age. If mainstream media is to be trusted, which of course it is not, Kissinger has succeeded in becoming the iconic source of foreign policy wisdom for mainstream media audiences, his name being continuously invoked as the most authoritative commentator on foreign policy now alive.

[6] For nuclear weapons, Kissinger reduces the challenge to one of nonproliferation overlooking his own endorsement of abolition of such weaponry resulting from a perception that the nonproliferation regime is unlikely to be able to contain the spread of nuclear weapons in the future. (see 330-41). In an earlier article written in collaboration Kissinger does join in suggesting that the best way to stop further proliferation of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them altogether from military arsenals. See George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4, 2007.

[7] Elsewhere Kissinger has been directly contemptuous of the role of international law and morality in the conduct of American foreign policy. See e.g. Diplomacy, note 5.

[8] For relevant discussion see Stephen Gill & A, Claire Cutler, eds., New Constitutionalism and World Order (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[9] Clearly Kissinger has through his own diplomatic experience and scholarly inquiry has developed a deep admiration of the achievement and durability of Chinese civilization as appraised from the perspective of world order. This discovery of Kissinger’s later life corrects his earlier insistence that Westphalian world order as the only game in town. See elaborations in his long book, On China, also discussion in chapters devoted to China(212-75).