World history at warp speed

So the Arab world is not the only place where history has been speeding up a lot in recent months and years… (Whatever happened to Mr. Frank ‘End of History’ Fukuyama? We don’t hear a lot from him these days, do we?)
This week, the Mediterranean Basin has seen three very significant gatherings. At one end of the Med, leaders from Afghanistan and 13 other countries have been meeting in Istanbul, to try to figure out the shape of the country’s post-U.S. security structure. Well, that’s not how it’s been openly described there, I grant you. The non-U.S. participants have been too polite to describe in full detail just what a terrible state Afghanistan is in, ten years after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, and two years after Obama announced his decision to “surge” more U.S. troops into the country– thereby, quite voluntarily, making the war “his own.”
Back in late 2009, I wrote, in this piece in Boston Review, that the best explanation I could give for Obama having made such an evidently counter-productive decision was because he was planning to use that surge as political cover for a later drawdown/withdrawal…. As is now proving to have been the case. But at what a cost! (And the cost of the past two years of the U.S. war there has, as I noted in that article, been borne overwhelmingly by Afghanistan’s people, along with their neighbors in drone-targeted Pakistan.)
The U.S. military has turned out to be such a force for mayhem in the world in recent years that I can almost not bear to think about it. From Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Pakistan, to Somalia, to Yemen– and now, to Libya… What has the U.S. military brought in its wake?? The collapse of communities, of whole economies, of institutions, and families… Tragedies, wherever you look.
This is not to indict individual members of the military, which as a group of people probably contains as great a proportion of decent, competent people as any group of that size. What has happened has not been the fault of the individual people in the military, but in the fact that it was the military that was used at all in response to all these problems. For each and every one of those “problems”, there were non-military policies that were available and could have been pursued– most likely with, at the end of the day, a lot more success from the American people’s point of view than we ended up winning. But the rush, the urge, the unseemly push to use military force proved overwhelming. Especially to those three presidents– Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama– who had never themselves experienced the horrors of war.
Almost none of this destruction need have happened– if only these men and their advisers had kept fast to the older, more principled visions of America as a country that upholds and strengthen the rule of international law and all the institutions built up around it… If only these men had not been so easily tempted by the ‘flash-bang’ wizardry and testosterone-driven arrogance of war.
But here we are. And at the other end of the Mediterranean this week, there have been two notably different kind of gatherings. At one of them, on Monday, world leaders gave a strong vote to Palestine’s application to become a member of the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural organization (UNESCO). In that vote, 107 nations (including several substantial European allies of Washington) defied vigorous American arm-twisting to support the Palestinian request.
The U.S. State Department announced almost immediately that it would stop providing the funding it has been giving to UNESCO. Far-reaching legislation passed over recent years by the strongly Israeli-controlled U.S. Congress means that the administration may have to extend its funding cut-off to other agencies, too.
How very, very far the United States has come from those idealistic days, 60 years ago, when it was a victorious America, standing unchallenged astride the the whole world, that exercised wisdom and restraint by setting up the United Nations as a set of institutions based on the key principles of human equality, respect for the rule of law, and the need to stress nonviolent, negotiated ways to resolved conflicts whenever possible.
And today, in the French coastal city of Cannes, a slightly different set of world leaders is gathering at the G-20 meeting to try to figure out how to deal with the continued, deep malaise in the capitalism-led global economy.
The proximate cause for the current world-financial malaise has been the failure of the Euro zone countries to nail down a hard and plausible plan to end the severe debt crisis faced by some zone members. But the deeper crisis is the truly global one that goes back to the world financial crisis of late 2008…. And that crisis was certainly intimately connected to the two phenomena of the disregard of the rule of law in economic affairs– or, more precisely, the disregard of the very necessary role that certain kinds of regulations play, in protecting the operation of free and fair markets– and the eruption of militarism as the major tool used in the global arena by the country that from 1991 until now has stood unchallenged at the apex of the international system.
And now, so many of these chickens are coming home to roost, all at the same time.
On Afghanistan, here will be another conference convened in early December. In Bonn, as it happens. That is, marking almost exactly ten years to the day since that fateful Bonn conference of December 2001 when the relevant world powers gathered together to determine how to form the first post-U.S.-invasion government in Afghanistan. In all these conferences on Afghanistan– the one in 2001, and the two this year– Iran is a significant participant, along with the United States. (China seems to be playing a more prominent role in this year’s conferences than ten years ago; but it is still– probably wisely– keeping to a fairly discreet second-tier rule. The CCP’s leaders have probably been far more concerned about the matters being discussed in Cannes, than those discussed in Istanbul this week.)
But back to Iran. Iran has lengthy common borders not only with Iraq, but also with Afghanistan. When the U.S. military went into first Afghanistan, then Iraq, it did so with the help of some non-trivial sets of understandings with the rulers in Tehran. Today, it is almost impossible to see how Washington can pull its forces safely, and with minimal casualties, out of either of these countries without nailing down some very similar sets of understandings with Tehran, just like in 2001 and 2003…
And now is the point at which Israeli PM Netanyahu starts openly agitating for an Israeli military strike against Iran?
Netanyahu and the other extremist elements in the Israeli government have, with the help of their many allies and acolytes within the U.S., been leading the U.S. government by the nose for the past 20 years… and leading our country to one disaster after another. And now, they want to threaten a completely unnecessary war against Iran??
Truly unbelievable. It is time for this nonsense to stop, and for America’s people to regain control of our own government so it will once again serve our interests and ideals rather than getting jerked around, again and again and again, by a small foreign country.
I came to the United States in 1982. When I first came here, there were constant rumblings of “warnings” or “hot information” or whatever that said that “Iran now seems likely to get nuclear weapons within 3-5 years.” It was always nearly that that same window: sometime “three to five years”, sometime ‘two to three years.”
That was 29 years ago.
(And we’re still hearing it. That AP article linked to above quotes recently retired Mossad head Meir Dagan as saying that Iran might get nuclear weapons “in 2015″… which is, um, three to five years from now…)
Meantime, there has been only one state in the Middle East that has constantly and consistently, for the past40-plus years, actually had a very robust and present nuclear-weapons capability: That is the tiny, bullying state of Israel.
But let’s get back to the big picture of what is happening in the world system these days. U.S. power is diminishing by the hour, and there is a kind of sucking sound in the global system as other powers realize they are going to have to adjust to that. (Actually, I think that is probably what is causing a lot of the otherwise crazy, irrational behavior in Israel these days… I mean, where will Netanyahu and his Israeli-extremist allies be, once the U.S. government is incapable of protecting them any more from the requirements of international law and international fairness?)
So we can expect some more very interesting months and years immediately ahead of us. The international system is changing at, yes, almost warp speed. The heavy bets that so many people had laid on the continuation of U.S. power at the apex of the world system– yes, that includes you, Hosni Mubarak and Zein el-Abidin Ben Ali, along with Benjamim Netanyahu– are proving, very rapidly, to have been quite hollow. A lot of new forces will arise in the chaotic years ahead. But I hope that enough people in the world are now smart enough, and caring enough, and principled enough, that out of this dynamism we can bring a world order that’s much more seriously dedicated to the ideal of the equality of all human persons, and that has a much deeper understanding of the futility and horrors of violence and war, than the world we lived in for the past two decades.
This kind of a good outcome is not, by any means, guaranteed. But the global situation is at least dynamic enough right now that if enough of us work hard and together for these ideals, then we do have a real chance of remaking the world for the better.

Democratic Westphalianism, or The Principles

By Dominic Tweedie

    Publisher’s note: In one of the discussions here we recently got into a consideration of the Treaty of Westphalia. Dominic Tweedie (aka Domza) proposed that the topic needed a lot more examination. I agreed, and invited him to lead off this discussion. He got back with amazing rapidity with a launch-text for this discussion. Thanks, Dominic!
    I am very happy indeed to put this up on JWN. Given the importance of the topic commenters are hereby freed from the 300-word limit; but maybe try to keep them below 1,000 words? Also, I’ll try to follow the discussion on the comments board as closely as I can, and to keep it serious and on-topic. ~HC

We have been quarrelling over Iran. We have no sure common idea of the path to follow or of what we have in common at all. What are we? Concerned? Interested? Compelled? On what common ground could we stand? Where, in the past, have such ties bound? Internationalism goes back to Lafayette, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Byron, Frederick Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and most powerfully, to the International Brigade that fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and to Che Guevara, the extraordinarily successful champion of the wretched of the earth, who was born of a white-settler family in Argentina.
Historical internationalism would also have to include “liberation theology”, and the “pedagogy of the oppressed” as championed by Paulo Freire.
The fully constituted independent nations of the earth are more numerous than ever. At about 200, they have probably doubled in number in living memory, and now for the first time in history they cover almost the entire habitable land-surface of the planet. The available common model for internationalism is therefore the anti-colonialism that has led to this proliferation of free nation-states. The next available common model is the 1939-1945 World War against fascism, in whose shadow we have all lived.
For those who used to be involved in it, it is still a surprise that the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) that was such a poor relation for most of its three decades of life, appears now in retrospect as a mighty exemplar of both these compulsive strains of internationalism: anti-colonialism and anti-fascism. How, then, did the AAM work?

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The South Ossetian War: Some thoughts

Some of the best running commentary on the War of South Ossetia has been that produced by Bernhard at Moon of Alabama over recent days. Including this post today. What I find particularly useful about Bernhard’s blogging is his ability both to keep up with diverse news sources and to reveal to “western” readers the biases that are often deeply embedded in our MSM’s coverage of the events. For the latter, see some of what he wrote here.
Today, the NYT’s James Traub had a lengthy piece on the Ossetian war. It provided a lot of deep background about the decades-old disputes between Georgia and Russia (but actually, not a whole lot more than you can get in Wikipedia); and it noted, quite rightly, the relationship between Russia’s support for the self-rule of the South Ossetians (and Abkhazians) and the recognition that many western nations recently gave to the “independence” of Kosovo.
There are a large number of structural parallels between these cases, as well as a causal relationship. (Parallels, too, with the campaigns many westerners have supported for the breakaway of Iraqi Kurdistan and Darfur from the countries of which they are currently part.)
Traub’s piece is, however, plagued by being confined within the same occidocentric bubble that Bernhard does such a good job of identifying and puncturing. For example, Traub repeatedly refers to westerners “getting it” when they come to share his own judgment that Putin’s Russia is aggressive and hostile. (So much for “objectivity”!) And in his last graf, he writes this:

    One party has all the hard power it could want, the other all the soft.

I’m assuming he means it’s the Russians who have all the hard power, and the Georgians who have all the soft power?
Well, perhaps inside the NYT bubble things look like that. (“Harsh Russian aggressors! Poor, long-suffering Georgian victims!”) But in the rest of the world– and almost certainly within Russia itself — they probably look very different, or perhaps even the reverse of that. There have certainly been civilian victims of Georgian military power within South Ossetia, and Georgian civilian victims of Russian military power within Georgia. But you can bet that in the Russian media, only the former have been given the spotlight; just as in the NYT’s reporting today there were three prominent photos of Georgian victims surveying the results of Russian bombing (one of them on the front page), and only one photo of Ossetian victims of Georgian bombing. This, though the wire-service reporting seems to indicate that there have been much greater numbers of victims in S. Ossetia than in Georgia.
Well, it is hard at this point to know the precise numbers of victims on either side. But it’s not hard to conclude that Traub’s judgment about the relevant distribution of hard power and soft is quite misleading.
It’s interesting, too, to see that Haaretz reported today that,

    Jewish Georgian Minister Temur Yakobshvili on Sunday praised the Israel Defense Forces for its role in training Georgian troops and said Israel should be proud of its military might, in an interview with Army Radio.
    “Israel should be proud of its military which trained Georgian soldiers,” Yakobashvili told Army Radio in Hebrew, referring to a private Israeli group Georgia had hired.
    … Yakobashvili said that a small group of Georgian soldiers had able to wipe out an entire Russian military division due to this training.

H’mm. That sure sounds like some Georgian access to hard power, to me. As do the reports of Georgia getting SAM-5 missiles from Ukraine… Also, I wonder how those revelations in Haaretz might affect Israel’s long-tended relations with Moscow?
Well, despite Yakobashvili’s crowing, it seems the Georgian government took enough of a drubbing from its massive northern neighbor that it is now eager to sue for peace.
The final outcome on the ground from this nasty and damaging little war are still far from clear. But some of the broader implications for world politics of what has been happening are already emerging:

    1. The “west” is hopelessly over-stretched, what with all its current commitments of troops in Iraq, a crisis-ridden Afghanistan, and (still) in the Balkans. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was most likely relying to a great extent on the NATO forces pulling his chestnuts out of the Ossetian fire if they should start to burn there. But NATO is in absolutely no position to do that. All the US could do to give him any concrete help was to gather up and return to his country the 2,000 Georgian troops who had previously part of their occupation coalition in Iraq. That airlift is happening right now. But it will do little to affect the balance on the ground in the Caucasus, while it will certainly cause considerable disruptions to the US project in Iraq.
    2. Russia is coming back as a force to be reckoned with in world politics. This is no longer the 1990s– which for Russians was an era of economic mega-crisis, dismemberment, and rampantly atrocious (mis-)governance. The Russia of the years ahead will not have the great weight in world politics of the Soviet era. But neither will it be the confused, resource-starved pygmy of the Yeltsin era.
    3. Westerners who thought they could easily redraw international boundaries as they pleased, without consequence for their own interests, will have to rethink the wisdom of that tactic. The national boundaries drawn up and laid down in, basically, the post-1945 era, are in many places highly imperfect. (Especially throughout Africa!) But the system of boundaries and sovereignty that they represent acquired its own logic, however imperfect. Tinker with one, and the whole system threatens to unravel. I tried to argue that point– among others– back in February, when I expressed my criticism of the move that many western nations made toward recognizing (and even encouraging) the Kosovars’ declaration of independence. Lots of food for thought there for the Iraqi Kurds, too…

This latter point about the wisdom of the tendency many westerners have shown in recent years to encourage secessionist movements– especially those seeking to secede from countries they disapprove of— is worth a lot more exploration. Back in February, Russia’s leaders were quite explicit in warning that if western nations proceeded with backing Kosovar independence, then they might well push for a similar outcome for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin and Medvedev had also repeatedly expressed their deep concern at the prospect that NATO might extend membership to both Georgia (and Ukraine.) So Saakashvili should have known he was playing with fire when, earlier this week, he ordered his security forces to “retake South Ossetia by force”, thus breaking the Sochi Agreement of 1992, which gave responsibility for public security in the S. O. region to a Russian-commanded peacekeeping force.
That would be equivalent, in Kosovo, to Serbia sending in its armed forces to seize control of Kosovo from the western-dominated peacekeeping force that’s currently in control there.
(Worth reading about present-day Kosovo, by the way, is this depressing piece of reporting by Jeremy Harding in the LRB. He writes, “No one would have imagined that a UN protectorate in Europe, stuffed with NGOs and awash with donor receipts, could perform so badly. Kosovo has low growth, no inflation, and few signs of an emerging economy… In Kosovo every scam and indignity, from the protection of ex-KLA war criminals down, is common knowledge…” Under its new banner of “independence”, Kosovo doesn’t quite seem to have become the land of milk and honey that some people predicted?)
But back to Saakashvili. He seems to have miscalculated, rather badly. The west that was so ready and eager to take on the Russians over Kosovo back in March 1999 is not nearly as ready– or able– to take them on over Georgia, nine years later.
On Friday, Reuters’ William Schomberg quoted James Nixey, an analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, as saying that,

    Saakashvili had worried Western capitals with his tendency to overreact when provoked.
    That was shown when he used force last year to quash anti-government protesters and again now in the conflict in South Ossetia, [Nixey] said…
    “If he is going to start a war, he is going to lose the support of a lot of friends in the West.”
    … Analysts said Saakashvili’s gamble in launching military action against the rebels could trigger a David-and-Goliath war between his country and the its powerful neighbour Russia, and it was far from certain that the West would come to his rescue.
    “He has had plenty of warnings from the West that it won’t pull any chestnuts out of the fire for him so I don’t think he can count on the cavalry riding in,” said Fraser Cameron of the EU-Russia centre in Brussels.

One last little note I want to make here is about the use and abuse of the whole concept of “humanitarian intervention”, being used as a reason to launch military operations that by their very nature are quite anti-humanitarian.
I have no doubt at all that Russia’s media are at this very moment displaying all kinds of images of suffering Ossetian civilians and describing Russia’s actions in Ossetia as as an intensely “humanitarian intervention.”
And similarly (mutatis mutandis) in Georgia.
This should give us all pause.
Back in 1999, I was one of the few liberal commentators in the western MSM who argued consistently against the idea that a western military campaign against Serbia could ever be described as a “humanitarian intervention”, or otherwise justified.
Please, let’s now take this opportunity to bury this idea, once and for all, that wars can ever be described as “humanitarian.”

UN “envoys” in M.E.: Perpetuating European power, excluding the rest?

I guess the idea that (mainly male) people of European origin have some kind of near-monopoly on wisdom regarding the administration of Middle East affairs goes back a long way…
As regular JWN readers will know, I remain a stalwart supporter of the idea that the UN should, in general, play a much bigger role in Middle Eastern diplomacy than it has until now. (Including in both the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the negotiations over the US’s ever-closer exit from Iraq.)
But this is completely outrageous! New UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently announced the appointment of the third of the UN’s “special envoys” in the Middle East– and just like the other two, this one is a white, male European. Namely, Michael Williams of the UK, who has been appointed as “Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.”
That’s the same job that Terje Larsen– yes, the author of the failed “Oslo” interim-accord project– was handed on a plate way back when. But in December 2004 Larsen was moved over to become “Special Envoy for the implementation of Security Council resolution 1559 (2004)” — John Bolton’s anti-Syrian resolution. And in March 2005, Larsen was joined on the “Lebanon beat” by his countryman Geir Pedersen, who is the SG’s “Personal Representative for Southern Lebanon.”
The Brits and the Norwegians both have quite a lot of responsibility for the present imbroglios in the Middle East. I don’t understand why anyone would think these countries’ citizenries have any special “wisdom” regarding the region?
Plus, the whole issue of access to the levers of power is a central part of what has made today’s world so inequitable, and this unequal access still, today, perpetuates the world’s deeply engrained inequities on a continuing basis…
Isn’t it bad enough that the top seats in the World Bank and the IMF are “by custom” divided up between the US and the Europeans? Isn’t it also shameful that today, despite the UN having been in existence for 62 years, this so-called “world organization” has still done nothing effective at all to seek out and empower a whole, globally representative range of people capable of becoming effective Mideast envoys?

Making Persian Gulf Security Durable (Ramazani)

FYI, here’s a recently published short essay by R.K. Ramazani, as I mentioned in discussions here several days ago.
Seeking to go beyond the immediate details of the recent UK-Iran dispute, Ramazani has three main objectives:
1. Provide historical context for understanding why bilateral conflict resolution in the Persian Gulf rests on fleeting sand. Bilateralism, unilateralism, and power balancing as approaches to maintaining Persian Gulf security have all broken down – and will inherently falter again:

“As long as Britain and America approach Gulf disputes by such means as playing regional powers against each other, by bullying tactics, by calls for regime change and by the threats of military strikes against Iran, there is little hope that Persian Gulf conflicts will ever be prevented in the future or that durable solutions can be found for the present ones, including the British-Iranian dispute today. As a result, the secure export of Gulf oil supplies to world markets will be threatened and the price of oil will soar beyond the capacity of the world economy to tolerate.

2. “Collective Security” is the only sustainable alternative.

“The real question, therefore, is whether Britain and the United States will be able to shake off their addiction to using force and embrace a comprehensive collective security system that would include the Persian Gulf states and major outside powers with high stakes in the region, including Britain and the United States, under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Short of that, Iran, as the major Persian Gulf state, will continue to resist British and American pressures. Its resistance to foreign bullying and pressures is rooted in a millennial and proud sense of glory and power in ancient times, in a deep-rooted sense of national identity and in a resentment of discrimination against the Shia, who are, today and in history, a minority in the larger Muslim world, by the Sunni majority.”

3. Security for the Persian Gulf also requires a “holistic” recognition that “the problems of the Persian Gulf are intertwined with the major conflicts of the broader Middle East and beyond.” Put differently, resolving conflicts in the Persian Gulf are incomplete without attending to conflict causes in the Eastern Mediterranean. That holds true both ways.

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And meanwhile, Asia rises (CSM)

By the way, I had this column in the CSM on Thursday.It might seem like a bit of a diversion to have been writing about Asia’s rise; but it’s an important concomitant aspect of everything that’s happening in the world these days.
Anyway, since I was in such an information-poor environment (traveling; no broadband; very few sources of info at all), I realized I needed to do some form of a big-picture think piece. So that was what I did.

IISS: Asian powers and the world order

Sunday morning, we had two very interesting plenary sessions at the
annual conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies
(IISS).  In the first, M.K.Narayanan,
the National Security Advisor to the prime minister of India and Harry Harding, a longtime
China-affairs specialist who until recently was Dean of the
International Affairs School at George Washington University in
Washington, DC, talked about China
and India: The Asian rising powers debate
.  In the second, Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean
of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, and Marc Perrin de Brichambaut,
the Secretary-General of OSCE, talked about Competing world views and the
bases of international order in the 21st century

Though the presentations were all of a high standard, what I want to
write about here are primarily those made by Mahbubani,
Narayanan, and Harding
because they had more thematic linkages with each other than the
given by Perrin. [Note: I think those links above should work if you’re
already in the archived version of this post.]


Mahbubani, a well-groomed, energetic man in probably his late fifties,
was until recently a high-ranking Singaporean diplomat. 
(At the beginning of his presentation, he made a little joke about not wanting to be called
“Ambassador Mahbubani” any more, and said he was “still practicing
acting undiplomatically.”)

He started by quoting Marc Antony when he said, “I come to bury Caesar,
not to praise him,” saying he was coming to praise the way the US had
exercized its hegemony over the world order since 1945 and not to bury
it– though he said he feared the effect of his words might seem to be
to bury it.

There are, he said, five factors that have been leading to the decline
of the UN-based world order:

Continue reading “IISS: Asian powers and the world order”