Januar 22, 2020
The post below is a somewhat amplified version of an interview with C. J. Polychroniou, journalist and professor of political economy at West Chester University, which was published on January 7, 2020, in the online journal, Global Policy.
As the interview was conducted in December 2019, it fails to address the various disruptive consequences of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, including the violation of Iraqi sovereignty, Baghdad being the site of the drone attack, as well as the risks of war arising from an escalating tit-for-tat cycle of actions and reactions.
Given growing tensions between the interconnectedness of the world and the state-centric character of international law, including contradictions between totalizing and disregarding territorial sovereignty, state-centric world order is being increasingly marginalized by geopolitical behaviour that both generates and suppresses transnational political violence.
A normative crisis with structural implications exists, and is not even being widely appreciated much less adequately addressed. The continuing disregard of this crisis adds to grave risks of aa catastrophic future for humanity, with severe spillover to the natural surroundings shared with non-human species.
Facing the Global Crisis
Q1. I want to start this interview on the state of global affairs near the end of the second decade of the 21st century by moving from the abstract to the concrete. To begin with, it’s regarded as axiomatic that the postwar international liberal order is fracturing and that we are at the same time in the midst of a geopolitical transition where the most prominent characteristic seems to be the decline of the United States as a global superpower. With that in mind, can you offer us a panoramic perspective on the contemporary state of global affairs? What do you consider to be the primary changes under way and the emerging challenges and threats to global peace and stability?
Response: There are many crosscutting tendencies now evident at the global level. At the very time when globalizing challenges are intensifying, the mechanisms available for regional and global cooperation are becoming dangerously less effective.
The failure to address climate change, so clearly in the global public interest, is emblematic of a dysfunctional world order system. This failure can be further delineated by reference to two distinct, yet interrelated developments.
The first characterized by a vacuum in global leadership, which reflects both the overall decline of the United States as well as its explicit renunciation of such a role by the Trump presidency.
Trump proudly proclaims that his political agenda is exclusively dedicated to the promotion of American national interests, declaring defiantly he was elected president of the United States, and not of the world.
The second broader development is the rise of autocrats in almost every important sovereign state, whether by popular will or through imposed rule, resulting in the affirmation of ultra-nationalist approaches to foreign policy, given ideological intensity by chauvinistic and ethnic hostility toward migrants and internal minorities.
This kind of exclusionary statism contributes to the emergence of what might be called ‘global Trumpism’ further obstructing global problem-solving, shared solutions to common problems, and global expressions of empathy for human suffering.
A discernable effect of these two dimensions of world order is to diminish the relevance and authority of the United Nations and of international law, as well as exhibiting a decline in respect for standards of international human rights and a disturbing indifference to global warming and other
Overall, what has been emerging globally is a reinvigoration of the seventeenth-century Westphalian regional system of sovereign states that arose in Europe after more than a century of devastating religious wars, but under vastly different conditions of connectivity that now pose dire threats to maintaining minimum world order and to the wellbeing of peoples throughout the world.
Among these differences is the dependence upon responsible internal behaviour by governing processes at all levels of social interaction in an era of growing ecological interdependence.
The tolerance of fires in the Amazon rainforest by the Brazilian government, supposedly for the sake of economic growth, by indulging the interests of agribusiness and logging, endangers a vital global source of biodiversity as well as depletes essential carbon-capturing capabilities of this vast forest area, yet there is no way under existing international norms to challenge Brazil’s sovereign prerogative to set its own policy agenda, however irresponsible with respect to its own ecological future, as well as that of its region and the world.
At the same time, there has emerged doctrine and technology that defies territorial constraints and gives rise to contradictory pressures that subvert the traditional capabilities of states to uphold national security on the basis of territorial
On the one side, transnational extremism and criminality expose the symbolic and material vulnerability of the most militarily powerful states as the United States discovered on 9/11 when the World Trade Center and
Allegedly, Pentagon was attacked by a small group of unarmed individuals. Added to this are threats to all people from hacking and surveillance technologies that are not subject to territorial regulation. Responses by way of retaliatory strikes or covert operations directed at the supposed extraterritorial source of these attacks and threats, according to a global mandate associated with counterterrorist warfare and transnational law enforcement generate new patterns of lawlessness in the conduct of international relations.
Technological and doctrinal innovations associated with the use of precision-guided missiles, cyberspace, and pilotless drones, as well as satellite surveillance, are producing new conceptions and experiences of boundaryless war zones.
The world is becoming a battlefield for both geopolitical actors and a variety of non-state actors in a series of unresolved transnational struggles and undertakings.
Additionally, there are opening new uncertain frontiers for 21st-century warfare involving cyber assaults of various kinds, evidently already tested and used by the U.S. and Israel in their efforts to destabilize Iran, as well as new initiatives by a few states to militarize space in ways that seem capable of threatening any society on the face of the planet with instant and total devastation.
One salient feature of these developments is the unacknowledged significance of neither adversary being a Westphalian sovereign state as generally understood by international relations theory and practice, while ‘political realism,’ which remains largely unchallenged, is more and more out of touch with these political realities subverting state world order.
Under analogous pressures, the world economy is also fragmenting and seeking a reterritorialization of trade and investment, not only behaviorally but doctrinally. Trump’s transactional mode of operations challenges the rule-governed global system established after World War II, which relied on the Bretton Woods institutions and the World Trade Organization.
The economic dimensions of resurgent nationalism also give rise to trade tensions, with real prospects of major trade wars, reminding expert observers of the ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ atmosphere in the early 1930s that gave rise to the Great Depression.
Underneath this re-territorialized approach to the political economy seems to be what amounts to a mostly silent revolt against neoliberal globalization, and its encouragement of transnational trade and investments based on market-based opportunities, as guided by the transnational efficiency of capital and openness of national markets rather than the wellbeing of people, including environmental protection.
A major source of dissatisfaction with traditional politics in democratic societies seems associated with increasing economic inequality, causing stagnation, or worse, of middle and lower class living standards, while producing incredible accumulations of wealth at the very apex of society.
These trends have unleashed an enraged populist assault on establishment institutions, including traditional political parties, being blamed for enriching upper elites while suppressing the wellbeing of almost entire societies, with an astonishing 99% being left behind.
In the American setting, the left/right expression of this new classism is reflected in the Trump proto-fascist base and the Sanders mobilization among youth and disaffected constituencies.
In this downward global spiral, additional negative factors are associated with poor management of ending the Cold War, and the accompanying collapse of the Soviet Union.
I would point to three principal negative impacts:
(1) the failure of the United States as a triumphant global leader to seize the opportunity during the 1990s to move the world toward greater peace, justice, and prosperity by strengthening the UN, by reallocating resources from defence to civilian infrastructure, and by initiating denuclearization and demilitarizing policies regionally and worldwide;
(2) the degree to which the Soviet collapse led to a world economic order without ideological choices for political actors (‘there is no alternative’ mentality). This pushed the logic of capitalism toward the kind of inhumane extremes that had existed in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. As long as socialism was associated with Soviet leadership it offered an ideological alternative to alienated segments of society, which created strong political incentives in the West to exhibit ethical concerns for human wellbeing, and social protection frameworks moderating the cruelty of minimally regulated market forces; in effect, for its own sake capitalism needed the rivalry with socialism to maintain an ethically acceptable ideological composure;
(3) the sudden withdrawal of Soviet balancing influence in several regions of the world, especially the Middle East, led to order-maintaining cycles of oppressive patterns of governance, U.S. regime-changing interventions, and political turmoil and prolonged strife causing massive suffering, famine, and devastation.
This combination of domestic authoritarianism, transnational conflict configurations, and state-centric foreign policy is inclining the world toward ecological catastrophe and geopolitical uncertainty, even chaos.
This pattern is accentuated by world economic orientations that are oblivious to human and global interests, while slanting national interests toward the ultra-rich. In effect, the political future for formerly leading democratic states is now more accurately described as a mixture of autocracy and plutocracy with fascist overtones of the strong leader and the stereotyping of ‘the other’ as an enemy to be excluded or destroyed.
One symptom of these implosive developments is to call attention to the altered role of the United States in this overall conjuncture of historical forces. On the one side, is the reality of U.S. decline, accentuated by the behaviour of Trump since 2016 and the rise of China, which reflects the impact of this impulsive and anti-globalist leader and national mood, but also exhibits some longer deeper trends that transcend his demagogic impact.
The most important of these is the failure to learn from the reduced effectiveness of military force with respect to the pursuit of foreign policy goals, given changes in the nature of political power and international status, especially in relations between the West and non-West.
Costly interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all ended in political failure, despite U.S. military and battlefield dominance and a strong political commitment to the mission. The U.S. reaction has been to reframe tactics rather than to appreciate the enhanced capabilities in the post-colonial world of militarily vulnerable countries to mobilize prolonged and eventually effective resistance to interventions from the West.
Such reframing has led to the repetition of failed interventions in new contexts. In this narrow regard, Trump’s seeming repudiation of regime-changing wars was and is more realistic than the Pentagon’s tendency to return to the drawing counterinsurgency and counterterrorist drawing boards to figure out how to do the job better next time.
Yet Trump’s militarism is evident in other forms, including seeking to extend military frontiers to outer space, by boasts about investing in producing the most powerful military machine in human history, and by the reckless war-mongering diplomacy toward Iran.
In this respect, the U.S. not only is increasing risks of global catastrophe but also inadvertently helping its international rivals to gain relative economic and diplomatic advantages.
A crucial explanation of America’s likely continuing decline results from two refusals: first, a recognition of the neutralization of military power among major states by the mutually destructive character of warfare – and secondly, an appreciation of the nature of asymmetric conflicts resulting from the rising capabilities of national resistance frustrating, and generally defeating, what had once been relatively routine and cost-effective colonial and imperial operations.
Another source of decline is that the kind of confrontations that existed during the Cold War no longer seems to exert nearly as much influence on security dimensions of world order as previously. Most European states feel less need for the American nuclear umbrella and the safety afforded by close alliance relations, which translates into reduced U.S. influence.
This shift can be observed by the degree to which most states currently entrust their defensive security needs to national capabilities, somewhat marginalizing alliances that had been formally identified with U.S. leadership.
In this regard, the bipolar and unipolar conceptions of world order have been superseded by both multipolarity and statism in the dynamic restructuring of world order since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China.
The profile of American decline, with respect to the international policy- agenda, could be rather abruptly altered, if not reversed, by an internationalist post-Trump foreign policy. This would be particularly evident, in all likelihood, with respect to reaffirming cooperative efforts regarding climate change, reviving the 2015 Paris Agreement, and calling for a more obligatory approach to international regulatory arrangements.
Of course, a revived American bid for global leadership would be further exhibited by certain foreign policy moves such as seeking balance in addressing Israel/Palestine relations, lifting economic sanctions from such countries as Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, renewing adherence to the JCPOA (Nuclear Agreement) with Iran, and urgent calls for strengthening the role and relevance of the United Nations and respect for a global rule of law reconfigured to take account of the transnational features of the digital age with its connectivities and networks joining non-state actors.
In a sense, the assessment and contours of American decline, reflective of so many factors, will become clearer after the 2020 elections.
If Trump prevails, the decline thesis will be confirmed. If a centrist Democrat –
If, as now seems highly unlikely, the Democrats nominate a progressive candidate, say Sanders or Warren, and (s)he is able to gain enough support in Congress, the trends pointing to further decline might not only be
Addressing inequality arising from the plutocratic allocation of benefits resulting from neoliberal globalization and undoing the excessive reliance on military approaches to foreign policy are the only two paths leading to a sustainable renewal of American global leadership and prospects for a benevolent national future.
Flashback to World War I?
Q2. Do you detect any similarities between the current global geopolitical condition and that of the era of imperial rivalries prior to the outbreak of World War I?
Response: The imperial rivalries, at the root of the stumble into major warfare, were much more overt in the period preceding World War I than is the case today.
Now imperial strategies are more disguised by soft power expansionism as is the case with China or geopolitical security arrangements and normative claims as is the American approach, but the possibility of an unwanted escalation in areas of strategic interaction is present, especially in areas surrounding China.
Confrontations and crises can be anticipated in the coming years, and without skilful diplomacy, a war could result that could be more destructive and transformative of world order than was World War I.
There is also the possibility of hegemonic rivalry producing a major war in the Middle East, as between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States on one side and Iran and Russia on the other side.
… “producing a major war in the Middle East…”
The Syrian War prefigured on a national scale such hegemonic rivalry that could now recur on a regional scale.
A more optimistic interpretation of developments in the Middle East is to suggest that the stability of the Cold War era might soon reemerge in light of Russian re-engagement, which could restore the balance imposed earlier and seems preferable to the turmoil and confrontations of the last 25 years.
It would be prudent to take note of the World War I context to remind political leaders that they risk unwanted sequences of events if promoting aggressive challenges to the established order in regional or global settings.
Yet the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in early January 2020 came close to setting off a chain reaction of escalating violent incidents that could have ended in a major war between Iran and the United States of intensity and indefinite scope.
Of course, triggering conditions prior to World War I were concentrated in Europe, whereas now it could be argued that the most dangerous situations are either geographically concentrated in the Middle East or in a variety of regional circumstances where coercive diplomacy could trigger an unintended war either on the Korean Peninsula or in relation to China where interests and ambitions collide in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea.
Graham Allison has written a widely discussed book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap? (2017), which argues that throughout history when the dominance of a state is challenged by a rising power, a major war has frequently resulted to establish geopolitical ranking.
Of course, circumstances have changed drastically since the time of Thucydides, due to the possession of nuclear weapons on both sides, a fact that is likely to encourage geopolitical caution as risks of mutual catastrophe is quite evident.
At the same time, complacency is not warranted as governments have not changed their reliance on threats and bluffs to achieve their goals, and the possibility of miscalculation is present as antagonisms climb escalation ladders.
More broadly, the existence of nuclear weapons, their deployment, and doctrines leading to their use in certain situations create conditions that are very different than what existed in Europe more than a century ago.
Yet there is one rather frightening similarity. Threat diplomacy tends to produce conflict spirals that can produce wars based on misperception and miscalculation, as well as accident, rogue
In other words, the world as now constituted, as occurred in 1914, stumble into an unwanted war, and this time with casualties, devastation, and unanticipated side effects occurring on a far greater scale.
Finally, there were no serious ecological issues confronting the world in 1914 as there are at present. Any war fought with nuclear weapons can alter the weather for up to ten years in disastrous ways.
There is the fear validated by a careful scholarly study that ‘a nuclear famine’ could be produced by stagnant clouds of smoke that would deprive the earth of the sunlight needed for agriculture for a period of years. In other words, the consequences of a major war are so much more serious that its avoidance should be a top priority of any responsible leader.
Yet, with so many irresponsible leaders, typified by Donald Trump, the rationality of caution and that would seem to prevent large scale war may not be sufficient to avoid its occurrence.
Also, the mobilization of resources and the focus of attention on an ongoing war, or even its threat, would be so occupying as almost certainly to preclude efforts, however urgent, to address global warming and other ecological challenges.
The purpose of NATO today
Q3. Given that the historical conditions and factors that gave rise to Cold War policies and institutions have vanished, what purpose does NATO serve today?
Response: Although the conditions that explained the formation and persistence of NATO were overcome by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and of the Soviet Union a few years later, NATO remained useful to some of its members for several reasons.
For the United States, it kept the U.S. engaged in Europe, and sustained its role as an alliance leader. For the major European powers, it represented a security guaranty in the event of a revived Russian threat, and lessened internal pressures to develop expensive European military capabilities that did not depend on American participation.
The Kosovo War in 1999 displayed a European consensus to transform NATO into an intra-European peace force, while the Libyan War of 2011 displayed a misleading willingness to manipulate the UN into authorizing NATO to engage in a regime-changing, out-of-area military intervention that not only weakened the legitimacy of the post-Cold War UN and harmed
The NATO alliance should be disbanded in the interest of world peace and stability. Its only real function since 1989 has been to further the geopolitical goals of the United States, and to a lesser extent, France and the UK.
“The NATO alliance should be
disbanded in the interest of
world peace and stability.
Its only real function
since 1989 has been to further
the geopolitical goals of
the United States,
and to a lesser extent,
France and the UK.”
The persistence of NATO after its Cold War rationalization was undercut exemplifies the refusal of the West to make the structural adjustments that could have expressed an intention to make a transition from a pre-war environment of strategic confrontation that characterized the Cold War to a post-war atmosphere of dealignment and demilitarization.
Had such a transition occurred, or even been attempted, we would now most likely be living in more positive historical circumstances with attention to the real economic, political, and ecological challenges to human wellbeing now and in the future being addressed.
We would not need the awakening alarms being set off by a 17-year old Swedish girl!
The US in the Middle East
Q4. Trump’s foreign policy towards the Middle East is unabashedly pro-Israel, while also supportive of Erdogan’s grand vision for Turkey and the Arab world. Can you explain for us this apparent anomaly?
Response: It may be intellectually satisfying to give a coherent spin to Trump’s seemingly antagonistic policies in the Middle East, but I feel it conveys a false sense of plan and strategy beyond the play of personality and ad hoc circumstance.
The most that can be claimed is that there is a kind of hierarchy in arranging American foreign policies priorities, yet overall, lacking any sense of regional grand strategy. At the top of the Trump policy pyramid seem to be upholding the two ‘special relationships’ with Israel, first, and Saudi Arabia, second.
Turkey is somewhat supported because of the seeming personal rapport between Erdogan and Trump, and partly also for reasons of continuity of alignment and economic trade relations. Iran is a perfect regional enemy for the United States, which helps us understand why it ha
Iran is antagonistic to Saudi ambitions to assert its regional hegemony and to Israel because of its pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist stance, and not a trading partner or a
Besides, Iran as the leading Shi’a state in the region is a sectarian foil for the Gulf/Egyptian Sunni affinities. Trump’s insistence on repudiating Obama’s initiatives in the region led to the American withdrawal from the Nuclear Program Agreement negotiated in 2015 (JCPOA, that is, Joint Comprehensive Program of Action), has led to the collapse of an agreement that seemed a breakthrough for peace at the time.
This anti-Iran agenda is being carried forward at considerable risk and expense, as well as producing mass hardship for the Iranian people over a period of many decades.
Although Trump campaigned on a pledge of disengagement from senseless regime-changing interventions of the past in the Middle East, especially the attack on and occupation of Iraq since 2003, it has been a difficult policy to implement, especially in relation to Iran, and to some extent Syria.
This seems to reflect an American deep-state resistance to all demilitarizing moves in the Middle East for strategic reasons, as well as Trump’s quixotic and ambivalent style of diplomacy.
As far as Turkey is concerned, there seems to be some continuity in Erdogan’s foreign policy, which is to support the Palestinian national struggle and to
The future of China
Q5. Do you see China as emerging any time in the near future as a global superpower?
Response: I think China is already a global superpower in some fundamental respects, although not a global leader in the manner of the United States in the period between 1945-2016.
Whether it has the political will to play a geopolitical role beyond its East and South Asian nearby regions is difficult to predict. The top Chinese officials seem to sense a dangerous vacuum and inviting opportunity resulting from the withdrawal of the United States from its leadership position.
At the same time, the Chinese themselves seem aware of their lack of experience beyond the Asian context outside of the economic sector, are preoccupied with domestic challenges, and are aware that Chinese is not a global language nor the renminbi a global currency.
For these reasons, I expect China to stay largely passive, or at most defensive, when it comes to the global geopolitical agenda, and use its considerable leverage to promote multipolarity and restraint in most international venues.
“For these reasons, I expect
China to stay largely passive,
or at most defensive,
when it comes to the global geopolitical agenda,
and use its considerable
leverage to promote
multipolarity and restraint
in most international venues.”
At the same time, China’s superpower status can be affirmed in two different fundamental respects: as the only credible adversary of the United States in a major war and as a soft power giant when it comes to spreading its influence beyond its territorial limits by a variety of non-military means, most spectacularly by its Road and Belt Initiative, the largest investment in an integrative undertaking in the world.
If soft power status is the best measure of influence in
Arguably the most telling symptom of American decline is its gross over-investment in military capabilities despite enduring a series of political setbacks in situations where it dominated the battlefield, which when coupled with the failure to address the decaying domestic infrastructure and refusing to fill the gaps of social protection.
Perhaps, the Vietnam War is the clearest instance of total military superiority resulting in the loss of a war, but there are other notable instances (Afghanistan, Iraq).
Your vision of the future world
Q6. If you were asked to provide a radical vision of the world order in the 21st century, what would it look like?
Response: This is a difficult assignment. I would offer two sets of response, but with a realization of the radical uncertainty associated with any conjectures about the future of world order.
My responses depend on some separation between considerations of policy and of structure. I respond on the basis of my tentative diagnosis of the present reality as posing the first bio-ethical-ecological crisis in world history.
With respect to policy, I would emphasize the systemic nature of distinctive present challenges, global in scale and scope. The most severe of these challenges relate to the advent of nuclear weapons, and the related geopolitical policy consensus that has opted for a nonproliferation regime rather than a denuclearizing disarmament alternative.
Such a regime contradicts the fundamental principle of a world order based on the equality of states, large or small, when it comes to rights and duties under international law.
It does, however, reflect adherence to the fundamental norm of geopolitics that is itself embedded in the UN Charter, which acknowledges inequality with respect to rights and duties, evident in other spheres of international life, including accountability for international crimes, as acknowledged by the demeaning phrase, ‘victors’ justice.’
To address the challenges to world order that threaten the peoples of the world does not require overcoming political inequality altogether, but it does require attaining at least two goals that involve radical changes in political
1) respect for and adherence to international law and the UN Charter by all states, especially the most powerful, which would at least entail national self-discipline and the elimination of the right of veto at the UN, but not necessarily permanent membership in the Security Council;
2) the strengthening of the autonomy of the United Nations in relation to the peace and security agenda by creating an independent funding arrangement based on imposing taxes on transnational travel, military expenditures, and luxury items.
The objectives would be to move toward a global organization that was dedicated to the global and human interest as well as to the promotion of national interests as is now the case, which would depend on vesting implementing authority in the UN Secretary-General as well as the acceptance of a degree of demilitarization by current geopolitical actors, with the proclamation of shared goals of making national security unambiguously defensive, and globally regulated in accord with international law.
We need, at least, to adhere to international law and to strengthen the autonomy of the United Nations – to have a future
In effect, the policy priorities to be served by such a radical reordering of global relations, shifting authority and power from its present geopolitical nexus to a multiplicity of hubs of influence that sought global justice and ecological sustainability, and were more institutionally situated in global networks and arrangements.
In the scheme depicted above it would mean a rather dramatic shift from geopolitical autonomy to a more law-governed world order with the establishment of effective mechanisms to serve the whole of humanity rather than being focused on the wellbeing of its distinct territorial parts.
In the process, accompanying social democratic arrangements for trade, investment, and development would need to be adjusted to serve the attainment of basic economic and social rights as implemented by monitoring and regulatory transnational procedures that were also sensitive to ecological sustainability.
It hard to imagine such policy and structural modifications taking place without a renewed confidence in democratic, ethically grounded, and generally progressive styles of governance at the national level, protective of vulnerable people, accountable to future generations, as well as acting without total deference to short-term electoral cycles.
In other words, the
There is no plausible political path visible to such a future at present, although there is a growing sense of panic, especially among youth, as recently epitomized by the charismatic impact and impressive insight of Greta Thunberg.
What is altogether missing from the present setting are credible sources of revolutionary energy guided by such a vision of a necessary and desirable future, which would entail the rejection of autocratic governance of sovereign states and of apartheid geopolitical regimes (as with nuclear weapons, accountability to international criminal law, and double standards).
In effect, a drastic shift from a zero-sum world of destructive rivalry, exploitation, intervention, and political egoism to a win/win world based on the emergence of a sense of global community and ecological unity accompanied by the mechanisms and structures to convert policy directives into behavioural conformity.
If you appreciated this…
Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He initiated this blog partly in celebration of his 80th birthday.
He lives part of the year in Istanbul with his Turkish wife, Hilal Elver. And he has been a dear friend and a TFF Associate since 1986.