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The Ukraine War: a Geopolitical Perspective




by Richard Falk

We are delighted to cross-post this piece by JWE Board Member Richard Falk.

Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat modified version of a talk on March 9th, 2022 at a session of the Global Studies Colloquium, UCSB, convened by Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse. I regret not having a transcript as a series of challenging questions followed my remarks, including several participants in Europe. COVID has made transnational dialogue much more of a common and enriching feature of intellectual activity on university campuses.

When we agreed on a theme for my presentation, we were in a pre-Ukraine world. In the interim developments in Ukraine, including the imprudent US-led provocations, Russian aggression against a sovereign state producing a severe humanitarian crisis in a country of over 44 million people, the confrontational Western response by way of sanctions and a surging Russophobia, producing a win/lose calculus rather than striving for partial win/win political outcomes, which I would identify as restoring respect for Ukrainian sovereign rights (ceasefire, Russian orderly withdrawal; reconstruction assistance; emergency humanitarian aid) coupled with a commitment by Ukraine to never join NATO or allow Western troops or weaponry to be deployed on its soil, as well as a commitment to allow self-government in Eastern Ukraine and the protection of human rights in Donbas region in accord with the reinvigoration of the Minsk Agreements of 2014-15. The West’s refusal to practice win/win diplomacy is suggestive of an absence of political and moral imagination at a time in world history when the resources and energies of the world need to be dedicated to global problem-solving as never before, and not be diverted by geopolitical dramas of the kind that has been tragically unfolding in Ukraine since February 24th.

Geopolitics is often invoked vaguely and abstractly, frequently given diverse meaning, and thus needs to be explained. Geopolitics is most usefully understood as referencing the behavior of dominant states, what used to be called Great Powers. There is a confusion embedded in IR, which generally refers to a state-centric world order based on juridical equality as exemplified by international law, and has been recently mystified in the political discourse of the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. This high official insists that U.S. foreign policy adheres to the restraints of a rule-governed international order, while that of its rivals, China and Russia, does not, and that for him makes all the difference. In actuality, the reality of geopolitics is most manifest in war/peace or international security contexts where all Great Powers throughout the world history of several centuries privilege their strategic priorities over adherence to rules or norms of general application.

At the end of World War II there were basically two geopolitical actors—US & USSR. Additionally, through the strength of Winston Churchill’s personality and the vitality of the trans-Atlantic alliance, UK was treated as a third geopolitical actor. France was later added as a courtesy urged by Churchill to avoid Britain enduring the loneliness of being the predominant colonial power. China as the most populous country and the sole representative of the Global South was the final state admitted to this exclusive club of geopolitical actors, who not only became the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, but were also the first five countries to develop and possess nuclear weapons.

Franklin Roosevelt exerted American influence, backed by Stalin, to ensure that the United Nations would be established in a manner that took account of the institutional failures of the League of Nations that had been brought into existence after World War I to keep the peace. FDR attributed the failure of the League as arising from its Westphalian state-centric framing of authority. Instead of juridical equality as the dominant organizing principle, Roosevelt favored the establishment of a hybrid institution: geopolitical primacy for the Security Council endowed with sole authority to reach and implement, if necessary by force, binding decisions; Westphalian statism was relied upon to legitimate claims of authority in the GA and rest of UN System, yet limited in its efforts to influence behavior to advisory and recommendatory authority that has turned out have had inconsequential impacts in relation to the most pressing items on the global policy agenda.

Additional support for hybridity came from the Soviet Union that sought not only Permanent Membership in the SC but structural assurances that it would not be victimized by a tyranny of the majority composed of anti-Communist Western-leaning countries. Soviet concerns were set forth as part of the justification for granting a right of veto to the permanent five. The central idea was to frame the peace and security priorities of the new UN in a manner that clearer ample space political space for the practice of geopolitics within the four walls of the Organization. It is not surprising that this accommodation of geopolitics produced an impasse at the UN, approaching political paralysis during the Cold War. It also perversely meant that the P-5 were constitutionally empowered to opt out of compliance with international law whenever their strategic interests so decreed by simply casting a veto blocking a SC decision.

It should be noted that a quite different approach was taken in the economic sphere of the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and IMF where Western primacy for market economies was achieved by weighted voting and leadership traditions proportionally based on capital contributions. Such a capitalist consensus did indeed lead to a rule-based international liberal order, which contrasted with the contested ideological combat zone of post-1945 geopolitics. [Ikenberry; WTO added later]

Roosevelt’s vision of the UN was vindicated to some extent by achieving and maintaining universality of membership throughout the entirety of the Cold War. Providing a comfort zone for geopolitics did overcome one of the principal procedural weaknesses of the state-centric League. The League suffered from non-participation (US), withdrawal (USSR), and expulsion (Germany), arguably the most important international actors between the two world wars.

The most hopeful part of FDR’s hopes to the UN proved irrelevant and naïve. Roosevelt was hopeful that the of countries with diverse ideologies that had cooperated so effectively in responding to the fascist challenge in the war would extend their alliance to peacetime. He believed, or maybe just hoped, that the victors in World War II would take on the less onerous challenges of peacetime. In retrospect, it seems clear that those who led the peace diplomacy after World War II underestimated the intensity of antagonistic geopolitical ambitions that had been temporarily subdued to address the common threat posed by fascism, and that the removal of that threat made possible the resumption of fierce geopolitical rivalry between the two military superpowers.

The Cold War, despite its periodic crises, proxy wars, and arms races managed to avoid a third world war by producing a relatively stable geopolitical balance of power based on two  principal elements: deterrence (mutual assured destruction) and respect for each other’s spheres of influence. The risks of war during this period arose over different perceptions of respective degrees of control over spheres of influence as in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the interplay of nationalisms and ideological affinities in the three divided countries of Korea and Vietnam that led to horribly destructive proxy wars and Germany that produced recurrent crises that endangered peace in scary ways. War prevention was more successful in Europe where respective spheres of influence accepted hostile interventions by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and more subtly by the U.S. in Western Europe

What might be called ‘the geopolitics of peace’ during the Cold War reflected patterns of assertion and restraint that reflected the prevailing geopolitical structure: the presence of nuclear weapons, and the collapse of European colonialism. The structural reality of the Cold War period was captured by a militarist understanding of geopolitics in the nuclear age, and by the imaginary of ‘bipolarity.’ Such abstractions unless elaborated obscures the role of geopolitical leadership, internal cohesion and governance, and perceptions of the adversary. Yet ‘bipolarity’ gives a more instructive view of geopolitics than does an emphasis on the P-5 in the UN setting, and has prevailed in the academic IR literature.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led what the right-wing neoconservatives in the U.S. heralded as the onset of ‘a unipolar moment,’ which meant that the logic of balance and deterrence no longer applied, especially in conflicts within the spheres of influence bordering on China and Russia. Balance was replaced by the logic of dominance and asymmetry. A triumphalist atmosphere emerged in the US during the 1990s conveyed by such phrases as ‘the end of history,’ ‘the second American century,’ ‘the doctrine of enlargement,’ and ‘democracy promotion.’ No longer was geopolitics conceived largely in regional terms, but rather as a global undertaking of a single political actor, the United States, the first truly ‘global state’ whose security zone encompassed the planet.

But there were problems with operationalizing a Monroe Doctrine for the world: the potency of nationalist resistance neutralizing over time the impact of military superiority enjoyed by the intervening geopolitical actor, a revision of the balance of forces as between intervenors and national sites of struggle recently evident in Iraq and Afghanistan; the fact that China’s challenge was not primarily military, and thus could not be ‘deterred’ by force alone; the growing Russian resentment at being hemmed in and threatened by the geopolitical acrobatics of unipolarity.

One further observation of a conceptual nature: world order is constituted by two normative logics: a geopolitical logic based on inequality of states and a juridical logic based on their equality. For relations based on equality, international law provides a framework; for those based on inequality, strategic priorities including war avoidance underpin action. Bipolarity proved to be relatively resilient, unipolarity turned out to be dysfunctional, producing massive human suffering, widespread devastation and human displacement while frustrating the pursuit and attainment of geopolitical goals.

Before the Ukraine crisis, there seemed to be forming a new geopolitical configuration based on somewhat different patterns of alignment: ‘containment’ was being resurrected in relation to China and focusing on the defense of South Asia, including the islands, with a less Euro-centric alliance on both sides. Instead of NATO v Warsaw Pact there is the relations of US, India, UK, and Australia. Russia seemed to be replacing East Europe as the principal ally or partner of China suggesting a new phase of bipolarity and the onset of a second cold war.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine drastically challenged that playbill, or so it now seems. He had previously pledged ‘the end of the unipolar world,’ and seemed to mean this primarily in relation to the Russian sphere of influence along its Western borders, starting with Ukraine. Such a geopolitical approach is running into some comparable obstacles to those encountered by the US with respect to unipolarity. China is placed in an awkward position of conflicting priorities, balancing U.S. encroachments and hegemonic geopolitics, yet uphold the sanctity of territorial sovereignty, the major premise of Westphalian world order.

One can conjecture that if a diplomatic solution is soon found for Ukraine, the Sino-Russian defensive geopolitics will revive. The Trump factor cannot be discounted in the near future, and with it a return to a geopolitical realignment scheme that was friendlier to Russia and more economistic in character, viewing China as the more troublesome rival of the U.S. from the perspective of trade, investment, and technological innovation.

What seems clear is that the 30-year aftermath of the Cold War is ending amid the ruins and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. What comes next depends on many factors, including the impingement of unmet global challenges not previously prominent on geopolitical agendas, yet posing dire threats to the future stability of planetary political, economic, and ecological arrangements if not treated as matters of urgency.

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Amb. Matlock on Ukraine: an Avoidable Crisis




Amb. Jack Matlock Jr. was Ambassador to Moscow for the two U.S. Presidents who, between them, brought the extremely perilous, decades-long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union to a surprisingly peaceable conclusion: Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Today, he has published a carefully documented essay in which he argues that the present crisis between Washington and Moscow over the issue of Ukraine is: “an avoidable crisis that was predictable, actually predicted, willfully precipitated, but easily resolved by the application of common sense.”

I’ll provide some key excerpts from Amb. Matlock’s piece below. Here, I’d just like to urge readers also to check out the recent, very deeply informed and sensible writings on Ukraine of Anatol Lieven (at Responsible Statecraft) and Melvin Goodman (at Counterpunch).

In Amb. Matlock’s essay, he writes:

the decision to expand NATO piecemeal was a reversal of American policies that produced the end of the Cold War and the liberation of Eastern Europe. President George H.W. Bush had proclaimed a goal of a “Europe whole and free.” Soviet President Gorbachev had spoken of “our common European home,” had welcomed representatives of East European governments who threw off their Communist rulers and had ordered radical reductions in Soviet military forces by explaining that for one country to be secure, there must be security for all.

He also recalls that,

The first President Bush also assured Gorbachev during their meeting on Malta in December, 1989, that if the countries of Eastern Europe were allowed to choose their future orientation by democratic processes, the United States would not “take advantage” of that process. (Obviously, bringing countries into NATO that were then in the Warsaw Pact would be “taking advantage.”) The following year, Gorbachev was assured, though not in a formal treaty, that if a unified Germany was allowed to remain in NATO, there would be no movement of NATO jurisdiction to the east, “not one inch.”

He notes that the process of adding East European countries to NATO began under Pres. Bill Clinton and then continued under Pres. George W. Bush. Additionally, under George W. Bush,

the United States began withdrawing from the arms control treaties that had tempered, for a time, an irrational and dangerous arms race and were the foundation agreements for ending the Cold War. The most significant was the decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) which had been the cornerstone treaty for the series of agreements that halted for a time the nuclear arms race.

As for Pres. Barack Obama, Matlock wrote that,

his government continued to ignore the most serious Russian concerns and redoubled earlier American efforts to detach former Soviet republics from Russian influence and, indeed, to encourage “regime change” in Russia itself. American actions in Syria and Ukraine were seen by the Russian president, and most Russians, as indirect attacks on them.

… So far as Ukraine is concerned, U.S. intrusion into its domestic politics was deep—to the point of seeming to select a prime minister. It also, in effect, supported an illegal coup d’etat that changed the Ukrainian government in 2014, a procedure not normally considered consistent with the rule of law or democratic governance. The violence that still simmers in Ukraine started in the “pro-Western” west, not in the Donbas where it was a reaction to what was viewed as the threat of violence against Ukrainians who are ethnic Russian.

During President Obama’s second term, his rhetoric became more personal, joining a rising chorus in the American and British media vilifying the Russian president.

At the end of his essay, Matlock asks rhetorically whether the present crisis can be easily resolved by the application of common sense. His answer?

The short answer is because it can be. What President Putin is demanding, an end to NATO expansion and creation of a security structure in Europe that insures Russia’s security along with that of others is eminently reasonable. He is not demanding the exit of any NATO member and he is threatening none. By any pragmatic, common sense standard it is in the interest of the United States to promote peace, not conflict. To try to detach Ukraine from Russian influence—the avowed aim of those who agitated for the “color revolutions”—was a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one. Have we so soon forgotten the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

The ambassador also posits, near the beginning of the essay, the suggestion that Pres. Biden’s actively escalatory policy on Ukraine may be part of a carefully staged “wag the dog” type scenario in which he seeks to divert attention from his many political failures at home.

I have also entertained that thought over recent weeks. Another possible explanation for Biden’s warmongering (and these are not mutually exclusive) may be, in my view, a kind of toxic masculinity that has persuaded him to beat his breast and strut menacingly on the world stage as a way to “restore American credibility” after what many domestic opponents describe as a serious American “humiliation” in Afghanistan.

Well, whatever the explanation, the urgent need now is to de-escalate these very serious tensions between very heavily nuclear-armed powers, and engage in the kind of real diplomacy that will remove the need for any party to go to war.

I just hope against hope that it is not too late for this and that Biden has not ended up talking himself and Pres. Putin into a situation where neither feels he can back down.

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Our New Podcast Series: “The World From Palestine”




We’re pleased to announce that on January 21, Just World Educational will be releasing the first episode in our new podcast series “The World From Palestine.” In this series, JWE President Helena Cobban and Palestinian scholar Yousef AlJamal will be jointly exploring the intersections between Palestine’s liberation struggle and other anti-imperialist struggles throughout history, and until today.

Ms. Cobban is a veteran analyst of Palestinian and world affairs, and author of seven books on international issues who for 17 years contributed a regular column on global issues to The Christian Science Monitor. On her personal website Just World News she has spent the past 13 months exploring the deep history of settler colonialism over the past 600 years. Mr. Aljamal is a wellknown Palestinian author and speaker who grew up in Gaza and is currently completing his Ph.D. in international affairs at Turkey’s Sakarya University.

The new podcast series will be distributed globally by Just World Podcasts and will be available for streaming or download on all the major podcast-streaming platforms, including Apple and Spotify.

When announcing the new podcast series, Ms. Cobban said, “By having these public conversations on these issues we hope to cast new light both on the Palestinian struggle and– by viewing it through the in-real-time record of Zionism’s continuing depradations in Palestine– on the history of settler-colonialism itself… And of course, we also hope to strengthen the ties of solidarity between Palestinians and anti-imperialist strugglers all around the world.”

She also noted that she is particularly excited to be working on this project with Mr. Aljamal, who has wide experience of settler colonialisms in several different parts of the world including Hawai’i, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Ireland, Algeria, and elsewhere.

Mr. Aljamal has undertaken two speaking tours of the United States, in 2014 and 2019. In 2019, in addition to speaking to super audiences and connecting with Palestinian-rights leaders and activists nationwide, he also held good meetings with key members of Congress and numerous congressional staffers.

In 2019, he translated testimonies of Palestinian child prisoners for the book Dreaming of Freedom, and in 2021 he co-authored a collection of testimonies of Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers: A Shared Struggle, published by the Bobby Sands Foundation. For more than a year now, he has been contributing regular columns on Palestinian and world affairs to the online publication Politics Today.

Check back over the coming days for more information about “The World From Palestine”.

The post Our new podcast series: “The World From Palestine” appeared first on Just World Educational.

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Just World Ed and Covid’s 3rd Year




Humankind’s Covid-19 crisis is now entering its third year. Every nation on this planet has been drastically affected by it– at a time when nearly everyone around the world has also become deeply aware of the dire effects for us all of anthropogenic climate change. And to increasing numbers of people here in the United States, our leaders’ past, extravagantly funded use of military power to effect regime change in distant portions of the globe– whether in Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria– seems to have shown its limits, leaving in its wake only humanitarian catastrophe and societal collapse.

Medea Benjamin
Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Just World Educational is a tiny organization. But we have worked to stay abreast of these big currents in world affairs and in some cases I believe we have led the way with visionary new thinking. I’m thinking particularly of the webinar series “The World After Covid” that we ran in June and July of 2020, in which big thinkers like Richard Falk, Medea Benjamin, Bill Fletcher, Jr, and Vijay Prashad joined me to explore the kinds of changes the present era was experiencing. We created this online learning hub where you can view the archived videos of those sessions, or just dive into the transcripts, as you prefer.

It is clear that today, as we enter Covid’s third year, we are not yet nearly in a “World After Covid”. A more accurate description for what we were exploring in 2020 would be “The World After the Onset of Covid”. But it is also clear that the onset of Covid marked humankind’s entry into a significant inflection point in the global balance– one that we are still living through.

Amb. He Yafei, of the Chongyang Inst.

Our mid-2020 explorations at that “big-picture” level led to two offshoots. In one offshoot, which was timed to air in the weeks leading up to the U.S. election of November 2020, we worked with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing to present a groundbreaking public dialogue between U.S. and Chinese experts on issues of great concern in the two countries’ relations, in both the economic and the security field. You can see the online learning hub we created from that project, here.

The other offshoot from our “World After Covid” deliberations was one that started out as a more personal quest for me. Since we seemed clearly to be coming to the end of the long era in which a handful of “Western” or West-European-origined nations had been able to dominate all of global politics, I wanted to dig more deeply into the conundrum of how (and why) it was that that domination had been established in the first place.

I launched my research on this question last January 1. Pretty rapidly I realized I needed to go back not just to the notorious voyage of 1492 in which Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas (while believing he had actually made it to Asia), but to 1415 CE. That was the year in which a royal-led expedition from tiny Portugal established a first colonial foothold in northwest Africa from which subsequent expeditionary forces then established a string of armed trading posts all around West Africa and down to the continent’s southernmost tip, where they arrived even before Columbus’s first voyage of 1492.

The use by West European powers of raw military might to force punitive trading terms onto the peoples of the Global South can thus be dated back to 1415… And one of the first “commodities” the Portuguese were exporting from West Africa in the 15th century was enslaved persons, who were shipped to plantations the Portuguese had established in various Atlantic island chains, and also back to Europe.

Early Chinese image of a Portuguese sailing carrack

Portugal, Spain, and later England, Netherlands, and France, were each building a form of empire the world had never seen before. These West-European powers used a combination of naval might and very heavy gunnery to force their will onto the peoples of the Global South– and also to effect the mass-scale, long-distance trans-shipment of populations on which their new empires were built. They shipped many millions of captured and enslaved Africans to the Caribbean islands and the American Main (also, in the Indian Ocean, large numbers of enslaved East Africans to plantations in Madagascar, reunion, and elsewhere.) They shipped their own colonial settlers to build “White”-dominated settlements all around the world. And when the Indigenes resisted, which nearly everywhere they did, the colonialists could round them up and ship them to a distant continent, or commit genocide and other mass atrocities against them without fearing any “blowback” against their own, very distant heartlands…

These new maritime empires were a very different breed from the many large land empires the world had seen before; and one by one the large land empires that existed in 1415 fell to the might of the European marauders.

You can read some of the early articles I wrote in this project here, here, here (a long one!), and here.

Screengrab of Amb. Mfeketo

In 2021, while I was exploring those big trends in world history, my colleagues on the JWE board and I stayed faithful to our longstanding commitment to study and expose the attempts the big imperial powers have continue to make to impose their will on the “Darker Nations” (in Vijay Prashad’s notable term.) We also continued to work to identify and share key lessons from current, or recently-past, anti-colonial movements– key among them, as always, the Palestinian national movement, but also, in early 2021, South Africa’s earlier heroic anti-Apartheid struggle.

I was particularly pleased, in the early months of 2021, to work with South Africa’s Ambassador to the U.S., Nomaindia Mfeketo, and a number of other female veterans of her country’s anti-Apartheid struggle produce some great online resources on the little-known role that a range of women leaders and activists played in that struggle. You can access that hub here.

In mid-year, JWE worked with Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt on a wonderful continuation of our project on food sovereignty issues in Gaza and elsewhere. You can see those resources here.

Our Afghanistan program (with an in-person component!)

More recently, in late October, JWE partnered with the Friends Meeting of Washington to present a cutting-edge teach-in/webinar on the extreme humanitarian crisis that the United States 20 years of military aggression and occupation had left behind for Afghanistan’s 39 million people of Afghanistan. That event featured former CIA officer Graham Fuller and Afghan-American educator Dr. Zaher Wahab. It is still well worth watching! You can do so here.

… And now, what of our plans for 2022, or Covid Year 3, as we might call it?

I am still discussing our plans with our amazingly distinguished and wonderful Board. We’re considering, after two years of being at the forefront of webinar-based learning, making a shift for some period of time towards podcasts. I have been suffering from eye problems since early November– soon, hopefully, to get resolved!– but this period of being more reliant on other senses has renewed my longheld interest in producing quality audio resources.

During 2022, we will likely launch two or more discrete podcast series: one in which I share some of my explorations into the origins and meaning of West-European empire building, and one in which other Board members and I revisit some of the big-picture issues in our “World After Covid” project.

In many ways these two projects feel very complementary. We haven’t decided yet which of them to tackle first. (Stay tuned for news of that!) But whichever order we take them in, we’ll plan to build or update a broad, multimedia online learning hub on which to archive it as a continuing resource.

[Newsflash, updated December 27: We have a third possible podcast project that we’re now also considering– and it may be the one that runs first… Stay tuned!]

We remain extremely grateful to all of our supporters, listeners, commenters, and donors! Thanks to you all for being there! While we work on getting our 2022 podcast productions up and running, please continue to explore our existing Online Learning Hubs and our blog, where you’ll find a continuing stream of worthwhile articles on a range of topics. And thanks for all you do to help build a more just and peaceful world!


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