How to Think about the Ukraine War after 18 Months


Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

20 Sep 2023 –This is a revised text of an interview from 5 Sep 2023 by Mike Billington, a senior leader of the Schiller Institute. It addresses various aspects of the global political setting that has crystallized since the Russian attack of 5 Feb 2022 on Ukraine. The repudiation of diplomacy as an alternative to war, despite the costs and dangers of continuing the Ukraine War, are quite striking. Zelensky’s appeal for further aid at the UN on 20 Sep, combined with media reports that NATO is preparing for a long war, are exceedingly discouraging as is the unwillingness of the warring parties to take account of the harmful spillover effects on the most food and energy vulnerable countries in the world.


Mike Billington: This is Mike Billington with the Executive Intelligence Review and the Schiller Institute. And I’m pleased to be here today with Professor Richard Falk, who has agreed to an interview about current affairs and world developments in this crucial moment in history. Professor Falk, would you like to say a few words about your own history and your role in history?

Prof. Falk: I’m not sure I have a role in history. My career has been framed by academic affiliations since my early 20s. I’ve taught at universities all of my adult life, starting with Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, in 1955, moving to Princeton University, where I stayed for 40 years, retiring in 2001, and since then I have been connected both with the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Queen Mary University in London. From the mid-1960s I became an engaged citizen, at first principally in my role as an opponent of the Vietnam War in a variety of public spaces, then other issues became preoccupations.

I’ve done a fair amount of writing throughout my life, basically bridging my academic and activist preoccupations. I have made an effort to portray this experience in a memoir called Public Intellectual—The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim—along with a stream of commentary on global issues. I have led at times a confusing life, which account for the mystifying title, I suppose. I have been active through the UN in supporting the Palestinian struggle for human rights and self-determination and served as UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights Council on Occupied Palestine between 2008 and 2014. During this period I was frequently defamed as an anti-Semite and self-hating Jew and otherwise targeted and discredited. Recently, I’ve lived an increasingly sedentary life. I continue to comment on global developments, publishing mainly on online platforms and doing frequent interviews with a variety of journalists

Over the years I have been ‘a closet poet,’ expressing strong feelings about what is precious in life and also some reflections on frustrations that come with in the territory of love and loving. A few years ago, I self-published a book of poems, Waiting for Rainbows, while hardly being noticed did result in a few affirming responses.

For the past 25 years I have had two residential habitats: Turkey and the US, two troubled societies. The U.S. has a slightest healthier governance framework and Turkey a far more safe and secure societal and cultural infrastructure.

I apologize if I have responded excessively to your invitation to  introduce myself, and in one respect I have not said enough. Let me add to my autobiographical remarks that I’m glad to do this interview with Mike Billington, despite severe differences in the past. with the Lyndon LaRouche movement. Unsurprisingly, I have not enjoyed being a target of what I consider defamatory attacks connected with my support for the democracy anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines and the insurgent campaign for the protection of human rights in the Shah’s Iran. Such disagreements persist. I overlook this background because I feel strongly that those who seek a safer, more secure, more peaceful and just world have to let such bygones-be-bygones and work together in the present for the greater public good, with a particular responsibility to future generations.

Mike Billington: Well, that’s quite interesting. You and I have discussed privately those differences, which we maintain as differences, both on the history of them and other aspects of things. But they don’t necessarily have to come up today unless you wish to bring them up further.

Let me start by referencing the fact that you were a speaker at an event sponsored by my friend Chandra Muzaffar in Malaysia, the head of Just International, organized by an organization called SHAPE, Save Humanity And Planet Earth—along with other speakers from the US, from Russia, from Korea, and from Australia. I found that you referred to what you called the “unstable tension between geopolitics and self-determination,” which I found to be the most profound point of that conference. Could you comment on that and explain what you mean by that?

Prof. Falk: I will try. I’ve been preoccupied with geopolitics in the context of the Ukraine War, which started as a Russian attack on Ukraine, transformed itself, due to the intrusive role that US/NATO forces played in response, from a simple bilateral conflict into what I regard as a “geopolitical war” between Russia and the United States. An important consequence of this added form of conflict, generally overlooked, is that an acceptable outcome in Ukraine becomes subordinated by stages to the strategic goal of inflicting a geopolitically significant defeat on Russia. A secondary goal of the geopolitical war on the part of the U.S. is to seize the opportunity warm China not to attempt, with respect to Taiwan, a military solution similar to what Russia has tried to do in Ukraine, or at least that it was alleged to be trying to do.

My own interest in the clash between the nationalist politics of self-determination and post-colonial geopolitical ambitions of the U.S, go back to the experience with which these issues arose from my political engagement with opposition to the Vietnam War. I was particularly struck by its outcome, by the striking fact that the U.S., despite being so predominant militarily and making a huge reputational investment over a long period of time, still managed to lose the war. Such a pattern repeated with variations several times since Vietnam has been, I think, significantly responsible for the decline of the US as a predominant power in world withing political, economic, and cultural spheres. This declines reflects many years of overinvestment and overreliance on military solutions and military approaches to international problems, coupled with an underestimation of the potency of national self-determination as shifting the balance in conflicts between external intervenors and internally mobilized forces of resistance. Vietnam showed their extraordinary resolve in the face of devastating punishment to sustain their resistance over time with greater patience and political endurance than the imperial intervenor was able to muster in its campaign to suppress the basic rights of a people in a historical period of decolonization. What I fear in the present context is a similar exaggerated reliance on militarism as a solvent for international problems and an activation of a variety of nationalist responses dangerously intensifying geopolitical warfare, and posing unacceptable risks of a hot war, including a nuclear confrontation.

Of course, the situation is superficially different in Ukraine because, purportedly, the nationalist forces are supported by the US and NATO. But I think the broader reality is that the Ukrainian people are being sacrificed on the altar of this post-Cold War attempted recalibration of a superseded geopolitical status quo embodying unipolarity.

Mike Billington: Let me mention that geopolitics, of course, originated with people like Mackinder and Haushofer and other theoreticians for the British Empire. It’s always been the political view of the Empire that the world is a zero sum game—that to benefit ourselves we have to defeat the others. And that certainly is what you just described in terms of the current proxy war with Russia and the threat to China, and really to the whole developing sector.

Prof. Falk: I distinguish between a proxy war of the sort that has continued in Syria for more than a decade, in which the objective of the external political actors is to exert control over the internal politics of the country that is scene of the violent combat. This is not my view of what the Ukraine War is really about. In other words, it’s not primarily about the internal effects of the conflict, which I believe each of the three geopolitical actors have come to view as secondary to the impact the Ukrainian political outcome will have on the geopolitical alignments governing relations among the US, Russia and China. I see this high stakes of this realignment agenda as providing the main reason why it more clarifying to treat this confrontation in Ukraine as a geopolitical war rather than a proxy war.

Mike Billington: Well, generally, the term proxy war is meant to be a way of saying that this is really a war against Russia. It’s being fought with Ukrainian bodies. But the aim, as you are pointing out, is to weaken and undermine, or even destroy Russia and potentially China in the same manner.

Prof. Falk: And to reinforce the unipolar prerogatives that the US has claimed and exercised since the collapse of the Soviet Union as a rival over 25 years ago.

Mike Billington: Yes, exactly. You said in the SHAPE event that I mentioned just now, one of your quotes was that the greatest danger facing the world is the West’s “insistence on keeping the unipolar world in place using military methods,” which is what you’ve just reiterated, and that this was aimed at obscuring the decline in power of the US and of the G7 generally. China and the BRICS nations, as we saw last week (at the BRICS Summit) and the Global South, are generally no longer submitting to the colonial division of the world, and they’re renewing the Spirit of Bandung. What is your view of the BRICS and the August 22-24 BRICS summit in South Africa?

Prof. Falk: Basically, I have a very positive view of the BRICS role. I think it goes beyond the Bandung Spirit because it is more focused on restructuring the global engagement of the non-West. Bandung I was understandably preoccupied with seeking diplomatic distance from the Cold War, as well as  “non-involvement in the struggles of the North.” In this sense, I think a posture of geopolitical neutralism was main motivation of Bandung I, that is, to avoid getting caught up in the competing ideologically antagonistic alliances between the global powers—an antagonistic framework of US and Soviet Union relations that increasingly posed threats of a Third World War. The Bandung countries wanted to focus on their own development and to stay uninvolved in this post-colonial geopolitical struggle for global ascendancy.

I regard the BRICS as responding to a different configuration of concerns. As such it is a more creative form of involvement that has its own defensive and offensive geopolitical ambitions. A primary example of this engagement sensibility of the BRICS is their campaign aimed at the de-dollarization of international trade, which if even partially successful, will have a huge impact on the Global North, and also by giving shape and direction to a new type  of multipolarity that is very different than what the North and the G-7 want. It’s very instructive to compare the documents emanating from the May 2023 meeting of the G-7 at Hiroshima, both in their tone and rhetoric and substance, from those emanating from the BRICS Summit, most notably the Johannesburg Declaration that was issued just last week. On almost all counts I would rather live in the world envisioned by the Johannesburg Declaration than the one depicted at Hiroshima.

Mike Billington: As you mentioned just a minute ago, the decline of the US began with the Vietnam War. And you said during your presentation earlier that the US became depoliticized by the impact of the war and then further depoliticized by the events of 9/11. Do you want to explain that?

Prof. Falk: Your question raises a big set of issues. I think what the so-called “deep state” in the US, and the Washington think tanks and foreign policy advisers learned from Vietnam, were several lessons. One of them was to make a major effort to co-opt the mainstream media, including independent journalists, making the media less objective and independent, and more akin to an instrument of state propaganda when it came to public discourse on foreign policy in the U.S, especially by restricting the range of policy debate. This was one lesson.

Another lesson was to rely on a volunteer armed force, rather than to conscript individuals for short periods of involuntary service on the basis of age via the draft. These conscripts and their families became the core of the antiwar movement in the Vietnam War. The middle class, parents of children that were either students subject to later conscription or actually conscripted, and later suffered casualties and disabilities in the course of their exposure to war in Vietnam became influential voices of dissent in a war that made little sense from the perspectives of national security and national interests. An expression widely used by pro-war people was that “the Vietnam War was lost in American living rooms,” which was a part of this attempt to make sure that the media didn’t in the future show body bags and coffins coming back from foreign war zones whether the coffins carried professional soldiers or drafted American youth.

Perhaps the most important of all lessons learned pertained to tactics and weapons. Future war tactics relied on ‘shock and awe’ air attacks, coercive sanctions and an array of weapons that shifted casualties to those entrapped in the war zones, most spectacularly, the use of drones of an ever more advanced character. With media control, professionalized armed forces, and minimized American casualties resulted in a depoliticized citizenry. Nevertheless, belligerent failures continued if measured by political outcomes with the Afghan and Iraqi state-building resulting in economically costly and damaging to the U.S. claims of prudent diplomatic leadership, with benefits going to the arms merchants and militarists. The lessons learned by the military establishment in the U.S. led to a citizenry more tolerant of long foreign engagements, the era of the so-called ‘forever wars,’ but in the end there were no enduring success stories.

These kinds of lessons learned in Vietnam were reinforced by the official response go the 9/11 attacks, which included the whole apparatus of Homeland Security, which had the effect of further insulating the society from radical protest. Another aspect of these various developments was the degree to which the militarized sectors of government and private society joined forces to depoliticize the citizenry to the extent possible to, in fact, mobilize the citizenry for a much more active role that involved exaggerating security threats at home and from abroad, even inventing them to gain support for ‘a war of choice,’ as in Iraq 20 years ago. It was this combination of these various lessons learned by the established order, while unfortunately corresponding lessons were not learned by the peace movement, which has led to the deterioration of democracy within the United States and an alarming rise of homegrown security threats evident in an epidemic of mass shootings, with over 500 in the first eight months of 2023..

The. result was a rebalancing of society after the Vietnam War, in which the peace minded and justice inclined parts of society were less affected, less active, less effective, distracted in various ways. Even by the kind of populist cultural movements that emerged in America, the Woodstock generation, Burning Man types of withdrawal from political participation. These cultural tropes became integral to the pacification of American protest activity, in some ways a modern equivalent of Roman bread and circuses, although falling short on the bread dimension with respect to the poor.

Mike Billington: The fact that the vast majority, or a good portion—a much too large portion—of the population today seems to concur, both here and in Europe, to go along with this war, together with the demonization of Russia and China, would indicate that they’ve been quite successful in that effort.

Prof. Falk: Yes, I think they have been. And oddly enough, it’s the extreme right that has begun to mount the most coherent opposition to the Ukraine involvement, mainly on economistic terms, and recently accompanied by the regressive suggestion that the U.S. international focus should be on the rivalry with China, not bothering with Russia and Ukraine. Chinese success in outcompeting the a number of key strategic sectors, endangering its primacy, is depicted as a geopolitical threat that should be the occasion for an aggressive response. From this perspective, the Ukraine engagement by the West is geopolitically wasteful, and in addition drives Russia into China’s waiting arms.

Mike Billington: The Schiller Institute has initiated and led an effort to create an International Peace Coalition, which now has more than 30 sponsoring international organizations that are committed to peace, often coming from very different and opposing political outlooks. But they have joined forces in order to stop what is increasingly apparent as the danger of a possible full scale NATO war on Russia, very likely a nuclear war, coming out of the apparently failed NATO efforts in Ukraine. Do you agree with this sentiment?

Prof. Falk: Well, I agree with the collaboration, because I think there exists what I regard as a planetary emergency that is being largely ignored by civil society. We are living with the danger of an intensified second Cold War without the kind of constraints and crisis management that prevented World War III from occurring during the first Cold War. And secondly, in this earlier period, the severity of global challenges such as global warming did not complicate the nature of the conflict. The failure to give adequate attention to global warming and the related growing frequency and severity of natural disasters poses dire threats to all of humanity and especially to the security and life prospects of youth and future generations. Suitable levels of attention along with the allocation of adequate resources in a manner sensitive to equity when it comes to bearing the adaptive burdens that must be borne if the human interest is to be served.

There are also present the war dangers as dramatized by the nuclear danger, that you pointed out, which are very real aspects of the current global setting. There is also the failure to address other serious global challenges of an ecological character. The commitment to and investment in a new arms race which is taking place throughout much of the world should be perceived as evidence of persisting dysfunctional geopolitical management of power. One barometer of such alarming developments is the recent Japanese announcement that it has adopted the highest increase in its military budget since World War II. A general heightening of the worst features of the state-centric world order are continuing, even intensifying, at a time when global cooperation for pragmatic reasons would seem to be the overriding priority of political leaders. This discouraging reality summarizes the overall picture.

This also reflects a leadership gap, with most leaders of leading countries unable to oppose trends to delimit national interests being globalized in these menacingly ways. The persistence of overinvestments in the military combined with the underinvestment in coping with climate change, migration and biodiversity, and a series of social protectjon challenges, typifies the lack of responsiveness to the real threats to human security so clearly emergent in this first quarter of the 21st century. .

Mike Billington: Regarding the war in Ukraine. You said—again, this was in the SHAPE event where you spoke, which I monitored—you said that both the US and NATO, on the one hand, and Russia on the other, that both miscalculated in starting this war. I would ask, this appears to leave out the fact that the Russians had agreed to the Minsk agreements, which would have prevented the war, but which were intentionally ignored and sabotaged by the NATO nations. And also that they had negotiated directly between Russia and Ukraine through Turkey in the first months of the military operation, which resulted in an a signed agreement to stop the war in May of 2022, even before the referendums which were held in the Donbass regions to become part of Russia. But again, this agreement was just completely ignored and sabotaged by NATO. So that makes me question whether you can really say that Russia miscalculated, or were they left with no option. So what’s your view on that?

Prof. Falk: Well, I plead guilty somewhat for misleadingly using the word miscalculation. What I had in mind was that I think the Russians underestimated the NATO response, and therefore didn’t calculate in a persuasive way how their military operation would rapidly succeed at an acceptable cost to themselves, as assessed by the level of casualties, economic costs, and length of combat. When it comes to context, the provocations as you enumerated them were very great. And whether there was any alternative for Russia other than this recourse to a military solution, is a difficult question, because I think it was a part of Putin’s mindset to reestablish, as he had in Crimea, the Russians’ traditional sphere of influence in their so-called near abroad or borderland territories, as well as render protect to ‘Russians’ being abused in Ukraine. And in the course of doing this, to challenge U.S. “Unipolarity” that be best comprehended as, in effect, an unproclaimed “Monroe doctrine for the world.” Its geopolitical claim amounted to an enforced declaration that only the US could use military force outside its national territory for security or other purposes, and it any country dared challenge this purported red line without tacit or explicit U.S. permission (as granted to Israel) it would be met with retaliatory force. It was a unilateral denial of the geopolitical status to Russia and China, the signature global policy agenda of US foreign policy after the Cold War, reinforced by a new set of alliances. Overall, the U.S. response to the Russian attack was an illuminating disclosure of what was meant by the Biden/Blinken insistence on conforming to ‘a rules-governed world.’

From the outlook of Moscow and Beijing such a demand must seem a new double standard purporting to frame post-Cold War geopolitics. Putin, I would think, wanted to defy of this challenge, or at least not be bound by it. But he didn’t estimate the depth of the commitment by the Biden presidency, and its capacity to mobilize NATO countries and their publics around a defense of Ukraine.

There is also the racial factor, being that Ukraine is a white Christian country, at least Western Ukraine, which is what is essentially being defended. The U.S. Government shared an affinity with popular sentiment in a large number of European countries, particularly Poland, that were militant in their spontaneous opposition to the Russian attack. In such an atmosphere further inflamed by the complete erasure of the background provocations by a geopolitically compliant Western media. The way that Biden and Blinken presented the case for a military response to a supposedly unprovoked instance of the international crime of ‘aggression.’ Such. absolutism was further manifested by the absence of any indication of a readiness to allow a political compromise to go forward, especially after evidence became available that Ukraine had the capabilities, including the political will, to mount an effective resistance. The miscalculation on Washington’s side that became more evident in the second year of escalating combat is that the NATO West was failing despite massive investments in assistance to produce a Soviet defeat, and risking prolonged warfare or a political setback. As well, it became clear that pressing that course of action raised to intolerable levels the risk of an unintended nuclear war. These developments amounted to a serious miscalculation, actually a repetition of past misjudgments going back to Vietnam when Washington argued for a decade that one more increase of commitment by the U.S. would be rewarded by victory.

I think another explanation of the Russian miscalculation resulted from their experience in Crimea, which succeeded without generating much pushback. Putin likely interpreted Ukraine through the lens of the Crimea experience and probably believed that the comparable justification of political allegiance in Donbas would be accepted, however reluctantly. And as you suggested, given the violation and repudiation of the Minsk Agreements Putin undoubtedly felt he had a strong moral justification for acting as did, and could accomplish Russia’s goals in Ukraine in an acceptable time period and acceptable cost.

Mike Billington: Do you see that as still a possibility, that they will succeed in essentially consolidating the results of the votes of the several oblasts to join Russia?

Prof. Falk: Yes, I think to some extent, being that it is likely that will be elements of an eventual political compromise in the course of a much overdue peace diplomacy. And I think that political compromise, as you previously suggested—even Zelensky seemed to endorse such. an approach early on—probably would include, at least in part, such an element in relation to the Dombast oblasts.

Mike Billington: Some sort of sovereignty or autonomy, at least. Yes.

Prof. Falk: Autonomy at least. And maybe given some added assurance of stability by deploying peacekeeping forces in Ukraine and near to the Russian border.

Mike Billington: You’ve already answered this, but I wanted to bring up the fact that in your earlier presentation you ridiculed Tony Blinken, who had claimed that “the concept of spheres of influence has been delegated to the dustbin of history.” I found that to be quite interesting. It’s clearly not true for the US position and its treatment of other nations. And this is certainly one of the reasons that the Global South is now looking to the BRICS and not to London and Washington for their choice of friends and collaborators. Helga has described this as a “once in a thousand years” shift. One of the top BRICS people called this a “tectonic shift,” basically the end of the 600 years of colonialism and neo colonialism dominating mankind. What do you think of that?

Prof. Falk: Well, I still think projecting drastic modifications of the geopolitical alignment in this dramatic language remains for the present aspirational rather than descriptive. I have the sense that the US-led NATO countries will react in coercive ways to the BRICS challenge, which is undoubtedly being perceived as a bigger and growing challenge to unipolarity than is being acknowledged. What this interaction will eventually lead to is difficult to anticipate. In other words, I don’t think the BRICS can mount a truly formidable challenge of the sort implied by that transformative language without encountering significant Western resistance. For these reasons, the future management of the world economy and global security will remain under storm clouds of uncertainty for the foreseeable future..

The BRICS, despite what I feel to be an overall positive development, have incorporated such new members as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And even the original five BRICS are not fully on board with a scenario of challenging the West, that is, of creating a new world order in effect. India, for instance, is very aligned in several contexts with the West and plays a regressive role in Israel with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict. What one can say about Saudi Arabia being part—it’s important, of course, for the energy dimension of soft power, but it’s a horrible example of repressive theocratic governance. And what’s going on in the West African countries, the former French colonies, Niger, being the most recent military coups with anti-foreign agenda, suggests that there is still exists a lot of potency to what I call “colonialism after colonialism”—in other words, post-independence colonialism. Which I find a more graphic term than neo-colonialism.

Mike Billington: Yes, this is a description of the unipolar world, basically—under IMF, World Bank domination of the economy.

Prof. Falk: And the former colonial power—I’ve studied a bit the regional and global reaction to the coup in Niger that replaced an elected government collaborating with France. The French colonialists made it impossible for the Niger elites to govern their country in a competent way because they forbade education above a high school level, and made sure that an independent West African states would be completely dependent on French assistance in order to survive as a viable independent political entities. The resource agreements pertaining to uranium and gold together with the management of the financial system in Niger are extreme examples of colonialism in operation after political independence and national sovereignty have been achieved.

Mike Billington: But it would appear also that this series of revolts by the francophone countries is an expression of the general sentiment throughout the entire Global South, that this is it. We’re not going to tolerate colonial policies any longer. It’s liable to lead to war, and that’s the problem, as you’re saying, the colonial powers are not going to stand back and give up easily. And they could very well start another war in Africa of the sort that we’ve seen already in Europe, the Mideast, and are threatening to do in Asia.

Prof. Falk: Yes, And of course, in Africa, as you know, there’s also the so-called Wagner Group and a growing Russian factor. Russia has increased its influence. Its influence was somewhat anti-colonial, but mainly competitive with the West, and unclear in its interactions with China in Africa that seem ambiguous. It may be seen as another theater of combat in the wider geopolitical war, whose main arena is currently Ukraine.

What Russia seeks to do other than to counter the West, the French, European, and American influence and presence remains uncertain, and yet to be determined. Since these coups of the last few years (Bukino Faso, Mali, Niger) Russia appears to have maintained a kind of political distance from the new leaderships in West Africa. The African Union and ECOWAS, both supported, initially, a military intervention in Niger, as did Nigeria, to restore what was called civilian rule, which is more realistically viewed as a puppet government as serving French interests in Niger and perhaps regime stability elsewhere. There is obviously a good deal of complexity underneath the superficial reporting of these events. And that’s partly why I feel that we should view this larger vision of the global future as still at an aspirational stage, not yet clear enough to project a definite outcome, much less a consummated reality.

Mike Billington: It’s not over. But the impulse is unmistakable. Let me approach the Asia issue on that. The conference that I monitored, where you spoke with Chandra Muzaffar and Jeffrey Sachs and others, was actually called to discuss the issue of NATO moving into Asia, the AUKUS agreement [Australia, UK and US] and the Global NATO, Global Britain spreading the anti-Russia military operations into an anti-China operation in Asia. What is your view of why the leaders in the West are so hysterically trying to demonize and perhaps go to war with China? What is China’s actual role in the world today, in your view?

Prof. Falk: First, let me clarify my presence on the SHAPE webinar that your mentioned earlier. I’m one of the three co-conveners of SHAPE, and SHAPE, as its Call makes clear, has largely similar goals to the Schiller Institute initiative, as I understand it. I’ve worked with Chandra Muzaffar and Joe Camilleri for maybe the past 8 or 9 months to make  SHAPE into a viable organization. In this spirit, we’ve had this series of four webinars of which the last one was devoted to Asia, and was, I think, the most important. I think that what is at stake really is the control of a post-colonial era of world history, which is entailing regressive moves by military means, and a sense of the West’s inability to compete with China except through military means. Often wars in the past have occurred when a rising power has much greater potential than the dominant power. And I think China is seen as a rising power. overtaking the U.S. at least in the important domains of trade and technological innovation, and maybe even global influence.

Mike Billington: Thucydides Trap, it was called.

Prof. Falk: Yes. The so-called Thucydides Trap about which Graham Allison wrote an important book. There is a good deal of evidence that having nurtured this image of being number one in the world, and having that image threatened, as a source of provocation for the militarists in the West. And, through a revitalized NATO, in trying to turn back the clock of history, so to speak, the West seems prepared to pay a heavy price if measured by risks of war and ecological danger..

It is worth taking account of the underreported diplomatic success of Russia, at its July Saint Petersburg Russia-African Conference. Russia seems to have been learning from China about how to achieve win/win relationships with countries of the Global South, which seems more sensible than trying as the West is doing by devising ways to fight China as a mechanism for assuring the continuity of indirect control. I think if left on their own, Putin’s Russia would not orient its foreign policy around the military sources of power, as much as creatively develop diplomatic and economic sources of power. The West is in systemic decline. It has no alternative to its military dominance if intent on sustaining the post-Cold War status quo. This is a costly, risky path as shown by the Ukraine Crisis, and its global spillover effects. If hopes fail for intimidating China by confining its territorial expansion to its boundaries as well as continuing to accept the kind of economic warfare that has been waged against it, without retaliation. Chinese retaliation would be treated as aggression, triggering a Western response. It would be treated as a casus belli, serving as a justifiable cause of war. It’s a very dangerous situation, more so than the international situation that prevailed shortly after World War II ended.

Unlike post-1945, no precautions were taken, no geopolitical fault lines have been agreed upon. Compare this with the Yalta and Potsdam conferences at which the divisions of Europe and even Berlin were agreed upon in the course of creating geopolitical fault lines. It is instructive that these arrangements were respected by both sides throughout the Cold War. If they had not existed, for instance, the 1956 intervention in Hungary by the Soviet Union might have served as a pretext for World War III, regardless of the foreseeable catastrophic results for both sides. Or at the very least an intensified confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Since 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, we have been living in a world without those geopolitical fault lines, and risk stumbling into a mutually destructive war as happened in World War I. And that’s one of the reasons I think the aggressive global posturing of the NATO West is  extremely dangerous. One line of interpretation is to consider that these geopolitical challengers are trying to establish new fault lines fit for an emergent multipolar cooperative world order. It is plausible to think of the Ukraine war and the BRICS muted reaction to it as a natural reaction designed to put limits on what the NATO powers can hope to get away with in the future. Just as NATO seeks to deliver a geopolitical message to China and Russia, the BRICS may have decided in their own low key way to send their own cautionary message to. the West.

NATO, of course, is an anachronism. It was supposedly established in 1949 as a defensive alliance against a feared Soviet expansion at the expense of Europe. But since 1992 the alliance has been converted into a non-defensive political instrument of global scope far beyond the language of the treaty and the motivations behind it. When the Soviets dissolved the Warsaw Pact, it should have been the occasion for dissolving NATO instead of trying to revive and expand its role, first in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, now even in the Asia-Pacific region. And of course, Ukraine. The identity of the. alliance has morphed from its origins as a defensive shield for Europe into an offensive sword for the world.

Mike Billington: You mentioned the Saint Petersburg, Russia Africa Summit, a phenomenal event in which literally hundreds of agreements were signed between Russia and the African countries, including the building of a nuclear power industry and several other industries. And of course, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been doing exactly the same thing for many years across Africa, to bring the Chinese miracle, which lifted 800 million Chinese people out of poverty, to the developing sector, to the former colonized nations of the Global South, through a focus on infrastructure development to create modern industrial nations where once there was only vast poverty. It’s clear from the BRICS meeting that the Global South has made the determination that it’s not going to accept the western denunciation of China, or that they must “decouple” from China, that they must join in sanctions against Russia—they’re simply rejecting that. I’m wondering if you have other comments on that, and how do you interpret the demonization of Russia and China across the West?

Prof. Falk: Well, I interpret this dynamic of demonization as a reaction against the perceived threat China and Russia pose to the geopolitical primacy that the US has exercised since the collapse of the Soviet Union and as a way to build domestic support for a renewal of geopolitical rivalry on a. global scale. I think we’re in a transitional moment in international affairs which will be characterized either by the end of the post-Cold War era and the beginning of something new—I suppose that’s part of what your comment on the magnitude of the change we can anticipate—or we’re experiencing the moment where unfortunately unipolarity is being reinforced, at least temporarily. In this kind of transition contradictions occur. I have long been influenced by the Gramsci insight that during periods of societal transition, morbid things happen. We’re living through this sort of interval. Its our historic destiny to do so. We have very poor leadership with which to navigate these turbulent waters even from a self-interested point of view, much less from a global perspective. Also disturbing is my suspicion that the belligerent stance being supported in Washington is as motivated by Biden’s calculations about the 2024 presidential election as by the dynamics of what’s going on in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world.

Mike Billington: The irony of this election situation is that the leading candidates in both parties, if you consider Trump and if you think of Robert Kennedy Jr as the leading candidate (even though they’re trying to ignore that he’s even a candidate, and refusing to even have any debates, treating him as a kook rather than as a serious person) but both of those candidates, Trump and Robert Kennedy Jr., are openly and quite strongly opposed to the Ukraine war, to any further war in Ukraine, which certainly is a measure of the general mood of the population, despite the fact that the media and the parties are completely ignoring any kind of opposition to this war, as if it’s unanimously supported, which it’s not.

Let me make one point and see what your response is. Helga has made the point that the move from a unipolar world to a multipolar world, which is on everybody’s lips who are involved in this process, but if there’s a multi-polar world which does not end the division into two separate blocs, then you’re still going to have a war. In other words, if you don’t break down the division where the US and the Europeans see themselves as part of a bloc that has to unilaterally oppose the rise of the Global South, then it’s going to lead to war. And therefore, you have to have a way of getting people in the West to stand up against this division, against the threat of war, which was the idea behind forming this International Peace Coalition, which was to get people to come together from different political views, but to recognize that you have to sit down and talk with Russia and China and the Global South rather than going to war with them, or it will lead to nuclear war. Your thoughts.

Prof. Falk: Essentially, I find the language of Helga LaRouche too causally determined. I think there are constraints on going to war at least on the scale of World War III, nuclear war. These constraints are too weak to feel reassured, but at the same time the view that unless drastic change occurs soon war is inevitable is in my view an overstated interpretation. I think that major war avoidance remains something that even these shortsighted or otherwise limited leaders seek to ensure. I think what a failure of geopolitical clarification will do, though, is to produce a dangerous, militarized competition that the world can’t afford, and such a course would aggravate these other global problems, and not just the problems associated with the environment and with other forms of public dissatisfaction. I see this challenge of. unipolarity as basically a positive move to encourage a reorientation of the outlook of the West in the direction of the Schiller initiative proposals, as well as the SHAPE proposals. But I think it will require a very deeply motivated and mobilized civil society effort, because the entrenched, private sector forces and governmentally embedded bureaucratic elites have lots at stake, including the career and monetary benefits of militarization, media inflated threats, exaggeration of security requirements, confrontation, even limited wars. All these things help arms sales, promote the military, intelligence, and governmental sides of the elite governance structures in the West.

So. I’m not hopeful. I do think there’s one factor that you haven’t mentioned, and I keep trying to bring up in various ways. That is, the pressure from these new kinds of challenges: global warming, causing severe heat, extreme weather, deterioration of ocean quality, all phenomena that adversely affect human wellbeing, thereby creating a pragmatic basis for a cooperative multipolarity. What would benefit the peoples of the is a non-adversarial form of multipolarity. Or at least a subdued, competitive multipolarity that makes political space for cooperative solutions to common problems in the global interest. These problems seem bound to grow more severe in the near future. And thus the failure to practice a solutions-oriented geopolitics affects society in ever more detrimental ways. Even the Canadian wildfire burning for the whole summer of 2023 in unprecedented harm by way of health hazards and damage to agriculture. I think that such occurrences are of planetary relevance and should be woven into any kind of constructive vision of the future.

Mike Billington: Okay. Do you have any last thoughts?

Prof. Falk: Not at the moment. We have had a rather comprehensive conversation because you have posed a series of truly important questions. Thank you very much. I appreciate this opportunity to express my views on this range of topics.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London, Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.

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