Roads Taken and Not Taken: Two Visions of the Future
EDITORIAL, 4 Sep 2023
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
When the Cold War ended in 1991, the West, and particularly the United States, found itself at a fork in the road. One road led to peace, justice, cooperation, nuclear disarmament, a revitalized UN, inclusiveness, pluralism, human rights, multilateralism, fair trade, regulated markets, food security, sustainability, and humane governance. The other road led to militarism, warmongering, nuclearism, conflict, sanctions, regime-changing interventions, multiple trends toward inequality, predatory neoliberal globalization, hegemony, geopolitical primacy. Unfortunately, the. victorious side in the Cold War immediately chose the familiar more traveled road of hegemonic geopolitics.
The American president, George W. Bush a decade later, summarized the ideological justification of this choice in self-assured language: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise… We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.” [Cover letter to official document, The National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002] Such a statement was made some months after the 9/11 terror attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon, reaffirming the choice of the geopolitical road by declaring a ‘war on terror’ rather than an opportunity for transnational cooperative anti-terror law enforcement.
The Ukraine War presented yet another major opportunity to choose the less familiar road of compromise and diplomacy rather than the costly pursuit of victory, huge investment in hegemony, and prolonged warfare, and yet again there was no hesitation about embracing an uncompromising militarism, and what doubts arose involved questioning the financial burdens of this geopolitically tinged war making, that is, defeat of Russia, warning China, and cynically inflicting the heaviest cost of such a strategy on the Ukrainian people who have not only been victimized by the Russian attack but by the hyper-nationalism of their own government.
This prevailing pattern of geopolitics is difficult to deny, and vividly illustrated by the long and complicated outcome documents of the recent summits of G-7 leaders in May at Hiroshima if revealingly compared to declaration of BRICS leaders at Johannesburg in August. The G-7 document has three notable features: a highlighted commitment to help Ukraine achieve a battlefield. victory over Russia, a downplaying of the relevance of the UN and the failure to do more that pay lip service to the peace agenda embedded in the UN Charter, nuclear disarmament, and international law, bolstered by ‘feel good’ platitudes about the doing more to achieve the UN SDG (Sustainable Development Goals. The G-7 countries having opposed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), affirming continued reliance on deterrence and non-proliferation, misleadingly softened by a declared intention to embrace nuclear disarmament ‘ultimately,’ which in elite security circles of the West is correctly understood as ‘never.’
In contrast, the BRICS Johannesburg Declaration looks toward. a world of peaceful competition and global cooperation, treats the Ukraine War as presenting a diplomatic rather than a military challenge. The most pronounced theme of the BRICS document is the resolve to become less dependent on the hegemonic global security and trade/finance/investment arrangements imposed on the Global South after the Soviet collapse, to resist the new imperialism of unipolarity and the related post-independence struggle that has shown the world that the struggle against ‘colonialism’ in Africa, Latin America, and Asia is far from over.
The recent tensions arising from the July coup in Niger manifest the entrapment of African states in the toxic reality of ‘colonialism after colonialism.’ This reality reflects the contradictions, corruption, and incompetence of the decolonized state that had been deliberately prevented from developing the economic, educational, and governance capabilities while under direct colonial control until 1960, and since then under a regime of informal control. When left to fend for themselves these states, especially the former French colonies in West Africa, found that they could do not better than accept a new phase of French tutelage disguised by the façade of collaborating civilian elites.
BRICS are still at the early stages of discovering their own identity, an intricate undertaking given their own internal contradictions. For instance, India, Brazil, and South Africa do not want to burn most of their bridges to the West but do seek to create counterweights to the. hegemonic aspects of unipolarity. Also, it is unclear whether the addition of six countries to BRICS membership will overall broaden its base and help increase its anti-hegemonic leverage or have the opposite effect—diluting a principal reason for the formation of BRICS by admitting to membership countries that seem unwilling to challenge hegemony or geopolitical primacy.
Yet as of 2023 the difference in tone and substance between the two collective perspectives has significance. The. G-7 after a recital of peace and development platitudes shifts immediately to specifying its operational commitment to militarism, which is reinforced throughout the document by references to ‘Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.’ The opening words of the Hiroshima final statement are indicative: “We, the Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7), met in Hiroshima for our annual Summit on May 19- 21, 2023, more united than ever in our determination to meet the global challenges of this moment and set the course for a better future. Our work is rooted in respect for the Charter of the United Nations (UN) and international partnership.” From the overall document, it is clear that ‘our determination’ in the quoted sentence is symbolically linked to securing victory in Ukraine however long it takes, confirmed by the document’s focus on outlining concrete steps in relation to winning in Ukraine with no sign of openness to diplomacy or political compromise.
This dubious course of action is confirmed as follows: “We are taking concrete steps to “support Ukraine for as long as it takes in the face of Russia’s illegal war of aggression.” A listing of such concrete steps is in marked contrast to the vague generalities when it comes peace and justice issues. In contrast, the BRICS give close attention to the worsening situation of Palestine, worries about migration, the urgency of an equitable approach to climate change, issue on which the G-7 address by silence or regressive postures.
How can we make sense of these G-7 choices that seem so obviously to imperil the human future by raising nuclear dangers to crisis levels and by diverting attention and resources from global public goods such as climate change, poverty mitigation, food and nutritional security, self-determination, peaceful resolution of conflict, enhanced UN capabilities, receptivity to multilateralism? Why do the political leaders of the West consistently turn their backs on the human interest as a time of planetary emergency?
A first line of response is to grasp that although the historical circumstances are fraught with unprecedented risk, geopolitical primacy has long been part of the way the world is organized. Even in the shadow of World War II, the UN exempted the most dangerously powerful countries from its own Charter framework by the veto as well as by giving the victors impunity for their international crimes while prosecuting the losers. With respect to nuclear weapons, instead of eliminating them the solution found was to combine non-proliferation restraints on additions to nuclear oligopoly with unrestrained discretion on the war plans of the nuclear powers, not even limited by No First Declarations. In effect, the global security system was designed in 1945 to keep international law and the UN at the margins. What it was not designed to be was a unipolar structure that only emerged after the Berlin Wall fell. It is this that is currently under increasing challenge from Russia and China, themselves not prepared to bring geopolitical governance to an end. Multipolar challenges are also being directed at hegemonic and dysfunctional post-Cold War structures of the U.S. led NATO West, but also by the Global South acting jointly and separately from the two geopolitical challengers.
Among the important manifestations of this new more hopeful global atmosphere are the following: widespread support by governments representing a majority of the world’s peoples for diplomatic accommodations in Ukraine and Iran and overall opposition to coercive diplomacy by way of sanctions; the launch by BRICS of a direct challenge to neoliberal globalization by way of ‘dedollarization’ of international trade and financial arrangements for less developed countries through its New Development Bank (NDB) without conditionalities of the support imposed by the World Bank and IMF; challenging NATO nuclearism by wide support among countries in the Global South for TPNW); support for Palestine’s right of self-determination and African coups directed at the colonialist features of post-colonial statehood.
With respect to the roads not taken, these developments suggest a renewed willingness to travel toward a fragile global future on the less familiar road, especially with respect to hegemony, but also in relation to a governance framework with greater deference to the UN Charter and international law. This creates the potential of a more benign geopolitics, less militarist, more committed to peaceful resolution of disputes, more concerned with equity in the world economy, and dedicated to cooperative solution of common global problems. As such, the historical transformation underway involves the weakening of its hegemonic characteristics and the early phase of a transition to a more benign and regulated version of geopolitics. Overall, glimmers of hope in a darkening sky.
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.
Tags: Cold War, Military Industrial Media Complex, NATO, Nuclear Weapons, Proxy War, Russia, USA, Ukraine, Warfare, West
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Sep 2023.
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