Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pope Francis: Possessing Nuclear Weapons is Indefensible

Pope Francis said late in 2017 that the nuclear arms race had become irrational and immoral. The irrationality itself rendered even just the possession of nuclear weapons as immoral, according to the pope. Whereas past popes had recognized deterrence as a legitimator, both irrationality and the extent and “upgrading” of such weapons were factors in Pope Francis’s admittedly personal view.  Yet was his basis merely moral, or religious in nature?

The full essay is at "The Pope on Nuclear Weapons."

Friday, November 24, 2017

On the Legitimacy of the US Invasion of Iraq

George H.W. Bush had not sent the US military all of the way into Iraq; he decided to go along with the consensus in the coalition of the time that the invasion would go just far enough to remove Iraqi forces from Kwait.  Undoing an invasion is a laudatory military venture.

George W. Bush went all the way in, occupying Iraq ostensively because of WMD and a link between Saddam Hussein and 9-11.  Karl Rove states in his memoirs that the fact that no WMD was found under Bush’s watch critically damaged the Bush Presidency.  In addition, the presumed link between Hussein’s government and 9-11 turned out to be spurious.  Rove claims that the invasion was justified nonetheless as a response to 9-11.  ”Having seen how much carnage four airplanes could cause, Bush was determined to do all he could to prevent the most powerful weapons from falling into the hands of the world’s most dangerous dictators,” Rove notes.  From this criterion, however, at least two problems are evident.

First, presumably other dangerous dictators, like those of Iran and North Korea, would have been subject to American forces.  That is to say, the criterion does not justify singling out one dictator.  It does not, for example, say “…dictators who are thought to have a WMD.”  The criterion is broader, yet George W. Bush applied it dogmatically (i.e., too narrowly, meaning to just one of several cases that would apply).

Second, the criterion does not justify removing a government from power; the goal is to keep WMD from falling into a government’s hands.  It could be argued that because the Bush administration thought that Saddem had a WMD, the only way to reach the goal was to remove him from power, but then the justification of the invasion would be invalid because there is no evidence that he had WMD at the time of the US invasion.  He had had chemical weapons, but then I’m sure Iraq is not the only “dangerous” country that has them.  Again, the criterion would have to be applied to all such cases.  To apply it to one and ignore the rest is dogmatic, or arbitrary, and thus points to an ulterior motive other than acting on the basis of the criterion.

In short, whereas his father restrained himself in keeping with the coalition at the early 1990s, George W. Bush went all the way, and without sufficient justification even by the criterion that his advisor, Karl Rove, provides.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  When there is a rubber-stamp Congress and a President willing to declare war (a Congressional power on account of the structural conflict of interest in having the commander in chief declaring war—meaning declaring that he would be using his power), it is difficult for him to hold back, even when his own father provides an illustration of self-restraint.   Perhaps Congress is too close to the US President’s Office to be vested with declaring war; maybe 2/3 of the governors should be required in lieu of the Congress.  In any case, the imperial presidency is a dangerous thing to have in a republic built on republics (i.e., an empire).  Rome went from being a republic to having an emperor…and then on to ruin.  The US may be following a similar course.  The lessons from the invasion of Iraq can go well beyond foreign and military policy as we search for reforms that pertain to our system of government.

Source: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/35706823/ns/today-today_books/

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Selling Coal at a Conference on Climate Change

Peabody Energy, an American coal company and unlikely participant at a global conference on climate change in November, 2017, nevertheless previewed its presentation by trumpeting coal as part of the solution with: “As the world seeks to reduce emissions while promoting economic prosperity, fossil fuels will continue to play a central role in the energy mix.”[1] Besides interlarding economic growth at the conference that was on the climate, the company’s management felt the need—nay, even the obligation—to remind the world that coal would still play a prominent part in how the world obtains energy for its billions and billions of human beings. “The reality of it is the world is going to continue to use fossil fuels, and if I can throw myself on the hand grenade to help people realize that, I’m willing to do it,” said Barry Worthington of the U.S. Energy Association before the conference in the E.U. city of Bonn. Were people really unaware that reliance on coal was an intractable problem from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions, or was the American company simply wanting to sell more coal?
Most experts at the time were insisting that we must shift from fossil fuels to meet the targets on emissions; not even short-term economic prosperity from coal should thus get in the way from the perspective of minimizing the worst expected from increasingly likely climate change. Accordingly, Worthington’s obligation could be viewed contrariwise as a crime against humanity. “Any country or company continuing to champion further exploration for and mining of coal and even other fossil fuels from now on would be willfully carrying out a crime against humanity, and they would be held accountable,” said Saleemul Huq of the International Center for Climate Change and Development.
A useful distinction can be made between helping developing countries to use cleaner and more efficient fossil fuels, as the U.S. had done at the last G20 meeting before the conference, and insisting that coal production be increased or even held at current levels so not to interfere with other social goods (e.g., economic growth). Even the insistence that coal would continue to supply 40% of the world’s energy takes away from the alternative narrative that coal use should be reduced as much and as soon as possible, realistically of course.
Humanity may unwittingly have already been on borrowed time from the standpoint of the Earth’s changing climate—unwittingly because the oceans were still absorbing carbon dioxide such that we could not perceive the full extent of the change already extant on land. So the public alarm from the self-aggrandizing selling of coal at a conference on climate change could be expected to be muted. Even if the oceans had been saturated such that the carbon in the atmosphere was spiking, the public alarm would likely have fallen short of taking into account that the species itself could face extinction—for a future equilibrium of the world’s climate will not necessarily be consistent with continued human survival. Indeed, as a result to natural selection, our species is not “hard-wired” to take the long-range future into sufficient account; we are much more oriented to instant gratification. I suspect that this innate proclivity will be the seed of our species’ destruction unless we can circumvent a changing atmosphere with the advent of technology fitting the scale and severity of the problem. Such technology would have to dwarf that of making coal more efficient.

1. Lisa Friedman, “For Climate Conference, a Sales Pitch on Fossil Fuels,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2017.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Absolute Sovereignty: The Case of Syria

By the end of 2012, over 60,000 Syrians had been killed and over half a million had fled as a result of the civil war in Syria. Shortages of food and shelter were worsening inside Syria for civilians. In early January of 2013, a spokesperson for the U.N. said that the international organization was unable to feed a million residents in combat zones. Acute fuel shortages in Syria were contributing to the rising price of bread—at least six times greater than the pre-conflict price. Additionally, an outbreak of violence in a large Syrian refugee camp of 54,000 refugees in Jordan amid a winter storm was reported. “The incident followed a night of heavy storms, during which torrential rains and high winds swept away tents and left parts of the camp flooded,” an official in Save the Children said in a statement. One might ask what was really behind the deteriorating conditions.
At first glance, the culprit is merely that of two centers of power fighting for dominance within Syria. World history had been littered with such conflicts. However, this explanation does not explain why other countries permitted the harm in Syria to worsen. Lest one be content to ascribe the impotence to a web of international alliances and politics, it can be asked whether principles could have been holding back otherwise willing interventionists.

In a rare public address, President Assad of Syria claimed early in 2013 that the sovereignty of Syria, which is for him the top principle, is “based on the principles and goals of the UN Charter and the international law which all stress on the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of countries.” National sovereignty is absolute. In making this well-established principle explicit, Assad could have drawn on western political theory—namely, the thought of Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes.
In the war-weary context of the seventeenth century, Hobbes wrote that the king needed absolute sovereignty, even as the definitive interpreter of divine law. Any constraint in the latter on a king would pertain to his afterlife, and therefore not bear on a king’s actual conduct. Jean Bodin too had viewed divine law as a constraint on otherwise absolute sovereignty, though for that theorist the king is not the definitive decider on divine law. Accordingly, such law could in principle act as a constraint on a king even in this world. Even so, other powers could not intervene at the expense of national sovereignty.
 Unlike Bodin and Hobbes, Assad defended absolute sovereignty out of fear that Syria would be brought into submission by foreign powers. “A country that is thousands of years old cannot be dictated to,” Assad said, by foreign powers.  “Syria has always been, and will remain, a free and sovereign country that won’t accept submission and tutelage.” Anything less than absolute sovereignty means becoming the vessel of an imperial power. In making this point, Assad could have drawn on dependency theory in international political economy. The sovereignty of developing countries is compromised or surrendered by their subservient economies. In being “allowed” to export only commodities, for example, a developing country could be at the mercy of one or a few countries that are the principal buyers. Those countries could keep the developing country from industrializing so as to retain economic and even political leverage.
In other words, Assad’s position combines the Bodin-Hobbes notion of absolute sovereignty with a theory of economic development that stresses the structural subservience of developing countries. In fact, dependency may lie at the root of Assad’s notion of national sovereignty. The problem with Assad’s rendering is that sovereignty can be viewed as limited without necessarily entailing submission to a foreign power.
Beyond the geopolitical and related mercantilist interests of particular countries, the international community could come to a consensus on how far a government can justifiably go in inflicting harm domestically under the principle of national sovereignty before outside powers would be justified in intervening. In terms of such harm, wounding or killing unarmed residents would trigger relatively close limits on national sovereignty, while the harm unleashed in a civil war would have a higher threshold. Rather than involving submission to the foreign powers, the limitations on national sovereignty would be geared to stopping the harm by removing the extant government from power. Once the government whose legitimacy had been lost internationally is expunged, the emphasis of the international community would turn to assisting the people in the construction of their own new government. To be sure, Assad would view such an approach as a cloak used by imperial Western powers to dominate Syria. The international community would thus be well-advised to stress its own restraint in placing limits on national sovereignty.
Given the sheer extent of harm inflicted on the Syrian population by the end of 2012, however, the international community would be justified in intervening in Syria to immobilize Assad’s government even without concern for the “submission” argument on behalf of absolute sovereignty. That the world stayed on the sidelines, essentially allowing the situation “on the ground” to worse so much, suggests that the dominance of the Bodin-Hobbes notion of absolute sovereignty was still too great, and thus should be subjected to critique. In other words, the powers around the world in favor of intervening should not have felt like they would be imposing in stepping in to stop the violence. The notion of a country being under temporary international occupation because a government had lost its legitimacy due to the harm inflicted or permitted was well overdue even before Assad’s government had gone after unarmed protesters.
The matter of default itself, particularly its staying power (as though a house guest who will not leave), is the true culprit that kept the world at bay as Syria degenerated in a cycle of increasing violence and suffering. Why it is that the default can continue to enjoy hegemony even when it should be subject to critique—this is the underlying question before us here.
Assad can claim that Syria’s sovereignty is absolute. This does not necessarily make it so, even ideationally. He can claim that absolute sovereignty is a necessary bulwark against becoming the agent of another country, but this does not mean that is assumption is valid. In making his claim, he could rely on the default and thus count on the related trepidation of the international community in intervening even to stop horrendous suffering.
If the U.N. is necessarily bound to the notion of absolute sovereignty (even if kept so by one member’s veto), then the international community would be well within its prerogative to form a new international organization (even without necessarily having to leave the U.N.)  that is oriented to placing and enforcing limits on national sovereignty. Such an organization would say, in effect, “No, we will not stand by as great harm takes place within a country.” Would not bystanders be justified in saying something similar as a boyfriend beats his girlfriend in public and restraining the man? Were he to claim that being restrained in that instance would imply or result in him becoming a slave would hardly be taken seriously, and yet Assad’s claim of Syria’s absolute sovereignty had its defenders abroad and even held other powers at bay when they would have been justified in intervening to stop the harm. Were the dogmatic basis of Assad’s claim made transparent (i.e., obvious), the notion that sovereignty is somehow absolute would finally be viewed as artificial in nature rather than as part of the basis of Western civilization; the demise of the reigning default would not have to wait generations needlessly before being realized.


Rick Gladstone and Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Aid Groups Report New Level of Misery Among Displaced Syrians,” The New York Times, January 8, 2012.

Monday, October 23, 2017

China’s Strategy: Divide the Vulnerable E.U.

During the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787, delegates from the sovereign states feared that foreign states would seek to divide their American counterparts to the extent that the United States could split apart. So the delegates voted to move foreign policy from the state to the federal level. Unlike this case, government officials of the E.U. states held foreign policy closely rather than ceding it to the federal level. Whereas in the American case the delegates could adopt a federal perspective as distinguished from the immediate interests of the respective state governments, the state officials in the European Council can be taken even as personifications of their respective state interests. Foreign powers can take advantage of the state officials’ conflict of interest to the extent that the very functioning of the European Union is compromised.
China provides a case in point. Unlike his predecessors, President Xi had by 2017 demonstrated a strong inclination to have China assume a major geo-political role in the world. “Xi’s aggressive diplomacy largely comes from his own aspirations, beliefs and strategic requirements,” said Shi Yinhong, a scholar of international relations in China.[1] The interests of other countries are noticeably absent in Xi’s (or any president’s) considerations. In fact, Xi’s forceful diplomacy could be expected to be to the detriment of foreign powers, including the E.U.
In line with President Xi’s “global ambitions” at least through 2017, China may have been “trying to divide the European Union by cultivating poorer [states] like Hungary and Greece and using them to block policies supported by richer [states] that hurt Beijing.”[2] In pursuing this strategy, Xi could bank on the resentment of poor states such as Greece toward the largest state, Germany, for having been able to dominate federal policy on the debt crisis. In other words, the largest (and richest) state had enough power at the federal level to make sure that E.U. policy on Greece’s debt would reflect Germany’s interests. That a few large states might dominate was a concern of the American delegates at the convention—the result being that every state has the same number of votes in the U.S. Senate.
It seems that state as well as federal officials in the E.U. had not read Madison’s Notes to the Federal Convention, and thus could be unnecessarily blindsided by the efforts of China to divide the Union and of the state of Germany to forge E.U. policy in the state’s own interest. Xi could strategically use resentment among the other states against Germany to thwart not only the foreign policies of the large states, but also the very functioning of the Union. Put another way, the European Union has been ripe for an outside “divide and conquer” strategy.
European officials could counter China’s strategy by transferring more foreign-policy competencies to the federal level, addressing the conflict of interest that state officials have in the European Counsel (i.e., effectively reducing the interest of the Union to that of the specific state), and giving small states an institutional or procedural safeguard against a large/rich state being able to dominate federal policy.

1. Jane Perlez, “Xi’s Global Ambitions Tempered by Leery Allies,” The New York Times, October 23, 2017.
2. Ibid.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Kurds Betrayed: Iraq Retakes Kirkuk with U.S. Backing

For some reason, people tend to assume that the status quo has been around for a very, very long time—that it enjoys the perk of longevity. To mess with it even in part is typically assumed to “upset the apple cart.” The fear is excessive. A century after World War I, the fact that many of the extant countries in the Middle East had been artificially crafted by Britain and France paled under the presumption that those countries had been around for much, much longer. Accordingly, the fact that the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in 2017 to secede from Iraq was ignored or dismissed not only by Iraq, but also by other countries in the region and the United States. “Baghdad and most countries in the region had condemned the vote, fearing it would fuel ethnic divisions, lead to the breakup of Iraq and hobble the fight against the Islamic State.”[1] I submit that the fear was overblown and mistaken.
Firstly, ethnic divisions had been crippling Iraq since the United States toppled Saddam Hussain. An independent Kurdistan in the northern third of Iraq would have relieved the pressure such that the Iraqi government would only have to deal with the Sunni-Shiite struggle for power.
Secondly, even if Iraq itself would break-up completely, even this outcome would not be so much to fear, as Iraq itself had been artificially formed by the British after World War I. Put another way, the salience of the ethnic divisions in Iraq can be taken as an indication of the sheer artificiality of the state itself. The very notion of a nation goes along with ethnic clusters rather than forcing such clusters to form one political culture (to say nothing of getting along).
Thirdly, the pesh merga forces of the Kurds had fought quite well against the Islamic State, so invigorating the Kurds by supporting the formation of their own state would have been in the interests of the United States. Betraying the Kurds by enabling the Iraqi forces to take Kirkuk and its valuable oil region could be expected to have the opposite effect. In ignoring the clear will of the Kurds as per the decisive result of the referendum for secession, the United States betrayed itself, moreover, given that country’s preachments on behalf of democracy, which entails the self-determination of We the People.
A century after World War I, the world had an opportunity to remember that victorious European powers redrew the political map in the Middle East without taking into account the ethnic clusters that are naturally so integral to having nation-states. That such states enjoy a monopoly of power in international relations—the international realm literally being inter-national—suggests that the crafting of coherent rather than artificial nations is very important. Hence, a century out from WWI, the world of nations need not simply assume that even the break-up of a Middle Eastern country would somehow be the collapse of something that has always been around and would therefore be catastrophic. Put another way, a country formed by a European power should not enjoy default status because the formation itself can be viewed as problematic, evidenced by the ensuing ethnic strife. Admittedly, this does not hold in every country formed by Britain or France (e.g. Jordan), but where a country is strife-ridden, the application of nation itself is problematic; ethnic pushes for independence should not have to face the inertia of the status quo in such a case.

[1] David Zucchino, “Iraqis Capture Key Kurdish City with Little Fight,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Climatic Presumption: What is the Forecast?

Al Gore stated that we face a choice regarding whether the earth’s ecological system will remain viable for our species.  He cites the carbon that is frozen in the permafrost in the north.  As the permafrost melts, carbon is added to the atmosphere, making it “difficult” for the human species to live.   I am not a scientist so I have no means of knowing what the state of the research is on these matters.  Nor am I particularly interested in debating it.   In my view, if there is a chance that we could be effectively ending our our species, we ought not to be held back from acting in a prudent fashion even if it is “just in case.”   I understand the economic costs, and that some are particularly attached to short-run costs (and less enamoured with long-term benefits).  Still, that the debate itself would be allowed to stall even a “just in case” response reflects badly on our species.   At a worse case, it could be something like two parents debating which of them will get their baby out of their burning house.  Meanwhile, the baby burns.   We would call that a dysfunctional family, would we not?  Still, no such appellation goes to those involved in the continuing debate on climate change.
It strikes me that we as a society may be too innured in our own presumptuousness to even realize how badly we are handling such decisions.  I can’t believe that the society is predominantly made up of the two, rather vocal, extremes on the matter.  The extremes are presumptuous in their determination to continue the debate unless they get exactly what they want while the rest of us have been guilty of allowing them to dominate the decision-making process.  Consider, for example, a reasonable person saying, “ok, we need to make a decision,” and one is made.  The refusal to make compromises (whether an extreme in the US following a rigid ideological agenda or the Chinese government presuming that national sovereignty is absolute) is not only childish, it is rather arrogant concerning that the eventual demise of our species might hang in the balance.  Even this “might” should be a wakeup call that posturing and debating evince a selfishness that the rest of us ought not to countenance.  Yet we do.  We are too passive, those of us without a dog in the fight.   The truth is, we all have a dog in this fight.  Are we to be survived by cockroaches?   Wouldn’t it be fodder for a divine comedy were the antics of the cockroaches superior to the presumptuousness of humans?   The species left standing is the one that wins.  

I can visualize a later generation (of humans) looking back at our generation as incredibly selfish and incompetent even to reach a decision.  “They knew what might hang in the balance, and yet they were so caught up in their own petty circumstances.”   It is like we are captains on the Titanic debating which way to turn after it being reasonable to believe that there is an iceberg somewhere ahead.   It could even be that we see the iceberg and still we debate.  Such pettifoggery is mere dribble in the divine comedy that may well already be in Act III.  

We are so small, even smaller than the cockroach, and yet we presume ourselves to be so big.  We we to have the distance of perspective such that our immediate pathos would not blind us, how would we view our society…ourselves?