Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Saudi Arabia Beheads a Member of the Royal Family: Justice for All, Atrociously

On October 18, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed a member of the royal family for committing murder during a brawl. Prince Turki bin Saud bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer was put to death most likely by beheading in a public square—as this was the usual method at the time. As horrific as such an execution is, the point that law applies to everyone is laudable—especially “on point” for countries in which the rich can “get away with murder” by hiring the best (and most expensive) lawyers.  The atrocious means of execution coupled with the dictum that the law really does apply to everyone renders this case particularly difficult to analyze from an ethical perspective.

“The greatest thing is that the citizen sees the law applied to everyone, and that there are not big people and other small people,” Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim, a prominent Saudi lawyer wrote.[1] In other words, the verdict and sentence sent the message that no one is above the law. To be sure, thousands of people are in the Saudi royal family enjoying perks not available to the rest of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million people; yet that the member executed was from a prestigious arm of the family sufficiently makes the point that no one is above the law.

This lesson is a valuable one for the United States, as financiers got away with fraudulently mislabeling the risk of sub-prime mortgage-based bonds before the financial crisis of 2008. Yet, interestingly, the Saudis could look to the United States for a lesson on how to execute people humanely. I submit that this combination of lessons demonstrates that a country can be very ethical in one sense yet abysmal in another. This point in turn impedes claims that some countries are more humane, or advanced ethically, than others. Within a culture, insistence on justice in one sense can coexist with toleration for injustice in another sense. Put another way, the human mind seems able to compartmentalize justice, without realizing the cognitive dissidence involved.

1. Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Prince Is Executed for Murder,” The New York Times, October 19, 2016.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

E.U. Free-Trade After Brexit: Applying Domestic Requirements to International Trade

With Britain set to secede from the European Union, one major question was whether British businesses would continue to get unfettered access to the E.U.’s domestic market. I submit that subjecting free-trade negotiations to stipulations that are oriented to states rather than trading partners is unfair to Britain. Given the extraordinary influence of E.U. state officials at the federal level, this is a case in which the political influence of British business would be constructive rather than subversive of the public domain to private interests.

Speaking in October, 2016, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, “stressed . . . that the U.K. wouldn’t get full access to the European Union’s single market without fully accepting the four basic principles . . . freedom of goods, services, capital and people.”[1] I submit that these principles pertain domestically within a country—whether a single sovereign state or a union of states—rather than to a trade treaty. That is, the four freedoms are typically established within a country rather than between trading partners (i.e., international trade). Free trade need not be justified by the free movement of people; it is sufficient to allow for the exchange of goods and services, and of course money.

The U.S. and Mexico, for example, have a free-trade treaty without the free movement of people. So too, a free-trade treaty between the E.U. and Britain need not include the free movement of people. In short, Merkel failed to distinguish the E.U. itself, internally, from it being one of two trading partners; she was applying a domestic trait to international trade. By implication, she failed to distinguish the E.U. from a free-trade treaty. Subjecting a sovereign U.K. to what E.U. States must accept fails to recognize the real change that is secession.

Whereas Merkel voiced concern that E.U. and state officials would not “be put under pressure constantly via European industry associations to, in the end, allow full access to the internal market even if all freedoms aren’t respected,” I submit that Merkel’s own interests in favor of businesses in her state render her involvement in E.U. policy-making on the secession of Britain suspect. That is to say, she may have been exploiting a conflict of interest in which German businesses would gain from subjecting the continuing free trade of British businesses to freedoms that pertain to E.U. states rather than foreign states trading with the E.U.

[1] Ruth Bender and Andrea Thomas, “Germany Pushes for Hard Line on Brexit,” The Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2016.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

E.U. Defense Post-Britain: Beyond Multinational Military Cooperation

Just months after the British voted to secede from the Union, the E.U.’s Counsel of Ministers discussed “proposals for increased military cooperation” amid concerns from the British state government as well as those of some eastern States that “such collaboration could undermine” NATO.[1] The proposals being discussed were “part of a push by European officials and diplomats to strengthen European ties” after Britain’s vote to secede.[2] I submit that both the expression, “military cooperation,” and Britain’s involvement in the discussion are ill-fitting and inappropriate, respectively.

Federica Mogherini, the E.U.’s foreign minister, said that better cooperation could help the state governments spend their defense budgets more effectively and increase their military strength.[3] Such an enhancement could make continued shifts of governmental sovereignty from the States to the Union more difficult, however, as the states have a more solid power-base with which to resist transfers. Furthermore, in American terms, increasing the cooperation between state militias and the E.U. army goes not go far enough in furnishing a closer Union.

At the time, the E.U. did indeed have an army, so Mogherini’s proposal for a new E.U. military headquarters is not as radical as it may seem by the use of terms such as “multinational military headquarters.”[4] Such a term ignores the governmental sovereignty that the E.U. had at the time. Additionally, the term encourages the category mistake that compares the E.U., a federal system, with NATO, a military alliance. I submit that the concern that the E.U. might duplicate NATO is the same concern that the U.S. might do so as well. In both cases, a union of States is being conflated with a military alliance. A states’ rights ideology is behind the ill-fitting terms.

This leads me to contend that the state of Britain should not have been allowed to take an active role in the discussions, as they pertain to what the E.U. might be like after that State secedes from the Union. Michael Fallon, the British defense secretary, said at the time that his State continued “to oppose any idea of an EU army or an EU army headquarters which would simply undermine NATO.”[5] Such opposition had been part of the reason why a majority of British residents had voted to secede, so it should not play a viable role in determining what the post-secession E.U. might be like. For example, the future E.U. would not have to deal with so much denial—as in that of Fallon saying that the E.U. did not at the time already have an army. Nor would the future E.U. have to deal so much with the category mistake of likening the federal system to a military alliance.

In short, the discussions themselves evinced the E.U. trying to proceed with one hand tied behind its back. Even using the term, multinational military cooperation, undermines the E.U. from being able to move on towards a closer, more viable Union after the state of Britain secedes. 

[1] Julian E. Barnes, “EU Pushes for Deeper Defense Cooperation,” The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

Monday, September 26, 2016

As the World Turns: A Troublesome Widening Gap Between Progressives and Traditionalists

In his last speech to the U.N.’s General Assembly in September, 2016, U.S. President Barak Obama pointed to a world more prosperous yet with political and security crises.[1] He called this combination a paradox arising from globalization—the converging of political, economic, and social systems around the world made possible by advances in technology. I contend that globalization is not the primary cause of the massive changes going on in some societies but not others (and in parts of a given society), hence Obama’s diagnosis and prescription fall short. In short, parts of some societies, and some societies as a whole were going through massive, deep changes that were reinforcing the tendency of traditional forces to resist and stay put. It is the widening of the gap, both within some societies and between them that is the real cause of the strife.
“A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before, and yet our societies are filled with uncertainty and unease and strife,” Obama said.[2] “As people lose trust in institutions, governing becomes more difficult and tensions between nations become more quick to surface.”[3] He cited the Middle East in particular, where “basic order has broken down.”[4] More generally, the rise of terrorism had become a significant de-stabilizing force. The world’s powers share in the blame, for the approaches to globalization had ignored the inequities they had generated. Accordingly, Obama’s prescription includes “creating a fairer global economy, enhancing democratic governance, rejecting fundamentalism and racism, and increasing international cooperation.”[5] None of these feats would come easily.
In terms of a fairer global economy, power would have to be used to level the playing field whose slant has benefited the more powerful interests. So the problem is how to avoid the problem of how less powerful actors can take on the more powerful actors, including governments and corporations. In terms of enhancing democratic governance, the problem immediately encountered would be how to take on domestic corruption. For instance, Putin’s United Russia party was at the time accused of massive electoral fraud—so much so that the party would be able to unilaterally amend the Russian constitution. It would surely not be an easy task for the global powers to constrain Putin’s party within Russia.
Regarding getting rid of religious fundamentalism, it has tremendous staying power in the short- and medium-terms because it represents a reaction against the spread of progressive values made possible in part by the forces of globalization. Yet even without this process, the inroads of progressivism, such as “progress” in gay marriage, abortion, and pot legalization, lengthens the distance between societal segments that view “progress” as real progress and traditionalist segments that have stayed in place. With the greater distance—at least through the medium term, comes more strife because basic assumptions are no longer shared. By analogy, the more the forces behind a tectonic plate build up pressure against another plate that is staying still, the greater the force possible in an earthquake.
Therefore, I submit that Obama’s agenda for the world can be viewed as relatively superficial, as it is tied exclusively to globalization, which I submit is just one of the causes for the tremendous changes in parts of societies and parts of the world. Corruption and traditionalism are two things that have a way of staying put, even as other forces deemed in the forefront by many people (or in some societies) move further and further away. Even debating whether pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, and whether to legalize pot represent progress becomes problematic.
In short, during the time of globalization from the last quarter of the twentieth century, those forces and others, which are tied to the logic of a progressive movement in motion, the world’s societies are becoming less and less similar. The question is perhaps whether traditionalism will end up giving some ground, with the societies coming closer together. I believe the answer is: very gradually, and then only after some substantial time. Parts of societies, and even parts of the world, were on the move at the time of Obama’s last address, and this dynamic is not just caused by globalization.

1. Carol E. Lee, “Obama Urges Course Shift for World in Conflict,” The Wall Street Journal,” September 21, 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Adolf Eichmann: Justice or Retribution by the Victims?

In February, 2016, 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, a former guard at Auschwitz, went on trial in Detmold, Germany for being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people. Back in 1961, Adolf Eichmann had been tried in Jerusalem for crimes against the Jewish people. I submit that the situs for the Hanning trial is proper ethically and legally, which is to say that Eichmann too should have been tried in Germany rather than in Israel.

Reinhold Hanning, center, on trial for 170,000 counts of accessory to murder in Germany. Proving that he himself facilitated the murders may be more difficult than one might assume; hence the importance of a fair hearing by neutral judges. Associated Press.

In his version of the social contract, John Locke argues that one advantage of leaving the state of nature in favor of forming a state is impartial justice can be enjoyed over victims exacting retribution for crimes against them directly. Put another way, a victim being the prosecutor and judge in a matter in which the crime is against the victim constitutes a conflict of interest. Any of us, as a victim, would naturally tend to be overly severe, even if we delude ourselves as to our objectivity.

I submit that in kidnapping Eichmann and forcing him to go on trial in Jerusalem, the Israeli government and its three appointed judges acted not only illegally in terms of international law at the time, but also unethically in exacting retribution as victims (i.e., being of the Jewish people). In terms of international law at the time, the state of Israel did not exist during the 1933-1945 Nazi period, so that country had no legal basis in prosecuting war crimes. The kidnapping was thus illegal--hardly different than a bunch of victims kidnapping someone thought to have violated them or their group and bringing the new victim back to a location where they could do what they wished.

Legally, either Germany or one of the victors of World War II could legitimately have tried Eichmann. By 1961, Germany would likely have preference because the crimes took place there and the war had been over for over a decade.

In terms of the conflict of interest, the president of the court in the Eichmann trial responded to the defense lawyer's point that the victims could not possibly be neutral by stating that because no one could possibly be neutral in the face of such a horrific crime--and the holocaust was indeed that--he might as well be the one to try to be objective. This faulty logic dismisses the very real possibility that someone else with less emotional attachment in the case could achieve something closer to neutrality. It was not as if everyone in the world were as emotionally biased as the victims and people in general who identify themselves as Jewish. A good means of sniffing out a conflict of interest is when the person charged with being in one makes a rather stunningly faulty rationale for the conflict not being material or even relevant. Even the person claiming, "I won't be subject to the conflict of interest" is suspect, as it is not outside the lines of exploiting the conflict.

Even the Supreme Court of Israel showed symptoms of being ensnared in the conflict of interest. To the defense's claim that a 1950 Israeli law should not be applied retroactively to cover conduct which occurred even before the state of Israel itself and in another country no less, the Court answered that if the crime is heinous enough, laws can be applied retroactively (and to conduct in another country). So ex post facto is apparently valid if the judge feels the crime is a really bad one. That a supreme court would engage in such an atrocious lack of fairness in its "legal reasoning" is itself a sign that the conflict of interest was indeed being exploited by the victims and their group.

The world itself, especially the victors of WWII, was culpable as well, in that the global powers ignored the conflict of interest or at least did not intervene in the interest of civilized justice. As war crimes were included in the indictment, the Allies could legitimately have stepped in to prevent the exacted retribution. Impartial justice, such as hopefully Hanning was getting in Germany in 2016, is one way the world's powers can be distinguished from the justice perpetrated by the Nazis. Perhaps it is in the nature of things that the victim becomes like the victimizer without realizing it. Hence, Locke was on solid ground in claiming as a benefit of civil society that retribution is taken away from victims.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Capitalism in Vietnam: War as Overrated

Going to war might seem like the most expedited course to achieving geopolitical aims, even when they in actuality predominately economic in nature. To the extent that the Cold War was from the American standpoint a means of keeping capitalism from succumbing to socialism (i.e., the state rather than private industry owning the means of production), the American involvement in the civil war in Vietnam was a waste of effort, not to mention lives lost. For the feared “loss” of Vietnam to communism turned out only to be temporary.

“In the early years of a united Vietnam, the government pursued disastrous experiments with collectivized farms and bans on private enterprise. The country’s leaders changed course around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, embracing the market economy, a pillar of the very system they had fought to defeat.”[1] The Soviet command-economy, based on quotas of goods rather than supply and demand, was quite inefficient, and thus weak. It didn’t take long after the Soviet Union’s collapse for the Vietnamese government to the Communist ethos of conformity and the shunning of ostentatiousness that came with it.” Saigon, “a free-wheeling bastion of capitalism before 1975, . . . returned to its roots with vigor.”[2] Like water flowing downhill, business interests resurfaced and came out on top.

In retrospect, was the Vietnam War worth it for anyone? (source: CNN)

The Vietnam-war policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations appear in contrast to have been efforts going upstream, against the current, with Saigon ending up falling to the North Vietnamese after Nixon’s resignation.   Roughly 58,000 Americans and as many as three million Vietnamese died in the “conflict,” which “on some level,” according to the New York Times, was “about keeping Vietnam safe for capitalism.”[3] As it turns out, the angst was for naught. All the swimming upstream was for naught. With a bit of patience and faith in free enterprise (as well as the power of money, given human nature), the Americans could have obviated war. The interests of American business would have had the last laugh even without the cashing-in by the defense-contractors during the “conflict.” War itself—the urge to force an issue rather than let it play out with facilitating foreign policies—may be over-rated, and thus over-relied on by clutching hands that are impatient and trigger-happy.

[1] Thomas Fuller, “Capitalist Soul Rises as a City Sheds Its Past,” The New York Times, July 21, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The American-Iranian Agreement: Moving Mankind Past War

In an epoch of technological development, the relative dearth of political development as concerns international relations has been evident. In June 2015, Pope Francis advocated the establishment of a global institution having governmental sovereignty with which to combat the human contribution to climate change. Such a political development would be significant, given the long-standing default of sovereign nation-states and unions thereof. In July 2015, U.S. President Barak Obama announced an agreement with Iran that would keep that nation-state from develop nuclear weapons in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions. Just three years earlier, war had seemed unavoidable. I submit that Obama’s accomplishment can be thought of as a step toward rendering war itself as obsolete, or at least perceiving it as a primitive means of resolving disputes internationally. More subtly, the feat makes the sheer distance between the premises of war and those of diplomacy transparent. Paradoxically, this insight implies just how difficult a shift from a war-default to one that takes war as obsolete must be.

Even if diplomacy can deliver more than war, obviating the path toward war can require a lot of time and effort. “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not—a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama declared in announcing the deal.[1] With Iraq still a trouble-spot in spite of the U.S. invasion and occupation, costing more than $2 trillion, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s two years of arduous work with Iran can be viewed as superior to war as a means of satisfying U.S. interests—not to mention that of the international community.

As difficult as it was for Obama to persuade a militaristic people to have faith in diplomacy as being capable of delivering more than war—a thankless task to be sure—he found himself having to defend even his campaign promise that he would talk to America’s enemies. When he first declared he would negotiate with adversaries, it was by accident. During a 2007 presidential debate, when asked if he would negotiate with adversaries as president, he made the unprompted declaration and explained it by discrediting the antithetical, war-default premise. “(T)he notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them— which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this [George W. Bush] administration—is ridiculous.”[2] Obama's premise obviating war is clearly far removed from his predecessor's war-premise.

Tellingly for what it reveals about where the American people stood at the time, the declaration that initial communication should not be conditional “set his campaign into a minor tailspin. ‘We did not expect him to say that,’ former Obama spokesman Bill Burton told The Huffington Post of that debate moment. ‘We were like, 'Oh my God. How do we walk it back? [Former Secretary of State] Madeline Albright’s attacking us!'’"[3] That a former Secretary of State would criticize the very notion of talking to adversaries is itself remarkable. Did she believe that not talking is actually punishment? What is it in American society that undergirds such an uncompromising, even childish, attitude that is so presumptuous or “entitled”? Malignant narcissism, such as can be found in spoiled children, may be behind the primitive level of social skills (which, not coincidentally, is in turn consistent with the mindset of war as the default “problem-solver”). In other words, the hypertrophic conditional regard (e.g., conditional love) may have been acceptable in American society. This point is in itself worthy of investigation.

From the not-speaking-as-punishment assumption, Obama’s mere overtures to Iran must have seemed radical, even ludicrous. “After just two months in office, Obama took the unconventional step of sending Iranians a holiday message on Nowruz, the Iranian new year. ‘For nearly three decades, relations between our nations have been strained,’ he said. ‘But on this holiday, we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.’ Shifting his focus from the Iranian people to the Iranian leadership, Obama looked into the camera: ‘My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us.’ . . . it was the first time since the dissolution of U.S.-Iranian relations [in the late 1970s] that an American leader publicly extended the offer of rapprochement.”[4] The sheer amount of time spent under the war premise would make the greeting seem radical even though from the antithetical diplomacy premise the overture could only be counted as a first step.

In conclusion, the ideational and attitudinal distance between the default—that of war as the preferred problem-solving device—and Obama’s premise that war itself can be surmounted by replacing it’s premises with those conformable to direct communication—attests to just how much time and effort is needed in political (as distinct from technological) development. That is to say, political development in the realm of international relations is not apt to come about as easily as technological development has since the early twentieth-century. Moving humanity off war is clearly no easy feat, and Obama’s accomplishment may have to withstand several relapses before the American people have sufficiently shifted their mindset to treat Obama’s premises as the default.

[1] Sam Stein and Jessica Schulberg, “How a 2007 Debate Gaffe Paved the Way for a Deal that Will Define Obama’s Legacy,” The Huffington Post, July 14, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.