For over three decades, Richard Falk has shared, with fellow Americans Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, a reputation of fearless intellectual and political commitment to the building of a just and humane world. He recently retired as Professor of International Law and Practice, at Princeton University and is currently a Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been a prolific writer, speaker and activist of world affairs and the author or co-author of more than 20 books.
The following are excerpts from a discussion that Falk had with Zia Mian and Smitu Kothari about the US war on Iraq, the role and future of the United Nations and the need to rethink democratic institutions and practices.
Kothari/ Mian: Before the war, there were unprecedented protests in the U.S and around the world. It was evident that a significant proportion of world opinion was opposed to the US plans to attack Iraq. Additionally, if the second Resolution had come to the UN, the US would have faced a veto in the Security Council, and yet they went ahead with the war. What are your thoughts on the legality and illegality of the war, and what are its implications for both the present period of engagement and the post-war situation?
Richard Falk: Before one gets to the issue of legality or morality there is the issue of a war by the US Government that violated fundamental rights of its own citizenry in a country that proclaims itself the world’s leading democracy. This war against Iraq is very questionable constitutionally, as well as dubious under international law. There was no urgency from the perspective of American national security that might have justified a defensive recourse to a non-UN war, which is further suspect because the war was initiated without a formal and proper authorization from Congress. So this war against Iraq is constitutionally unacceptable and anti-democratic even if account is taken only of the domestic legal framework in the United States.
Aside from that, there was no basis for a UN mandate for this war, either on some principle of humanitarian emergency or urgency of the sort that arguably existed in Kosovo (1999) or in some of the sub-Saharan African countries that were sites for controversial claims of humanitarian intervention during the 1990’s. There was also no evidence of a defensive necessity in relation to Iraq that had provided some justification for the unilateral American recourse to war against Afghanistan in 2001. In the Afghanistan War there was at least a meaningful linkage to the September 11th attacks and the persistence of the al Qaeda threat. A defensive necessity existed, although recourse to war stretched the general understanding of the right of self-defense under the UN Charter and international law. In contrast, recourse to war against Iraq represents a flagrant departure from the fundamental norms of the UN Charter that require war to be waged in self-defense only in response to prior armed attack, or arguably in some exceptional circumstance of imminent necessity — that is, where there is a clearly demonstrable threat of major war or major attack, making it unreasonable to expect a country to wait to be attacked. International law is not a prison. It allows a measure of discretion beyond the literal language of its rules and standards that permit adaptation to the changing circumstances of world politics. From such a standpoint, as many people have argued in recent years, it is reasonable to bend the Charter rules to the extent of allowing some limited exceptions to the strict prohibition of the use of force that is core undertaking of the UN and its Charter, and is enshrined in contemporary international law. This analysis leads to the inevitable conclusion that in the context of Iraq recourse to force and war was impermissible: there was neither a justification under international law, nor was there a mandate from the United Nations Security Council (and if there had been such a mandate it would have provided dubious authority for war, being more accurately understood as an American appropriation of the Security Council for the pursuit of its geopolitical goals). Furthermore, there were no factual conditions pertaining to Iraq to support an argument for stretching the normal rules of international law because there were credible dangers of Iraqi aggression in the near future. If such reasoning is persuasive, then it seems to me inescapable that an objective observer would reach the conclusion that this Iraq War is a war of aggression, and as such, that is amounts to a Crime against Peace of the sort for which surviving German leaders were indicted, prosecuted, and punished at the Nuremberg trials conducted shortly after World War II.
Kothari/ Mian: Is there a case or any effort to legally challenge the U.S.? Given the international relations of power and evolving geopolitics what kind of space exists for any intervention of that kind?
Richard Falk: It is necessary to understand that the available global political space available for such a legal challenge was severely constrained by U.S. geopolitical influence throughout the entire Iraq crisis, dating back to the first Gulf War in 1991. It is instructive to consider the framing of the recent debate in the United Nations Security Council around the famous resolution 1441, incorporating a position that unconvincingly accepted 80% of the U.S. allegations against Iraq. It is important to realize that even France and Germany, credited with taking an anti-American position, were arguing for an avoidance of war within the essential framework insisted upon by the U.S., and the U.K. The UN debate took it as established that the punitive resolutions passed after the Gulf War more than a decade earlier needed to be implemented by force to the extent that Iraq resisted. The debate was thus limited to the narrow question of whether these demands should be implemented by reliance on inspection or by war, and even here the inspection option was conditioned on Iraq’s willingness to cooperate with unprecedented intrusions on its sovereignty in the ultra-sensitive area of national security. It is helpful to realize that France and Germany were only arguing that inspection was doing the job of implementing the 1991 resolutions, especially SC Res. 687.
Nowhere did the proponents of the inspection path insist that Security Council resolutions calling for the immediate end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza be implemented. Nowhere was the question raised as to whether the 1991 ceasefire conditions imposed on Iraq continued to be justified, or whether American threats against Iraq (open advocacy of “regime change”) warranted lifting UN sanctions and other restrictions on Iraqi sovereignty, or did not create a duty by the UN to protect Iraq against severe threats directed by the US at its political independence and territorial integrity as promised by Article 2 of the Charter. In fact, the U.S. made it rather clear that it hoped that it preferred for the resolutions not to be enforced. Washington sought a pretext for war against Iraq. The White House was reluctant for this reason to seek authorization from the UN, and was persuaded to seek a Security Council mandate so as to enhance the legitimacy of the war and to get more countries to share the burden.
All along Washington viewed this inspection path at the UN as an alternate route leading to war, at most an annoying delay, but under no conditions providing grounds for abandoning the resolve to embark on war. The US could not exert full control over the Security Council, given Iraqi compliance with the inspection process, and so recourse to war was undertaken by the US in defiance of the UN. Even then the UN lacked the autonomy to condemn such an unacceptable recourse to war. It needs to be remembered that if Washington had been more patient the inspection path might itself have produced a UN authorization of war, either if the inspection uncovered weapons of mass destruction, or if the Iraqis resisted some of the more extravagant demands of the inspectors. Although opponents of the Iraq War can take satisfaction from the refusal of UNSC to acquiesce in the US war policy, there are still many reasons to take note of the weakness of the UN in upholding the genuine security needs of the peoples of the world, or to fulfill the Charter vision of saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”
Kothari/ Mian: So what you are arguing is that the entire framework of debate in the UN was itself severely constrained?
Richard Falk: Yes, the whole framework of debate was distorted and deformed from the beginning. The real question before the Security should have been, were there grounds for the use of force against Iraq under any circumstances. The argument that Iraq had not complied with these resolutions in 1991 expresses a concern about the extent of UN authority in this sort of setting. But it also raises the important question about whether the 1991 ceasefire arrangements did not involve the kind of punitive peace that had been so disastrously imposed on Germany after WWI. The Versailles treaty has to be seen as one of the colossal blunders of the 20th century contributing to virulent German nationalism, to the militarisation of Germany, to the rise of Nazism and political extremism, generating a series of developments that led to WWII, to upwards of 50 million deaths and to the use of atomic bombs against the Japanese civilian population. In my judgment, this punitive peace imposed on Iraq, was from Day One an illegitimate way of normalising the relationship between Iraq and the international community after the Gulf War. We also need to recall that the Gulf War was itself a legally, politically, and morally dubious war, which might have been averted by a greater reliance on diplomacy and sanctions to achieve the internationally acceptable goal of reversing Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait.
From a more progressive perspective, and with an eye on global reform, it is crucial to realize the degree to which the United Nations framework has itself been substantially co-opted by geopolitical forces concentrated in Washington. Even this degree of co-optation, which is less than 100%, frustrated the US Government in this instance. The Iraq debate in the UNSC was about the remaining 20% of the global political space that has so far eluded becoming geopolitically subordinated to the goals of U.S. foreign policy and US grand strategy aiming at global domination. What made the U.S. radical right leadership so furious was its inability to twist enough arms to gain control over this last 20%, an inability that resulted because the US was proposing a course of action that so plainly defied the UN Charter, international law and the elemental sense of international prudence. If you take note of the debate in the United States, some of the most vocal and influential opponents of the war were academic realists, individuals who have over the years generally favored the use of force in American foreign policy. But in this instance, from a prudential national interest perspective, they opposed the war. Such realist opposition is confirmation of the extremism that is generating American global policy. The Bush administration has adopted a post- realist orientation toward geopolitics that is partly religiously motivated and justified, and seems intent on projecting American power globally no matter what the norms, the breadth and depth of opposition, and the risks involved. It is these elements that make American leadership so dangerous for itself, and in the short run, even more menacing for the rest of the world.
Kothari/ Mian: Is this proclivity to violence in the Bush administration a response to its failure to secure control of the remaining 20% of the UN as it seeks to globally dominate the institutions and places where the U.S. writ did not run? In fact, Immanuel Wallerstein has argued recently, that this is a response to America’s relative decline and that this is actually a restoration project rather than an expansionist project.
Richard Falk: These are important issues. With regard to the remaining 20% of independent global space, the present leadership in the White House seems likely to abandon the pursuit of that objective, at least within the framework of the UN. The Bush policymakers have been taught a lesson that more ideological members of the Bush team had warned about anyway. It is useful to remember that the U.S. was only persuaded some months back to seek authorization from the UN after some Republican stalwarts like Brent Scowcroft (former National Security Advisor), James Baker, and more quietly, the senior George Bush, insisted that the Bush administration needed this collective mandate from the UN, that without it the war lacked sufficient political backing. This challenged the White House. George W. Bush’s original impulse was to act the way they did in Afghanistan without bothering with the UN, claiming its own sovereign prerogatives to use force as it thought necessary. For the White House/Pentagon hard line their mistake was to heed the advice of the Republican old guard. Instead, the new Bush reactionaries are convinced that if you cannot control that last 20%, then it should be ignored, preferring unilateralism to inaction. The new statecraft in Washington is to go ahead with their global dominance project, acting outside the UN and international law, claiming support on the basis of so-called “coalitions of the willing,” which include weak and submissive participants, making the operation appear to be the work of “a coalition of the coerced.”
As far as the Wallerstein argument is concerned, it offers instructive historical insights but I don’t find it convincing overall. It is not attentive to a set of global conditions that have never existed before. The United States is a global state that is not deterred by any countervailing power that exists within the state system, and is driven by a visionary geopolitics aspiring to global domination. To the extent that the United States is deterred, it is by non-state centers of resistance that have shown the will and capability to inflict severe harm. The scary credibility of this American global dominance project rests on this idea that when one no longer has to worry about deterrence, then the preeminent actor can achieve the total control over the entire system. Such a grand strategy animates this leadership. These goals were explicated long before the Bush administration came to Washington. It is important to read what Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and the other Bush ideologues were advocating during the 1990s when they were watching from the sidelines throughout the Clinton presidency. Theirs’ was a view that America shouldn’t misinterpret the end of the Cold War, that it was not the time to disarm or a moment to declare “peace dividends.” On the contrary, it was the time to seize the great opportunity provided by the Soviet collapse to establish a global security system presided over by the United States. Such ambitions could only be satisfied, however, if the US Government was willing to invest sufficiently in military capabilities, including taking full advantage of “the revolution in military affairs” that required doctrinal innovations and drastic changes in weapons procurements .
Kothari/ Mian: With the UN effectively demobilized and the emerging spectre of the US exerting its political and economic hegemony in wider and deeper arenas globally, what are the possibilities and sources of potential resistance?
Richard Falk: At the present, I do not see the sources of effective resistance to this American undertaking in the short run. What I do see, and that’s why I refer to global fascism, is sufficient resistance, including here in the U.S., that it will lead the American leadership to pursue by all means a consolidation of economic and military power and a willingness to repress wherever necessary. The outcome seems increasingly likely to be a global oppressive order with a significant domestic spillover, which is already manifest. Given an attorney general like John Ashcroft the domestic face of the American global design is revealed as a kind of proto-fascist mentality that is prepared to use extreme methods to reach its goals. Without being paranoid, this is the sort of mentality that is capable of fabricating a Reichstag fire as a pretext so as to achieve more and more control by the state over supposed islands of resistance. At present, the US Government manipulates terrorist alerts as a way of scaring the American people into a submission that is at once abject and incoherent. The combination of the September 11th shock effect and the constant official warnings that there will be a repetition of such attacks has so far disabled Americans from mounting an effective opposition.
Kothari/ Mian: There is a lot of studied speculation on the American regime’s motivations in going to war, ranging from the need to expand its sphere of power, consolidating its military-industrial, economic and geopolitical interests globally to appropriating to itself the role of unilateral global policeman. What in your assessment are the real motivations of the present regime?
Richard Falk: Of course, the true motivations for a controversial undertaking like the Iraq War are concealed by American elites. Far more than elsewhere, American leaders operate within a frame of reference that takes for granted American innocence — what some diplomatic historians have identified as America’s moral exceptionalism, the claim that American foreign policy embodies uplifting values, contrasting with other states that are driven by crass interests. Such a contrast is sometimes expressed by contending that the US is a Lockean nation in a Hobbesian world. In the important speech that Bush gave at West Point in June 2002, he went out of his way to say, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that America is not seeking either imperial goals or a new utopia. Bush tried to put American behavior within the framework of a moral undertaking that was a response to the evil forces responsible for the September 11th attacks. He argues that a wider, necessary and justified, response to September 11th was based on a recognition that the so-called rogue nations, re-christened “axis of evil” states, now possess the leverage by way of the global terrorist networks to be able to inflect severe harm on the U.S., thereby validating American reliance on preemptive war as a defensive measure. The Iraq War is the first test of this new American doctrine, which has so alarmed the peoples, and many of the governments, of the world.
It is helpful to realize that the roots of this thinking antedate the present American leadership and the post-September 11 context. Well before the Bush administration came to Washington, the American policy making community had developed a broad consensus supportive of the idea of global domination, although avoiding such language in public discourse. This national goal goes to the Clinton years, and before that, to the end of the cold war. The global reach is phrased euphemistically, but such thinking was responsible for a series of provocative moves: the militarisation of space, the preoccupation with “rogue” states, the projection of American power everywhere in the world, the maintenance of the alliances and foreign military bases in the aftermath of the cold war with no plausible strategic threat. So in the background of the present policymaking leadership was this bipartisan, strong consensus that suggested that the end of the cold war provided the U.S. with this novel opportunity to dominate the world and, at the same time, to provide stable security for both the world economy and to make the world safe for the market state committed to a neo-liberal IMF worldview. This pre-Bush dominance project became more explicit and more militarized in the aftermath of September 11th. Earlier American leadership couldn’t acknowledge its commitment to such a grand strategy, but so long as it was proceeding under the banner of anti terrorism, everything was validated, however imprudent, immoral, and illegal. Anti-terrorism. provided a welcome blanket of geopolitical disguise.
Kothari/ Mian: But weren’t other interests – oil, the control of markets, Israel, etc. — also manifest in America’s geopolitical designs?
Richard Falk:Yes. In the background of the global domination project, was always the more specific preoccupation with the geopolitics of energy for its own sake and to implement the global domination project. To keep the oil flowing at an optimal price, the U.S. needed to control Central Asian and Persian Gulf oil and gas reserves, and supply routes and pipelines. The wars against both Afghanistan and Iraq were partly motivated by these energy objectives. Just as oil and gas are an integral, if undisclosed component of American geopolitics, so is the strategic influence of Israel. The Israelis offer the US a positive security model, especially how to operate in a hostile setting of popular resentment. Israel helps Washington fashion a response to such questions as “how does a government that is opposed by various political forces go about establishing its security without granting any political concessions towards its opposition?” And “how does a government impose its will in effect on resisting elements? Israel has also exerted its back channels influence to convince the U.S. that it is essential to eliminate Iraq as an independent regional actor. Tel-Aviv was worried about Iraq as a potential source of opposition to Israeli hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. Israel provided guidance as to how to fight the kind of borderless war that has been waged against al Qaeda in recent months. As Marwan Bishara has suggested, we are witnessing the Israelization of American foreign policy. I would add that we are also experiencing the Palestinisation of resistance tactics. Political assassinations of Palestinian opponents in foreign countries has long been a practice of Mossad – the Israeli Secret Service — and the justification for projecting force against hostile regimes that are seen as giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States is also part of this logic. In response, the tactics of urban warfare, including suicide bombings, has emerged as the most effective aspect of Iraqi resistance. Such is the dynamics of learning with respect to the methodology of political violence for both the strong and the weak.
Also, part of the motivational structure operative in the White House and Pentagon is the widely shared perception that the locus of conflict in the post cold war world has shifted from Europe to the Middle East. This is a crucial shift that has many policy implications. It helps to explain the significance attached to the goal of making Iraq into a safe base area for American and Israeli hegemonic aims. A pacified and subordinated Iraq will give these actors much more leverage over Saudi Arabia and the Gulf generally. It is a very important part of a policy based on controlling the world by controlling the Middle East. If the Middle East is the pivot of geopolitics at this point, then the further idea behind the Iraq policy was to deepen the alliance between the United States, as the dominant state, and Israel and Turkey as regional partners, junior but still beneficiaries. Now Turkey has temporarily, and partly, withdrawn from that arrangement, under pressure from its public that overwhelming opposed waging this war against a Muslim neighbor. Whether Turkey sustains this level of independence is uncertain at this point. All these considerations explain why the policymakers in Washington were willing to embark on such a risky and unpopular course of action as initiating “a war of choice” in defiance of the United Nations. For the American leadership the risks were worth it because they regard the stakes high, and the hoped for gains great.
Kothari/ Mian: It is clear, however, that the strategic interests are different now. The US will also reconfigure its relationship with the UN. What are your thoughts on this?
Richard Falk: The prospects in Iraq are increasingly likely to resemble a modified Afghanistan approach taken — modified because Washington is keenly aware that there exist major economic rewards for the administrators of post-war Iraq. The reconstruction of the country will be worth billions. Contracts are likely to be given to very influential American companies, such as Bechtel, Parsons, Halliburton, for example, that have close ties to Pentagon officials, as well as to leaders spread around the American governmental structure, and its infra-structure of closely linked think tanks. Richard Perle’s economic machinations have been recently disclosed, showing that despite his lack of an official post, his access to the policy elite is a valuable economic asset.
The strategic objectives are very different in Iraq than they were in Afghanistan and the emphasis placed on retaining and asserting regional control will lead to a much stronger American presence even though it may yet be given a cosmetic UN façade. The American strategy is likely to be to use the UN to achieve a modicum of legitimacy. but to maintain the actualities of control. This control will shape the reconstruction of Iraq and the realization of regional strategic goals. The full extent of these goals is not yet clear. It seems that the more extreme elements of the Bush administration, certainly including Wolfowitz, Feith, and John Bolton, but also probably Cheney and Rumsfeld, have a post-Iraq plan to alter the political landscape of the region in a series of other countries including Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Its rather difficult to predict or anticipate how this plan will be actualized. It depends on a series of uncertainties, including the degree to which opposition to the American presence becomes formidable, and threatening. Despite these American imperial expectations, there are structural factors that may induce even the Bush-led government to make a major effort to reconcile its strategic objectives with the appearance of quasi-legitimacy. Such a reconciliation, if possible, would seem likely to mitigate the intensity of anti-imperial resistance around the world and in the United States. Others also have an interest in reconciliation.
France and Germany will undoubtedly for historical and economic reasons be eager to reach a new accommodation with the U.S. It is quite likely that the UN will be selectively used to the extent its helpful for improving the atmospherics of the global setting without undermining the achievement of American strategic objectives. But in future occasions where the U.S. seeks the use of force, it is unlikely to repeat the mistake of accepting advice that it needs first to obtain the collective authorization of the international community. As long as this present leadership is in control of the US Government, the UN will be bypassed when it comes to war-peace issues.
Kothari/ Mian: We are now rapidly approaching the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of the Prime Minister Mossadegh in June, 1953. What are your reflections about what the U.S. political process has learned about its legitimacy given what has happened in previous attempts to intervene and exercise what it considers its legitimate authority?
Richard Falk: The learning curve about legitimacy is very modest, if not outright regressive. The American elite has always had a rather barren historical memory. American leaders abstract one or two very simplistic and self-serving lessons from the past, thinly disguised rationalizations for the use of force as necessary if America is to reach its goals. It is remarkable how much weight has been give to the fatuous reasoning of Bernard Lewis to the effect that the September 11th events occurred because the United States had projected an image of weakness and ineffectuality in the Arab world.
Such ideas were dominant in any event with the current elite, but the scholarly mantle of Lewis supposedly gives such shopworn thinking additional weight. The Bush entourage are much less overtly economistic than the Clinton era elite, although they are equally enthusiastic free marketeers. But more than Clinton, they believe that you need military force to police the markets and to attain an advantageous world economic system. They further believe that this use of force by the US needs to be discretionary, without paying heed to international law or worrying about public opinion. It is in this sense that the new American configuration of power and objectives contains the danger of establishing global fascism, a loathsome political reality that has never before credibly aspired to global dominance.
There seems to be very little awareness among the American leadership as to what went wrong in Iran after the CIA’s overthrow of Muhammed Mossadegh in 1953 or the Guatemala intervention the next year that led directly to a savage period of unrestrained ethnocide in Guatemala that lasted more than four decades. The only relevant lesson that arose from American interventionary behavior that this American elite acknowledges is the failure of Vietnam, which is generally blamed on the American peace movement or the liberal media or a lack of will. Vietnam is an active experience within the memories of the current leadership. But they see the present stakes and risks as far different and they believe that they have the support of the citizenry, being mobilized around the anti-terrorist campaign, manipulating, as needed, the fear of the public and stirring from time to time the toxic mixture of fear and anger. Such a public mood is being treated as a kind of wall that insulates this leadership from any obligation to respond to criticism and to show respect to grassroots opposition. Helpful to the government is an exceedingly compliant media—especially TV–that has been vigorously orchestrating society to support this dominance project. Influential arenas of public conjecture like the Wall Street Journal have also been enthusiastically cheerleading the ideas behind the global dominance project. The passivity of the Democratic Party is also part of this picture of fallen democracy. So far the centers of formal authority in the United States have faced very little meaningful opposition. They feel no need to acknowledge “the American street.”
Kothari/ Mian: Don’t you think that there are still vast spaces that are not amenable to this kind of domination? What are the impulses or sources of hope, how does it really look in the short run or does it really look hopeless? How significant is the public resentment in Europe?
Richard Falk: The most hopeful development of this character has been the emergence of a global movement of opposition and resistance initially to the Iraq war, but more basically to the reality and prospect of global domination by the U.S. This movement has an enormous potential to deepen and sustain itself as the first peace movement of truly global scope. Just as there is this first global fascist danger, there is also this exciting global democratic possibility that is focused on anti-war issues. If this movement could creatively fuse with the anti-globalization movement it could become a powerful and inspiring source of an alternate future. I would expect this movement to have its own political project of counter-domination. The very credibility and visionary hopes of the resistance — it will deepen and grow here in this country as well — will undoubtedly scare those on top, giving rise to more vicious methods of response. Such an interaction is almost inevitable. Also, depending on whether the US leadership is successful in reviving the global economy, there are large parts of the world that are increasingly likely to reject the clarion calls of imperial geopolitics, even if they are not yet inclined to engage the United States openly by forming defensive alliances and the like. These states inhabit, more or less, a geopolitical purgatory that is situated between acquiescence and co-option. At present, such governmental ambivalence is not a source of significant resistance. Even China at this stage is more or less playing this role, mainly acquiescing rather than trying to mount a meaningful resistance.
Public resentment directed at American militarism and geopolitical hubris in western Europe is widespread and pervasive. But its not accompanied by a progressive political project that offers the prospect of an alternative elite structure. It is ironic that an arch conservative such as Chirac should be now playing the role of being the leader of mainstream diplomatic opposition to the U.S. The weakness of socialism and democratic socialist tendencies in Europe is a dismal part of this picture, limiting the opportunities for collaboration between the popular movement and sympathetic governments. The organized political parties in most of the parts of the world do not seem politically relevant for the purposes of resisting the onset of global fascism. It is the popular movement that gives by far the most hope, and the question posed by this reality is whether this popular movement can generate vehicles for political action that are more than symbolic. Can the peace and global democracy movement transform its symbolic role of mass opposition and resistance into substantive political results? I do not at the moment see how to achieve such global agency, but all progressive forces need to identify with this struggle and hope that enough creative capacity is present to generate those new institutions and vehicles for restructuring geopolitics-from-above. In some dramatic sense what is needed is a new surge of democratic empowerment, an emergent geopolitics-from-below.
Kothari/ Mian: Does it not seem important then to significantly rethink and democratize the relationship between society, political parties, and the state? Additionally, the vast if dispersed unrest, assertion and mobilization – some of it manifest in the significant cultural and political gatherings at the World Social Forum – would also be the ground for the construction not just of dissenting imaginations but also of alternative political institutions and processes. Communities, even local governments in many places in the world have already begun to conceptualise and implement radically different people-centred economic, cultural and political systems. What are your thoughts on this?
Richard Falk: Even before this current crisis became so manifest there was a sense that representative democracy through traditional political parties were not serving the well-being of the peoples in nominally democratic societies. There existed a widely felt need to reinvent democracy and to activate the creative roles of civil society to generate innovative ideas, to raise hopes, and to unlock the moral and political imagination of humanity.
How does one goes about moving toward a new relationship between the state and society? Is it possible to restructure the state, to recapture it for a more populist agenda, remove it from control by the private sector and the military control? Can political action make the state into an instrument for more progressive social change? The global civil society movement was coming toward such an understanding in the late 1990’s. Despite its grassroots base of support, activists were not overall abandoning the state, but participating in a politics that aimed prudently to create a new equilibrium between capital and society. This equilibrium, never altogether satisfactory, had been lost in this early phase of globalization when the private sector successfully appropriated the mechanisms of the state for pursuing its goals of neo-liberal economics on the global stage. Now the populist and democratic agenda has been enlarged and altered to accord priority to anti-militarism, an adjustment to American geopolitical intoxication that is now being treated as the number one menace.
This is a challenge to the extraordinary annual gatherings at Porto Allegre – which is itself a very encouraging invention of new policymaking arenas The challenge for these new political arenas is to incorporate anti-militarism with anti neo-liberalism and create the ideological climate for the emergence of a progressive politics that neither foregoes the sovereign state, nor limits its sense of institutional problem-solving to statist action. This new progressivism could emerge in forms that we cannot fully anticipate at the moment, but many of the elements are there already. This development is the main source of hope that we can have for a positive human future. We cannot count on just drifting within this present political landscape and think it possible to avoid catastrophe. How are we to arrest this drifting toward catastrophe without summoning the energies that have been evolving out of civil society and transnational social movements. I believe firmly that grassroots politics has the creative potential to produce an alternate vision that can mobilize people sufficiently.
Kothari/ Mian: What happens to the entire process of deepening the international normative framework, the human rights system where some significant progress has been made? What are the threats and the possibilities of the survival and strengthening of the entire UN system and the progress in international law?
Richard Falk: It is urgent that democratic forces do their best to safeguard the UN system. It is possible to believe that as the U.S. grows disillusioned with its capacity to control the UN, an institutional vacuum will emerge, and that it could be filled by civic forces leading the UN to flourish as never before. If the geopolitical managers treat the UN as unimportant, it may become more available for moderate states and their allies in global civil society. To the extent that the U.S abandons the UN, it will be a challenge for the rest of the world to strengthen its commitment both by adding resources and enlarging capacities, and psychologically endowing the organization and such kindred initiatives as the International Criminal Court with renewed vigor. The UN can revive our hopes for the future even if it is largely immobilized in relation to peace and security as it was throughout most of the cold war. It was really irrelevant to the way in which cold war violent conflicts were negotiated in Asia and elsewhere. This experience of the fifty years following World War II is probably an image of what is likely to happen at least during the next decade when the UN will almost certainly be marginalized with respect to the resolution of major geopolitical issues. At the same time the UN may enhance its contributions by providing an enlarged space for normative deepening in relation to human rights, environmental protection, and global justice issues. It is also possible that in reaction to this growing fear of global domination there will be developed a series of regional spaces for normative development of the sort that in the most optimistic sense seem to be occurring in Europe through the development of the European human rights framework, especially the European Court of Human Rights. I can envision other regional developments – Asian and African leaders have been talking more and more about constructing new institutions. Perhaps, a robust framework of resistance and creativity, the evolution of regional institutions, regional norms, regional political consciousness, will surprise us positively, both as resistance to the global project and as a positive sort of normative development.