Immanuel Wallerstein Thu, 19 Mar 2015 20:11:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Turkey and the Kurds: A Possible Agreement Sun, 15 Mar 2015 04:00:16 +0000 There seems now to be a real possibility of an agreement between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that would end the fierce struggle that dates at the least from the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

The issue has been quite straightforward from the beginning. In the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a group of Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) seized power and established a secular republic, whose boundaries included essentially the areas known as Anatolia and Thrace. Like most nationalists newly-arrived in power, this group was Jacobin in its ideology. It had established a republic of the Turks and basically only for the Turks.

The ethnic struggles with the Armenians are well known and of course subject to endless debate about what in fact happened. Today, most analysts worldwide accept the Armenian version of this history as more correct and consider that there was in effect an ethnic cleansing.

Kurdish-speaking populations are to be found today in four different states – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Kurdish nationalists have long sought to achieve some kind of Kurdish state combining the groups in all four countries. Thus far, this attempt has not been successful and Kurdish nationalists in all four countries have reoriented their objectives to meaningful autonomy within each of the four states.

In the case of Turkey, the Kurdish speakers are concentrated in the southeastern corner of the Turkish state. In 1976, the banner of Kurdish nationalism was assumed by the PKK, which presented itself as a Marxist-Leninist movement ready to engage in insurrection against a Turkish government that was unwilling to accord any political, cultural, or linguistic rights to Kurdish speakers. Indeed, the Turkish government refused to recognize the very existence of Kurds, calling them Mountain Turks. An ongoing military struggle between the Turkish government and the PKK ensued.

In 1999, the leader of the PKK, Abdallah Ocalan, was captured by the Turkish government with the assistance of the CIA. He was tried for treason and terrorism and condemned to death. The sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment in total isolation in an island prison. Meanwhile, Ocalan’s worldview was evolving, and he ceased to believe that Marxism-Leninism should be the organizing ideology of the PKK. At the same time, various PKK groups continued the armed struggle.

In 2002, an Islamist political party, now called the AKP, came to power in Turkey, ousting the secular nationalists that had long dominated the parliament, and upsetting military leaders who were committed to strict secularism. The leader of the AKP, Recep Erdogan, has managed to win three successive elections and the AKP now seems securely in political control of the state.

To widespread surprise, in 2012 Erdogan began negotiations, which were initially secret, with the PKK and therefore with Ocalan. Both sides have been debating what might be an acceptable resolution of the conflict and the long-standing differences over Kurdish rights and autonomy. What seems to have impelled this attempt at a political settlement is the sense that both sides had begun to have that neither is capable of winning the military struggle outright. Like other civil wars, an element of exhaustion began to play a role leading rival forces to consider some kind of compromise.

Compromises are always painful and there are always militants on each side who find them unacceptable. The standard questions are what each side is actually getting in the prospective accord and the degree to which they can get the support of their political base.

In order to move forward, Turkey must adopt a new constitution. The AKP is anxious to expand considerably the power of the president, to which other parties are opposed. The PKK is anxious to include in such a new constitution various clauses that would recognize the Kurds as a people with rights equal to those of the Turks. The PKK wants some language in the constitution that would recognize the Kurds as a co-founding people of modern Turkey.

One difficult issue to resolve in detail is the cessation of hostilities. The Turkish government and the PKK have agreed to the withdrawal of PKK armed forces to the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. This withdrawal has already begun. But there has been no disarmament, and the PKK units do not intend to disarm until more concrete progress is made. Whether Ocalan will be permitted to have his custody remitted to his own home in Turkey is one matter that is in discussion and seems likely.

The urgency for the PKK and the major achievement would be the recognition of Kurdish rights, although the term, autonomy, may not be included. The urgency for the AKP is that, in order to get the 75% in the Turkish parliament needed to adopt a new constitution, they may need the votes of Kurdish members of parliament.

So, amidst much caution and continuing mutual suspicion, the two sides are moving significantly closer to a deal. With some difficulty, Ocalan will probably be able to bring his base in line with the prospective arrangements. He remains a Kurdish hero. If the deal goes through, the Kurds will have achieved linguistic and cultural rights. It remains to be seen how much the economic situation of the ordinary Kurds will improve.

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Combating the Islamic State: The Real Options Mon, 02 Mar 2015 05:00:49 +0000 The Islamic State (IS) is pursuing its clearly stated objective of a greatly expanded caliphate by using extreme brutality deliberately. It expects that the extreme brutality will force others either to accede to their demands or to withdraw from the scene. Just about everyone in the Middle East and beyond are both horrified and deeply frightened by the successes thus far of the IS.

What has made it so difficult for opponents of the IS to make headway is their unwillingness to understand that it has been the follies and misplaced priorities of the opponents of the IS that have made it possible for IS to emerge and to pose such a threat.

The IS claims that it is acting out of religious motives ordained by the Koran. And most probably their adherents believe this, which of course makes it almost impossible to negotiate with them in any manner. This is what makes them different from previous so-called Salafist movements that have been around for some time. Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Taliban were all movements that combined militancy with pragmatism.

Today, the mainstream Arab Muslim movements, the governments of the Arab states, as well as the outside powers involved in the region (United States, western Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran) all denounce the IS. However, it is widely believed that the IS has the support, or at least the benevolent neutrality, of the ordinary Sunni Muslims in the Islamic world, at least that of younger persons. These ordinary persons are streaming into zones controlled by the IS in great numbers. Persons involved in other Salafist movements are shifting allegiances to the IS.

What is it that is impelling this new attitude? It is not shar’ia law. That was after all there before. Shar’ia law is merely the covering to justify the brutal actions. Of course, once it gets a religious covering like this, it hardens the commitment. But the prime factor that underlies this impulse is a sense of hopelessness. Other movements and states – both secularist and Salafist – have failed to relieve significantly the oppression that these young Muslims feel. The IS offers hope. Perhaps one day the converts will be disillusioned, but that moment is not yet arrived.

Why then cannot there be a coalition of those who are opposed to the IS and its expansionary threats? The answer is very simple. They all have other priorities. The Egyptian government is fighting first of all the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi government is fighting first of all Iran and anyone who threatens their claim to leadership of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. The Qataris are fighting first of all the Saudi government. The government of Bahrain gives priority to suppressing the Shias who are numerically the vast majority. The Iranian government is fighting first of all Sunni forces in Iraq. The Turkish government is fighting first of all Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Kurdish movements are fighting not only for their autonomy (or independence) but also each other. The Russian and the U.S. governments are both giving priority to their mutual quarrels. And the Israelis are fighting primarily Iran and the Palestinians. Name one that puts fighting the IS at the top of its list.

This is absolutely crazy. Can anything break through this irrational schema of false priorities? Obviously, there is a dire need to create conditions in which the Sunni-Shia schism is superseded by one in which whichever is the social minority in a given state has rights to reasonable participation in governance and reasonable social autonomy. Were an accord to be achieved between the United States and Iran, they could in fact do a lot militarily and politically together to retake northwest Iraq from the IS. But will their respective hardliners really permit this?

What, you may ask, about existing dictatorships? Should we not be struggling against them? The efforts to do so as the great priority has actually reinforced them. The fears created by the IS have actually reduced in major ways the civil rights of citizens and residents in the United States and western Europe. There is massive hypocrisy concerning which tyrants are being opposed. In effect, everyone protects the tyrants that are their geopolitical ally and denounces the tyrants that are not.

It is long past time to revise radically our priorities. The likelihood of doing this, I admit, seems small at the moment. But the fact is, there is no other choice.

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Multiculturalism and Its Dilemmas Mon, 16 Feb 2015 05:00:59 +0000 Debate about something called multiculturalism is very widespread and passionate these days throughout the world. Both its advocates and those who denounce it seem to be under the illusion that multiculturalism is something very new. But it isn’t new at all. Multiculturalism is as old as human cultures have existed. And it has always been the subject of passionate debate.

Wherever humans resided, there have always been groups that consider themselves somehow more indigenous to the region than others. The “indigenous” have tended to use a rhetoric of cultural purity, which they see as being defiled, or threatened, by others who are marginal or newly-arrived in the region, and who have therefore fewer rights than the indigenous groups (or no rights whatsoever). The response of this latter group has always been to claim some version or other of multiculturalism. That is, they have argued in favor of according equal rights to all (or most) residents, whether or not they share some of the cultural practices of the self-styled “indigenous” population.

Humans have always been on the move for many reasons. One is ecological exhaustion of the area from which they are moving. Another is the attraction of a higher standard of living elsewhere. A third is that for some reason they are being chased out of the area from which they are moving. The reality is that, if we trace descent far enough into the past, no one is where their ancestors once were. We are all migrants. We are none of us indigenous except by suppressing historical reality.

To be sure, this issue has caused more acute strife in recent decades for two simple reasons. Technological advances in transport and communications make it far easier to migrate further and faster than in earlier times. And the polarization of the world-system is much greater, making it considerably more tempting for persons in poorer countries to move to richer countries.

In addition, the fact that we are living amid the structural crisis of the modern world-system has meant that the rate of real unemployment has mounted very sharply. Hence the search for scapegoats has led to focusing on the migrants who are supposedly the cause of the high unemployment rates in the wealthier countries.

The pattern of moving up the ladder of wealth of countries applies of course to persons from the Global South migrating to the Global North. Let us say Mexico to the United States, Morocco to France, Philippines to Japan. It applies as well further down the ladder of wealth. Let us say Guatemala to Mexico, Mozambique to South Africa, Paraguay to Brazil. In every case, there is always a reaction from the receiving country demanding the exclusion or expulsion of the in-migrants, ostensibly to preserve jobs in the receiving country as well as to preserve the so-called indigenous culture.

Rhetoric against multiculturalism serves (and is intended to serve) to get normally left voters in any country to support those who use the xenophobic language of the right and far right movements. And no doubt it often succeeds in doing this. Rhetoric in favor of multiculturalism serves (and is intended to serve) to get normally relatively centrist voters to support movements further left as a bulwark about xenophobia. And no doubt it often succeeds in doing this.

What do we know about what really happens in most countries? In one way or another, all countries are multicultural. That is, there are groups of persons who have distinguishable cultural practices. They have different religions or languages or marriage customs. These different customs are pursued with different degrees of diligence. In periods that are not too stressful in economic terms, there is a good deal of neighborly interaction between persons of different groups, and often considerable intermarriage, further rendering the group distinctions less important and more difficult to discern.

In times, however, of economic stress, xenophobic themes grow more important in popular discourse and often lead to acute strife. Neighbors turn against neighbors. Children of intergroup marriages are forced to avow allegiance to one or the other group. Countries become more protectionist. Legal freedom of movement across frontiers becomes more difficult. There is a considerable increase in violence of all kinds.

To be sure, we need to distinguish between different situations in terms of the demographics. There have been zones in which an existing population was submerged by a relatively large and strong in-migrating population, which wiped out (or totally subordinated) the groups that had been there. Think of the Taino in Caribbean islands or the Fijians faced with a Hindu in-migration in the Pacific.

And then there are in-migrations of wealthy persons from the Global North into zones where they buy out the desirable land, raise costs generally, and force groups that had been previously there into marginal existences. This is now happening around the globe in zones that are climatically more desirable.

The claims of the “indigenous” groups to maintaining their cultural patterns and collective values has a quite different tonality in the case of resistance to in-migration of groups at the bottom of some social scale than of persons at the top of some social scale. And herein precisely are the dilemmas. Are we capable of understanding and acting on this distinction? Can we pursue sensibly different policies in the two cases? Can we in effect support the inevitable and desirable form of multiculturalism that is the basis of a fruitful peaceful interchange of cultural values? Or will we succumb to xenophobic ethnic cleansings across the world?

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Panic About Panic: Russia and the World-System Today Mon, 02 Feb 2015 18:08:33 +0000 Visiting Russia, which I recently did, is a strange experience for someone coming from the Global North. As we know, most Russians have an entirely different reading of recent world history from most persons in the Global North. In addition, however, they are concerned about things other than what visitors expect them to be concerned about.

The one common assumption that transcends these differences is the fact that the occurrence of a sharp drop in world oil and gas prices combined with the embargo imposed by some countries on Russia has created an economic squeeze on Russian state expenditures and individual consumption.

In Russia today almost everyone across the political spectrum believes that the West, and the United States in particular, has conspired with some others – principally Saudi Arabia and Israel – to “punish” Russia for its actions and alleged misdeeds in pursuing what Russians regard as the legitimate defense of their national interests. The debate centers primarily on Ukraine, but includes as well to a lesser degree Syria and Iran. The conspiracy theory is probably a bit exaggerated, since the United States started developing its shale oil (a major factor in today’s world oversupply) already in 1973 as a response to the OPEC price rise.

Yet, one doesn’t hear much discussion of these foreign policy issues in Russia. This is probably because there is not too much dissent inside Russia concerning Russia’s official foreign policy positions, not even from persons or groups very critical of President Putin on other matters. What one hears discussed instead is how best to handle the acute budgetary shortfall that the Russian state is facing.

There are three basic positions. One is to reduce significantly state expenditures. We might call this the neoliberal option. It is espoused by the Minister of Finance. The second is to use the reserves still available to the Russian state, thus minimizing the need to reduce expenditures immediately. We might call this the social-democratic option. It is espoused by the Minister of Economic Development. The third is to use up one of the two sets of reserves but not the other. We might call this the midway option. This would ensure stability for probably eighteen months and is based on the hope that somehow the world price of oil and gas will begin to rise again by then and/or that the sanctions will be annulled or largely circumvented.

The remarkable thing is that all three positions are espoused within the relatively small group of decision-makers surrounding President Putin. So far, it seems that Putin himself is in the camp favoring the midway option. What is also remarkable is that this debate is quasi-public. At least, it is no secret to any Russian who follows the public statements of the protagonists as well as the leaks to a press that is more diverse than commentators in the West normally suggest.

There is however a lurking danger caused by this quasi-public debate. It is that Russian entrepreneurs, banks, and the general public (particularly the wealthier persons) panic, believing that an option they fear will prevail and that in consequence extensive withdrawals of resources would lead to a rush to the banks and major inflation. If there is a panic of this kind, then none of the options can succeed in enabling the state to survive the financial squeeze.

Hence there was great notice of a speech made by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev at the Gaidar Forum on January 14. Medvedev announced that the state was going to pursue the midway option. He asked everyone to rally around this option, precisely in order to squelch panic. Indeed he ended his speech by citing the famous saying of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Medvedev said that the Russian government is not afraid.

But will such a statement suffice to ensure that there is no panic? Medvedev’s speech however did not totally contain the panic. The debate about Medvedev’s pronouncement revealed that many persons and groups are not persuaded that there will not be a panic. There is what I would call a panic about panic.

Putin’s mode of containing the panic about panic is to pursue what he thinks is a carefully-measured strong and clear foreign policy. The decision to replace the so-called South Stream (a gas and oil Black Sea pipeline from Russia to Bulgaria that Bulgaria no longer will permit because of the sanctions) with a Turkish Stream (a different Black Sea pipeline going from Russia to Turkey) is a first such step. Both streams would hurt Ukraine by not sending Russia gas and oil via Ukraine and therefore eliminating Ukraine’s transit fees. However, the Turkish Stream is also intended to counteract the effect of sanctions (that led to Bulgaria’s change of position) and reward Turkey, now increasingly an ally of Russia.

A second step has been the decision to enter into accords with China and other countries to engage in currency transactions in their own currencies, thereby avoiding the fluctuations of the dollar. One of the resulting projects would be a pipeline across Siberia to Northeast Asia, financed heavily by China. This is a way of circumventing the sanctions.

A third step has been the just announced transmission of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran. Long promised, Russia had cancelled the arrangement in 2010 as result of pressure from the West. Russia is now going to fulfil its initial promise. This serves to reinforce Russian support for Iran’s inclusion in the decision-making processes of West Asia. It both puts pressure on the United States and helps to check Saudi Arabia’s attempt to maintain itself as the key Sunni Arab state. Already, with the accession of King Salman, the press is full of discussion about the fragility of the Saudi position.

Finally, in Ukraine, the Russians pursue a careful policy. Not totally in control of the Donetsk-Luhansk autonomists, Russia is nonetheless making sure that the autonomists cannot be eliminated militarily. The Russian price for real peace is a commitment by NATO that Ukraine is not a potential member, about which there are different views within NATO. Everyone is playing a high risk game in Ukraine. My guess, and it is in large measure a guess, is that sanity will prevail and a political deal realized. I would say, watch Angela Merkel after the German elections. She (and Germany) want a deal but are not yet free to pursue it.

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It is Painful to Live Amidst Chaos Thu, 15 Jan 2015 05:00:10 +0000 The world-system is in serious trouble and it is causing pain to the vast majority of the world’s population. Pundits and politicians grasp at straws. They magnify every momentary, and usually transitory, occurrence of slight improvements in the various measures we are accustomed to using.

In the last month or so, we were suddenly being told as the calendar year ended that the market looked much better in the United States, even if it looked worse in Europe, Russia, China, Brazil and many other places. But as the New Year began, there was a serious decline in both stocks and bond prices in the United States. It was a quick and sharp turnaround. Of course, the pundits immediately had explanations, but they offered a wide gamut of explanations.

The real question in any case is not the prices of the stock and bond markets in any given country. It is the picture of the world-system as a whole, which doesn’t seem to me to look very good at all. Let us start with the principal measure utilized by Establishment thinkers – “growth” rates.

By growth rates, we tend to mean prices in the stock market. Of course, as we know and is obvious, many things can lead to a rise of stock prices other than an improved economy, first of all speculation. Speculation has become so easy and so entrenched in the everyday activity of large operators in the world market that we have begun to assume that this is not only normal but more or less desirable. In any case, we tend to argue that there is nothing anyone can do that can stop it, should we wish to do so. This last assumption is probably correct, which is precisely the problem.

In my view, the only figure that measures the well-being of the world-economy and the well-being of the vast majority of the world population is employment rates. As far as I can tell, unemployment has been abnormally high for quite a while now if one looks at the world as a whole. Furthermore, the rate has been creeping up steadily, rather than the reverse, for the last 30-40 years. The best we seem to be able to anticipate is that the rate will stabilize where it is. Reversing the trend does not seem likely. Of course, if you measure employment rates country by country, they vary and they oscillate. But worldwide the rate of unemployment has been rather regularly rising.

The reality is that we are living amidst a wildly oscillating world-system, and this is very painful. Employment rates are not the only measures that oscillate. They simply measure the most immediate source of pain. Exchange rates between major currencies are also a visible source of pain for persons at all levels of income. At the moment, the dollar is rising rapidly vis-à-vis most other currencies. A rising currency rate favors cheap imports and lowers inflation. But it hurts exporters as we know and risks longer-term deflation.

Energy costs are also wildly oscillating. The most obvious example is oil. The price was first on a sharp rise across the world during most of 2014, giving enormous income and political power to countries which were producers (as well as to states within North America that were producers). Then, seemingly all of a sudden, there was said to be a glut on the market, and the prices of energy began catapulting downward to a quite low level. Those political structures that had profited from the upswing now face both a rise in sovereign debt and unhappy citizens.

To be sure, there is a political factor involved in these wild swings. But the ability of even large producers, such as Saudi Arabia or Texas, to affect the price swings should they want to do so is vastly overstated. These swings are like tornados ripping open houses in their way. In the process, banking institutions that had bet on the direction of prices (either way) find themselves in radical trouble, and no longer with a guaranteed back-up from their governments.

Geopolitical alliances are almost as unstable as the market. The United States has lost its unquestioned hegemony of the world-system and we have moved into a multipolar world. U.S. decline started not recently but in 1968. It was for a long time a slow decline, but it became precipitate after 2003 as a result of the disastrous attempt to reverse the decline by the invasion of Iraq.

Our multipolar world has perhaps 10-12 powers strong enough to pursue relatively autonomous policies. However, ten to twelve is too large a number for any of them to be sure their views can prevail. As a result, these powers are constantly shuffling alliances in order not to be outmaneuvered by the others.

Many, if not most, geopolitical decisions are impossible to control, even by stronger powers, because there are no good options available. Look at what’s happening in the European Union. Greece is about to have elections, in which it seems that Syriza, the anti-austerity party, may win. Syriza’s policy is to demand a revision of the austerity measures that were imposed on Greece by a coalition of Germany, France, the International Monetary Fund, and indirectly the U.S. Treasury. Syriza says that it does not wish to leave the euro and will not do so.

Germany says it will not be “blackmailed” by Greece into altering its policy. Blackmailed? Little Greece can blackmail Germany? In a sense the Germans are right. Greece under Syriza would be playing hardball. The Euro zone has no treaty provision either for withdrawal or for expulsion. If the strong powers try to expel Greece from the euro zone, a large number of countries may rush to withdraw for good and bad reasons.

Soon the euro zone might not exist at all, with Germany the single biggest loser. So, from Germany’s (and France’s) point of view, the Greek demands are a lose-lose proposition. Germany at the moment sticks to its position but has softened the threat of expulsion. France has said that it is against expulsion. This serves Syriza’s objectives. That Germany in particular loses whichever stance it now chooses is one of the political consequences of chaos.

The world-system is self-destructing. The world-system is in what the scientists of complexity call a bifurcation. This means that the present system cannot survive, and that the real question is what will replace it. While we cannot predict what kind of new system will emerge, we can affect the choice between the substantive alternatives available. But we can only hope to do this by a realistic analysis of existing chaotic swings and not hide our political efforts behind delusions about reforming the existing system or by deliberate attempts to obfuscate our understanding.

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Cuba and the United States Resume Relations: Happy New Year! Thu, 01 Jan 2015 05:00:51 +0000 On Dec. 17, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro simultaneously announced that the two countries would resume normal diplomatic relations, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower had ended in January, 1961. The mutual decision was the outcome of 18 months of quite secret negotiations, sufficiently secret so that the announcements were a surprise.

It quickly became common knowledge that Pope Francis had actively encouraged this resumption. Emissaries of the two countries met at the Vatican, and Pope Francis along with the Cuban Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, had played a key role in brokering the deal. Both presidents expressed open appreciation for the Vatican’s assistance. This meeting was the last step before the 45-minute telephone call between the two presidents.

Less noticed, but also important, was the role played by Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, who “facilitated” the dialogue by hosting initial talks in Canada, a role acknowledged and appreciated by both presidents. Harper’s involvement was important because his general politics resemble those of mainstream Republican politicians in the United States, except that Canada had never broken diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Reaction within the United States has been mixed. The accord was predictably denounced by leading Republican politicians, with some notable exceptions: Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Rand Paul. It was however strongly supported by the Catholic Church, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a public statement, Human Rights Watch, and large grain agricultural enterprises. It was also well received in public opinion polls and, it seems, among a majority of younger Cuban-Americans. It was notably dealt with cautiously but not hostilely by the Miami Herald, a major news source for Cuban-Americans. It called the accord “a roll of the dice” and said that, although the decision was an act of courage and the beginning of a new era, the outcome was uncertain. The newspaper hoped that the “gamble” would pay off.

Reaction outside the United States was largely very positive. It was hailed throughout Latin America – publicly by Ernesto Samper, secretary-general of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR); José Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS); and by the quite conservative President of Panama Juan Carlos Varela, the host of next April’s 7th summit of the Americas, who sees the acceptance by both presidents to come to Panama as the realization of a “dream” to have a united region. Approval was expressed throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa as well.

If a major accord is realized between two countries that have expressed such constant and open hostility for more than a half-century, there must be some significant advantage in it for both sides. Obama made as his key argument: “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.” He said the United States maintains its commitments to freedom for Cuba. “The question is how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”

Castro’s emphasis in his announcement was slightly different. “We have been able to make headway in the solution of some topics of mutual interest to both parties…. The progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.” However, the heart of the matter remained the blockade which “must cease.” Nonetheless, “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”

So, what was in fact decided? What did each side yield? There was an exchange of prisoners. This is wonderful for the prisoners but in itself it is not unusual, even for the deadliest of enemies. Obama is easing restrictions on remittances, banking, and travel, while not ending the restrictions entirely. Some argue that he has however eased them just enough to make the restrictions almost meaningless. Castro will allow more internet access and has released 53 Cuban political prisoners. Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. He announced his willingness to be at hemispheric meetings along with Castro, saying in Spanish “somos todos americanos.”

In the end, both sides have had the same internal debate. Does a hard line break the opponent? Does a rapprochement between the two melt the other? This was the debate on both sides that preceded the so-called détente of the United States and the Soviet Union, the meeting between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in Beijing, and the resumptions of normal relations between Vietnam and the United States. Experience has shown that neither breaking nor melting actually occurred.

For Brazilian left analyst Emir Sader, Cuba is victorious. It has forced the burial of the cold war logic that prevailed up to now. At first Cuba was isolated by the United States. But over 50 years, they have reversed the situation. It became the United States that was isolated. They have achieved diplomatic relations based on respect between equals. The Latin American left foresees loss of public support in the United States for maintaining the embargo. It believes it will now be more difficult for the United States to embargo Venezuela. And everyone seems to think that these developments will speed up the accord between the Colombian government and the guerrilla opposition, the FARC, in which Cuba has played a mediating role.

From my point of view, the move by Obama was the single most positive foreign policy decision he had made in his term of office, amidst a record that has been otherwise rather dismal. It is not magic, but it changes the atmosphere. If the Republicans in Congress prove too intransigent, it may only force Obama to go further. Already, in an interview with the Associated Press, he has said that he does not rule out a similar move with Iran, even though he says it will be more difficult.

Writing in La Jornada, Marcos Roitman Rosenmann applauds the accord under the title: “Cuba: Dignity Wins Battles.” Perhaps that is the lesson too for Obama. In the long run, dealing successfully with other countries requires dignity, not only by the weak but by the strong. Somewhat reluctantly, it is remotely possible that Obama, his Secretary of State John Kerry, and potential Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be dragged into acknowledging this instead of continuing to prate about the United States being the “leader” of the virtuous, holding at bay the “vicious” of the world.

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The Paradoxical Strength of Germany’s Merkel Mon, 15 Dec 2014 05:00:50 +0000 Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany feels free to criticize openly and even harshly all the powerful nations with which she deals. They all continue to try to court her. She has incredibly high support in German polls, and seemingly in world public opinion. Yet nothing in her background would lead anyone to expect this remarkable show of strength for herself personally and through her for Germany as a nation. This is a paradox that needs to be explained.

She started life as a physical chemist with a Ph.D. from a university in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). She navigated the political scene as a non-participant. She joined the government-approved Free German Youth but did not participate in its coming of age ceremony, preferring to follow a Protestant ceremony. Her father was a Protestant pastor.

She entered political life only at the moment that East Germany was collapsing, and rose rapidly in the transitional government. With formal integration into the German Federal Republic, she became an active member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Elected to Parliament, she was soon in the cabinet, and was considered a protégé of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In pursuing her ascension within the CDU, she had to overcome several negatives. She was a woman. She was from the old East German zone. She was a Protestant in a party that was largely supported by Catholic voters. After the CDU lost an election to the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) in 2002, she became the Secretary-General of the CDU and then its Leader. The CDU with its partner party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), together narrowly won the 2005 election. Neither the CDU/CSU nor the SPD had enough support to govern alone and had to form a grand coalition. In the vote of parliament for Chancellor, Merkel was chosen, but with considerable opposition.

Today, some nine years later, she has become the longest-serving head of government in the European Union, with undisputed control of the politics and foreign policy of her country. In her recent re-election as leader of her party, she received 96.7% of the vote.

Clearly, a part of her present strength is the seemingly strong economic parameters of Germany, with very positive export surpluses and relatively low unemployment. Merkel has taken this position to pursue quietly but very effectively firm foreign policy objectives.

She has chided very publicly France (and Italy) for not meeting their obligations under European Union (EU) policy to reduce their fiscal deficit to less than 3%. She met strong resistance from President François Hollande of France, who came into office originally as a sort of “anti-Merkel” calling for greater flexibility in the application of EU fiscal obligations. The outcome of this public disagreement was France’s reshuffling of its cabinet. Manuel Valls, who has a position close to that of Merkel, was named as Prime Minister, and Arnaud Montebourg, representing the point of view of left elements in France, resigned from the cabinet. Not only has Hollande ceded more or less to Merkel but he gets no reward for it from French public opinion, his polls declining catastrophically while Merkel’s are higher than ever.

Merkel has been equally ready to take on Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron thought that, as fellow conservatives, Merkel would understand his need to make strong demands on the EU that would help him hold off the growing anti-EU sentiment in Great Britain. There have been two immediate issues. The EU has a complicated mode of fiscal adjustment in the sums that members must pay each year. This year, Great Britain was assessed an extra 1.7 billion pounds and Cameron has flatly refused to pay it, although such reassessments are quite normal.

More important however is Cameron’s demand that Great Britain be allowed to create quotas for migrants from other EU countries. Merkel has made it clear, very loudly, that she regards free movement of EU citizens within the EU as a cornerstone of the EU, untouchable. She warned him that pursuing such a policy would only be possible if Great Britain left the EU, exactly what Cameron is trying to avoid. Yet, Cameron’s internal political squeeze is so great that he has no alternative but to continue to plead with Merkel.

Merkel was been equally critical of President Obama. Although presumably strongly supportive of a close relation with the United States, she has publicly expressed her great disappointment at the report that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on her directly and more generally on German internal affairs. All Obama promised to do was to review the most grievous aspects of such espionage, while Merkel has said that the end does not justify the means and that “trust needs to be rebuilt…[W]ords will not be sufficient.”

Perhaps more important however is probably her persistent foot-dragging on Ukraine sanctions. She has frustrated all U.S. attempts to increase sanctions, insisting on the priority of diplomacy.

That brings us to the question of her position on Russia. Publicly her criticisms of Russia’s policies in the Ukraine are stringent and growing stronger. In practice, Merkel and President Vladimir Putin of Russia have spoken directly more than 40 times since the so-called Ukraine crisis began. Merkel is fluent in Russian and Putin in German, so communication is quite clear. The search for a diplomatic “solution” to the differences is supported very strongly by Germany’s Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD who has long sought to pursue friendly diplomacy. This is seconded by the more than 4000 German firms who have direct economic interests in Russia. Further sanctions might hurt Germany as much as Russia.

One leading British conservative newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, evaluated very sensibly Merkel’s political secret. “She makes deals, not speeches, and puts compromise ahead of controversy….She is the ultimate political realist, always willing to strike a deal, but never at any price.”

Merkel is a centrist conservative and in no way a radical of any sort. In a sense what she has been trying to do is to teach other powerful countries and their leaders that, if they want a centrist conservative outcome, they have to play the game her way. Of course, this assumes that the fundamental structure of the world-system is not itself under threat, and that Germany can continue to seem so economically strong. I doubt that. I think that several years from now Germany will most probably succumb to more of the negatives the current state of the world-system is imposing on all countries. Still, for the moment Angela Merkel rules the roost.


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U.S. Standing in the Middle East Mon, 01 Dec 2014 05:00:14 +0000 On November 27, The New York Times headlined an article “Conflicting Policies on Syria and Islamic State Erode U.S. Standing in Mideast.” But this is not new. U.S. standing in the Middle East (and elsewhere) has been eroding for almost 50 years. The reality is far larger than the immediate dispute between anti-Assad forces in Syria and their supporters elsewhere on the one hand and the Obama regime in the United States on the other.

The fact is that the United States has become in the expression derived from onetime nautical practice a “loose cannon,” that is, a power whose actions are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and dangerous to itself and to others. As a result, it is trusted by almost no-one, even when many countries and political groups call upon it for assistance in specific ways in the short run.

How is it that the erstwhile unquestioned hegemonic power of the world-system, and still the strongest military power by far, has come to this sorry state? It is reviled or at least sternly reproached not only by the world left but by the world right and even such centrist forces as remain in this increasingly polarized world. The decline of the United States is not due to errors in policy but is structural – that is, not really subject to reversal.

It is perhaps useful to trace the successive moments of this erosion of effective power. The United States was at the height of its power in the period 1945-1970, when it got its way on the world scene 95% of the time on 95% of the issues, which is my definition of true hegemony. This hegemonic position was sustained by the collusion of the Soviet Union, which had a tacit deal with the United States of a division of zones of influence, not to be threatened by any military confrontation between the two. This was called the cold war, with an emphasis on the word “cold” and by their possession of nuclear weapons, guarantee of “mutual assured destruction.”

The point of the cold war was not to subdue the presumed ideological enemy but to keep a check on one’s own satellites. This cozy arrangement was first threatened by the unwillingness of movements in what was then called the “Third World” to suffer the negatives of this status quo. The Chinese Communist Party defied Stalin’s injunction to compromise with the Kuomintang and instead marched on Shanghai and proclaimed the People’s Republic. The Viet Minh defied the Geneva accords and insisted on marching on Saigon to unite the country under their rule. The Algerian Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria defied the French Communist Party’s injunction to give priority to the class struggle in France and launched its struggle for independence. And the Cuban guerillas that overthrew the Batista dictatorship forced the Soviet Union to help them defend again U.S. invasion by taking over the label of Communist Party from the group that had colluded with Batista.

The defeat of the United States in Vietnam was the result both of the war’s enormous drain on the U.S. Treasury and by the growing internal opposition to the war by middle-class youth draftees and their families, which bequeathed a permanent constraint on future U.S. military action in the so-called Vietnam syndrome.

The world-revolution of 1968 saw a worldwide rebellion not only against U.S. hegemony but against Soviet collusion with the United States. It also saw a rejection of the Old Left parties (Communist parties, Social-Democratic parties, national liberation movements) on the grounds that, despite coming to power, they had not changed the world as they had promised and had become part of the problem not part of the solution.

The United States under presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton (and including Ronald Reagan) sought to slow down U.S. decline by a triple policy. It invited its closest allies to change their status from satellite to that of partner, with the proviso that they not drift too far from U.S. policies. It shifted its focus in the world-economy from developmentalism to a demand for export-oriented production in the global South and the neoliberal injunctions of the Washington Consensus. And it sought to curb the creation of further nuclear powers beyond the five permanent members of the Security Council by imposing on all other countries an ending of their nuclear armament projects, a treaty that was not signed by and ignored by Israel, India, Pakistan, and South Africa.

These U.S. efforts were partially successful. They did slow down but not reverse U.S. decline. When in the late 1980s the Soviet Union began to collapse, the United States was in fact dismayed. The cold war was not meant to be won but to continue indefinitely. The most immediate consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Soviet Union was no longer there to restrain Iraq in the interest of U.S.-Soviet arrangements.

And while the United States won the Gulf war, it demonstrated further weakness by the fact that it could not finance its own role but was dependent for 90% of its costs on four other countries – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan. The decision by President George H.W. Bush not to march on Baghdad but content himself with the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty was no doubt a wise judgment but was seen by many in the United States as a humiliation in that Saddam Hussein remained in power.

The next turning-point was with the coming to power of President George W. Bush and the coterie of neo-con interventionists that surrounded him. This group seized upon the September 11 attack by al-Qaeda to justify an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. This was seen by the interventionists as a mode of restoring waning U.S. hegemony in the world-system. Instead, it badly backfired in two ways. The United States for the very first time lost a vote in the U.N. Security Council and Iraqi resistance to U.S. presence was vaster and more persistent than anticipated. In sum, the invasion transformed a slow decline into a precipitate decline, which brings us to the efforts of the Obama regime to deal with this decline.

The reason neither President Obama nor any future U.S. president will be able to reverse this is because the United States has been unwilling to accept this new reality and adjust to it. The United States is still striving to restore its hegemonic role. Pursuing this impossible task leads it to pursue the so-called “conflicting policies” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Like a loose cannon, it constantly shifts position seeking to stabilize the world geopolitical ship. U.S. public opinion is torn between the glories of being the “leader” and the costs of trying to be the leader. Public opinion zigzags constantly.

As other countries and movements regard this spectacle, they place no trust in U.S. policies and therefore pursue each their own priorities. The problem for the world is that loose cannons result in destruction, both of the perpetrators and the rest of the world. And this increases the role that fear plays in the actions of everyone else, augmenting the dangers to world survival.

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NATO: Danger to World Peace Sat, 15 Nov 2014 05:00:17 +0000 The official mythology is that between 1945 (or 1946) and 1989 (or 1991), the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) confronted each other continuously – politically, militarily, and above all ideologically. This was called the “cold war.” If it was a war, the word to underline is “cold” since the two powers never engaged in any direct military action against each other throughout the entire period.

There were however several institutional reflections of this cold war, in each of which it was the United States, and not the USSR, that took the first step. In 1949, the three western countries occupying Germany combined their zones to create the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) as a state. The Soviet Union responded by restyling its zone as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

In 1949, NATO was established by twelve nations. On May 5, 1955, the three western powers officially ended their occupation of the FRG, recognizing it as an independent state. Four days later, the FRG was admitted to membership in NATO. In response to this, the USSR established the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO) and included the GDR as one of its members.

The treaty establishing NATO was supposed to apply only within Europe. One reason was that the western European countries still had colonies outside of Europe and did not wish to allow any agency to have the authority to interfere directly in their political decisions concerning these colonies. The moments of seemingly tense confrontation between the two sides – the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis – all ended with a status quo ante outcome. The most important invocation of the treaties to engage in military action was that of the USSR to act within its own zone against developments they deemed dangerous to the USSR – Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981. The United States intervened politically under similar circumstances, such as the potential entry of the Italian Communist Party into the Italian government.

This brief account points to the real objective of the cold war. The cold war was not meant to transform the political realities of the other side (except in some moment very far into the future). The cold war was a mechanism for each side to keep its satellites under control, while maintaining the de facto agreement of the two powers for their long-term partition of the globe into two spheres, one-third to the USSR and two-thirds to the United States. Priority was given by each side to the guarantee on the non-utilization of military force (especially nuclear weapons) against each other. This came to be known as the guarantee against “mutually assured destruction.”

The collapse of the USSR in two stages – the withdrawal from eastern Europe in 1989 and the formal dissolution of the USSR in 1991 – should have meant in theory the end of any function for NATO. Indeed, it is well known that, when President Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR agreed to the incorporation of the GDR into the FRG, he was given the promise that there would be no inclusion of the WTO states into NATO. This promise was violated. Instead, NATO took on a new role entirely.

After 1991, NATO bestowed on itself a role of world policeman for whatever it considered appropriate political solutions to world problems. The first major effort of this type occurred in the Kosovo/Serbia conflict, in which the U.S. government threw its weight behind the establishment of a Kosovo state and a change in regime in Serbia. This was followed by other such efforts – in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban, in Iraq in 2003 to change regime in Baghdad, in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, and in 2013-2014 to support so-called pro-Western forces in Ukraine.

In point of fact, using NATO itself turned out to be difficult for the U.S. For one thing, there were various kinds of reluctances of NATO member states about the actions undertaken. For another thing, when NATO was formally involved, as in Kosovo, the U.S. military felt constrained by the slow political decision-making about military action.

So, why then the expansion of NATO instead of its dissolution? This had once again to do with intra-European politics, and the desire of the U.S. to control its presumed allies. It was in the Bush regime that the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked of an “old” and a “new” Europe. By old Europe, he was referring especially to the French and German reluctance to agree with U.S. strategies. He saw the western European countries as moving away from their ties to the United States. His perception was in fact correct. In response, the U.S. hoped to clip the wings of the western Europeans by introducing eastern European states into NATO, which the U.S. considered more reliable allies.

The conflict over Ukraine illuminates the danger of NATO. The U.S. has sought to create new military structures, obviously aimed at Russia, under the guise that these were meant to counter a hypothetical Iranian threat. As the Ukrainian conflict played on, the language of the cold war was revived. The U.S. uses NATO to press western European countries to agree with anti-Russian actions. And within the U.S., President Barack Obama is under heavy pressure to move “forcefully” against the Russian so-called threat to the Ukraine. This combines with the large hostility in the U.S. Congress to any accord with the Iranians over nuclear development.

The forces in the United States and in western Europe who are seeking to avoid military folly risk being overtaken by what can only be called a war party. NATO and what it symbolizes today represents a severe danger because it represents the claim of western countries to interfere everywhere in the name of western interpretations of geopolitical realities. This can only lead to further, highly dangerous, conflict. Renouncing NATO as a structure would be a first step towards sanity and the world’s survival.

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Left Victory in Brazil: World Consequences Sat, 01 Nov 2014 04:00:35 +0000 On Oct. 26, Pres. Dilma Rousseff of Brazil of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT) won re-election in the second round of voting by a narrow margin against Aécio Neves of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democratic Party, PSDB). Despite the name of the PSDB, this was a clear left-right struggle, in which voters generally voted their class position, even though the programs of the two parties were on many fronts more centrist than left or right.

To understand what this means, we must analyze the somewhat special politics of Brazil. Brazil’s politics are in many ways closer to those of western Europe and North America than almost any other country in the global South. Like countries in the global North, the electoral struggles in the end come down to a struggle between a left-of-center and a right-of-center party. Elections are regular and the voters tend to vote their class interests despite the centrist policies of the two main parties, who usually rotate in power. The result is constant dissatisfaction by the voters with “their” party, and constant attempts by the real left and the real right to push policies in their direction.

How these left and right groups pursue their efforts depends a little on the formal structure of elections. Many countries have a de facto two-round system. This permits the left and the right to run their own candidates in the first round and then rejoin the main party vote in the second round. The major exception to this two-round system is the United States, which forces left and right forces to enter into the main parties and struggle from within.

Brazil has one exceptional feature. While in all these countries politicians change parties from time to time, in most countries this is a tiny group. In Brazil, such party-switching is virtually an everyday occurrence in the national legislature, where neither main party normally has more than a small plurality of votes. This forces the main parties to spend enormous energy on constantly reconstructing alliances, and accounts for somewhat more visible corruption, although probably no greater actual corruption than elsewhere.

In this election, the PT was suffering from the growing disillusionment of its voters. A third-party candidate, Marina Silva, tried to offer a via media. She was known for three qualities: as environmentalist, evangelical, and a non-White of very poor origins. At first she seemed to take off. But as she began to propose a very neoliberal program, her popularity collapsed and voters turned back to Neves, a more traditional rightist.

The disillusionments with the PT centered around its failure to break structurally with economic orthodoxy, plus a failure to carry out its promises concerning agrarian reform, environmental concerns, and the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples. It also repressed popular demonstrations of left movements, most notably in June 2013. Despite this, the social movements of the left joined forces, and very strongly, with the PT in the second round.

Why? Because of the strong positives of the 12 years of PT government. First of all, there was the greatly expanded Bolsa familial, which paid a monthly allowance to the poorest fourth of Brazil’s population and significantly improved their daily life. Secondly, and scarcely mentioned in the western press, there was Brazil’s highly successful foreign policy – its major role in the construction of South American and Latin American institutions that held at bay the power of the United States in the region. The left was sure that Neves would reduce the social welfare thrust of the PT and ally Brazil once again globally with the United States. The Brazilian left voted for these two positives despite all the negatives.

That same weekend, there were three other major elections – Uruguay, Ukraine, and Tunisia. The election in Uruguay was rather similar to Brazil’s. It was the first round of the presidential elections. The governing party since 2004 had been the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and its candidate was Tabaré Vázquez. The Frente Amplio was truly broad – from center-left to Communists and ex-guerillas. Vázquez faced a classically right candidate, Luis Lacalle Pou of the Partido Nacional, but also a candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, of one of two parties – Partido Colorado (Red Party) – that had ruled Uruguay repressively for over a half-century.

On the first round, Vázquez got 46.5% of the vote over circa 31% for Lacalle, not enough to avoid a second round. Bordaberry, with about 13%, has now thrown his support to Lacalle, but it seems likely that Vázquez will win, and more or less for the same reasons as Rousseff has won. In addition, unlike Brazil, his party will control the legislature. So, Uruguay too will reaffirm the effort to build an autonomous geopolitical structure in Latin America.

Ukraine was totally different. Far from being constructed around a left-right class struggle with two centrist parties trying to secure votes, Ukraine’s politics are now constructed around a regional ethno-linguistic divide. In these elections, the west-oriented government held elections in which the dice were loaded in favor of excluding any real role for the so-called separatist movements in eastern Ukraine. The latter therefore boycotted the elections and announced they would hold their own for regional offices. In the Kiev-ordained elections, it seems that those who now govern – President Petro Poroshenko in alliance with his rival, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of another party – will maintain themselves in tandem in power, excluding the truly ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) party from any role.

Finally, Tunisia is also quite different. Tunisia has been seen as the launcher of the so-called Arab Spring, and today seems to be its only survivor. Ennahda, the Islamic party that won the first elections, lost considerable strength by pursuing a too rapid program of Islamization of Tunisian politics. It was forced some months ago to yield place to a technocratic interim government, and lost large number of votes (even of Islamists) in this second election.

The winner was Nadaa Tunis (Tunisia’s Call). Its politics are in one sense clear. It is a secular party. Its leader is a venerable 88-year-old politician, Beji Caid Essebsi, who served in the so-called Destourian governments that had led the country after independence until he became a major dissident. His problem is to hold together a very split coalition of many secularist forces – primarily both the young people who led the uprising against President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and various leading members of that very government who have now re-entered the political arena.

In any case, though Nadaa Tunis had a plurality of 85 seats out of 217 and Ennahda reduced to 69, the others are scattered among several smaller parties. There will have to be a coalition government, possibly even an all-party coalition. So, while the Tunisian young revolutionaries of 2011 are celebrating their victory against Ennahda, no one is sure where this will lead.

I say, hurrah for Brazil, where the most important of these four elections was held. But there as elsewhere, the game is not over. Not at all!

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