The Islamic State group's expanding influence, the lack of progress in Middle East peace talks and the increase in ethnic and religious conflicts are just some of the signs of greater confusion in the world today.
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, was asked what is needed to create a new world order to help deal with these regional issues as well as global issues, such as climate change and nuclear weapons.
Falk was involved as a peace activist and expert witness in Congress during the Vietnam War and in human rights issues concerning Palestinians.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
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Question: How do you assess the view that the diplomatic influence of the United States has been declining in recent years?
Falk: There are several factors. The first factor is that the change in the domestic political situation within the United States has put foreign policy under a great deal of what I would call "irrational pressure." American policy in the Middle East has been especially distorted by its need to satisfy the Israeli lobby.
There were many mistakes made by the United States, Iraq being the most spectacular. Not only the initiation of a war against Iraq, but a very misguided occupation policy definitely encouraged the rise of sectarianism.
This helped to create the conditions for the emergence of (the Islamic State) by purging the Sunni officer corps of the Iraqi armed forces.
The United States has spent billions on training the armed forces of Iraq. (The Islamic State) arrives on the scene with no particular big-power backing, yet seems to be a very effective force on the ground because they have the political will to engage effectively in military combat.
Q: About a year ago, the Islamic State issued a declaration calling for the establishment of a caliphate state and for people to follow the strict form of Islamic law, or Shariah. How do you view such measures designed to change the present order?
A: Saudi Arabia also is a practitioner of a very harsh form of Shariah. There are no high-profile international complaints when they routinely behead criminals and others that they accused of a crime.
There exist a range of governing processes that are not altogether consistent with Western, liberal values. Self-determination implies different societies can choose different political systems.
The most severe problem associated with (the Islamic State) is that it has definitely engaged in genocidal conduct, and that is intolerable.
Q: But isn't the United States trying to put down the Islamic State through force?
A: I feel that one of the problems with American foreign policy is that it has great difficulty thinking outside the "military box."
The political sensibility has become over the years of World War II, the Cold War and now the war on terror unduly dominated by hard-power capabilities and solutions.
The record of deploying hard power is very poor since World War II. I think Vietnam was the clearest case where the United States had complete military dominance and yet lost the war. There is a need to couple a military approach with a continuous exploration of possibilities for a diplomatic solution.
Q: Wasn't the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan also a mistake?
A: The Afghans have an interesting slogan—"You have the watches and we have the time."
The intervening side makes a cost-benefit calculation, but the target society has its own destiny that is at stake, so it is more patient. It is far more reluctant to surrender, and Third World movements have learned if they are patient, they are likely to prevail even if militarily inferior.
From my conversations with leaders in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, they had a 50-year plan of resistance.
Q: Are you saying the United States should try to seek out non-military solutions?
A: Although it seems difficult to explore diplomatic possibilities, a military approach to a problem is more likely to create more recruits for the terrorist adversary than it is to end the challenge.
I heard (former British Prime Minister) John Major talk about his efforts to find a peaceful solution in Northern Ireland, and he said that he only began to make progress when he saw the (Irish Republican Army) not as a terrorist organization, but as a political actor.
I am not saying that this would necessarily happen with (the Islamic State).
Now, (the United States and Afghanistan are) trying to negotiate with the Taliban.
Q: Could you explain your definition of terrorism?
A: It is used so instrumentally by the geopolitical forces. I think a clearer understanding of political conflict arises by not using the terminology of "terrorism." If it is used, I believe it should be used to encompass both movements like (the Islamic State), but also governments.
The essence of terrorism is deliberate political violence against those who are innocent civilians. State terrorism is in my way of thinking more destructive of people than is the terrorism of the anti-state movements.
Hamas won the election in 2006 (in Palestine), but it has been in Israel's interest to keep them in this "terrorist box," and the United States has endorsed that approach.
Q: You served as special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights for the United Nations. Do you see any progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state?
A: Israel has created conditions that make it very hard to imagine how to create a Palestinian state. In that sense, I don't have the political imagination to understand how a two-state solution (for Israel and Palestine) could emerge given present realities on the ground. People have talked about confederations and a secular one-state solution. But these solutions do not seem to be on the political horizon.
I am not smart enough to be pessimistic, but I'm not smart enough to be optimistic either, so I don't know what will unfold in the future, but it is likely to be something that we don't anticipate at the moment.
There has been a new tactical emphasis on the Palestinian side. A combination of Palestinian soft-power initiatives coupled with a growing solidarity gives Europe, and maybe Japan, an opportunity to play a more independent role.
There has been the recognition of Palestine as a state against the will of the United States and Israel, by the United Nations, Sweden and Pope Francis.
Q: How should we understand your criticism of Israel even though you are a Jewish-American?
A: I give priority to species identity rather than subspecies identity. My Jewish identity is a subspecies identity, but my human identity is species identity. Many of the problems of the world come out of giving too much weight to subspecies identity, whether it is nationality or ethnicity or religion or civilization. The world has become too interdependent in this era of globalization for the subspecies entities to retain their dominance, but the pressure against it makes it stronger.
It is both a consciousness problem and a structural problem. The world is organized into territorial sovereign states and so are organizations like the United Nations or the World Bank.
We will have a very self-defeating future for humanity if we continue on this path of modernity that comes from the Westphalian peace treaties of the 17th century based on the idea of the nation-state as the only full-fledged political actor on a global stage.
In the pre-Westphalian Europe, there was a kind of a normative unity that was provided by the Catholic Church, and so you had a Christian community. It was a non-territorial community similar to the Islamic "ummah" (community).
The idea of the nation-state served the international consciousness of avoiding religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. That was a rational solution in the 17th century, but it is not a rational solution in the 21st century.
Q: Do you believe the nation-state is incapable of dealing with the global issues of today?
A: In connection with climate change negotiations, governments correctly feel that their primary responsibility is to pursue their national interests. In a situation like this, you can't achieve an agreement that is good for everyone. Nuclear weapons and climate change are problems that are not solvable merely by cooperation among states.
You need some mechanism to protect global interests or the human interest, and the United Nations is too weak to do that. If one wants it to serve the interests of humanity, world order needs to either be reformed or transformed in such a way as to allow the global interests to be protected.
There are really two sets of issues, one is containing the geopolitical actors within an agreed legal framework, and the other is overcoming the primacy of national interests.
Q: Has a vision emerged of a new world order?
A: (The pope) more than any other global figure seems to go beyond his subspecies identity and seems to be speaking a universal language. I think religion has the potentiality of contributing to this sentiment of being part of the human family.
My own political imagination doesn't depend on "waiting for the Messiah."
Changes in political consciousness are somewhat mysterious. They come from underneath the surface, and so they are very hard to anticipate, like earthquakes. There is a situation that may give rise to something completely different, but you don't know quite how it emerges.
Tolstoy, at the end of "War and Peace," writes an epilogue in which he asks: Why do historians always get history wrong? He says: "Though the surface of the sea of history seemed motionless, the movement of humanity went on as unceasingly as the flow of time. ... . The sea of history was not driven spasmodically from shore to shore as previously. It was seething in its depths."