[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]dams: Good morning Thomas. What is your ghost up to, strolling through the streets of Washington DC so early in the morning?
Jefferson: Good morning to you too John. I surmise my reason is the same as yours: I’ve been unable to rest in my grave. A grave is supposed to be one’s final resting place, but these days I’ve been tossing and turning at the mere thought of what is happening in our beloved country. So I decided to take a walk and see what our ordinary fellow citizens are up to some 230 years after I wrote the Declaration of Independence. It’s a good thing that we are invisible and nobody can see us.
A: quite right Thomas, quite right. I have been in the grave just as long as you have been. Remember that we died the same day on the 4th of July 1826, and I don’t think it was a mere coincidence. In any case, it’s more reassuring to stroll through Washington and simply see ordinary people going about their business unconcerned with all the Byzantine political machinations taking place in the halls of government. To look at them, you’d think that all is well with the world and nothing extraordinary is going on.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day on the 4th of July 1826
J: Ah, ignorance is bliss! But I suppose that had one taken a stroll through the streets of Philadelphia any day or hour of the week during the revolutionary times, things wouldn’t have appeared that much different. Surely you remember.
A: Indeed. But that “business as usual” atmosphere was quite deceptive even then. I remember only too well the words of Benjamin Franklyn reverberating in my head as I walked in the Philadelphia streets at the time: “either we hang together or we shall surely hang separately.”
J: Indeed, that was an urgent and wise warning to all of us revolutionaries. To rock the boat is to run the risk of being branded a subversive and a traitor fit for hanging.
A: no doubt about it. Had we lost the war of independence, we the signers of the Declaration of Independence would all have been hung together; every last one of us. All those ideals we spelled out in the Declaration of Independence would not have been very useful to any of us. Power would have trumped liberty, pun intended.
J. Yet, as you know John, today in America we have the spectacle of people in national security departments of the government who think nothing of conducting secret deals and negotiations with foreign powers, even acting as secret agents of the same, out to dismantle the whole security apparatus built over many years, not to speak of the Constitution. Some make no secret of wishing to “deconstruct” what they now dub Deep State. One such advisor is inside the White House, almost as a Trojan horse, and his name is Steve Bonner.
A. What did the Roman senator and orator Cicero say? “O tempora, o mores.” I suppose that is what you had in mind when you counseled that “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” and that as Plato warned democracy built on ignorance is a pseudo-democracy.
J. Indeed, John, one cannot take liberty for granted just because we, the founding fathers, wrote its principles in a document called the US Constitution. Democracy demands education and eternal vigilance from all its participants. A democracy based on ignorance and apathy ignorant of its noble identity, is like a house built on sand.
A. How true. And history confirms it. As you know, I conducted a study of the history of republics throughout human history, and was somewhat surprised to discover that most republics died after an average span of approximately 300 years. That sounds rather natural, most human phenomena are born, grow and eventually die. What I found surprising and somewhat disconcerting, however, was that most of them did not die of natural causes, so to speak, or by external invasion by their enemies, but by self-inflicted suicide. The most common cause for the eventual termination was public corruption.
J. But the ancient Roman Republic lasted much longer than 3 short centuries. Can we not hope that the American republic will go beyond 300 years?
A. I wish I could answer yes but unfortunately, even Rome did not go on for very much longer after its imperial corruption culminating with the installment of the likes of Caligula and Nero.
J. Could you please elaborate on this point?
A. What happened with Rome, is that it held on to power and control but in effect the republican spirit had all but died by the time one gets to Caligula. That is to say, Rome was no longer a republic of virtue. It was on its way to becoming a swamp of corruption which would defeat it internally. It was not the barbarians that overrun the Empire; it was the Empire that forgot its foundations and traditions.
J. And how did the ancient Greeks and Romans understand virtue?
A. As you well know, Plato in the Republic, and Aristotle in his political and ethical tracts outline which virtues are necessary to govern a city. In the first place there is prudence and wisdom with concern for the common good as distinct from individual egoistic self-interest, there is also harmony among the various factions and branches of government, there is honesty, enterprise, free speech, the sincere belief and search for truth. There is democracy; there is the rule of law but also the rule of reason, compromise, tolerance; there is respect for the rights of others, for civil rights, human rights coupled with an intuition that all of these derive from the very nature of what it means to be fully human. There is the persuasion that unalienable rights are not granted by a powerful state but by the Creator and are integral part of human nature. They cannot be given and they cannot be taken away. This is the great mistake we made at the outset of our republic: we proclaimed unalienable right on paper but forgot to practice them when it came to the slaves who were also fellow human beings.
J. So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that there is a strict correlation between the loss of those virtues you just enumerated and the eventual demise of any polity that conceives itself as democratic or republican?
A. Precisely Thomas. That’s why I coined the expression “Republic of virtue.” A republic of virtue has a better chance of surviving and going on for a while, albeit all of them came to an end eventually. Some of them went on for many years, even centuries, but it was only a semblance of democracy.
J. I concur. If one loses the very identity of being a republic or a democracy, one has for all intent and purpose ceased to be one. Not to be a republic of virtue is to be something else while continuing to delude oneself that one remains a democracy. That’s why I counseled “eternal vigilance as the price of freedom.” Not to be republic of virtue and of ideals, that is to say a perfectible political entity, is to become a tyranny or an oligarchy catering to special interests. It is to have as one’s core value the worship of power. And we have seen what absolute power does to individuals and nations.
A. Quite right, Thomas. Then voting and public debates become a charade. Voting is not the essence of democracy per se; it is merely a sign. The essence resides in truth and liberty. Once those are lost you have a floundering republic. A floundering republic is one where the principle of perfectibility (“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union” begins the US constitution) has been abandoned and that of the path of least resistance and greatest advantage has been instituted.
J. And what would you say, is the most glaring sign nowadays that the present American Republic (which we and other founding fathers started as a noble experiment some 230 years ago), is a floundering social experiment which doesn’t allow us to rest in peace in our tombs?
A. The most glaring sign, I dare aver, is the fact that many citizens no longer possess a great deal of respect for what the Greeks called the transcendentals: True, the Good, and the Beautiful. We seem to have gone back to the cynical question of Pilate: “What is truth?” Some talk of an Orwellian Deep State controlling everything which needs to be dismantled, or, as they put it “deconstructed.”
J. You seem to be saying that the centrifugal process of political disintegration is already an ongoing one in our country, just as there was one just before the Civil War that almost broke our country apart.
A. Yes, it is going on as we speak. All you have to do is look around. Cooperation and solidarity is the exception, fierce competition and survival of the fittest, a la Ayn Rand, seems to be the norm. There is a general disdain for institutions that have served us well for over two centuries. The conspiratorial counselor in the White House calls it “deconstructing the Deep State.”
J. No doubt, our country is in deep trouble. And we have not even broached the subject of our present presidential descendant, Mr. Donald Trump. He seems to be the elephant in the room here.
A. Indeed, Thomas. But we have proceeded correctly by first examining the theoretical implications of democracy and republicanism, before dealing with particular individual charges that may appear biased and unilateral to those who have voted for and support Mr. Trump.
J. I suppose we now need to address the principal cause for our turning and tossing in our graves lately. Let’s therefore talk about Mr. Trump.
A. Consider this: how do you think I would have felt had I, the second president of the US, been accused by you, the third president of the US, of subversive and traitorous acts toward you while you were the president elect? Let’s say, of spying on you, with secret traitorous letters, given that there were no telephones at the time. We had our differences, God knows, especially on the issue of slavery, and sometimes they hurt our friendship, but they never induced us to go beyond the threshold of honor and civic duty to our country.
J. True, John, our mutual love for our country always managed to restrain us from descending to such a low level as slander and false accusations. But today honor and genuine patriotism has become a sham, not to speak of respect for the objectivity of truth. What seems to be all important is self-interest, narcissism and what is convenient and useful at the moment, never mind Truth, Goodness and Beauty.
A. I keep hearing the slogans “the era of post-truth” and “making America great again.” But it stands to reason that without truth, justice and fairness also become a chimera. The Greeks taught us as much.
J. I think we have arrived at the crux of the issue, John. It has to do with the issue of truth. What we may have sitting in the same place we used to sit in in the White House is a veritable embarrassment. We were not perfect men, far from it. Like most men, we were flawed, and historian has created for us the myth of men who never told a lie, but we never put in doubt the very concept of truth. We never denied that it had rained when the road was still wet, or that a crowd was there when it was not there, or that people had protested by the thousand in N.J. when the tween towers came down, or that unemployment statistics were fake when one’s predecessor was in office but true when one was in office, etc. etc. etc.
A. Indeed, the inability to distinguish truth from falsehood is a sure sign of psychological derangement, never mind metaphysics. What is most troubling of all, is that almost half of the country actually ignored the issue and elected the man to the presidency, which says something about the present collective psychological status of our country. As in the Andersen tale, few dare proclaim, like the little boy in the tale, that the emperor goes around without clothes.
J. Which also says that my warning has not been heeded. As I walk throughout the country, I get the feeling that there isn’t much of a “republic of virtue” to be discovered; that a great purging via some social catastrophe may soon ensue. That perhaps it will lethally be brought about by the deconstruction of a Bannon. That perhaps at this crucial point the burden to save the republic will fall on the shoulders of a few heroes who understand the real peril of the crisis. In 1861 that purging, or perhaps divine retribution as one may wish to interpret it, came via the civil war and a hero like president Lincoln almost failed in his mission. But I ask, what are the lesson that should have been learned? Has anything been learned? Or shall events follow their inexorable course toward extinction?
A. I am afraid I cannot offer a positive answer Thomas. I see the same resurgent centrifugal forces at work now that were in place then. Let’s hope we are both wrong in this regard, but the omens do not look very good, and unfortunately my study of republics and their demise confirms it.
J. Well, it was good to see you again and chat for a while, as of old, John. We can now return to our respective tombs. History will soon render a verdict on the present dire situation. Perhaps then we can meet again under the capitol and resume our conversation.
A. I am already looking forward to it, Thomas. Perhaps we can involve a few more former presidents who must also be turning and tossing in their graves, not to speak of those who are still alive and are incredulous at what they are witnessing.
J. By all means. Be well, and God bless America.
Note: this article has appeared already as part of the Symposium Section of Ovi magazine of March 15, 2017.
Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit
Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.
A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.
I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.
The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.
But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.
Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.
Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.
Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.
For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.
This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.
Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.
Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?
Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.
The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.
Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.
Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.
First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.
Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.
Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.
These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.
First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.
In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.
Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.
Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.
Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.
Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.
From our partner RIAC
“Choose sides” is practically a bogus idea for US military partners
“Choosing sides” is practically a non-starter for US military allies such as Japan and South Korea. These nations, first and foremost military allies of the US, are forging cordial and productive ties with other countries based on military alliances with the US. The nature and level of partnerships varies greatly from those of allies, despite the fact that they appear to be quite heated at times.
Military concerns have been less important in the postwar period, but economic concerns have been extremely heated, social and cultural interactions have been close, and the qualitative differences between cooperative relations and allies have gotten confused, or have been covered and neglected.
Some unreasonable expectations and even mistakes were made. In general, in the game between the rising power and the hegemony, it is undesirable for the rising power to take the initiative and urge the hegemony’s supporters to select a side. Doing so will merely reinforce these countries’ preference for hegemony.
Not only that, but a developing country must contend with not only a dominant hegemony, but also a system of allies governed by the hegemony. In the event of a relative reduction in the power of the hegemony, the strength of the entire alliance system may be reinforced by removing restraints on allies, boosting allies’ capabilities, and allowing allies’ passion and initiative to shine.
Similarly, the allies of the hegemonic power are likely to be quite eager to improve their own strength and exert greater strength for the alliance, without necessarily responding to, much alone being pushed by, the leader. The “opening of a new chapter in the Korean-US partnership” was a key component of the joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States following the meeting of Moon Jae-in and Biden. What “new chapter” may a military alliance have in a situation of non-war?
There are at least three features that can be drawn from the series of encounters between South Korea and the United States during Moon Jae-visit in’s to the United States: First, the withdrawal of the “Korea-US Missile Guide” will place military constraints on South Korea’s missile development and serve as a deterrence to surrounding nations. The second point is that, in addition to the Korean Peninsula, military cooperation between the US and South Korea should be expanded to the regional level in order to respond to regional hotspots. The third point is that, in addition to military alliances, certain elements in vaccinations, chips, 5G, and even 6G are required. These types of coalitions will help to enhance economic cooperation.
Despite the fact that Vice President Harris wiped her hands after shaking hands with Moon Jae-in, and Biden called Moon Jae-in “Prime Minister” and other rude behaviors, the so-called “flaws” are not hidden, South Korea still believes that the visit’s results have exceeded expectations, and that Moon Jae-in’s approval rate will rise significantly as a result.
The joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States addresses delicate subjects such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Of course, China expresses its outrage. It is widely assumed that this is a “private cargo” delivered by Biden’s invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit the United States.
Moon Jae-in stated that he was not pressured by Biden. If this is correct, one option is that such specific concerns will not be handled at all at the summit level; second, South Korea is truly worried about the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns and wishes to speak with the US jointly.
South Korea should be cognizant of China’s sensitivity to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns. When it comes to China-related concerns, the phrasing in the ROK-US joint statement is far more mild than that in the ROK-Japan joint declaration. Nonetheless, the harm done to South Korea-China ties cannot be overlooked.
South Korea highlights the “openness” and “inclusiveness” of the four-party security dialogue system, which allows South Korea to engage to some extent. South Korea will assess the net gain between the “gain” on the US side and the “loss” on the Chinese side. China would strongly protest and fiercely respond to any country’s measures to intervene in China’s domestic affairs and restrict China’s rise.
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