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U.S.-North Korea Nuclear War: Assessing Plausible Risks

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“Military strategy, whether we like it or not, has become the diplomacy of violence.”-Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and  Influence (1966)

US President Donald Trump says he doesn’t know if North Korea is building additional nuclear weapons, but he adds: “We’ll see, I hope not.” This is hardly a logical, thoughtful or prudential stance, especially because time in such military-diplomacy matters is always of urgent importance. While Mr. Trump continues to believe that the North Korean dictator is most apt to be motivated by American promises of enhanced economic assistance, this incentive is a distinctly secondary one.

In Pyongyang, for Kim Jung Un, it pales beside the more viscerally felt  benefits of  compelling personal power.

Accordingly, to best serve US national security interests rather than his own purely personal preferences, Trump must begin to change his North Korea strategy. In particular, this means a strategy that is more expressly analytic and history-based. Still more precisely, he should begin to think more systematically and realistically along the lines of achieving long-term nuclear deterrence with North Korea.[1]

 Such thinking is needed even with an adversary so openly “beloved.” There are, after all, no conceivable circumstances wherein it could make sense for North Korea to surrender any portion of its nuclear weapons or of its corresponding strategic ambitions. These  reassuringly tangible assets remain that Asian country’s most conspicuous foundation of global influence and power.

There is more. During any still-upcoming negotiations, Trump must take scrupulous care not to exaggerate or overstate America’s military risk-taking calculus. Any such recommended diplomatic caution would derive in large measure from the absence of comparable crises. In  essence, because there has never been a nuclear war,[2] there could be no reliable way for this president (or anyone else) to ascertain the mathematical probability of a US-North Korea nuclear conflict.

None at all.

For Donald Trump, who is routinely accustomed to making unwarranted extrapolations from commercial real estate bargaining to high-stakes nuclear diplomacy, this observation could seem overly stark. But it is nonetheless true, and truth is always incontestable and “exculpatory.” Specifically, in any truly scientific assessment, meaningful probabilities must be drawn from one quantifiable calculus only; that is the determinable frequency of pertinent past events.

This does not mean that Trump’s senior strategists and counselors should consciously steer away from clear-eyed assessments regarding nuclear costs and risks, but only that such assessments must inevitably be drawn from constantly shifting and hard to decipher geopolitical trends.

And certain attendant problems are even more complicated. For one, world security processes must be approached as a totality; that is, as a more-or-less coherent system. What is happening now in such far-flung places as India-Kashmir, China, Russia, Iran and perhaps even Hong Kong could have significant “spillover effects” somewhere in the northeast Asian theatre. Rather than ignore such complex effects altogether –  largely because they would appear too intellectually demanding – this American president will have to accord them a more appropriate position of policy-making primacy.

Mr. Trump’s utterly disjointed statements about “love letters” with Kim Jung Un notwithstanding, the military threats from an already- nuclear North Korea remain genuine, substantive and fully “robust.”

There is more. President Trump needs to bear in mind that many or all of northeast Asia’s continuously transforming developments will be impacted by “Cold War II,”[3] an oppositional stance with Russia and (more or less derivatively) China. Similarly important will be this US leader’s willingness to acknowledge and factor-in certain consequential limits of “expert” military advice. These generally unseen limits are based not upon any presumed intellectual inadequacies of America’s generals, but rather on the knowledge that no person has fought in a nuclear war.

This bit of knowledge is indisputable.

By definition – and going forward with all inherently time-urgent considerations of US – North Korea policy formation – relevant US strategic calculations will be fraught with variously daunting uncertainties. Still, it will be necessary that Donald Trump and his counselors remain able to offer best determinable war-related estimations. Among prospectively causal factors – some of them overlapping, interdependent or even “synergistic”[4] – the presumptive risks of a nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang will depend upon whether such a conflict would be intentional, unintentional or accidental.

 In principle, at least, this tripartite distinction could prove vitally important to any hoped for success in US nuclear war prediction and prevention processes.

 In facing future North Korean negotiations, it will be necessary that competent US policy analysts systematically examine and measure all foreseeableconfigurations of pertinent nuclear risk. Expressed in the game-theoretic parlance of formal military planning, these shifting configurations could present themselves singly or one-at-a-time (the expectedly best case for Washington), but they might also arise suddenly, unexpectedly, with apparent “diffusiveness” or in multiple and overlapping “cascades” of strategic complexity.

What is to be done? To properly understand such bewildering cascades will require carefully-honed, well-developed and formidable analytic skills. This will likely not be a suitable task for the presidential political appointee or the otherwise intellectually faint-hearted. On the contrary, it will require sharply refined combinations of historical acquaintance, traditional erudition and a demonstrated capacity for advanced dialectical thinking.

There is more. This challenging task will require American strategic thinkers who are as comfortable with classical prescriptions of Plato and Descartes as with the more narrowly technical elements of modern military theory and military hardware.

It is conceivable that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is currently paying sufficient attention to the specific and residual risks of an unintentional nuclear war. To this point in their prospectively ongoing summitry, each president would seem to assume the other’s complete decisional rationality. If, after all, there were no such mutual assumption, it could make no determinable sense for either side to negotiate any further security accommodations with the other.

None at all.

Viable nuclear deterrence (not denuclearization) must become the overriding US strategic goal with North Korea. But this complex objective is contingent upon certain basic assumptions concerning enemy rationality. Are such assumptions realistically valid in the particular case of a potential war between two already-nuclear powers? If President Donald Trump, despite “falling in love” with Kim Jung-Un, should sometime begin to fear enemy irrationalityin Pyongyang, issuing new threats of US retaliation might make diminishing diplomatic sense.

At that unprecedented stage, American national security could come to depend upon some residually optimal combinations of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes. Again by definition, determining such bewildering combinations would necessarily lack any decisional input or counsel from concrete and/or quantifiable historical data.

In the conceivably worst case, the offensive military element could entail a situational or comprehensive preemption – a defensive first strike – but at that manifestly late stage all previous hopes for bilateral reconciliation would already have become moot. There could then obtain no “ordinary” circumstances wherein a preemptive strike against a nuclear adversary such as North Korea would still be rational.

None of these difficult strategic decisions could be reached casually or easily. With the steadily expanding development of “hypersonic” nuclear weapons, figuring out optimal US policy combinations from one crisis to another could very quickly become overwhelming. Also, though counterintuitive amid such complications, the evident fact that one “player” (the US) is recognizably “more powerful” than the other (North Korea) could quickly prove irrelevant.

 In all such foreseeable circumstances, there would be certain overlapping issues of law and strategy. Under international law, which remains an integral part of US law,[5] the option of a selective or comprehensive defensive first-strike might sometime be correctly characterized as “anticipatory self-defense.” But this would be the case only if the American side could argue coherently and persuasively that the “danger posed” by North Korea was “imminent in point of time.”

 Such discernible “imminence” is specifically required by the authoritative standards of international law; that is, by the formal criteria established after an 1837 naval incident famously called “The Caroline.”[6]

Now, moreover, in the nuclear age, offering aptly precise characterizations of “imminence” could prove sorely abstract and densely problematic.

For the moment, it seems reasonable that Kim Jung Un would value his own personal life and that of his nation above literally every other imaginable preference or combination of preferences. In any corresponding scenario, Kim is visibly and technically rational, and must remain subject to US nuclear deterrence.[7] Nonetheless, it could still become important for a negotiating American president to distinguish between authentic instances of enemy irrationality and pretended irrationality.[8]

Is US President Donald Trump – a self-declared “very stable genius” – actually up to such a challenging task?

This is not a silly question.

In the past, Trump has praised pretended irrationality as a potentially useful US national security strategy. Apropos of this revealing praise, his earlier “fire and fury” warnings (issued before he “fell in love” with Kim Jung Un) might have reflected a prospective “rationality of pretended irrationality” posture for the United States. Ultimately, such a posture could be adopted by either one or both sides.

This particular prospect adds yet another layer of complexity to the subject at hand, one that could sometime include certain force-multiplying synergies. These would be interactive outcomes where the “whole” was effectively greater than the mere sum of its apparent “parts.”

Although neither side would likely seek a shooting war, either or both heads of state could still commit assorted errors in the course of their strategic calculations. Such potentially grievous errors would represent an unintended consequence of jointly competitive searches for “escalation dominance.” Arguably, these errors are more apt to occur in those particular circumstances where one or both presidents had first chosen to reignite hyperbolic verbal rhetoric.

Even when the two leaders are reportedly “in love.”

Portentously, even in reassuringly calm periods of polite and congenial diplomatic discourse, major miscalculations, accidents or “cyber-confusions” could rapidly accumulate. 

What then?

In certain expectedly worst case scenarios, negotiations gone wrong could result in a nuclear war.[9]

 There is more. An inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang could take place not only as the result of various misunderstandings or miscalculations between rational national leaders, but also as the unintended consequence (singly or synergistically) of mechanical, electrical, computer malfunctions, or of certain “hacking”-type interventions. Going forward, these interventions could include the clandestine intrusions of “cyber-mercenaries.”

In any still-impending crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, each side will strive to maximize two critical goals simultaneously. These goals are (1) to dominate the dynamic and largely unpredictable process of nuclear crisis escalation; and (2) to achieve desired “escalation dominance” without sacrificing any vital national security obligations. In the final analysis, this second objective means preventing one’s own state and society from ever suffering any catastrophic or existential harms.

This brings up a prior point concerning all obligatory assessments of relative military power. When President Trump, in an earlier verbal competition with Kim Jung Un, stated that the North Korean president may have his own nuclear “button,” but that his American “button” was impressively “bigger,” the US leader revealed a major military misunderstanding. It is that today, in the still advancing nuclear age, atomic superiority is potentially per se insignificant and could sometime lead the presumptively stronger nuclear adversary toward lethal expressions of overconfidence.

As Donald Trump should now more fully understand, even an enemy with a smaller “nuclear button” could inflict unimaginably grave harms upon the “stronger” United States and/or its close allies in Japan, South Korea or elsewhere. It follows that to take comfort from the fact that North Korea has been testing “only” shorter-range ballistic missiles is to miss the point. Entirely.

 North Korea’s 2017 nuclear test had a yield 16X larger than the Hiroshima bomb. That 14KT WW II bomb produced almost 100,000 immediate fatalities.

Such vital understanding about nuclear “button size” must obtain as long as Kim Jung Un’s “inferior” nuclear arms are seemingly invulnerable to any American preemptions and also seemingly capable of penetrating ballistic missile defenses deployed in the United States, Japan or South Korea. Because of the extraordinary harms generated by even low-yield nuclear weapons, a small percentage or tiny fraction of Kim’s “inferior” nuclear arsenal could and should appear unacceptably destructive in Washington, Tokyo or Seoul. Worth noting, too, is that in all of these critical dimensions of strategic judgment, the only reality that would figure in ongoing adversarial calculations would be perceived reality.

The bottom line of all such informed assessments concerning a still-possible US – North Korea nuclear war is that the underlying issues of contention and calculation are enormously complicated. Faced with such staggering measures of complexity, both operational and legal, each side must proceed warily, in a fashion that is both purposeful and risk-averse. Although such prudent counsel may first seem to run counter to assorted inter-linking obligations of achieving “escalation dominance,” any still-upcoming Trump-Kim negotiations would involve very deep and uncharted “waters.”

Looking ahead, aggressive over-confidence by President Trump or President Kim will have to be avoided. Although everything at an upcoming summit could at first appear simple and calculable, history strongly supports Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s oft-cited observations about “friction.” This quality represents “the difference between war on paper, and war as it actually is.”

In certain cases, this crucial difference could amount to total war.

To avoid any such intolerable outcome between the United States and North Korea, a necessary “diplomacy of violence” must be practiced less with clichés and empty witticisms than with intellect and cultivated erudition. Much earlier, the ancient Greeks and Macedonians had already understood that war planning must be a disciplined matter of “mind over mind,” rather than just “mind over matter.”[10] Today, in more specific regard to US-North Korea nuclear negotiations and rivalry, a similar understanding should obtain immediately in Washington.

Far better for the United States to suitably cultivate the “diplomacy of violence” than to stumble into a nuclear war with North Korea.


[1] One should be reminded of a warning speech by Pericles (432 BCE), as noted by Thucydides: “What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies, is our own mistakes.” See: Thucydides: The Speeches of Pericles, H.G. Edinger, tr., New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1979, p. 17.

[2] The atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 do not properly constitute a nuclear war, but “only” the use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional conflict. Significantly, too, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were no other atomic bombs still available anywhere on earth.

[3] In essence, hypothesizing the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of any such expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[4] See, by this writer, at Harvard Law School:  Louis René Beres,  https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/  See also, by this writer, at West Point:  Louis René  Beres https://mwi.usma.edu/threat-convergence-adversarial-whole-greater-sum-parts/

[5] See especially art. 6 of the US Constitution (“The Supremacy Clause”) and the Pacquete Habana (1900). In the words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola,  175 U.S. 677 (1900);  Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774,  781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984)(per curiam)(Edwards, J. concurring)(dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied,  470 U.S. 1003 (1985)(“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.'”).

[6] See Beth PolebauNational Self-Defense in International Law:  An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age, 59 N.Y.U. L. REV. 187, 190-191 (noting that the Caroline case transformed the right to Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun-Tzu, counseled, inThe Art of War:“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” (See: Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”).self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a customary legal doctrine).

[7] Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun-Tzu, counseled, inThe Art of War:“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” (See: Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”).

[8] Expressions of decisional irrationality in US dealings with North Korea could take different and overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[9] There is now a substantial literature that deals with the expected consequences of a nuclear war.  For earlier works by this author, see, for example:  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980); MIMICKING SISYPHUS:  AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, 1983); REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U.S. FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books, 1984); and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON:  ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[10] See: F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), p. 63.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Latin America is inching slowly towards a change for the better

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Authors: Ash Narain Roy and Shimone Jaini*

Every utopia sooner or later turns into a dystopia. Why, then, do Latin Americans fancy themselves constructing alternative utopias? What good is utopia? Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano seems to have the answer, “it is good for walk.”  Latin America hasn’t stopped imagining and dreaming. It may not have captured the imagination of global policy-makers and the chattering classes. But the region has indeed changed, mostly for the better. However, it would be premature to proclaim that Latin America has turned the corner.

Why has Latin America acquired the reputation for its pursuit of endless revolutions or what Marina Sitrin calls ‘Everyday Revolutions’? Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo provides some insights about such revolutions in his novel, Red April, “there is a feeling in Latin America that good ones were not so good and the bad ones were not so bad.”

Latin America has long been a laboratory of political and social experiments. Sebastian Edwards, author of Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism, says that the political and economic history of Latin America has been “marked by great hopes and even greater disappointments”. And yet, some of the political and social experiments continue to catapult the region into the global consciousness and resonate with people across the globe.

Latin America suffers from many frailties. But it refuses to put an end to imaginations. It continues to dream how to construct a world where many worlds could live. Thanks to their endless dreams and imaginations, the region glimpses possibilities of other worlds. There is a lot to learn from Latin America both from its best practices and worst failures.

Deepening democracy and political participation

With the entrenchment of democracy, new paradigms of governance have emerged in Latin America. In recent decades the region has shown a trend to reject traditional political parties and vote for new formations to power. The dominance of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats is long over.  But Political institutions are still quite weak. Rewriting constitutions comes easy to Latin Americans. Dominican Republic is having its 32nd constitution. Venezuela, Haiti and Ecuador have had 32nd, 26th and 20th constitutions respectively. Now Chilean President has agreed to change the 1980 Pinochet constitution.

Does it show Latin America’s growing impatience with the non-performing models? Or are Latin Americans undermining democratic principles in the name of pursuing more radical agendas?

The institutional architecture for democracy has been very diverse in Latin America. For instance, in some countries, the party system has collapsed (e.g., Peru and Venezuela); in other countries, parties have become increasingly detached from civil society (e.g., Chile and Mexico), and, in others, social movements have replaced traditional parties (e.g., Bolivia).

The region has also shown deep contempt for modern democratic politics. It means a different kind of politics, not necessarily the denial or rejection of politics. Maybe what the region is hankering after is not just a politics which delivers but also which uses a new language of politics. It is, in a way, what Andreas Schedlar calls ‘end of politics.’

The same voters who were captivated by new, mostly leftist movements, promising to redistribute wealth, punishing traditional parties and turning political systems on their heads have now begun rejecting them. Across the continent traditional parties have disintegrated though the trend is more pronounced in the Andean region.

It all began with the emergence of a ‘vote of rage’ towards the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the present century. Several governments lost power and the voters made a demand like ‘que se vayantodos’ (they all should go). Elections in Mexico in 2000 ended 70 years of PRI’s domination. In 1999, elections in Venezuela brought an end to 40 years of bipartisan politics. Something similar happened in Uruguay in 2000 when the domination of the Colorados and the Blancos came to an end. Popular movements toppled several governments in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Ivan Hinojosa of Catholic University in Lima says that “some parties recuperate but many don’t, and in their place you have all new and unpredictable movements”.

 The institutions that promised better outcomes have delivered at best modest results. Much of the frustrations and anger that have given rise to mass protests and democratic discontent across the region are centred on the weaknesses of these institutions.1 Governments have changed, new parties and political formations have captured power and even the rhetoric has changed but meaningful institutional innovations are still a work in progress.

Constitutional changes and innovative schemes have empowered the various indigenous groups. Social policies and constitutional recognition of new citizenship rights have given these groups a new sense of belonging. However, the durability of these measures remains a moot question at a time when Latin America is witnessing end of the commodity boom and electoral setback to left-wing regimes.

New tools to boost political participation

In the areas of women’s empowerment and advancement of gender rights, the region has made notable advance. A study conducted by International IDEA in 18 Latin American countries demonstrates how important it is to have both men and women leaders to promote better participation from women, if the parties want to be democratic and inclusive institutions.

Efforts made by such parties in 11 “institutional spaces” include Statutes and Declarations of Principles, Internal Organization, Financing, Training, Recruiting, Media, etc. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) have been ratified by every Latin American country. Most  countries have approved laws promoting gender equality. Moreover, a small yet significant step of using gender-sensitive language to acknowledge women has proven monumental in reversing the predominantly male concepts in political language.

Despite the continued presence of a series of obstacles limiting the political participation of women in the region, such political parties have undertaken innovative and effective initiatives that can be considered “best practices”. 

Multiple global crises have led to an increased interest in Latin America in the social and solidarity economy (SSE).  In Latin America, the social and solidarity discourse, deployed with increasing intensity since the 1990s, refers to a model of political and economic development based on principles of solidarity, participation, cooperation and reciprocity. The same has also been articulated as ‘social knowledge economy’.

Hotbed of political innovation

A wave of political innovation is sweeping across Latin America as it is creating more participatory and inclusive democratic governments, breaking its shackles from the deep-rooted authoritarianism. It has also become an inspiration for many on how path to democracy is mapped out and advanced.

The Instituto Update, which studies political innovation in Latin America, found in its study that more than 600 initiatives have been put in place which are trying to reduce the gap between citizens and their governments by increasing political participation, improving transparency and accountability, encouraging innovation in government, and doing more to develop independent media.

The study identifies 5 main approaches in Latin America towards creating, developing and practicing new methods and instruments to foster political participation and trust in government. Firstly, citizens themselves are working for social change. The Secundarista movement that spread all over Brazil was led by students protesting for better education reforms in Saõ Paulo’s public high schools.

Another movement in México known as #Yo soy 132 was spearheaded by students who were protesting against political corruption during the 2012 presidential elections. This shows that people are creating new innovative ways to mobilize resources and to persuade elected officials and bureaucrats to pursue public policy changes.

Secondly, there are many feminist movements taking place all over Latin America like-#PrimaveraFeminista, #NiUnaMenos, #Pimp My Carroça, demanding reproductive rights and bringing attention to the issue of domestic abuse.  Activists and organisations are also using social media and humor like GregNews, a comedy news show to make citizens aware and interested in public interest issues.

Thirdly, elected officials are trying to make institutions more participatory and inclusive. Measures like DemocracyOS (Argentina) and LinQ (Ecuador) to Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights have made great progress in giving voice to the people in the policymaking process.

Moreover, to monitor and hold politicians and corporations accountable, civil society organizations are using technology and open data. Groups like Paraguay’s A Quienes Elegimos, Argentina’s Chequeado, and Chile’s Del Dicho al Hecho are using online tools and organising public protests to insist on transparency from the government.

And finally, there’s a recognition that politics across Latin America needs new voices and new people to get involved. Today, movements such as Mexico’s WikiPolítica and Brazil’s Bancada Ativista, as well as new political parties like Chile’s Revolución Democrática and Argentina’s Partido de la Red, are aiming to make politics accessible, cool, and honorable to a new generation of activists.

How protest movements are novel

Culture has long been a tool of propaganda. But culture in Latin America is also a tool of protests. Protesters dancing to the rhythms of cumbia and salsa music and citizens pot-banging from their balconies have grabbed global eyeballs. Brazilians have resorted to ‘panelacos’ (protesting with pots and pans) against President Bolsonaro for denying science on Coronavirus.

Chileans have resorted to social media with their different artistic modes of expression to warrant their movement against the government which decided to privatize public services and raise the price of public transportation. Victor Jara’s 1971 song “Derecho a la paz”(Right to peace) has become a resistance anthem for students and working-class protestors. The song, originally composed during Pinochet’s dictatorship, has now become an inspiration for the demonstrators to take to the streets despite the violent oppression by the police and military national forces.

New slogans, new symbols of power, new empowerment

For hundreds of years the indigenous people remained invisible in a culture dominated by the language and traditions of Europe. They also became victims ofwhat sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls ‘Racism without Racists’. Hence, recent gains by the indigenous are credible. Today, they have begun to dream. After all, dreams give vision and vision leads to action. Today, the various indigenous communities refuse to return to the dark valley; they have realized that forgetting could be a key part of learning.

Empowerment is an enabling exercise. It begins with the marginal, the forgotten. The indigenous groups in particular have worked to address the incompleteness of citizenship. In their efforts to rework politics, they have pointed out how for many, citizenship has remained an unfulfilled promise; citizenship is not mere entitlement.

For the indigenous, the body is the site for politics, very much the way it was for Gandhi. It is also a site for struggle. As Shiv Viswanathan argues, “the body prevents politics from straying into the abstractions of ideology or policy. It is a statement of presence, of sensing politics and suffering as part of a sensorium of sounds, smells, touch, taste and memory.” No less importantly, the rise of the indigenous has gone a long way to liberate politics from its behavioral and ideological pomposity.

By making way for leaders of their choice to gain power and overthrowing several presidents in Bolivia and Ecuador, the newly empowered indigenous groups want to ensure that no despot ascends the throne but a doer, one who heals their wounds, not turn the knife in them. In several countries and more specifically in Bolivia and Ecuador, the traditionally occupied indigenous territories have been recognized and protected and the sustainable development of natural resources located in their land has been guaranteed. Some of the issues like land as an economic base, a space of social reproduction and a condition for survival, recognition of their collective rights, have gained recognition in international forums.

Indigenous and peasant groups have not stopped at mere protests. They have adopted another strategy: protesta con propuesta, whereby positive alternatives have been suggested. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), for example, has formulated its own water reform proposal. Without denying their economic importance, the proposals emphasize the community-based, social, and ecological aspects of water. Also in Peru and Bolivia, platforms of popular alliances and peasant and indigenous organizations have formulated constructive counter-proposals that complement their claims and protests.

The following section analyses some of the institutional innovations and best practices in Latin America that have found acceptance and admiration outside the region.

Mexico’s Oportunidades and Brazil’s Zero Hunger

Progresa, Mexico’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program,(later known as Oportunidades and now as Prospera), is known for increasing school enrolments and attendance in its initial 18-month randomized evaluation (Parker and Todd 2017). In this program, money is directly given to families if they send children to school, meet nutrition standards and receive regular health check-ups. This has had significant long-term benefits that could reduce intergenerational poverty according to a study published in National Bureau of Economic Research.

A similar CCT program was adopted by Colombia in 2000 known as Familasenaccion which provides money to poor households with children under 18 years old. It targets population that comprises of poor families that have either been displaced by the conflict or are from indigenous communities. Though it is no longer regarded as an emergency response to a short-term crisis, but it has proven efficient as an answer to more structural poverty problems.

Another commendable example towards ensuring food security for everyone was taken up by Brazil in the form of ‘Fome Zero’ or Zero Hunger program. The program launched in 2003 with the goal that all people be able to access enough and the right kinds of foods, to meet basic nutritional needs and support health. Fome Zero is based on a multi-sectoral approach at the public policy level, involving policies and programs around social protection and safety nets, education, food production, health services, drinking water, and sanitation. This  can serve as a role model for national commitment to making better nutrition a top priority. 

Another best practice, Participatory budgeting (PB), has been the most serious effort to take democracy to the doorsteps of the citizens. The Workers Party and a coalition of civil society organizations of Brazil introduced PB in Porto Alegre in 1989. It soon spread to more than 250 municipalities. Several countries followed suit. PB is a process of democratic decision-making. It is a type of participatory democracy, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. It allows citizens to identify, discuss and prioritize public spending projects and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent. The Porto Alegre model is no longer used in the same way in Porto Alegre itself. It has lost its sheen elsewhere in Latin America.

Consulta previa (prior consultation) is another significant legal framework that some countries in Latin America have institutionalized to deepen democracy. It is the right of the indigenous and ethnic groups to be consulted on matters affecting their culture and heritage as established by ILO Convention 169. Its implementation has at best been patchy. While it has been successfully implemented by Peru’s Amazonian communities, progress is much slower as far as the Andean communities are concerned. Much of the natural resources are located in the region inhabited by the indigenous communities, consulta previa has given the people a say in the extraction of raw materials. However, many left-leaning governments have resorted to the so-called “progressive neo-extractism” to ‘fight poverty’. The indigenous groups have sharpened attacks on the Left arguing such model of development, which relies on the rapacious extraction of natural resources, entails environmental destruction and the fragmentation of indigenous territory.

Cuba’s medical internationalism

For nearly 60 years, Cuba has been sending healthcare professionals all over the globe. This is done partly to support those in need but also as a part of concerted campaign of its medical diplomacy and to make some money to help the country survive an ongoing US embargo. Since then, Cuba has established permanent medical missions in a number of countries. Over the last five decades, it has sent between 135,000 to 400,000 doctors abroad.

The tradition of medical internationalism in Cuba goes back to the first years of the Cuban Revolution. The country has dispatched 593 workers to 14 countries in the battle against Covid-19. According to the Cuban health ministry, 179 doctors, 399 nurses and 15 health technologists have been dispatched as part of Henry Reeve initiative. According to Helen Yaffe, free healthcare as a universal human right has been a key tenet now and in the 1959 Cuban Revolution which laid the foundation of medical internationalism thereby enforcing the idea and practice of sending medical teams abroad.

Even though the Cuban medical support has been helpful and hopeful to all those in desperate need, it also hasn’t been able to keep away from criticism. Some rights groups have accused Havana of exploiting its medical workers who are forced to work in unsafe environments. Others have criticized by calling the program “selectively humanitarian” which makes lower numbers of doctors available to the Cuban population. Many countries have been wary of accepting Cuba’s help due to its poor human rights record. While everyone may not find Cuba’s help genuine, this is perhaps the time to put ideological differences aside and focus on the joint effort against the global war of Coronavirus.

Zapatistas’ enduring legacy

The Zapatista movement was the first post-modern movement and it is still defiant in mountain strongholds. It rose up not just to fight indigenous repression, but also the globalization from above. It was a genuine popular movement striving for justice and for changing the status quo. Scholarly interest in the various indigenous movements in Latin America was shown only after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.The images of the Zapatistas were too striking to be missed—indigenous peasants with wooden rifles declaring war on the Mexican government. With their faces covered by black ski masks or red bandanas, the Zapatistas symbolically became the face of the faceless, the voice of the voiceless.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army had one-third women, some in bare feet. They became instant heroes of the left and an inspiration to indigenous groups and political romantics. There are still areas under their control where they have their own system of education, health, justice and security. They train their own teachers and doctors and some have their own currency. Their slogans have been equally instructive such as “cuando una mujeravanza, no hay hombre que retrocede (when a woman advances, no man is left behind) and “here you can buy or sell anything except indigenous dignity”. The Zapatistas spelt out their key priorities like revitalizing indigenous worldviews, building autonomous, locally focused food system and food sovereignty and gender equity. Mexican sociologist Gonzalez Casanova says that the Zapatistas represent a new way of approaching problems and alternatives beyond the old dilemmas of the left, defending life, water, land and forest. The Zapatista movement offered alternative ways to organize societies, economies and the food systems.

In 1990s, Colombia’s indigenous groups formed the Indigenous Social Alliance. It won a few seats in national parliament a few years later. Nationally visible indigenous parties came up in mid-1990s in Bolivia and Ecuador. In Bolivia, groups like the Assembly for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, Movement towards Socialism and Pachakutic Movement of Plurinational Unity gained traction. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) in Ecuador has tasted electoral success and acquired considerable clout. It initially supported the left but later broke from its tutelage. The indigenous movements have helped in the democratization process. The group has combined indigenous culture and state institutions in innovative ways.

Limits of caudillismo

Latin Americans are masters at creating leaders, prophets and gods. The bane of Latin America is the system of caudillos (strongmen).  Hence some are seeking leaderless revolutions. They contend, we don’t need leaders, certainly not big leaders. As Emile Zapata says, “strong leaders make a weak people.”

Populism the bane

Populism continues to be the bane of Latin American polity. Power and authority are still configured in relation to caudillos, not institutions. Parliaments, judiciary, party system and civil society provide little institutional counterweights to political abuses by the political class. The caudillos promise magical solutions and people still fall for them. Ironically, to remain in power, the maximum leader exerts and abuses state force but also propagate the myth that he/she is there by the popular will. The growing polarization has not allowed institutions like the judiciary and the police to become autonomous and independent. Populism has acquired a “new dimension” with decisive leaders pushing nationalism, demonizing opposition and stirring up issues that divide society. Populismhas marginalized the centrist forces and removed their bonding powers resulting in gridlock in parliament and diluting public trust in its efficacy.

Bertrand Russell says that the game of politics is the process by which people choose the man who will get the blame. Latin America has witnessed the masterful play of such blame game. Populist leaders thrive on confrontation and chaos. Bolsonaro is using the pandemic to stir up his base. He has dismissed Coronavirus as “just a little flu”, “we will all die one day”.

Conclusion

Some of the best practices in Latin America have caught the attention of the world. Whether these are replicable or not requires further research and study.The region has been long experimenting with novel political, social and economic initiatives and practices which resonate with people across the globe. Some consider the region to be a land of endless revolutions, but it has launched not only slogans but sustainable alternatives as well. It has maintained the ideal of ‘Protesta con propuesta’(Protest with purpose). However, many have questioned the robustness of these measures when Latin America is witnessing the end of the commodity boom and the defeat of left-wing governments. The historical conflicts, the silhouettes of authoritarianism and past of caudillismo still weigh heavily on the Latin American present.

Will the region be able to overcome its non-democratic past and advance with its revitalized worldview? Or will it succumb to the ghosts of the old despotic regimes? There are no easy answers. It has to do with Latin American psychology, “the rejection of what is real and possible.” Latin America also fits in Hannah Arendt’s description how the most radical revolutionary becomes “conservative the day after the revolution”. That of course doesn’t deter Latin Americans from constructing alternative utopias.

*Shimone Jaini is doing Masters from Centre of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian andLatin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Murder of George Floyd – On Camera Murder by Neo Ku Klux Klan

M. Abdul Basit

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image credit: Flickr, Fibonacci Blue

Now that the doors of racism have been shut down by law, the de facto persecution of blacks carry on. The cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officers is one of the many such cases. If the four racist cops could strangulate a handcuffed person on camera, one should be fearful to assume what could they be doing off camera. Until the lion learns how to write, every story will keep glorifying the hunter.

The persecution and segregation of colored people has been done since long. Gone are the days when Rosa Parks could be ordered to leave her seat on bus for a white. And gone should have been the days when Eugene Bull Connor could use state authority to subjugate unarmed protestors in Birmingham during Civil Rights Movement while being filmed on Television. George Floyd kept on begging to let the air in for he was suffocating.The racist cop told him to be easy while putting more pressure on his neck while Floyd laid down on ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. The four armed cops apparently could not find a better way to handle him except strangling him to death. Or perhaps they did not wish to.

The inhumane treatment, especially when done by state authorities, develop grievances in vulnerable communities. A liberal state is meant to treat everyone equally. When Jim Crow Laws were on a high and Ku Klux Klan started to target humans on basis of skin color, it led to the formation of violent groups in African Americans like Black Panther. Violence against particular groups cannot sustain for long in a developed world. When USA tries to proliferate liberal values across the world, it should not remain aloof that despite being the world’s oldest democracy, blacks are still victims of oppression in America.

The white supremacy is not a myth. The Minneapolis officers were able to kill a person while being filmed as well as begged by the civilians to do mercy on Floyd for he didn’t put any threat to them. The cops gave him a slow death without any shame like they were living in a pre-Lincoln era. Luckily, the heinous crime was filmed and all the cops have been terminated but it is likely that without being prosecuted for the cold-blooded murder, it may not give a lesson to other state authorities regarding misuse of their powers.

This is simply a Neo Ku Klux Klan where the Blacks are being oppressed on the basis of color and the murderers get a clean chit. A similar case happened in 2014 when Eric Garner was strangulated when he kept saying “I can’t breathe” while dying and the white officers didn’t face federal charges despite being filmed doing the murder. In the same year, a 12 year old black boy Tamir Rice was carrying a toy gun and he was killed by a white cop. In 2016, Philando Castile was murdered in his car when the situation could be handled pacifically but the police used preemptive measure to kill him right away. There are many cases in recent past that make it evident that The United States of America has not fixed the problem of Ku Klux Klan; rather it is a neo Ku Klux Klan that is de facto segregating and oppressing the colored community. One in every 1000 black males can expect to die at the hands of police in USA.

The Neo Ku Klux Klan needs to be stopped. State institutions must function as they are supposed to perform and not to deal humans with discrimination depending on what color of skin they carry on their flesh. Racism should have been buried when President Kennedy got successful in calling civil rights a moral cause. But racism thrives till today and now with President Donald Trump, it is far from possible to end racism in American society when he himself dehumanizes the blacks. If the state institutions as well as the public does not proactively try to resolve the issues that are a direct threat to human security when it comes to black lives, the dreams of Equality, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness will remain a hoax.

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What do Donald Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani imams have in common?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Authors: James M. Dorsey and Tehmina Qureshi*

US President Donald J. Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani religious scholars may have more in common than either would want to admit: a belief that congregation is an essential pillar of prayer irrespective of public health concerns.

Mr. Trump, however, may wish that he had the kind of less polarized and/or more compliant audience that Pakistani clerics address.

Scores of religious leaders and groups in the United States have sought to protect their communities by advocating virtual rather than physical congregation at the time of a pandemic in which the coronavirus has yet to be brought under control.

Religious authorities in much of the Muslim world, Pakistan being the exception that proves the rule, have heeded government instructions and medical and public health advice.

That advice ranged from the closure of mosques to bans on social gatherings that precluded traditional iftar meals breaking the Ramadan fast and celebrations of this week’s end of the holy month to Saudi Arabia’s suspension of the umrah, the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca and possibly the haj too.

Leaving aside the question whether he has the legal power to do so, Mr. Trump vowed to overrule governors who refused to open houses of worship, noting that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) had issued guidelines that included physical distancing.

The move designed to play to Mr. Trump’s Evangelist voter base received a mixed reception among American faith communities.

It appealed to those segments of the community with an unqualified belief in God’s ability and will to protect and that often are steeped in notions of Christian manhood that have deep roots in American Evangelism and were boosted by the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Towers and the Pentagon in Washington.

Mr. Trump’s recognition of prayer as an “essential” societal activity further drew a line intended to give houses of worship autonomy in an environment in which state intrusion into people’s lives has expanded greatly in a bid to fight the pandemic.

In that sense, the president was fighting a battle similar to that of Pakistani Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders who rejected a total closure of mosques but were willing to accept guidance on issues such as physical distancing.

The leaders see mosques “as spaces where you cultivate  and express a communal religious identity that is very central to…their vision of the Pakistani state,” said a Pakistani Islamic scholar.

The clerics’ determination to retain control of religious spaces was reinforced by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s flip flops that resembled Mr. Trump’s zig zags.

Mr. Khan initially sought to appeal to religious circles by meeting in the early days of the pandemic with Maulana Tariq Jameel, a leader of Tablighi Jamaat, who initially denied the contagious aspect of the virus.

Mr. Jameel reversed course and embraced physical distancing after his movement’s mass gatherings in Pakistan, Malaysia, India and Indonesia turned into super spreaders of the coronavirus.

Mr. Khan’s government further complicated issues by initially agreeing with religious leaders on a division of labour that would have empowered the clerics to advise their followers to stay at home, avoid congregational prayer and maintain physical distancing and then jumping the gun to announce the measures without coordination.

Mosques in major Pakistani cities were packed in recent days, despite religious leaders paying lip service to physical distancing, in a reflection of the degree to which ultra-conservatism has woven itself into the fabric of Pakistani society and in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia’s pre-emptive response to the health crisis.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled against government lockdowns, suggesting that the coronavirus was not a pandemic. Religious leaders have since backed away from their acceptance of physical distancing, demanding that the advice be abandoned.

Mr. Trump’s recognition of prayer as essential aligned itself with notions of concepts of religious freedom promoted by his administration, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the lead, that in effect serve to legitimize discrimination against minorities of various stripes.

Few doubt that Mr. Trump made his move with an eye on the US presidential election in November. Mr. Trump was embarking on a road on which mainstream ultra-conservative Pakistani clerics were also travelling.

The clerics remained silent when Ahmadis, a sect viewed as heretic by mainstream Muslims, were excluded from a national commission created by the government earlier this month to promote religious tolerance and counter persecution of minorities.

Pakistan’s religious affairs ministry barred inclusion of Ahmadis, who are among Pakistan’s most discriminated minorities, on grounds that they did not qualify as a minority and refuse to recognize the country’s constitution.

A 1974 amendment of the constitution bars Ahmadis from identifying themselves as Muslims because they do not recognize Mohammed as the last prophet.

Compared to the polarising environment that Mr. Trump operates in and likes to entrench, Pakistani clerics have it a lot easier. Except for liberals and human rights activists, few in Pakistan are willing to stand up for Ahmadi rights.

Moreover, the government shied away from imposing its will on the religious establishment during the pandemic as did the military, which built quarantine centres in various cities and helped local authorities implement a lockdown.

Pakistan lacks truly influential, more liberal religious voices in the mould of for example Reverend Curtiss DeYoung, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches that groups African-American denominations, the mainline church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

“We listen to communities of colour, and many of our congregations’ people are engaged in representing refugees and immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, even seniors, they’re saying, why the urgency?” Mr. DeYoung said in response to Mr. Trump’s push.

“They’re…directly affected. They’re actually afraid in many cases to go into group gatherings…We feel that we need to make our decisions based on good science and the recommendations of our health department,” the reverend added.

Mr. DeYoung was joined by his Muslim counterparts in contrast to their Pakistani brethren.

“American Muslim scholars and community leaders have already determined that mosques will not be open in the near future because of the health concerns brought on by the pandemic. That’s a determination for them to make not for the president to make,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations, the largest US Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

To be sure, the United States and Pakistan are vastly different countries. Pakistan has been hard hit by the pandemic with 55,657 cases of infection to date and 1,155 deaths. Yet, that is  a far cry from the United States’ 1,613,324 cases and 96,659 deaths.

Pakistan, nonetheless, saw its number of cases quadruple during the month of Ramadan and the rate of new infections jump by 30 percent in the last week as the holy month neared its end .

Yet, when it comes to employing religion to entrench power at the cost of striking a balance between faith and science, Mr. Trump and Pakistani religious scholars share the kind of opportunism and worldview that serve their short-term interests irrespective of the cost to human life and potentially to already battered economies.

*Tehmina Qureshi is a multi-platform journalist and editorial writer at Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper.

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