Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Beyond Vietnam: The War and MLK's Conscience

Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of his most important (and controversial) speeches at Riverside Church in New York City. It was, King said, "a passionate plea to my beloved nation," a plea not focused on the struggle for civil rights in the United States but on the war in Vietnam.

As he opened the speech, King confessed that he had struggled to "break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart." In an op-ed published in today's New York Times, David J. Garrow, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, describes how King had come to the point where he felt it necessary to make explicit the links that tied racism to materialism and militarism.

What often sparks the awakening of conscience, both for individuals and for nations, is the dawning awareness of a contradiction. We are forced to admit that we have said one thing and done another, that we have acted in ways that belie our beliefs, that we have demanded justice from one party but not another. We come to understand, in other words, that others may see our hypocrisy as readily as we see theirs. Dr. King acknowledged before the audience at Riverside that he had become aware of a contradiction in his own life when young black men in "the ghettos of the North"--young men to whom he was recommending non-violent struggle against injustice--asked him, "What about Vietnam?" "They asked," King said, "if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."

The Riverside speech was not the first time that Dr. King had focused his moral insight and his rhetorical skill on the Vietnam War. But in April 1967, nine months before the Tet offensive began to persuade many Americans that their government had been lying to them about the war's progress, such a forceful statement against the war was a shock even to some of King's most ardent supporters. When King said "I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted," some of his opponents imagined they were hearing the words of a traitor.

Dr. King offered many reasons to oppose the war--its diversion of the American government from the unfulfilled promises of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs; its disproportionate impact on the poor who had no means of avoiding the draft; its obvious contravention of the Gospel of Christ; and, of course, its impact on the Vietnamese people themselves. And, halfway through the speech, he called for concrete steps toward peace, including an immediate end to the bombing. (When he urged that a date be established for the removal of foreign troops from Vietnam, the audience broke into applause for the first time.) Only at that point, however, did King begin to reveal his larger theme. "I wish to go on now," he said, "to say something even more disturbing."

The speech was called "Beyond Vietnam," and here's why:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. [sustained applause] So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
King argued that "we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values." To do so, he said, "we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

The further King went in his plea for a "revolution of values," the more prophetic his words became. A sample:
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
It is perhaps not surprising that John Lewis, who was present both for this speech and for King's more famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, considered the anti-war speech at the Riverside Church to be his greatest. It "seems to carry the greater weight of prophecy," Benjamin Hedin writes. The most prophetic words, spoken near the end of the speech, may well be these: "If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

Read or, better yet, listen to Dr. King's speech here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Climate Change, Diplomacy, and National Security

In unpublished written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee following his confirmation as Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis said what many previous Defense Department officials have said: climate change is a national security concern. "Climate change," Mattis wrote, "is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today."

The written testimony came in the form of replies to questions posed by Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee. In response to one of the questions, Mattis said, "I agree that the effects of a changing climate--such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others--impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness."

Last Thursday, in an interview on CNBC, EPA head Scott Pruitt reverted to form, denying that carbon dioxide "is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see." In making this statement, Pruitt contradicted the clear scientific consensus regarding human-induced climate change and its causes. As the graph below (taken from NASA's climate website) indicates, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased from a mean of roughly 250 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial world to 400 ppm at present.

The EPA's website states, "The most effective way to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is to reduce fossil fuel consumption." And yet today President Trump, as expected, began the process of rescinding automobile fuel efficiency standards put in place during the Obama administration. Fossil fuel consumption is affected by a variety of factors (including levels of economic activity), but the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards that were first implemented in 1975 are an important way of insuring that fossil fuel use is limited in the United States.

Trump has said, on multiple occasions, that he thinks global warming is a "hoax." His SecDef says that climate change is already having an impact on international security. The commander-in-chief's climate change denial will clearly make the secretary of defense's job of defending the United States and its interests harder. But so, too, will Trump's plans to slash the State Department's budget by almost a third. Back in 2013, General Mattis told Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately. So I think it's a cost-benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department's diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene."

Donald Trump has said he would defer to Secretary Mattis on the question of torture. He should do the same on climate change and diplomacy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Augmenting OPEC?

Equatorial Guinea, the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa and home of Africa's longest-serving dictator, has expressed interest in joining the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as its fourteenth member. The bid for membership was presented by Gabriel Mbaga Obiang, President Teodoro Obiang's son and minister of mines and hydrocarbons in the Equatoguinean government, at an OPEC compliance monitor meeting in Vienna over the weekend. A government press release notes that oil and gas account for 95 percent of Equatorial Guinea's $10.6 billion in annual exports.

Last September, OPEC members agreed to cut oil production in an effort to boost sagging oil prices. Then, on December 10, ten non-OPEC oil-producing states including Russia and Equatorial Guinea agreed to join with OPEC members to cut production by a total of 1.8 million barrels per day through the first six months of 2017. For Equatorial Guinea, that means cuts of 12,000 barrels per day from a production level of 240,000 barrels per day.

In spite of apparently successful efforts by OPEC and the ten non-OPEC producers to cut production, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting only modest increases in oil prices through 2017 and 2018. Thus far, the strength of domestic oil production in the U.S. has largely canceled out efforts elsewhere to raise prices by cutting production.

Monday, January 23, 2017

"Unsigning" the TPP

Earlier today Donald Trump "unsigned" the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement involving twelve Pacific Rim states that was negotiated by the Obama administration in order to reduce tariffs while protecting labor rights, the environment, and intellectual property rights. Trump's action was applauded by Sen. Bernie Sanders while being criticized by a number of Republicans including Sen. John McCain and Sen. John Cornyn.

"Unsigning" the TPP was a largely symbolic act because it had not been ratified by the United States, nor was it likely to be given the hostility of Republicans in the Senate to virtually every proposal submitted by Barack Obama since they regained control of the chamber in 2015. Nevertheless, international law (in Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties) requires states that have signed but not yet ratified a treaty to "refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose" of the treaty. (The U.S. has also not ratified the Vienna Convention, but many of its provisions are considered binding as customary international law.) By signaling its intent to jettison the TPP, Trump has eliminated even the mild obligation to avoid acts contrary to the agreement's object and purpose.

More importantly, however, this action on the TPP, together with an announcement yesterday that Trump would seek to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signals the beginning of an effort to reverse a longstanding bipartisan policy of promoting free trade. Since the creation of the Bretton Woods system at the end of World War II, the United States has encouraged--and often led--global efforts to expand trade in the belief that free trade increases wealth while also promoting peace. Free trade, in fact, is an important part of the post-World War II global security architecture. Trump's "America First" approach threatens American prosperity and security.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Threat to Human Rights

Human rights are constantly being threatened. In Kim’s North Korea, the news is heavily censored, dissent is punished harshly, and the basic needs of citizens are denied so that the state can maintain a grotesquely outsized military. In Putin’s Russia, human rights NGOs are closed down and investigative journalists are murdered. In Museveni’s Uganda, opposition candidates are arrested and detained while their supporters face police intimidation. In every corner of the world, there are governments that threaten human rights, often as a matter of policy, sometimes as a matter of expediency. Threats to particular rights, however tragic and outrageous, are in some sense normal; without such quotidian threats, there would be no need for human rights treaties, NGOs, UN monitoring bodies, or international tribunals.

The threat to human rights, however, has recently assumed a different character as the global consensus regarding the very concept of human rights has come under challenge. That the challenge is real--and profound--is apparent in the fact that it is being voiced by more and more voters in western democracies. The very societies that have well-established constitutions guaranteeing a range of individual rights have become battlegrounds where illiberal ideologies contend against the concept of human rights. In at least half a dozen democracies including the United States, election results have called into question the commitment to human rights of a substantial percentage of the electorate. Looming elections may widen the zones of concern.

Human rights are foundational commitments. They supersede--or at least ought to supersede--other policy concerns. A government like Rodrigo Duterte’s in the Philippines that seeks to address a serious drug problem by summarily executing suspected drug dealers is violating human rights, regardless of the supposed benefits to society from such a draconian approach to the enforcement of the state’s drug laws. A government like Xi Jinping’s in China that censors the news and impedes citizens’ access to information is violating human rights, regardless of the state’s legitimate interest in promoting harmony within a large and diverse population. A government like George W. Bush’s in the United States that waterboards prisoners in an effort to get information concerning potential terrorist plots is violating human rights, regardless of any security benefits that torture might provide. Put simply, human rights are what they are meant to be only if they establish limits on the authority of the state in the pursuit of its other policy goals.

But perhaps more to the point of the present threat to human rights is this: What makes certain rights human rights is their universality. One cannot, in assigning rights or making policy, draw distinctions between different groups of people on the basis of gender, race, nationality, religion, or other ascriptive characteristics without violating human rights. Policies that discriminate against Muslims, African Americans, Mexicans, or other religious, ethnic, or national groups violate human rights. Those who advocate such policies, whatever their justification, have parted company with those who defend human rights.

The threat to human rights in the United States lies not only in the fact that many racists, including the Ku Klux Klan itself, supported Donald Trump. The threat also lies in the fact that many who do not think of themselves as racists (and some who, in fact, are not) believed Trump’s overt appeals to racism were not a sufficient reason to reject him. It is true that voters in a democracy rarely have the luxury of supporting a candidate who represents their views perfectly. As a consequence, it is always necessary to weigh a candidate’s views on trade or welfare policy, for example, against his or her views on national security or environmental policy. But because human rights are foundational--because they define what government policies are out of bounds--the balancing act that voters normally engage in when selecting a candidate is inappropriate when certain policy preferences are being weighed against respect for human rights. That some Americans, acting out of racism, misogyny, homophobia, or xenophobia, rejected human rights completely while others decided that Donald Trump’s disrespect for humanity was not a deal-breaker indicates that there is a very real threat to human rights in the United States.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Raising Barriers

The Washington Post has begun a three-part online series on border walls titled "Raising Barriers." The first part, published yesterday, is available here.

According to the Post, there are currently 63 borders where states are separated by walls or other man-made barriers. Most of the world's barriers have been erected since 9/11. In Europe, the refugee crisis has triggered a new round of wall-building. In spite of this situation, the Schengen Area in Europe remains one of the world's most remarkable experiments in open borders.

The Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative

Morning Edition, the morning news program heard nationwide on National Public Radio, today featured a story on the U.S. Justice Department's Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative. The story, reported by Jackie Northam, noted the Justice Department's case against property--including an estate in Malibu, expensive cars, and a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia--that Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea's dictator, purchased in the United States.

The biggest case brought thus far by the Justice Department under this program was announced in July. It involves the misappropriation of $3.5 billion from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), an $8 billion government fund intended to promote economic development in Malaysia. The U.S. Government alleges that $1 billion from the fund was spent in the United States on yachts, hotels, and art works. Some of the money even went toward the financing of The Wolf of Wall Street, a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio that was released in 2013.

The FBI website describes the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative in these terms:
The Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative was established in 2010 to curb high-level public corruption around the world. Led by a team of Department of Justice prosecutors working in tandem with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, its mission is to forfeit the proceeds of corruption by foreign officials and, where appropriate, to use recovered assets to benefit the people who were harmed.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Case in France

On Thursday, the French corruption case against Teodoro Nguema Obiang--second vice president of Equatorial Guinea and heir apparent to his father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo--cleared a procedural hurdle as prosecutors signaled their willingness to move forward. A 36-page indictment has been filed and may now be reviewed by both the defense and the prosecution before a panel of judges determines (in about a month) whether to allow the case to proceed to trial.

The French investigation into the financial affairs of the ruling families of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Cameroon--known informally as les biens mal acquis (the ill-gotten gains) case--began in December 2010. In February 2012, cars, art works, wine, and other goods were seized from Obiang's Paris home. Five months later a warrant for Obiang's arrest was issued.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Patricia Derian (1929-2016)

Much of our history has been created by women whose names most people don't remember or never even knew. One of those women, Patricia Derian, died late last week.

Derian was Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs under President Jimmy Carter. She was the second person to hold that office, but the first to make it matter. Derian was noted for her willingness to speak truth to power, both in confronting dictators abroad and in addressing her colleagues within the U.S. government who were skeptical of the need for, or the wisdom of, a human rights policy. She once walked out of a dinner being hosted in her honor by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to go to the prison where Benigno Aquino, a Filipino democracy advocate, was being held. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of people around the world owe their lives to Derian's insistence, sometimes over the opposition of more cautious officials in the State Department or the White House, on naming and shaming the leaders of repressive regimes.

On two recent research trips to the Carter Library, I have seen ample evidence of Ms. Derian's impact on U.S. foreign policy--and on world events. I have also seen evidence of the obstacles that she had to overcome in order to ensure that the United States was on the side of the oppressed rather than their oppressors. Patt Derian deserves to be remembered.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016)

Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War, has passed away in New York City just days short of his 95th birthday. He is regarded as one of the most influential American Jesuits of his time both for his protests against war and nuclear weapons and for his writings, which included a body of poetry as well as works on theology, spirituality, and social protest.

In 1967, Berrigan, his brother Philip, and two others--"the Baltimore Four"--were arrested for pouring blood on draft records in protest against the war in Vietnam. In 1968, he joined a tax protest against the war. Then, on May 17 of that same year, he participated--with "the Catonsville Nine"--in the destruction of draft records using homemade napalm outside the offices of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison but escaped and spent four months as a fugitive--in order to draw more attention to his protests against the war--before being captured at the home of theologian and activist William Stringfellow. Berrigan was released from prison in 1972.

In 1980, Berrigan turned to anti-nuclear protests at a General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Berrigan, his brother Philip, and six others--"the Plowshares Eight"--hammered the nosecone of a nuclear missile (symbolically beating swords into plowshares) and poured blood on files. The group was charged with a wide range of crimes, but after ten years of trials and appeals, all were sentenced to time served. The 1980 protest was the beginning of the Plowshares Movement, with which Berrigan was active throughout the remainder of his life.

Even after he had turned 80, Berrigan continued to protest war and injustice. He protested the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the U.S. prison at Guantanamo. He also participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hearing from the Candidates (UN Version)

For the first time in its seventy-year history, the United Nations is engaged in an open and transparent process to select a secretary-general. Ban Ki-moon's term ends on December 31, 2016. The UN is widely expected to select a woman as its next leader and, in fact, four of the nine announced candidates are women.

The selection process has historically involved much behind-the-scenes negotiating as aspirants have worked quietly to secure the support of Security Council member states, who must nominate a secretary-general candidate, and General Assembly member states, who must actually elect the secretary-general. According to the UN's informal system of geographical rotation, the next secretary-general should come from Eastern Europe. Seven candidates are from Eastern Europe, but former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and Portuguese diplomat Antonio Guterres are defying the convention with their candidacies.

This year, secretary-general candidates are engaging in informal dialogues with permanent representatives. The sessions, lasting two hours each, are being conducted today through Thursday in the Trusteeship Council chamber and are being televised live on UN Web TV.

To hear Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese candidate, present his opening statement--primarily in English but moving smoothly into French and Spanish as well--go here. Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, the current director-general of UNESCO and a candidate for secretary-general of the UN, can be seen interacting with the press here.