When might is right, justice and humanity are wronged
When a delegation of US journalists visited North Korea late last year, they encountered ministers and ordinary citizens grimly convinced that nuclear war had become inevitable. This was largely thanks to the unpredictable rhetoric of President Donald Trump, who threatened to rain “fire and fury” on Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-un is also frequently portrayed as a crazed dictator. However, he presumably realizes that — given America’s exponentially superior nuclear arsenals — if North Korea ever fired a rocket in anger, the life expectancy of him and his countrymen could be measured in seconds. Thus, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised at his sudden desire for a face-to-face meeting with Trump. Pyongyang has a long history of exploiting negotiations to play for time, yet we can begrudgingly acknowledge that Trump’s aggressive Twitter diplomacy appears to have effected an unexpected breakthrough.
The idea of putting Trump and Kim in a room together is fraught with obvious risks, but may offer an opportunity — if the meeting indeed goes ahead. Whereas diplomats spend years scrupulously negotiating over intricate details, these two leaders may simply agree to a set of principles on the back of a napkin: For example, verified denuclearization in exchange for withdrawing US troops and a North-South peace deal. Trump’s malleable lack of ideology, his self-professed deal-making skills, and his simplistic take on complex issues undoubtedly frustrate US negotiators, but could allow him to thrash out an agreement with Kim where greater minds have failed.
However, if these negotiations veer off course, the potential for catastrophe is immense. If Trump decides that decisive force is the only route to blocking Pyongyang’s nuclear efforts, then there is little recourse for preventing the president from pushing the button and bringing the Korean stand-off to an apocalyptic end (Trump’s tweeted riposte to “Rocket Man” asserting that “my button is bigger” speaks volumes about today’s debased state of diplomacy). My article last week discussed Vladimir Putin’s megalomaniacal threats about unleashing “global catastrophe” in the event of a nuclear stand-off. Such nuclear-fueled grandstanding brings to mind the tense, paranoid Cold War era. This contrasted starkly with the relatively benign years between 1990 and 2010, when the nearest thing to an existential global threat was supposedly a bunch of bearded fanatics hiding out in caves in Afghanistan. During the 1990s, neoliberal thinker Francis Fukuyama complacently proclaimed the “end of history,” yet today’s perfect storm of crises, conflicts and chaos reveals a world still tragically and inextricably enmeshed in history.
Veteran British diplomat John Jenkins, in a thought-provoking Arab News article, considered the consequences of Obama-era naivety in envisaging a world where “lions could safely lie down with lambs.” The paradoxical result of Barack Obama’s anti-interventionist doctrine was an environment where autocrats like Ali Khamenei, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar Assad could flourish. Obama, with his high-minded principles on human rights, was the polar opposite of Trump, who lavishes praise on dictators like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has reportedly killed more than 12,000 citizens. Nevertheless, both Trump and Obama advocate differently packaged isolationist doctrines, abandoning the rest of the world to grapple with its own problems. The UN Security Council’s ability to enforce its global security role in upholding international law has, meanwhile, been fatally undermined.
We are living in a world ruled by the laws of the jungle, where autocratic leaders flex their military muscle to assert their position in the pecking order.Baria Alamuddin
This subversion of international law plunges us into a “law of the jungle,” where global strongmen flex their military muscle to assert their position in the pecking order. Blood-drenched dictators like Assad and Khamenei become the rule rather than the exception. President Xi Jinping is only the latest autocrat to manipulate their constitution to remain in power forever. As we saw in the recent Italian elections, conventional bureaucrats are being swept aside by a new generation of populists and fascists. In a world dominated by gangster-like strongmen ruthlessly pursuing their own interests while parasitically enriching themselves by sucking the lifeblood from their nation’s economy, states led by pacifistic liberal globalists become the first casualties.
The power of populist autocrats is derived from the currency of fear: Trump’s demagoguery is rooted in unease about immigrants and foreign nations getting one over on Americans. Putin will win the current elections thanks to his propaganda machine’s paranoid narrative about Russian encirclement by a hostile world. In reality, Russia, Iran and North Korea’s leaderships cynically earnt their richly-deserved pariah status through their own provocative actions. Americans don’t hate Iranian or Russian citizens and certainly prefer to avoid foreign conflicts. Meanwhile, most ordinary Iranians I’ve met tend to be far more pro-American than anyone I ever speak to in the Arab world.
Autocrats entrench themselves by engineering conflict with the outside world: Iranians must tolerate their tyrannical leaders squandering their wealth on foreign meddling, which supposedly shields them against the hostility generated by their own aggressive actions. North Korea’s nuclear program is both Pyongyang’s best means of defense, and the reason why war became likely in the first place. The Russians can’t vote out Putin because who else could protect them? Was the assassination attempt against a Russian double-agent living in the UK perpetrated simply to elicit Western condemnation and thus entice Putin’s supporters to come out and vote for him on Sunday in a massive show of defiance? The announcement of new US sanctions in response to Russian interference in elections has likewise been undermined by the unedifying sight of the American president performing rhetorical cartwheels to avoid criticizing Putin directly.
This global lurch toward autocracy need not be inevitable: Following the school shooting in Florida, thousands of children took to the streets to lobby politicians over gun control. The #MeToo movement has seen women mobilized and energized like never before. Demonstrators across Iran recently gave the regime its biggest existential fright in a decade. North Korea’s leadership only stays in power by going to impossible lengths to prevent citizens from knowing about the outside world. The most powerful weapon against autocracy is an enlightened and politically-engaged citizenry that is willing to contribute its energy for the betterment of humanity. When we stop fearing the outside world, we stop requiring strongman dictators to hide behind.
In the UK, conservatives are frequently aghast at how the country remains beholden to the European Court of Human Rights, as if this is the very definition of tyranny. No legal system is perfect, but each of us should ask ourselves whether we would prefer to live in a world where even our leaders are bound by laws and conventions; or would we prefer the law of the jungle? Today it is Syrians, Congolese, Southern Sudanese and the Rohingya being tortured, displaced and slaughtered in their tens of thousands; tomorrow there is little to prevent such a fate befalling ourselves.
In a world where might is right, the value of human life tends toward zero: We live or die at the whims of our leaders. Human rights are the legacy of battles fought by courageous past generations, determined to ensure that our generation would not have to face tyranny and oppression. When terrorized citizens fail to stand up for their own rights and the rights of others, human rights doctrines are reduced to nothing more than ink on paper.
We cannot have it both ways: We either cower in our homes in an anarchic dystopia of might is right, or we come together to assert the rights and freedoms deserved by all humanity. Let’s not allow ourselves to be divided against each other by strongmen who would destroy us all in their quest for perpetual power.
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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