A Conversation between Karl Meyer and Voices Co-coordinators about World Affairs

Voices co-coordinators had a phone conversation with Karl Meyer in which he elaborates on his strategic vision. Here’s a synopsis:

Buddy: Karl, what are some of the things that you think peace activists have been doing wrong, or what is the reason why, as you put it in your article, the U.S. has moved from Kissinger and Nixon to a more confrontational approach to world affairs?

I think that what we have done in the peace movement is that we focused on each little successive fire fight. We focused on the trees rather than the forest. The fundamental issue, underlying issue, under all these regional wars that are so devastating to ordinary people wherever these situations are occurring, was the Cold War and the weapons races between the great powers. These smaller regional conflicts and civil wars couldn’t be resolved through the United Nations because of the proxy war situation. Once Gorbachev and Reagan were able to get together and restore détente at Reykjavik, the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala were resolved through agreements that the rebel movements would lay down their arms in one way or another and participate in shared political power.

It could happen in Syria— we know it could happen in Syria— but it cannot happen if the U.S. keeps insisting to Russia that their client has to be knocked out of the situation, Assad. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and some of them have indicated that Russia would go along with easing Assad out in the context of a broad negotiated settlement in which the elements that Assad represents in Syria have participation, have a share in the power in the final settlement. The broader issue here is not returning to a cold war with Russia and China.

Buddy: How would you say to a Trump supporter: this has been the better way to conduct foreign policy, the way that Nixon did it, by more negotiation? What examples could we point to, if we are trying to talk with folks like that?

Unfortunately, the examples are Republicans. Reagan started out being pushed around by the military industrial complex, because he was so ignorant and so on. Half way into his term, Reagan turned away from the evil empires rhetoric. It was Gorbachev who took the initiative and said, we are done with this, and pushed, and pushed and pushed Reagan, but in the end Reagan said, we are going to go back to détente, we are going to have a friendly relationship with Russia. In spite of terrible things that they did and in spite of the fact that they were Republicans, it was Nixon and Kissinger and Reagan who went to the policy of great power realism and détente.

One problem for Clinton and Barack Obama was that they were burdened by this cultural idea that Democrats are weak on foreign policy, so that it was more difficult for them to pursue a peaceful policy than it is for Republicans. Republicans can pursue a peaceful policy and get away with it.

Nixon as an opponent of communist China makes Donald Trump look like a friend of Mexican immigrants. Nixon built his whole political career on accusing Democrats of selling out, of being too weak with the Communists and losing China to communism. He built his whole political career on anti-communism and anti-China. When he became president, he was smart enough to make a 180-degree turn about relationships with China.

The real threats to security of the United States and the people all over the world are not Russia and China. And not ISIS either.  They are climate change and the economic pressures of excess population growth on the carrying capacity of  Earth, and particularly the carrying capacity of the most economically vulnerable regions and countries— this is what provokes resource wars.

To solve the problem requires consensus and cooperation among all the countries of the world led by the world’s major powers. We have worked in consensus organizations all of our lives. Nobody should be naive enough to think that everybody has equal power in consensus organizations. So, cooperation of all the countries of the world, led by the world’s major powers, which given the present juridical structure of the United Nations means that at the very least, the five permanent members of the security council, and the reality is there are really three permanent members of the security council because France and Britain will go along with the United States.

The fantasy standing in the way of addressing these problems and getting this consensus is the idea of ignorant and venal politicians: that the U.S. can retain and advance the boundaries of sole super power, neo- imperial domination that they achieved briefly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The fatal foreign policy error of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all three of them— they are all foreign policy novices, they really had no experience in foreign policy, no strategic depth of understanding— their foreign policy error was that they yielded to the persuasion of the military-industrial-bureaucratic push. They had an establishment advising them and pushing them to take advantage of the temporary weakness of Russia and the less developed military strength of China— because China hadn’t focused on military strength. They were going to take advantage of that to aggressively extend the military umbrella of NATO membership.

They were going to extend new military bases and alliances around the Pacific perimeter of China. That is what you experienced when you went to Okinawa and Jeju!  Jeju is not about North Korea. North Korea’s atomic weapon, its one atomic bomb or whatever the heck it has is not the reason for Jeju. It is the pretext for Jeju, and probably the only reason that the US will not make an agreement and a settlement with North Korea is they want the North Korean bomb as a pretext for ringing China with so-called defensive installations.

To extend these military bases and alliances has sent a very aggressive and threatening message to the governments of Russia and China, which are getting stronger every year. The idea that you can tell these big, powerful, economically powerful, highly populated countries with a large amount of natural resources that we are much stronger than you are today, and therefore you have to knuckle under to us: that is not going to work. Western Europe can’t invade Russia and get away with it. Napoleon tried. Hitler tried. It didn’t work.

Their second fatal error, of Bush and Obama, not so much Clinton, has been their error that they could take advantage of popular unrest and revolts in Middle Eastern countries to knock off dictatorial governments and then establish friendly client governments in these countries. These rebel movements and revolt movements will only cooperate with the United States as long as they need the weapons and until they prevail. The neocolonial thing doesn’t really work anymore: once they get power, they don’t really want to be subservient clients anymore, and they don’t think they have to be.

The U.S. failed to establish a stable client government in Iraq. In fact, because of their naiveté and inexperience, they brought in a government more influenced by Iran. They are well on the road as you know to a similar failure in Afghanistan, and they failed miserably in Libya and they are failing in such a terribly tragic way in Syria, totally destroying Syria. How many of these successive, tragic failures in the Middle East do they have to experience before realizing that they have to let the politics of these countries work out in terms of the real strengths of factions and groups and forces within these countries and then, work as constructively as possible with whatever governing body comes to power?

You have to have peace, and you have to have prosperity, and economic development, not necessarily economic growth, but peaceful economic development, and then countries— particularly in the educational climate of the modern world— will gradually evolve toward less repressive systems. You and I are thriving in the United States of America. We don’t like capitalist corporate domination, but we’re not dying. We’re not feeling that we have to get in a rowboat and row to Australia in order to save our lives— we’re not putting our children onto a rowboat and trying to row to Australia to get away from our country.

Brian: You brought up the analogy of a consensus making group that we have all worked with to various degrees of success. I agree that not everybody comes with equal power into those situations, but I have also seen where power has been abused in those situations. I think that we have seen consensus making groups dissolve and we have seen consensus making groups morph into something else and we have had to sometimes exit different things because we cannot work with it. One of my problems with consensus is that it is so very easily subverted if somebody has an agenda that they want to push and they are going to be ruthless about it and they are capable of doing it. That is what I fear about the U.S. coming into these situations. What is the U.S. agenda, is it really to make peace? Are we really concerned about the people of Syria, more than we are concerned about the stock of Lockheed and Raytheon? Will the United States as it is presently constituted be capable of being a partner?

Now you are getting down to the fundamental question, that is the only one important and relevant for us, other than being how many angels dance on the head of a pin. That thing that is relevant for me, for you and for me: as anarchists, as powerless people, what can we contribute? The only thing we can contribute is to moderate the abuses of the powerful, to restrain the abuses of the powerful. That is what Kathy and I and others in the Central America Solidarity movement in the 80s were able to do.

Look back to Reagan— he starts out with this evil empire idea, he increases military spending by 50% over Carter, he comes up with the Star Wars idea and so on. In Central America, he is restrained by our Central America Solidarity movement to the point that the Congress eventually votes to prohibit U.S. military aid or support to the contras. It really ties their hands; it leads to the Iran contra problem, Oliver North and so forth, trying to get around the mandate of Congress.

Then you have the nuclear freeze movement, and there are a million people in New York City saying we have to end nuclear weapons and so on. By the way, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Sam Nunn of Georgia— top establishment figures— are currently saying we need to go to nuclear zero, now that they are retired and out of government.  So, our role is to restrain the abuses of capitalism and the abuses of the powerful.

How do we do that, and what is our only resource? Our only resource is education. I believe that Kathy Kelly and Voices had a tremendous influence in the situation of ordinary people just dying and suffering so terribly in Iraq during the period of siege warfare. That is the role we can play.

I think that the peace movement is sort of on the way to becoming more irrelevant to Iraq and Afghanistan— because you can’t get the attention of the American public if fewer soldiers are dying. I think that Voices should start doing people-to-people visits to Russia. We need to try and moderate and pull back on cold war with Russia and China.

Brian: We have friends and allies telling us that we need to support Russia and Assad. People are angry with us because we have not spoken about Syria very much, and when we do we are going to alienate a lot of our friends, because some people are assuming that the peace movement needs to take a side.

That is what distinguishes us. We don’t take a side. We constantly advocate. I don’t think we should support Assad in Syria. It was a difficult line for Kathy and Voices to walk during the Iraq sanctions period: to not support Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz but to oppose the sanctions. Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz were fine with that. They were not insisting that you make any statements approving the way they governed Iraq. They understood that idea of being a non-aligned advocate of peace. I do not think you should make any statements supporting Putin or supporting Assad but you should say there has to be a negotiated settlement among these parties.

My fundamental strategic vision is that the relationships of the United States, Russia and China are the key to the future of peace on this planet.


The above conversation led to the following article:

Détente and the new Cold Wars, A Global Policy Perspective
by Karl Meyer

The essential key to addressing real threats to international security and peace, as well as to resolving smaller wars and regional conflicts, is to reverse the present trend toward Cold Wars with Russia and China. The world needs active cooperation among the United States, Russia, China and other influential countries, through agreement and cooperation within the United Nations framework. We need to return actively to the vision set forth in the United Nations Charter, and abandon the fantasy of unipolar world domination.

The possibility of war between nuclear armed powers is returning as a real threat to the security of people all over the world. Climate change, waste of limited resources, and the economic pressures of excess population growth on the carrying capacity of Earth are fueled by military spending. These threats are felt first by the most economically vulnerable regions and countries. They also drive local civil wars and regional resource and territorial wars.

In our view, the expansionist exceptionalism of United States neo-imperialist policies is the principal driver in the renewal of Cold War hostilities among the United States, Russia and China.

To solve these problems will require agreement and cooperation among all affected countries, with strong leadership by the world’s major powers. Given the present Charter structure of the United Nations, this means, at the very least, the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The policy fantasy that stands in the way of addressing major world problems cooperatively is the idea among ignorant or venal politicians that the United States can retain and expand the boundaries of “sole superpower” domination that was achieved briefly after the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union. The most damaging foreign policy error of Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, all foreign policy novices, was that they yielded to entrenched bureaucratic military/ industrial/ Congressional/governmental establishment advice and pressure to take advantage of temporary Russian weakness, and the less developed military strength of China, in order to extend the military umbrella of NATO membership into Eastern Europe and Central Asia. They pushed to ring the frontiers of Russia with new alliances, missile sites and military bases, and to extend military alliances and bases around the Pacific perimeter of China. These actions have sent a very aggressive and threatening message to the governments of Russia and China, which are getting stronger every year, and are pushing back.

A second harmful error of the Bush and Obama regimes has been their belief that they could take advantage of popular unrest and revolts in Middle Eastern countries to knock off dictatorial governments and, by aiding oppressed rebel groups, establish friendly client governments in these countries. They failed to secure a stable, reliable client government in Iraq, in fact brought in a government more influenced by Iran. They are well on the road to a similar failure in Afghanistan. They failed miserably in Libya, and are failing in a terribly tragic way in Syria. How many successive tragic failures do U.S. policy elites have to experience before learning that they have neither the right nor the capability to control the future political development of these countries. Each country must sort out political and economic arrangements according to its unique balances of power and social context, without excessive outside interference. Those forces that have the strength and organization to prevail do not intend to become subservient neo-colonial clients of the United States, once their temporary need for patronage has been resolved.

United States policy must stop poking and provoking Russia and China along their frontiers, and return to a strategy of seeking negotiated peaceful coexistence, and balancing of regional interests among the major powers, the United States, Russia and China, with appropriate respect for the interests of secondary powers, India, Pakistan, Iran, Brazil, Britain, Germany, France, Indonesia, Japan, etc. (Incidentally, in spite of their horrible, homicidal record of brutalizing the people of weaker countries, Nixon and Kissinger were balance-of-power realists who advanced a strategy of détente, and negotiated weapons control treaties with Russia and China, and Reagan acceded to Gorbachev’s initiatives, leading to the end of the earlier Cold Wars. These gains have been undermined by the policies of succeeding administrations.)

With active cooperation among the great powers and large reductions in wasteful competitive military spending, all countries could cooperatively address the threats from climate change, water shortages, regional underdevelopment, and economic pressures caused by population growth.  They might also resolve civil wars and smaller scale regional wars (such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine/Israel and Ukraine) through unified international pressure for  negotiated  settlements based on power sharing among all major political factions and forces within each country.

Peace movements and civil society movements cannot dictate the policies of governments or multi-national corporations. Our role, through agitation and education, is to restrain their abuses of power as much as may be possible, and to influence the political context of their decision making as much as may be possible, through mass organization and mobilization.

Photo caption:  Karl Meyer at his chicken coop
Photo credit: Nashville Greenlands

Karl Meyer, a longtime colleague of and adviser to Voices for Creative Nonviolence, is a fifty year veteran of nonviolent action for peace and justice and the founding coordinator of Nashville Greenlands environmental and social justice community.