Since its founding moments, the United States has been bedeviled by a morally self-congratulatory image of American exceptionalism, despite engaging in practices that violate the most fundamental precepts of human decency. This dualism, constituted by dynamics of denial and myth-making, has achieved a public posture of innocence throughout a national history that includes slavery, racism, dispossession and destruction of native peoples, continuous interventions in weaker countries, war-making and exploitative economic arrangements with autocratic Third World elites. A dramatic instance of this contradictory reality was the celebration of victory over fascism as a just war coupled with the mega-terrorist use of atomic bombs against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

In some notable respects, the disappointments of the 1990s represented a parallel disconnect, due to US preeminence, between impressive achievements on the level of global justice and immobility, or worse, on the level of existential human suffering, when that suffering could have been mitigated. Nowhere was this more true than in Africa and the Middle East. The African region was seen as not worth the candle of strategic engagement by the geopolitical forces that govern the world; in the Middle East, those forces accorded priority to sustaining an artificial and oppressive status quo. In one instance, the region was geopolitically insignificant, and in the other, the region was treated as a matter of vital strategic interest. Yet the results of neglect and excessive attentiveness were essentially the same for the local peoples.

The Disconnect

The failure of the United Nations in 1994 to protect the threatened population of Rwanda against genocide is illustrative of the refusal of the organized world community to lift a finger under conditions of humanitarian emergency. This same refusal to act locally was dramatically evident in relation to the struggle over Israel-Palestine, where the illusion of a “peace process” was coupled with the concrete realities of settlement expansion and a humiliating Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in defiance of international law. There were many other expressions of this pattern, including a willed indifference to poverty and disease in the South, as well as the minimal engagement with “ethnic cleansing” in former Yugoslavia, culminating in the horrendous massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, while UN peacekeepers looked on as virtual bystanders. Such examples of local injustice could be multiplied infinitely, although these salient examples of either regional inattention or preoccupation by geopolitical forces provide a revealing profile of recent world politics.

Despite these failures, there were encouraging suggestions of an awakening sense of human solidarity, exhibiting a deepening global moral and legal consciousness. The pursuit of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet demonstrated an increasing willingness to hold leaders of states legally responsible for crimes of state. There was a dramatic increase in attention to severe violations of human rights, including even a selective willingness to engage in humanitarian interventions under the auspices of the UN. There were a variety of moves to address historic injustices, including long-deferred compensation for forced labor during the Nazi era, recovery of bank deposits by Holocaust survivors, serious discussion of reparations for victims of slavery, and acknowledgement of and apology for crimes perpetuated long ago, including the dispossession of numerous indigenous peoples, colonial domination and the humiliation of so-called “comfort women” throughout Asia during the time of Japanese military expansion.

These moves reflected the rise and influence of global civil society, providing an expanding number of arenas that were receptive to constituencies that felt variously victimized by current political, economic and cultural arrangements. During the final decade of the bloody twentieth century, there seemed to be an emergent sense of global responsibility that transcended borders, and defied the amorality of geopolitics. A new internationalism arose that involved coalitions between transnational social forces organized as civil society actors and moderate governments, achieving an anti-personnel land mines treaty and the establishment of an International Criminal Court over the vigorous opposition of such leading states as the US and China. The impact of such initiatives remain to be seen, and will be a strong indicator of whether the specific conduct of controlling geopolitical forces can be made responsive to the claims of global justice.

Resilience of Power

The question that remains is how to explain this stultifying disconnect arising from the persistence, and even intensification, of particular injustices in the face of general moves in the direction of global justice. I think there are two lines of explanation, either of which seems sufficient. The first line of explanation is quite simply a matter of geopolitical ascendancy, either highlighting a commitment to the status quo by hegemonic actors or revealing an essential unwillingness by these actors to expend resources and give attention to matters of marginal relevance to their perceived interests. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Middle East has replaced Europe as the vital pivot of world politics, and support for Israel is central to the regional hegemonic strategy of the US, as well as representing an entrenched domestic commitment in official American politics. At the same time, the symbolic prominence of the Palestinian struggle, as the most significant instance of thwarted self-determination and disrupted decolonization, requires the appearance of attention to the dynamics of the conflict.

The result of such conflicting pressures is a phony peace process, a gesture toward global justice, accompanied by a worsening Palestinian reality, the embodiment of local injustice, that ironically gives rise to forms of local resistance that simultaneously, although unwittingly, diminish Israeli security and economic well-being. Indeed, this tragic downward spiral for both peoples is characteristic of the effects of denying specific injustices so as to realize geopolitical priorities, which in this instance include oil, military presence and the suppression of political Islam. We witness a powerful negative dialectic at work in the Middle East that couples the language of peace with governing policies of extreme violence. The US war of aggression against Iraq followed by a hostile and exploitative occupation, replete with sweetheart deals worth billions for such insider corporations as Halliburton and Bechtel, is illustrative of a new type of post-colonial colonialism, which seems unlikely to prevail over the nationalist resistance being mounted by Iraqi anti-colonialist forces.

The second main explanation of the disconnect involves the resilience of state sovereignty. During recent decades, power differentials have become increasingly difficult to translate into political outcomes in the face of nationalist resistance. Most current injustices are matters of either state-society relations in which an abusive government imposes its will or cruelties embedded in popular culture that governments lack the means (or the will) to prevent, as is the case with “honor killings” in such countries as Turkey and Jordan. Perhaps, over time, the endorsement of standards of international human rights, as well as decades of relevant peace education and the homogenizing impact of globalization, will lead to a gradual and uneven process of “harmonization,” softening the behavior of governments toward their own citizens and challenging regressive aspects of cultural practice.

But the main explanation of local injustice continues to be what it has been for several centuries: the Westphalian framework of a world of territorially sovereign states, empowered to act as an insulating sanctuary for the commission of what Ken Booth has so tellingly called “human wrongs.” In other words, the imperatives of global justice are continuously being trumped by the unjust realities of territorial authority. Thinking back to the Nazi era, it is chastening to realize that so long as Hitler carried on his genocidal policies within German borders, there was no geopolitical willingness whatsoever to challenge the persecution of the Jews and others. It was only when Germany and its partners deeply threatened the global order by waging European wars of aggression that a defensive alliance took shape. As long as Germany acted domestically, there was no political will to protect the victims of acute local injustice. The liberal democracies were quite willing to participate in the 1936 Olympics and to be entertained by their hosts at Berlin, knowingly presenting the Nazi regime with a major propaganda victory.

Reversing the Momentum

Such an assessment of this complex relationship between the globally articulated demands for justice and the persistence of local injustice has proceeded without discussing either the complicating relevance of corporate and other forms of globalization and without a mention of the September 11 attacks. There was a new dialectical movement at work during the 1990s with respect to globalization, combining an economistic indifference to the human fallout of neo-liberal global economic policy and a moral and religious resurgence partly arising as a defensive reaction to corporate globalization. This reaction was notable by its selective attentiveness to specific injustices, as well as its embrace of a normative discourse on a global level, especially with respect to human rights. Multinational companies such as Shell, with notorious records of local abuse, suddenly purchased prominent advertising space to proclaim their dedication to human rights and environmental responsibility. Of course, such initiatives were in large part cynical public relations gestures, but were also significant as acknowledgements that the moral demands of global civil society could not be ignored. It may still be a stretch to claim that global civil society is “the second superpower,” but it would be equally ahistorical to ignore this transnational capacity to endow certain global justice demands with political force.

The impact of September 11 is significant, obscuring the dialectical links between claims of global justice and the persistence of local injustice by restoring issues of war and peace to center stage. When global civil society mounted its extraordinary protests of February 15, 2003 against the prospect of a US attack on Iraq, it signified the adoption by civil society of a war/peace agenda, as well as the impotence of grassroots forces to reverse the geopolitical momentum associated with the US drive to convert its defense against the al-Qaeda network into a pretext for global empire. By so shifting the focus of concern, the encouraging developments of the 1990s that had mounted a potentially positive dialectic, generating a normative climate in which political legitimacy of elites was at least provisionally dependent on upholding human rights, were canceled overnight. As in the Cold War, a negative dialectic prevailed, in which geopolitical alignments were privileged to the extent that abusive rule at home was ignored, or even reinforced, provided support was given in the struggle against world communism. Now the political language has shifted to “terrorism,” but the effects are similar, granting states an exemption from global accountability so long as they sign up as acquiescent in US moves to consolidate its imperial grip on the world political and economic system.

Whether the more hopeful dialectic of the 1990s can be restored to historical relevance is an uncertainty likely to be resolved in the next few years. Crucial to this resolution is the outcome of the Iraq occupation and the 2004 presidential elections in the US. Unfortunately, hope in the near term depends on the continuing failure of US policy in Iraq, as well as on an economic “recovery” that restores corporate profits without overcoming joblessness. If the response to September 11 can be converted from “war” to “law enforcement,” and the Bush presidency repudiated at the polls, then there is a strong prospect that the momentum of the 1990s in support of global justice will reappear, quite possibly with enhanced stature and a greater sense of urgency.

In such an atmosphere, it is not unreasonable to hope that the most symbolically powerful instances of injustice will attract growing attention, which could finally bring some relief and balance to the struggle of the Palestinian people to achieve their rights, especially the right of self-determination. It is helpful to remember that the downfall of apartheid at the outset of the 1990s seemed “impossible” only a few years before it happened, but that it too had acquired the status of an intolerable specific injustice for the world as a whole. It is this possibility, as reinforced by the courage of the Palestinian people, which gives us some reason to believe that the decade ahead will give rise to progress with respect to this grossest form of collective injustice, as well as allow for a revival of attention to an array of other legitimate grievances around the world.

How to cite this article:

Richard Falk "Reviving Global Justice, Addressing Legitimate Grievances," Middle East Report 229 (Winter 2003).

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