The Refugee Century

The 21st Century will be the Refugee Century. That much is certain, and it would be blind to argue otherwise.

The Refugee Century commenced with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. No doubt historians will look at the Iraq War as the catalyst for so many changes in the global order, but there is little question that the war produced tremendous outflows of people. In 2008, there were an estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees and other 2 million "internally displaced" Iraqis (e.g., Iraqis who had to flee their homes but stayed in Iraq). Then came Syria, then Libya, adding millions more to the refugee rolls. Many of these people fled to Europe, where they encountered significant distrust and hatred. Indeed, one of President Donald Trump’s objectives with his travel ban was to reduce the number of refugees into the U.S.

Millions of refugees pose a problem, and the world struggles to accommodate the present number. Basic needs barely get met; other human needs and desires—economic security, psychological well-being—are certainly ignored. Man does not live on bread alone, yet even bread is a rare luxury to a family fleeing war. 

What happens when millions of refugees become tens of millions, or hundreds of millions? This is not a fantasy. War continues to embroil the Middle East. As the planet gets hotter because of global warming, ice caps will melt and sea levels will rise. Island nations and low-lying countries are at particular risk. Places like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh could see epic forms of disaster within the decade. There are 169 million people in Bangladesh. Where will they go when the sea levels rise?

Governments do not give any indication that they are prepared for any aspect of the Refugee Century. Perhaps they talk behind closed doors, but don’t say anything openly for fear of alarming the public. I think more likely they are just hoping some thing or someone else will deal with the issue. Perhaps leaders believe they don’t have the democratic mandate to do anything today, and that they need to wait for a disaster in order to marshal the public. These are all certainly possibilities. A more cynical conclusion might be that leaders just don’t care. That too is a distinct possibility.

The Refugee Century is here. The people movement that has taken place since 2003 will be dwarfed by the people movement to come in the next few decades. Societies and governments need to start preparing for this inevitability. It will be a crisis, no doubt. And only the better prepared countries will be in a position to manage, survive, or even thrive from the challenges and opportunities that come from the Refugee Century

Will anyone ever face justice for the Iraq War?

It is comforting to think that the world is run by the sane, by the competent, by the deserving. 

But nothing is further from the truth. The world is not run by good people.

The best evidence for this proposition is the Iraq War.

The Iraq War was a slaughter house built on lies. The chaos it produced -- which bleeds into the present -- has led to millions of deaths

"'Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord, When men are unprepared and look not for it." William Shakespeare, Richard III (c. 1591), Act III, scene 2, line 64.

"'Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord,
When men are unprepared and look not for it."

William Shakespeare, Richard III (c. 1591), Act III, scene 2, line 64.

The lies were not mistakes, they were intentional. And they were stated and uttered by people who knew much better than to lie about the necessity of a war.

The consequences of these lies have been immense. They are so immense that people have trouble wrapping their heads around the damage, destruction, and deaths that have been caused.

An entire society was destroyed:  38 million people plunged into chaos, the population of California, on the decisions of a handful of people who still walk free. 

When leaders are willing to kill millions, and to destroy the lives of millions more, and they do it without a second thought -- in fact, when they go out of their way to lie about the need to kill these people -- then these leaders are not only illegitimate. They are also engaged in crimes.

At the Nuremberg Trials, German leaders were put on trial for illegal warmaking -- crimes that led to the deaths of tens of millions of people in Europe. The Nuremberg Tribunal held that committing unlawful wars was the "supreme international crime," and sentenced German leaders to death for committing these acts. The Tokyo Tribunal did the same for Japanese war criminals. 

An aggressive war against another country is a heinous crime. It is an act of mass murder. 

No, it is not normal, or good, or right for killers to be in charge of governments. 

At the end of the 21st century, there will be two things that animate the heavy judgments against those of us alive at the present. 

The first will be our abject failure to have mitigated and forestalled the coming climate crisis.

But the second will be the Iraq War, and the failure of good people to hold their leaders accountable -- leaders who, by every measure, have committed immoral, indecent, and criminal acts against others.

It may not seem like it, but the climate crisis and the Iraq War are related. They are both symptoms and expressions of fundamental social beliefs.

A society that refuses to hold its leaders accountable for an unprovoked war is a society that will let its ruling class commit murder without sanction. 

Such a society will also let the Earth devour their children and grandchildren, merely because it is inconvenient to change a life of privilege in favor of one of preparation, mitigation, and environmental and economic sustainability. 

Today is a time of technological abundance. But it is also a time of deep and biting poverty in matters of ethics and justice. 

Only ethics and justice will pave the way for species-wide survival in the decades to come.

And there is one grave injustice that, if remedied, could be the key towards a future governed by the rule of law and for respect for all peoples and nations -- the Iraq War.

Will anyone ever face justice for the Iraq War? The future is not set in stone. It is created in the present. And there is a future where humans are more pacified, more civilized, and better in tune with nature. In that future, there can be no doubt that those who caused the destruction of Iraq will face the scales and the sword of justice.

But there is also a future where humans remain locked in bloody conflict, where ancient Titans locked in the Earth break free and rebel against humanity, where science goes ignored and where entropy, disarray, and heat are the ruling natural forces. In such a world, justice and civilization will be in short supply. And Iraq will be one of many injustices that, caustic like, produce never-ending cycles of violence and warfare.

One of these is a future worth fighting for. Never give up the struggle for civilization, law, ethics and justice.

Trump -- The result of decades of presidential lawlessness

Barrels of ink have been spilt discussing the state of the republic in the wake of Donald Trump's victory in November and his ascension to the presidency. 

It is, in fact, a highly noteworthy event, a historic event one could even say. Donald Trump is the first "social media" President, and the first "reality TV" president. He secured office almost exclusively based on his branding and on his manufactured image. He has no military of previous government experience, no legislation to his name, no public policy successes. His business acumen has been challenged as suspect in a variety of lawsuits against his enterprises, many of which have failed and ended in bankruptcy. 

People have also observed the pervasive conflicts of interests that Trump has brought into the White House, and the real risk that government decisions are being made to further the personal financial interests of Trump and his delegates. Indeed, the perception of public graft is naked, almost a flaunt by Trump, his family members, and their underlings. 

Governance itself is at risk. In an era of unbridled corruption, where numerous executive branch offices sit empty, and where the foremost critics of government agencies have been placed at the head of such agencies (Scott Pruitt heading the EPA, for example), what we may be witnessing is a fatal blow to the credibility of the federal government itself.

The Roman Republic lasted for hundreds of years before strong men turned it into an empire.

The Roman Republic lasted for hundreds of years before strong men turned it into an empire.

When Trump runs for re-election, he will no doubt run on a platform that his attempts to "drain the swamp" were met with obstruction from the Establishment, and he needs a bigger mandate in order to root out the evil in Washington D.C. I suspect this type of message will continue to resonate.

Much of what I have written is approaching the level of conventional wisdom. But there is more to Trump than meets the eye -- and I would take the position that Trump is not the disease. Trump is the symptom of a much bigger problem. That problem is the decades of lawlessness in the executive branch, and the decades of lawbreaking by previous Presidents. They all set the precedent for Trump.

Executive branch lawlessness has been rampant for some time. At its most extreme, it has taken the form of illegal wars, unlawful domestic surveillance, and torture. Let's call this aggressive lawbreaking "strong lawlessness," because it represents affirmative conduct of the executive branch in breaking the law.

But there has also been a form of "weak lawlessness," or a lawlessness that is characterized by lack of enforcement of laws. Here I am thinking about the banks and bank executives who torpedoed the economy in 2008 -- not a single person was indicted or brought to justice for that. I am thinking about the people who authorized the torture in Iraq and Afghanistan -- no high ranking official was ever charged with a crime for such heinous acts. The fact that the executive branch refuses to enforce laws against the powerful is itself a stunning and sordid pronouncement of a two-tiered justice system, a two-tiered economic system, and a two-tiered social system whereby the laws are meant for the little people, while those with power and influence take their seats in a de facto and unaccountable aristocracy.

Both strong lawlessness and weak lawlessness will get worse under Trump no doubt. But it probably would have continued under Clinton. Clinton supporters are delusional if they think Clinton was going to enact any type of genuine reform or rule of law initiatives to curb executive branch excesses. Clinton promised to govern in the Obama tradition, which would have meant she would have continued his policies of not indicting war criminals, of not going after the banks, and of doing little to rectify the two-tiered America that exists today. Perhaps not as obvious or odious, but the inability of President Obama to bring the executive branch into line after 8 years of reckless and criminal wrongdoing by President Bush stands as Obama's greatest failure. Obama, in many ways, bears tremendous blame for continuing unlawful policies and a culture of lawlessness at the executive branch: all things that paved the way for President Trump.

Thinking people should be frightened not just of Trump, but who or what comes after Trump. We live in an era when executive branch officials bomb other countries without legal authorization, torture in the name of security, and break domestic laws simply because they can. Meanwhile, Congress stands idle, and the Courts do little but enable an imperial Executive. America appears to be comfortable with all the rudimentary trappings of dictatorship, repeating the mistakes of past republics and permitting strong men to aggrandize power, to chest-beat their way into dominance for their own personal ambitions, to act more as apes than as humans. We are watching the world burn. And our leaders -- all of them -- are the ones who are lighting the fires.

How North Korea outplayed the Americans

This may be a bitter pill for American diplomats to swallow, but astute global watchers are realizing something that will have dramatic consequences for the world: the North Koreans are handily outplaying the U.S. and will likely up-end the regional balance of power dramatically, probably in the next twelve to eighteen months.

How did this happen? How did an isolated, brutal, repressive regime become so powerful so quickly? And what is the world going to do about it?

Busan Tower, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Hoil Ryu on Unsplash

Busan Tower, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Hoil Ryu on Unsplash

First, it is important to put away the the moral finger-wagging. Brutal, repressive regimes are often quite powerful and often become so very quickly. Whether people like the North Korean regime is entirely besides the point. In fact, the focus on the finger-wagging by American politicians has been a tremendous handicap to actually solving the very real and growing political crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Second, it is abundantly clear that the North Koreans have survived because they have refused to play ball with the Americans. Unlike Iraq, Libya and Syria, North Korea went forward with an aggressive nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, almost immediately after being labeled as part of the American "axis of evil" in 2002 by then President George W. Bush. The result is that North Korea is far more powerful today than it was in 2002. 

Third, it is time for diplomats to just wake up. Military options are completely out of the question, and everyone knows it. That's what makes U.S. threats increasingly hollow, and pointless. A war in the Korean peninsula will kill millions of people, and if it goes nuclear, it will start World War III. The assassination of Kim Jong-Nam in Malaysia with a VX nerve agent was a conspicuous warning to the world that North Korea is willing to use targeted killings, even involving the use of highly banned chemical agents. You can bet that North Korea has several plans in place to assassinate and terrorize civilian populations in the event of the outbreak of war.

The real losers here are civilians -- Korean civilians, American civilians, even European civilians (although Europe will probably avoid significant fallout, literally and figuratively, if the Korean peninsula goes hot). Kim Jong Un probably won't hesitate to risk the lives of millions to save his regime. What the U.S. government will do in this situation is an open question. There is no military solution here that doesn't involve the real loss of American lives, maybe even tens of thousands of American lives. Keep in mind that the last Korean War, fought at at time when the U.S. was far more powerful than North Korea by several orders of magnitude, ended in stalemate.

In the "realist" school of international relations, diplomats focus on analyzing state power to discern the interests of governments. Well, North Korea is actually a pretty powerful country now. It is ruled by a strong-man with an iron grip on power, and its citizens appear to be brainlessly loyal or subservient to the regime, thus avoiding any chance of a coup or domestic uprising. It doesn't appear to be going anywhere. It only appears to be getting stronger.

The solution? The broad strokes are easy, the details are difficult. Broadly, the U.S. needs to push for disarmament in the region, and disarmament more globally. Get rid of nuclear weapons from the peninsula. Put in place actual enforcement mechanisms. Second, the U.S. needs to let the Koreas resolve the Korean war. This may result in a Korean peninsula that isn't completely tied to U.S. interests. But it's the only way to resolve the crisis. Only by letting go can the U.S. achieve better security in the region. The more the U.S. grasps onto South Korea, the greater the North Korean threat. An independent but largely stable Korea is much better for the U.S. than the current situation. Otherwise, it's just a matter of time before things go boom.

Statement at the United Nations by Inder Comar on the Trump Travel Bans

The following is a statement given by Inder Comar at a side event of the 35th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 19, 2017. 

Inder Comar (left) provides a statement at the United Nations regarding the effect and purpose of the Trump Travel bans. Swiss lawyer Pierre Bayonet (center) and international human rights lawyer Dr. Curtis Doebbler (right).

Inder Comar (left) provides a statement at the United Nations regarding the effect and purpose of the Trump Travel bans. Swiss lawyer Pierre Bayonet (center) and international human rights lawyer Dr. Curtis Doebbler (right).

Thank you for the introduction. My name is Inder Comar and I am an attorney in The United States. I live and work in San Francisco and New York, and it’s a great privilege to be here and to speak about this topic.

I’m going to focus my comments on what are called colloquially in the United States, ‘The Travel Bans’, and I don’t know how they’re called in other countries, but this is referring to two executive orders that were issued by our current President, President Donald Trump very soon after his inauguration and have been reviewed extensively now by the courts. At least one court of appeal has determined that the travel ban has been subject to, or was the source of discrimination; specifically religious discrimination against Muslims, that the ban targeted Muslims.

What I’ll make clear, especially as I get to the end of my talk, is that we have to look at the travel bans in the context of American history. There are really two American histories; there’s one that every American has the right and obligation to be proud of, in terms of our innovations with respect to due process, and with respect to really remedying and attacking this form of race hatred that has existed in a lot of different places, but also in the United States.

But there is also another America that is really important to talk about that doesn’t get talked a lot about, and that is an America that unfortunately both from a cultural and a government perspective has the unfortunate tendency of labeling certain groups as enemies, or as others. Then supporting through law forms of discrimination against those ‘others’. So, when we’re talking about the travel bans, the travel bans start to make a lot of sense in that historical tradition.

First, I want to talk about the travel bans. There have actually been two travel bans:

The first travel ban was issued one week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, so it was issued on January 27, 2017.

In the first travel ban, the President suspended for ninety days both the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry of foreign persons from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

The First Executive Order also placed a lot of constraints on the admission of refugees into the country. So, it dropped the number of refugees who could be admitted to just 50,000 and it barred indefinitely the admission of Syrian refugees. Id. § 5(c)–(d). So Syrian refugees were just not permitted at all. It further ordered the government to review this program and then when it resumed doing this type of work, the Secretary of State was to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals of religious minority groups only. So, the idea being that only Christians or Sabeans, Yazidis, or minorites, non-Muslims could apply for refugee status.  

As noted in court papers throughout the US court system, the President issued these Orders without consulting any relevant national security agencies whatsoever, and in fact prevented and shielded the acting Attorney General at the time from even learning about the contents of the Order. So a lot of people learned about the Order when they read the news or turned on the television that day.

As we all know now, the ban resulted in chaos. One of the primary results of the ban was to target family groups and to threaten families from being joined together. People who were coming back from visiting from overseas, and as I’ll get to at the end of my comments, destruction of the family or targeting the family is part of this other American tradition. When we talk about this American tradition of stigmatizing and vilifying, the primary mechanism that you see in American history is threats and targets of the family.     

What happened at that point, is two American states, the states of Washington and the state of Minnesota immediately challenged the ban. They won at the district court, the lower court level. That went up on appeal, and on appeal, the Ninth Circuit court of appeal which is the Federal Court of Appeal, concluded the travel ban was illegal on the grounds of Due Process. So, it didn’t touch the religious claims, or the discrimination claims, but it said as a matter of just sheer Due Process, what you’ve done, it’s just not going to work, and we’re not going to let you do it.   

So, in response to that, President Trump issued a second ban. He told the Court, ‘O.K., you won, I’m not going to fight this, and I’m going to issue a second ban, so give me a couple weeks to do that.’ He got a couple weeks and he issued the Second Travel Ban, and that was issued on March 6, 2017.

Basically what happened there, is the list of seven countries dropped down to six, so Iraq was removed from the list. The second ban did not bar lawful refugees as the first ban had. It also did not talk about preferential treatment for religious minorities.

Right after the second travel ban was released, two reports that came out from the US Department of Homeland Security, both of those reports concluded that they did not reference the ban but they concluded that the ban was kind of useless. The first report stated that increased vetting was unlikely to reduce terrorism-related offenses. A separate report indicated that citizenship is not a reliable indicator of whether anyone poses a terrorist threat.

The second ban was immediately subject to further litigation, and just a couple weeks ago, and as early as last week, we have a couple more court orders.

So the first is from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, which is a Federal Court of Appeal, and it covers Maryland, the Carolinas, the Virginias. It issued its opinion on May 25, 2017, and that court said that the second ban was likely unconstitutional on the grounds of religious discrimination. So what it did is it looked at pre-administration statements, statements that President Trump had made in the campaign trail. It also looked at Statements that the Administration had made while in office. It easily concluded that the ban was a targeting of Muslim people. It went behind the Administration’s defense is, the Administration says that there’s no mention… the word Muslim doesn’t appear in the ban, was basically the defense.

What this court has said was, no actually, what you said on the campaign trail, and I can list some of the comments… I have a list here… On the campaign website, the Trump Campaign Website had proposed “a total and complete shut down ofMuslims entering into the United States.” This link was only taken down March 2017.

In January, former New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani issued a statement on Fox News where the President reportedly called him up and said, ‘How do we make this legal?’ And Giuliani said, ‘Well don’t focus on the religion, talk about the countries and that’s how it’ll be legal.’

The Court look at all that stuff and said, ‘You can’t… this is a pre-text… you can’t have said all these things on one side of your mouth and now you’re coming to us and claiming that it’s neutral. That’s not how this works.’ So that decision is now up on appeal to the Supreme court.

Just a week ago the 9th Circuit, so a different Federal Court, it also said the ban was unconstitutional but it didn’t reach the religious issues. It said that it was unconstitutional on the basis of immigration law. So now all of these decisions are going to be reviewed, they are being reviewed as we speak by the US Supreme Court.

Historical context

As I wanted to do earlier, I want to talk about the historical context of these bans, because when you look at the history of this historical legacy, I think the bans are quite naked in terms government-sanctioned targeting of an “other”.

Slavery offers the most well-known example of this and discrimination against people with dark skin, black skin in the United States. There’s a recent book by Professor James Whitman at Yale Law School, who examines the ways in which German National Socialists in the 1930s, their lawyers actually picked up on and studied American Jim Crow laws in depth to understand how they could model their laws to define how Jews should be discriminated against. They were really interested in how America and US States defined terms such as “Negro” or “Mongol.” So National Socialist lawyers were looking at this stuff.

The destruction of indigenous communities by state and federal governments, whether it was through their own conduct or in turning a blind eye to mob violence, is another example of a group of people who were deemed unworthy and unfit to belong to the definition of what it meant to be “American” – which has always carried a historical overture of being people with white skin.

In the 4th Circuit’s recent opinion, which I talked about, there are several citations to Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). This is a very famous Supreme Court opinion which approved of the internment of Japanese individuals, or individuals of Japanese descent, including American citizens, based on the fact that they were Japanese. So this was permitted and approved, and Japanese people were stuck in camps. And as noted in a dissent the decision to intern people of Japanese ancestry was based on little more than, and I’m quoting now “misinformation, half- truths and insinuations that for years have been directed against Japanese Americans by people with racial and economic prejudices—the same people who have been among the foremost advocates of the evacuation.” The parallels with the Travel Bans are clear.

But I want to talk about another, largely unknown case that I think provides the best comparison with the travel bans, and then I’m going to finish up.  This is the case United States v. Bhagan Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923). In this case, a Punjabi-born Indian male, he applied for U.S. citizenship on the basis that he was a high-born caste member in India, and he was a member of the“Aryan race” and that he was “Caucasian,” meaning, that his ancestors had from the Caucasus Mountains. The immigration court bought it and said, ‘Yea, that sounds right.” And they gave him his citizenship, at a time when Inidians did not get citizenship in the United States. The government appealed, and this went all the way up to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reviewed this and said, “Look, your theories of Aryanism are interesting, but we don’t buy them. We also reject the idea that you’re “Caucasian,”.” The Court concluded, and I think it is worth reading their conclusion in full:

“The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.” The Court concluded that the great body Americans would instinctively recognize such differences and “reject the thought of assimilation.”

The Travel Bans, and the demagoguery that produced the bans, can be traced very clearly back at least through that decision, and its conclusion that the law in the United States was “intended to include only the type of man whom [the original framers of the law] knew as white.”

Thinking people have to confront the reality that a de facto, race-based society remains alive and well in the United States, that’s in competition with some of these other American values. There’s a real battle right now in the hearts and minds of Americans, is that how that’s going to turn out.

The Travel Bans are a symptom of a long disease which, however in remission it may have been, is now in violent metastasis. Instead of the Irish, the Italians, the Mexicans, or the Japanese, it is now Muslims, and particularly Arab Muslims, who are being targeted and labeled as an enemy, as an “other”, and who are being subject to discrimination both culturally, and by the government. And by a government that can barely seem to hide avowedly racist and discriminatory priorities.

When you think about the slave market, the native reservation, Jim Crow, the prison system in the United States which is overwhelmingly black and brown, Japanese concentration camps, you should think about too, Arab and Muslims detainees in Guantanamo, being held without trial, and the numerous unlawful and criminal wars of aggression that target weak and largely brown and black nations. These are the cousins and colleagues of the Travel Bans. It is no longer possible for good thinking people to aid and abet these policies.  

Will human rights survive the 21st century?

Is the modern human rights framework doomed? Will people even be discussing human rights in fifty years?

The modern doctrine of human rights, based in the idea of equal dignity of all people, was codified in the ashes of World War II. Along with establishing the United Nations, global leaders believed that protecting human rights would prevent so many of the dark atrocities that took place during the war.

The high watermark of human rights may have been the 1990s. The International Criminal Court was being established in the Hague, while General Pinochet was facing extradition to Spain for his acts of torture while acting as head of state in Chile. There was an optimism in the international legal community that the rule of law was in its ascendance, and that some sort of cooperative, global system of governance based on a variety of treaties and procedures was organically growing.

It is cliched to say, but it is true: 9/11 changed everything. The US, the ostensible champion of the rule of law in the global order, turned away from human rights law in favor of indefinite detention of prisoners, torture, extrajudicial killings through mechanized drones, and wars of aggression. In doing so, the US gave a de facto green light to other regimes to continue or increase their human rights abuses. 

Today, in the era of Trump, those who study human rights have to confront a serious question: will human rights survive this century? How can a legal doctrine dependent on the support of major powers, including the sole superpower, survive at a time when no great power is willing to support the idea?

All things being equal, it is good that countries like Germany and the EU at large continue to support human rights. But their support is not enough. 

If human rights loses its champions, the rule of law will suffer dramatically. And without the rule of law, the world returns to a state of nature, where life will be nasty, brutish and short. It also means humans will have learned nothing from World War II. 

The rule of law makes America stronger

It is a mistake to think that military force, alone, will preserve America's role in the global order.  "Soft power," a phrase coined by Joseph Nye to describe how countries can influence international relations in ways other than through force, remains an important source of America's global strength. 

Soft power advocates are in short supply these days. This is not good. Power, like anything of value, is an investment. When a country chooses to invest only in hard power, and not in soft power, it puts all its eggs in one basket. It make enemies too quickly. It lives only by the sword, which means, it risks dying by the sword.

Sometimes, the pen is truly mightier

Sometimes, the pen is truly mightier

The aspiration to freedom and democracy, and the defense of human rights, was once a credible form of American soft power. Label these values under a larger umbrella called "the rule of law."

America needs to reinvest in soft power, and the rule of law. By defending the rule of law, the US increases its global authority and its power. It makes the US stronger.

The defense of the rule of law is not a handcuff. It is a powerful weapon against genuine despots. Here are some things the US can do to strengthen the rule of law, and in so doing, strengthen itself:

End unlawful wars and drone strikes. This is an easy one because it is so obvious. The US should honor the rule of law with respect to war and peace. This means US foreign policy should stop invading other countries if doing so would be illegal. This means working with international partners to maintain the global peace. And it means ending the use of drones as instruments of terror and assassination, particularly when such drone attacks may constitute illegal acts of war, or crimes against humanity. 

Prosecute Bush-era crimes related to torture and aggression. US standing in the world was irreparably and dramatically damaged by the crimes of the Bush Administration. Conduct that used to be the hallmark of America's enemies -- torture, for example -- became accepted practice by government officials. Innocent people were and continue to be detained indefinitely without trial, an affront to common law principles enshrined in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. And the supreme crime of aggression was committed by President Bush and others, when they planned and executed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In truth, these crimes are as dark and as brutal as those of any other rights-offending regime. These are heinous crimes, and they must be prosecuted.

Support the International Criminal Court. The International Criminal Court is in deep trouble. Once hailed as a triumph of the global rule of law, the court today is plagued by accusations of bias in that its docket is filled with black African leaders -- and no one from anywhere else. African countries are leaving the court in droves. The court has precious few allies and a growing list of enemies who wish to see it fail.

The US can and should support the effort of the International Criminal Court. It should ratify the Rome treaty, join the court, and play a role in advancing global accountability for crimes such as torture and aggression. 

Permit federal courts to hear and adjudicate global human rights cases.  Human rights litigation in the US used to be robust. This changed in 2013, when the US Supreme Court limited the jurisdiction of a primary human rights law, requiring a connection with the United States. After that decision, the majority of human rights cases being litigated were thrown out because of a lack of such connection.  Congress should reverse that decision and permit US federal courts to act as a forum for global human rights abuses, as they were for many decades.

Take the lead on global climate change remediation. The world is only going to get hotter, the science will only become more pronounced, and the devastation will only become more obvious -- that much is certain. Climate change is here, it is a reality, and if nothing is done, it will lead to tremendous changes in the international order. The US must take the lead in building a global coalition of governments that are willing to face this stark truth and do something about it.

Promote economic, social and cultural rights. International human rights law doesn't just defend due process and free speech. It also insists that people have access to economic, social and cultural rights -- things like health care and education. Health care and affordable education are not just domestic issues, they are human rights issues. They ought to be treated as such. The US should thus invest in economic, social and cultural rights to ensure that Americans have access to opportunities and resources that will permit them to lead better lives. This is not just a quality of life issue -- it is a human rights issue as well. 

The grave threat to the rule of law

Chatter about the rise of populism and far-right leaders is now common place. It is good that this is being discussed, as this is a real phenomenon and has serious implications for the world.

But overlooked in these discussions is what the rise of populism means for the rule of law. 


The rule of law is the idea that all people, even leaders, are restricted by rules that govern their conduct.

The rule of law is what keeps leaders from becoming dictators.

The promise of the rule of law is that all people, no matter their position, are potentially subject to oversight and scrutiny by a neutral judge. 

After 9/11, the rule of law has withered. Governments have used terrorism as an excuse to restrict civil liberties and justify wars.

It is hard to remember, but there was a time when the government had to do a lot of leg work to tap someone's phone.

There was a time when torture was prohibited, without exception.

There was a time when suspected terrorists were charged with crimes, given lawyers, and subject to a trial by jury. 

Those times are gone.

If there is one rallying cry for the 21st century, it must include a cry for the rule of law. This is a dangerous time, where leaders, everywhere, will stop at nothing to fulfill personal ambition, even if it means lives are destroyed or lost in the process. Courts and judges, all over the world, must take brave stands against executive power. And people of all stripes must not buy into the false and distortive messaging of fear and oppression that is now the hallmark of nearly every major Western government. 

At a time of such dramatic globalization and interconnection, the answer cannot by tyranny. It must be the establishment of global norms that are moored, permanently, indelibly, unstoppably, in the rule of law.

If leaders will not remember this, and will not honor this, then the crisis facing democracy is far more dire than we would like to believe. And the necessity of action to restore the rule of law becomes far more urgent and pressing than any thing else. Without the rule of law, there is only dictatorship. And if the whole world falls into dictatorship, humanity is truly lost.

Rising nationalism threatens more conflict and war

There should be no mistake: nationalism is on the rise. And as countries become more nationalist, we should assume and expect global tensions to rise, and perhaps more wars.

Global security used to be based on something called "collective security": the idea that countries would work together to solve their problems.

With the invasion in Iraq in 2003, against the will of the United Nations, the myth of collective security gave way to the reality of US-imposed governance. 

The US is a powerful country, but as time goes on, its power is challenged by other countries like China (globally), Russia (regionally) and even Iran (subregionally). 

Collective security, whatever its flaws, has the chief benefit of making countries talk about their problems to ease tension.

With nationalism on the rise, we should expect there to be a lot less talking and probably a lot more saber rattling. And, perhaps, a lot more shooting.

Why is the West pivoting to nationalism?

It's not a difficult thing to piece together. People are upset and tired with the way things currently work, and in particular, they are upset and tired with the political class that is charged with fixing problems. There is fatigue in every major democracy with a political system that bestows monopoly power on a handful of political parties which have been fully captured by powerful interests. 

I suspect that as the economic system continues to chug along without significant changes, and as people's lives continue to get mostly worse, this political fatigue will worsen and you will soon see some real characters in power. The US is already witnessing this. But it is chilling to think that what we are seeing today is not the end, but merely the beginning; that we are not near the conclusion, but are writing the prologue. And in such an environment, we should expect to see nationalism worsen and eventually metastasize into compromised and destructive forms of government where fundamental rights have no meaning. 

Dialogue is the only way out of this mess. It seems easy, but sometimes messy problems have simple solutions. Hand-washing cured a lot of disease. Dialogue is basic hygiene in international relations. Its absence is not just sad; it will, one day, turn deadly.

American social impact: potentially giant

Perhaps the best place in the world to produce significant social impact is the United States. It is one of the richest countries in the world, and its cultural, economic, and political influence around the world is dominant. 



In every area, social impact in America would be a giant step in the right direction for the entire world. For example, if Americans changed their attitudes towards energy, they could be the driving force of the next-stage in alternative energy, and in solving the climate crisis. 

A more enlightened foreign policy would see American developing the global rule of law, enforcing human rights treaties, and making the world a safer place for the poor and the weak.

Enforcement of genuine American principles within the country -- non-discrimination, due process, freedom of speech and religious belief, and equality of opportunity -- would produce a society less divided, more tolerant, and with genuine economic access for all people regardless of their individual backgrounds like race, gender, color or creed.

It is this truth that can make the current state of affairs in America frustrating. It is frustrating because it takes just a little bit of thinking to see the great potential for human betterment that is potentially capable by American society. Instead, the country is divided more than ever, more economically unequal then ever, and appears charmed by "solutions" peddled by powerful interests that will cause more harm than good, and take the country backwards, and not forwards.

America is the country that put a person on the moon. It is not possible for America to get a free pass from stunning social achievements. 

Want to have a significant social impact on the planet? Starting with America might be the best place to start.

Handling attention thieves in the modern world

It's interesting, in the U.S. at least there is definitely a battle going on for our attention every day. Advertisers, media, the news, and government all seem to be jockeying for our eyes and ears, and in particular, jockeying for influence in how and what we think.

Hannah Arendt noted that what differentiated the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century was their fascination with controlling thoughts not just action. The state didn't just want you to conform, they wanted you to believe it was for the greater good. They wanted to make true believers.

In the 21st century, it seems to me that this is the case not just with governments, but also with advertisers, media, the news, and government. They are all pushing narratives, and they are keen that we live and believe those narratives.

Given the amount of messaging that is out there, this strikes me as a form of pollution: message pollution. In fighting to make us believe certain things, our inner dialogues, sense of being, and consciousness itself becomes manipulated.

There is a way to manage message pollution -- I call it creating an internal narrative

An internal narrative is an inner point of view that lets you look at the world, and that tries to be as free of unconscious influence as much as possible. 

My theory is that without attention to our own consciousness, we permit outside forces to dictate what our thoughts are and should be. It's like holding a magnet to iron shards -- they all get into place. The outside programming is the magnet, and we can be like iron shards when we give up our ability to engage in critical thinking, when we give up our attention. And today is a time when it is easier than ever to just not have any attention, or to give it to something else. 

Here are some steps to creating an internal narrative:

1. Try and minimize mental pollution and addicting online habits. We are all surrounded by so much messaging. Take the time to look at your intake of news, television programming, podcasts, and in particular, social media like FB, Twitter and Instagram. Start to identify things that feel more like addictions. Start to minimize addicting habits. One thing I noticed recently is that I check my news feed way too often. Social media is not something I need to be constantly checking either. It's tough because our phones are so ubiquitous now, but even at least acknowledging that you're on your phone, or this is the 15th time today you're looking at FB, can at least start to give you some insight into your daily habits. When you're on the internet, be conscious about what it is you're doing, and why.

2. Draw your own independent conclusions from facts, even if it is not conventional wisdom. Much of what is broadcast today is packaged and sold with a pre-existing agenda that is given a thin veneer of neutrality, when it is anything but neutral. With the rise of the internet, we are slowly witnessing people picking and choosing which "reality" they want to be a part of, and connecting with other people who share that reality, even if that reality has no basis in fact. This is true of all sides of the political spectrum.

It's incumbent on thinking people to draw their own conclusions from facts that are uncontested (or based in some type of theory that can be tested and disproven). This goes hand-in-hand with point 1 above: try and minimize the messaging you entertain to just a few, trusted, factual sources, and then, do your best to draw your own conclusions from those facts. Be open minded and change your mind if you learn new facts: but don't just think about something someone else told you to do that.

3. Meditate. Meditation is a technology that is thousands of years old, and I believe that it is a potential key towards liberating all of us from this increasingly unending battle for our attention. Meditation trains the mind to be pointed and sharp; it develops concentration; and, at a certain point, it permits someone to obtain deeper insight into the nature of the mind itself. A mind that has meditated is a mind that can withstand a significant amount of message pollution.

4. Connect with others in real life as much as you can. The internet lets us connect with others electronically, but we need to prioritize and engage with other human beings as much as we can in real life. We have to get off our phones more and do the hard work of organizing and developing real life social communities that provide for friendship, a free exchange of ideas, respect, and relationships. We are a social species and our need for social interaction is baked into our genome. We can reverse stress, alienation, anxiety and unhappiness if we just connect with each other more often in real life.

5. Express yourself as much as you can. Like anything, an internal narrative gets strength with practice. Practice expressing yourself as much as you in whatever formats you can. Play music with others, draw, speak at conferences and lectures; discuss your internal narrative with others so that it becomes battle hardened and able to withstanding criticism. Refine it, so that it becomes a useful way to navigate life. 

Foreign policy without principle is dead on arrival

Most of the big problems that define the world today -- international terrorism, international relations between states, nuclear weapons, runaway climate change -- are really problems of principle, or really, lack of principle.

When was the last time that a politician in a major country wanted something done because it was tied to a larger principle? I don't mean religious pandering, which is usually identified by its empty gestures and platitudes. I mean a genuine, civilized principle about how the world should work. 

In the 2000s, Americans got a lot of "principle-based" foreign policy based on the ridiculous notion that "democracy" and "freedom" were worth undertaking various invasions of sovereign states, including Iraq. So it could be the case that Americans are sick of principle-based policies. 

But maybe the problem is that we need better principles. Any political principle that justifies invading another country in violation of law is not really a principle. It is more like an excuse, and a rather horrible one. 

For example, when it comes to terrorism, one principle would be "the rule of law": we should treat terrorism as a crime, and put in place international rules designed to police and interdict international terrorists. Terrorists ought to be captured where possible, charged with an offense, given a lawyer and a legitimate opportunity to mount a defense before a neutral judge, and then sentenced accordingly.

The moment you find a principle, solutions start to present themselves. If terrorism is a crime, then civilized countries should be building a framework to allow for honest and rules-based prosecutions of suspected terrorists. Information and intelligence can be shared between governments. Courts (perhaps the International Criminal Court) can be identified as possible locales for international crimes. A body of law can develop.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, one principle could be "inevitable disarmament." Nuclear weapons are too dangerous to have around any more. It might be just a matter of time before an accident flattens a major world power, or a trigger happy general decides a smaller-scale "tactical" weapon is worth using in the battle field. This would be an unmitigated disaster. Scholars can debate whether "mutually assured destruction" was appropriate during the Cold War, but in a multi-polar world where smaller states like Pakistan, Israel, Iran and North Korea all flirt with the technology, the risks go the other way. Instead, civilized countries should go back to thinking about how we can control, manage, and eventually get rid of the weapons.

When it comes to climate change, my favored principle would be "21st century leadership." There are significant, perhaps unparalleled, economic, political, and social benefits associated with implementing the infrastructure that can cut carbon and produce the new technologies for the 21st century. Countries like Germany are leading the way; meanwhile, the U.S. goes backwards, embracing 19th century technologies. 

The real tragedy with not having any principle is that policies are made without any real thought, changing with the wind, unmoored from any strategy. The policy is dead on arrival, and usually with significant cost and/or body counts. It forecloses leadership based on ideas, and leads to a diminution in power, since a country can no longer lead with its ideals. 

Time to get back to principle in foreign policy.