Biden makes an opening move in a thorny foreign policy challenge

The frozen lake of US-Iran confrontation is generating a pinging sound. The cracking of the ice is yet to produce that loud booming thunderclap. But these are early days.

It was only last Thursday that the US and the three European states who are party to the JCPOA (2015 Iran nuclear deal) — Germany, France and UK, or the 'E3' — lobbed a joint statement across the court to Tehran, whereby the Joe Biden Administration announced its willingness to return to diplomacy with Iran.

It was an opening move, where the Biden administration merely reiterated its position that it will return to the JCPOA if Tehran returns to strict compliance with it. The E3 and the US seek to strengthen the JCPOA to address broader security concerns related to Iran. But certain other moves went along with it on the same day:

  • Washington expressed its acceptance of an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the so-called P5+1 countries – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – with Iran for an informal "diplomatic conversation" to chart a way forward;
  • The Biden administration rescinded the Trump administration's decision in September 2020 to invoke "snapback sanctions" worldwide at the United Nations—a provision under Security Council Resolution 2231 – that was earlier rejected by the other 14 members of the council; and,
  • The Biden administration also informed Iran's UN Mission in New York that it had removed Trump's travel restrictions on its diplomats in New York, which allows them now to move anywhere within a 25-mile radius of the UN Hqs. Some Iranian officials also may be allowed to travel to the UN.

A conversation between US and Iranian diplomats in an informal setting certainly serves a purpose insofar as it is a follow-up on an idea floated by Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during an interview with the CNN on February 1 that the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell could assume the role of coordinator and create a mechanism to choreograph the steps to be taken simultaneously by both Iran and the US sides to achieve JCPOA reinstatement.

By Saturday, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, the country's chief nuclear negotiator, was on record that Tehran too is considering the proposition from Brussels and would "respond to this proposal [on informal meeting] in the future."

Now, it is easy to see that the retraction on the "snapback sanctions" and the removal of restrictions on Iranian diplomats are necessary pre-requisites of a US-Iranian engagement.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Biden said at the virtual Munich Security Conference that the US is driven to "reengage in negotiations" to revive the JCPOA. He added a positive note, "We need transparency and communication to minimise the rise of strategic misunderstanding or mistakes."

On Sunday, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the US has started talks with Iran over the return of at least five American hostages whom Tehran is holding. "We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue," Sullivan said.

On Sunday, again, Rafael Grossi, the head of the IAEA, met with Iranian officials in Tehran to try to maintain his inspectors' ability to monitor Tehran's nuclear program. After the talks, a joint statement was issued, which suggests that "a temporary bilateral technical understanding" has been reached for a 3-month period ahead to continue necessary verification and monitoring activities.

But the deal also calls for less access for IAEA inspectors and no more snap inspections. That is to say, Iran is sticking to its stance that unless the US lifted the sanctions, it will soon abandon the Additional Protocol of the JCPOA, but is only partially curbing the inspectors' activity at this point.

Broadly, both the US and Iran are slowly but steadily edging back to the negotiating table. Both want the other party to go first, and neither would allow perceptions of weakness to form or that they're acting under pressure. It's a delicate tango where both are also compromising while appearing to be otherwise.

The Sunday Times newspaper carried a sensational report yesterday quoting a national security source that the US is considering sanctions relief for Iran as a first step towards reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. If so, Washington is about to make the first move on the expectation that Tehran would reciprocate with some significant compromises.

"Sanctions relief is definitely coming, not today or tomorrow but it is coming," Sunday Times quoted its source. But the catch is that Iran can return to the JCPOA by ceasing to enrich uranium over the limit set by the deal, exporting most of its stockpile, and warehousing banned centrifuges. Whereas, the Biden administration has far more difficult path to traverse by way of untangling scores of Trump-era financial, economic, trade, targeted personal and business sanctions and lift those that violate the JCPOA.

One possibility is that the Biden Administration may move in this direction after the "diplomatic conversation" that the EU foreign policy chief is facilitating. In Tehran's estimation, the lifting of US sanctions is now a foregone conclusion, only a matter of time. There is much optimism that the White House will not allow any interference by the US' regional allies.

A commentary in Iran's official news agency IRNA draws satisfaction that President Biden "gave a cold shoulder" to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and has not forgotten the latter's defiant behaviour toward President Obama by attending a congressional hearing in Washington without being invited by the administration and criticising the administration's negotiations with Iran. It had "angered the then Vice President Joe Biden who shouted that no authority in Israel has the right to humiliate the US president. Netanyahu has been advised to avoid direct confrontation with the Biden administration."

Again, there is talk that the White House intends to release a redacted version of the CIA report on the brutal killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the consulate in Istanbul in 2018. If the report holds the Saudi Crown Prince as culpable for the murder, it will rock the US-Saudi relations. Biden has made his aversion toward the Crown Prince known by letting it be known that he will only interact with King Salman.

Clearly, there is a profound sense of unease in Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the Biden administration's decision to engage with Iran. Conceivably, Tehran senses that a historic moment is at hand marking the end of the US' decades-old strategy to encircle Iran with an alliance of the Gulf Arab states and Israel.

As the situation around Iran begins to transform through the coming weeks and months, the West Asian politics and the regional security scenario will change beyond recognition. The Western powers are for the first time talking about the imperative need of reconciliation between and amongst the regional states of the Persian Gulf instead of fuelling the regional rifts and capitalising on them.

In their statement of February 18, the US and E3 "expressed their joint determination to work toward de-escalating tensions in the Gulf region." By force of circumstances, the Western powers are appropriating an idea that Russia and China have been expounding all along.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

Chomsky and Prashad: Why we need a tribunal on governments' crimes against humanity during COVID

Warnings that the oxygen supply was running out in the city of Manaus, Brazil, came to local and federal government officials a week before the calamity led to the deaths by asphyxiation of patients afflicted with COVID-19. No modern state—such as Brazil—should have to admit that it did nothing when these warnings came in and simply allowed its own citizens to die for no reason.

A Supreme Court judge and the solicitor general have demanded that the Brazilian government act, but this has not moved Jair Bolsonaro's administration. Everything about this story—detailed in Solicitor General José Levi do Amaral's report—reveals the rot of privatization and incompetence. The local health officials knew in early January that there was going to be an oxygen shortage imminently, but their warning did not carry any weight. A private contractor who had the job of providing the oxygen informed the government six days before the city ran out of this crucial supply in the fight against COVID-19. Even with the contractor's information, the government did nothing; it would later say—against all scientific advice—that early treatment for coronavirus did not work. The insensitivity and incompetence of the government of Bolsonaro have led General Prosecutor Augusto Aras to call for a special probe. As Bolsonaro dithered, the government of Venezuela, in an act of solidarity, sent a shipment of oxygen to Manaus.

The latest development caused by the government's toxic mix of privatization, ineptitude, and callousness should strengthen the case brought by Brazil's health care unions against Jair Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in July. But the problem is not the fault of Bolsonaro alone or even of Brazil. The problem lies in the neoliberal governments, governments in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and others, governments whose commitments to profit-making firms and billionaires far outstrip their commitment to their own citizens or to their own constitutions. What we are seeing in countries such as Brazil is a crime against humanity.

It is time to impanel a citizens' tribunal to investigate the utter failure of the governments of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and others to break the chain of the infection of COVID-19. Such a tribunal would collect the factual information that would ensure that we do not allow these states to tamper with the crime scene; the tribunal would provide the ICC with a firm foundation to do a forensic investigation of this crime against humanity when its own political suffocation is eased.

We should all be outraged. But, outrage is not a strong enough word.

Noam Chomsky is a legendary linguist, philosopher, and political activist. He is the laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona. His most recent book is Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

Joe Biden unveils 2 big surprises sending a powerful signal he's pivoting to the left

The US president-elect Joe Biden did two spectacular things last week which may rewrite the assumption that his presidency would return America back to the Barack Obama era. One was the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan Biden rolled out Thursday and the other his choice of William Burns, veteran diplomat, to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

Seemingly unrelated, these two things convey a powerful signal that Biden understands that the real pandemic danger in America is social collapse and what is needed is a national policy that prevents societal disintegration — and a foreign policy which reflects that top priority.

Biden's advisors had let it be known back in October that if elected, even without waiting until Inauguration Day, he would right away provide an immediate fiscal relief the American economy needs and directed and targeted to middle-class and lower-class families, to the smallest businesses instead of just the big corporations that have the best connections to big banks, since "families need to put food on the table to pay their electricity bills, to keep roofs over their heads."

Biden has kept his word. His spending proposal sets aside $400 billion to address the coronavirus; $1 trillion in direct relief to families and individuals; and $440 billion to help communities and businesses hit the hardest by the pandemic. The proposal envisages:

  • Topping up the $600 cash relief passed by Congress last month with $1400 payments additionally;
  • Hike in unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 per week through September;
  • Fourteen weeks of paid sick and family and medical leave;
  • Raise in national minimum wage to $15 per hour;
  • Eviction and foreclosure moratoriums;
  • $160 billion earmarked for a broad range of programs, including coronavirus vaccination, testing, therapeutics, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, etc.;
  • $ 170 billion for schools;
  • Billions of dollars earmarked for underserved populations (eg., African-Americans), including health services on tribal lands;
  • Billions of dollars more for helping long-term care workers and who have borne the brunt of the pandemic (and who are disproportionately Blacks.)

It is an unabashedly progressive agenda that the left has been trying to advance for decades — and, arguably, the bulk of them do not even have anything to do with the health emergency as such but are social welfare measures.

Interestingly, Biden is not seeking to raise everybody's taxes to pay for this, but instead proposes to pay for this plan with a series of tax increases on the wealthy, including taxing capital gains as regular income and increasing the marginal tax rate for top earners to almost 40% which he'd announce in spring as a second long-term broader recovery package to "build back" the economy.

The writings of the renowned Serbian-American economist Branko Milanović come to mind. Milanović is famous for his work on income distribution, inequality and poverty. Formerly chief economist at the World Bank and currently teaching at the London School of Economics and the New York City University, his latest work Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System that Rules the World figured in the Foreign Affairs list of Best Books and earned him acclaim as one among the top 50 thinkers in the year 2020.

Milanović wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs last year in March noticing the lengthening shadows of the pandemic stealthily advancing in America at that time. With extraordinary prescience, he forewarned that "the human toll of the disease will be the most important cost and the one that could lead to societal disintegration. Those who are left hopeless, jobless, and without assets could easily turn against those who are better off."

"Already, some 30 percent of Americans have zero or negative wealth. If more people emerge from the current crisis with neither money, nor jobs, nor access to health care, and if these people become desperate and angry… If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate. Thus the main (perhaps even the sole) objective of economic policy today should be to prevent social breakdown. Advanced societies must not allow economics, particularly the fortunes of financial markets, to blind them to the fact that the most important role economic policy can play now is to keep social bonds strong under this extraordinary pressure."


On the eve of Biden's address on Thursday, he announced that Ambassador William Burns will be the Director of the CIA in his administration. It is an unusual choice. Indeed, it is not unusual for an "outsider" to head the CIA. During the past quarter century, out of the ten CIA directors, seven came from "outside" — a smattering of generals and a string of politicians. Yet in CIA's 73-year history, this will be the first time that the agency is going to be led by a career diplomat.

Biden has made an optimal choice. Burns is widely praised as a "titan of the foreign-policy world" and also happens to belong to that breed of diplomats who believe that diplomacy and espionage are two sides of the same coin. In his wonderful book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal, Burns wrote that in foreign policy, diplomats ought to "harness all the tools of American statecraft—from the soft power of ideas, culture, and public diplomacy, to…intelligence-gathering and covert action".

Interestingly, Burns disavows the so-called "militarisation" of foreign policy. When asked about it in an interview with the Foreign Service Journal, Burns estimated that "time and time again, we've seen how over-reliance on military tools can lead us into policy quicksand. Time and time again, we've fallen into the trap of overusing—or prematurely using—force. That comes at much greater cost in American blood and treasure, and tends to make diplomacy a distorted and under-resourced afterthought."

Without doubt, the choice of Burns is emblematic of where Biden is headed in the conduct of foreign policy. Biden sees Burns as eminently qualified to reinvigorate diplomacy as a critical tool of national power while charioting the intelligence community to devote more attention to its mission of complementing diplomacy.

Burns is also a rare diplomat-intellectual with a mind of his own — who believes that active coordination with China and Russia is necessary to address global challenges to US foreign policy, who derisively looks at the Trump administration's maximum pressure strategy against Iran being a spectacular failure, who maintains that NATO's post-cold war expansion was a grave mistake that derailed relations with Russia, and who strongly argues for arms control talks with Russia in mutual interests.

In the interview with the Foreign Service Journal, Burns spoke about the directions of US foreign policy in the contemporary world situation. He said: "The overarching challenge for U.S. foreign policy today, it seems to me, is to adapt to an international landscape in which American dominance is fading. To put it bluntly, America is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block. That's not meant to be a declinist argument. In fact, I'm still bullish about America's place in the century unfolding before us. We can't turn the clock back to the post–Cold War unipolar moment. But over at least the next few decades, we can remain the world's pivotal power—best placed among our friends and rivals to navigate a more crowded, complicated and competitive world. We still have a better hand to play than any of our main competitors, if we play it wisely."

Biden's choice of Burns as CIA director underscores his intention to put diplomacy first in the US foreign policies. It also means engagement, based on the realistic understanding that the US can no longer impose its will on other countries.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift in power and influence from West to East. Biden reposes confidence in Burns to lead the intelligence community into a brave new world where the post-cold war "unipolar moment" has vanished forever.

Fundamentally, Biden's expectation would be that the US foreign and security policies will reflect his national strategy, "which not only begins at home, in a strong political and economic system, but ends there, too, in more jobs, more prosperity, a healthier environment and better security" — to borrow Burns' words.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

A world without coral reefs may be on the horizon

With a recent report titled "Projections of Future Coral Bleaching Conditions," published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in November, Leticia Carvalho—head of the Marine and Freshwater Branch of UNEP—said on December 21 that coral reefs are the "canary in the coalmine for climate's impact on oceans." The image of the canary in the coal mine is used over and over again to refer to many aspects of the climate catastrophe: reflecting on his studies of glacier decline in Greenland, glaciologist Ian Howat said that "Greenland is going to be the canary in the coal mine," while an evolutionary biologist in Australia, Dr. Janet Gardner, said that "Birds really are the 'canaries in the coal mine'" because their changes in body weight reflect sensitive assessments of changing weather patterns. Each of these scientists, looking at the specific thing they study—glaciers, bird weight, coral reefs—is right about their particular insight as well as about the fact that what they are seeing is deeply worrying.

What is also concerning is a consensus among these scientists that rising temperatures are creating rapid and negative changes in the ecosystems. The evidence in the report on coral reefs is shocking. "Coral reefs will soon disappear," said Carvalho, if the current levels of inaction persist. The UNEP report is written by highly qualified scientists who make closely argued points and do not offer loose statements. So, it is pretty chilling to confront—early in the report—the suggestion that corals will be wiped out by the 2040s.

The report notes that there has been a long coral bleaching event that started in 2014 and ended in 2017; this was the longest coral bleaching event on record that "spread across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans." To put it simply, coral bleaching is when rising sea temperatures lead to an overheating of the coral reefs; when the reefs overheat, they expel the zooxanthellae (algal symbionts), which results in the coral bleaching. Bleaching can be reversed when sea temperatures cool. What happened between 2014 and 2017 was that the sea temperatures did not drop enough for the corals to recover at the end of the summer of 2014, and in the years that followed.

The average temperature in oceans has increased by 0.1 degrees Celsius (32.18 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade in the past century as a result of—among other factors—increased use of fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels has led to an increase in atmospheric warming, which, combined with phenomena such as the 1997-98 and 2010 El Niño events, has resulted in catastrophic coral reef degradation. But these earlier episodes do not compare to the impact of the long period of coral reef bleaching from 2014 to 2017; for example, the 1997-98 period saw the death of 16 percent of the world's coral reefs, while the 2014-2017 warming saw 80 percent of the Great Barrier Reef suffer from severe bleaching.

A decade ago, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore wrote the foreword to a report entitled "Reefs at Risk Revisited." Here, Gore noted that reefs are the "canary in the coal mine" and their long-term degradation reveals that "our dangerous overreliance on fossil fuels is already changing Earth's climate." We will return to Gore's use of "our" soon. But for now, it is important to point out that the problem for the reefs is not only fossil fuel use, but it is also the other aspects of capitalism, such as the disposal of plastic goods into the oceans.

Two Scenarios, Both Bad

Scientists call the coral reefs the "rainforests of the sea," because coral reefs—like rainforests—are highly diverse ecosystems; their destruction would lead to the extinction of a large number of species (as has already been documented in 2019 in a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).

The current UNEP report suggests that there are only two possible scenarios for the planet: a "worst-case scenario" and a "middle-of-the-road" scenario. There is no good scenario. The damage that has already been inflicted on the reefs and the possibility that sea temperatures will decrease is so minimal that there is every reason to expect that severe bleaching could lead to coral reefs disappearing by 2045.

If fossil fuel use is not decreased and global warming continues, then "every one of the world's reefs will bleach by the end of the century, with annual severe bleaching [ASB] occurring on average by 2034," according to a press release about the new UNEP report. This new date is nine years ahead of schedule from what UNEP projected in 2017 (one reason for the closer date is that the measurements have improved over this period).

If countries exceed their current pledges to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent, then ASB will not take place before 2045. Either way, this is just a matter of an 11-year gap.

Blame Humanity?

One convenient explanation is that shifts in the climate have to do with "human activity" or "humanity." There is even a name used to describe this period of history—the Anthropocene, a proposed name for a new geological epoch.

Carvalho of UNEP recently said, "Humanity must act with evidence-based urgency, ambition and innovation to change the trajectory for this ecosystem." Blaming "humanity" in general is far too vague. It fails to accurately point the finger where it must be pointed.

Firstly, the term Anthropocene obscures the fact that it is the massive productive powers of capitalism that generated carbon emissions based on the use of fossil fuels. It is not some vague term such as Anthropocene that explains the explosion of carbon emissions, but it is the social formation called capitalism that is central to global warming.

Secondly, since capitalism developed in an uneven way, with certain countries (the North) benefitting by use of force—what is called imperialism—these countries disproportionately benefited from the productive powers of capitalism. They have historically spewed the most carbon into the atmosphere and continue to do so on a per capita basis. Any policy that does not acknowledge the formula, established at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, of "common but differentiated responsibilities" will fail to see that while countries in Europe and North America benefitted and continue to benefit from fossil fuels, other places did not and do not benefit and yet are the most likely to be adversely impacted by rising temperatures.

Thirdly, the most important impediments to change have not been "humanity" but the corporate power and the United States government that not only diluted the 2015 Paris Agreement but then refused to be bound by the tepid agreements. It is telling that countries such as Jamaica and Mongolia updated their climate plans to the United Nations before the end of 2020—as mandated by the Paris Agreement—although these countries produce a tiny fraction of global carbon emissions. The funds that were committed to developing countries for their participation in the process have virtually dried up while external debt has ballooned. This shows a lack of basic seriousness from the "international community."

The reefs will die. That seems certain. The UNEP report will not circulate. That seems equally certain. The Marshall Islands and Rwanda will file their updates. That has already happened. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies will sit on the sidelines, expanding fracking with a "who cares" attitude.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

Chomsky and Prashad: There are 3 major threats to life on Earth that we must address in 2021

Large parts of the world—outside of China and a few other countries—face a runaway virus, which has not been stopped because of criminal incompetence by governments. That these governments in wealthy countries cynically set aside the basic scientific protocols released by the World Health Organization and by scientific organizations reveals their malicious practice. Anything less than focused attention to managing the virus by testing, contact tracing, and isolation—and if this does not suffice, then imposing a temporary lockdown—is foolhardy. It is equally distressing that these richer countries have pursued a policy of "vaccine nationalism" by stockpiling vaccine candidates rather than a policy for the creation of a "people's vaccine." For the sake of humanity, it would be prudent to suspend intellectual property rules and develop a procedure to create universal vaccines for all people.

Although the pandemic is the principal issue on all of our minds, other major issues threaten the longevity of our species and of our planet. These include:

Nuclear Annihilation

In January 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, too close for comfort. The clock, created two years after the first atomic weapons were developed in 1945, is evaluated annually by the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, who decide whether to move the minute hand or keep it in place. By the time they set the clock again, it may well be closer to annihilation. Already limited arms control treaties are being shredded as the major powers sit on close to 13,500 nuclear weapons (more than 90 percent of which are held by Russia and the United States alone). The yield of these weapons could easily make this planet even more uninhabitable. The United States Navy has already deployed low-yield tactical W76-2 nuclear warheads. Immediate moves toward nuclear disarmament must be forced onto the world's agenda. Hiroshima Day, commemorated each year on August 6, must become a more robust day of contemplation and protest.

Climate Catastrophe

A scientific paper published in 2018 came with a startling headline: "Most atolls will be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century because of sea-level rise exacerbating wave-driven flooding." The authors found that atolls from the Seychelles to the Marshall Islands are liable to vanish. A 2019 United Nations (UN) report estimated that 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. Add to this the catastrophic wildfires and the severe bleaching of the coral reefs and it is clear that we no longer need to linger over clichés about one thing or another being a canary in the coal mine of climate catastrophe; the danger is not in the future, but in the present. It is essential for major powers—who utterly fail to shift from fossil fuels—to commit to the "common but differentiated responsibilities" approach established at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. It is telling that countries such as Jamaica and Mongolia updated their climate plans to the UN before the end of 2020—as mandated by the Paris Agreement—even though these countries produce a tiny fraction of global carbon emissions. The funds that were committed to developing countries for their participation in the process have virtually dried up while external debt has ballooned. This shows a lack of basic seriousness from the "international community."

Neoliberal Destruction of the Social Contract

Countries in North America and Europe have eviscerated their public function as the state has been turned over to the profiteers and civil society has been commodified by private foundations. This means that the avenues for social transformation in these parts of the world have been grotesquely hampered. Terrible social inequality is the result of the relative political weakness of the working class. It is this weakness that enables the billionaires to set policies that cause hunger rates to rise. Countries should not be judged by the words written in their constitutions but by their annual budgets; the U.S., for example, spends almost $1 trillion (if you add the estimated intelligence budget) on its war machine, while it spends a fraction of this on the public good (such as on health care, something evident during the pandemic). The foreign policies of Western countries seem to be well lubricated by arms deals: the United Arab Emirates and Morocco agreed to recognize Israel on the condition that they could purchase $23 billion and $1 billion worth of U.S.-made weapons, respectively. The rights of the Palestinians, the Sahrawi, and the Yemeni people did not factor into these deals. The use of illegal sanctions by the United States against 30 countries including Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela has become a normal part of life, even during the COVID-19 public health crisis. It is a failure of the political system when the populations in the capitalist bloc are unable to force their governments—which are in many ways democratic in name only—to take a global perspective regarding this emergency. Rising rates of hunger reveal that the struggle for survival is the horizon for billions of people on the planet (all this while China is able to eradicate absolute poverty and largely eliminate hunger).

Nuclear annihilation and extinction by climate catastrophe are twin threats to the planet. Meanwhile, for victims of the neoliberal assault that has plagued the past generation, the short-term problems of sustaining their mere existence displace fundamental questions about the fate of our children and grandchildren.

Global problems of this scale require global cooperation. Pressured by the Third World states in the 1960s, the major powers agreed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1968, although they rejected the deeply important Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order of 1974. The balance of forces available to drive such a class agenda on the international stage is no longer there; political dynamics in the countries of the West, in particular, but also in the larger states of the developing world (such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa) are necessary to change the character of the governments. A robust internationalism is necessary to pay adequate and immediate attention to the perils of extinction: extinction by nuclear war, by climate catastrophe, and by social collapse. The tasks ahead are daunting, and they cannot be deferred.

Noam Chomsky is a legendary linguist, philosopher, and political activist. He is the laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona. His most recent book is Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

Workers suffer as US pandemic relief bill stalls in Congress

Not only has the coronavirus pandemic taken a staggering toll in terms of loss of life in the United States but has also caused social and economic dislocation for the working class on a massive scale. The impact of this crisis is likely to last far beyond the distribution of a vaccine.

When the pandemic began to spiral out of control in March, Will Harris was one of the millions of retail workers who lost their income. Harris, who worked two part-time jobs, said that as the months of unemployment dragged on, "I couldn't afford all my groceries when I needed them… I felt bad for spending on anything even if it was absolutely essential," and he had to start rationing medical treatments like testosterone.

Between his employers and the government, assistance was minimal or nonexistent. "I got the first stimulus check for $1,200 but that only lasted me a week or two. I was asking for money from friends and was fortunate enough to be able to find help, but not everyone has that luxury," recalled Harris. He was able to return to work at one of his jobs in August, but it was impossible for him to return to his other job with the multibillion-dollar department store chain Ross because of the company's lack of adequate communication over health precautions.

Ted Kelly, an organizer with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP), said, "Put simply, the U.S. federal government has completely failed the working class during this crisis." In response, PUP "has formed an organizing group of unemployed workers that we're calling the unemployed organizing committee. These are people who have not necessarily been activists or organizers before they lost their jobs [during the pandemic] but who have been inspired to take action by the tremendous failure of the state to help take care of workers' needs," added Kelly.

The ultra-rich, on the other hand, are doing just fine. Between the beginning of the pandemic in March and the end of July, U.S. billionaires managed to increase their total net worth by $637 billion. Stock indexes hit record highs over the summer, and the job market for higher-paid professionals had fully recovered by then, according to an August report by the Washington Post. And in a single day in July, Jeff Bezos—the richest person on the planet—made $13 billion.

"Inequality was already at historic levels before the pandemic," noted Karla Martin, a member of the board of directors of the pro-labor advocacy group Working Families Partnership, "but coronavirus has pushed the gap between the rich and the poor to unthinkable levels."

Deadlock in Washington Over Relief Bill

One of the clearest examples of the U.S. elite's complete indifference to the plight of tens of millions of unemployed workers is the inaction of the U.S. Congress as "Republicans and Democrats remain deadlocked on the new package all of them claim to want," stated a December 11 editorial in the Washington Post. After passing emergency legislation in the spring, when the virus first hit—which included a bailout package for big banks and corporations about the size of the economy of Germany, which has a $4 trillion GDP—the U.S. Congress has done essentially nothing to relieve the immense suffering of the poor and working-class people.

For months, people have been anxiously awaiting new stimulus package measures being crafted by Congress. Perhaps the most closely watched element of the negotiations between legislators is the relief for the unemployed. A renewal or replacement is desperately needed for the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, a $600 per week enhancement to existing unemployment benefits that was passed in March but expired in August. "The enhanced payments to unemployed workers was an absolutely vital lifeline—in many cases [it was] the only thing allowing families to meet their most basic needs," explained Martin.

Kelly holds both major parties responsible for its demise. "Instead of extending and expanding FPUC, both the Democrats and Republicans allowed that program to expire at the end of July and left Washington before implementing a new program."

The Democratic Party controls the House of Representatives, one of two chambers of the U.S. legislature. In May, they passed a bill that would enact a series of stimulus measures totaling $3 trillion. A majority in the Senate, controlled by the right-wing Republican Party, passed their own bill in September that funds approximately $500 billion worth of programs. The Republican bill would cut FPUC in half and give companies a large degree of legal immunity from lawsuits filed by their employees over unsafe working conditions. These measures have primarily been financed through the unique ability of the U.S. treasury to print dollars, pushing the federal government's budget deficit for 2020 alone to $3.3 trillion.

To come into force, a bill must be passed by both the House and the Senate, and then be signed by President Trump. The Democratic Party has taken a formal position in favor of an extension of enhanced unemployment benefits, but they have taken no serious steps to place the kind of pressure necessary on Republicans in the Senate to force the passage of a bill ensuring such benefits. And many of the programs that social movements have been demanding are not even under consideration by either party. "What workers really need are moratoria on rent, mortgage, and utility payments. Bills are stacking up and the cost of living was too high even before COVID," Kelly said.

As the political system grapples with even greater turmoil in the aftermath of the November presidential election, prospects for a major relief package addressing these urgent needs are becoming even dimmer. With the death toll in the United States climbing rapidly amid a new wave of COVID-19 infections, the pressure will be immense to act swiftly when a new Congress convenes in January 2021.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Walter Smolarek is a Philadelphia-based journalist and activist, covering both political developments inside the United States as well as the international activities of U.S. imperialism. Since becoming involved in the movement against the Iraq War as a high school student, he has also participated as an organizer in social movements ranging from Occupy Wall Street in 2011 to the 2014-2015 wave of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing mutual aid relief efforts in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. He is a contributor to BreakThrough News, currently serves as the editor of Liberation newspaper, and is the managing editor of He is a Globetrotter/Peoples Dispatch fellow.

India can afford a welfare state — it just needs to tax the rich

It is often believed that the ability to pass on property to one's progeny is an essential element of capitalism, without which the capitalists' incentives will dry up and the system will lose its dynamism. Nothing could be further from the truth; the acquisition of property through inheritance is, in fact, contrary to the bourgeois justification for acquiring the capitalist property.

This justification is built on the claim that the capitalists have some special quality that is rare, whose employment makes the nation prosperous and for which they must be rewarded. But there is no unanimity among the bourgeois on what exactly this special quality is.

This quality cannot consist of supervising the process of production, for such supervision is typically exercised by salaried personnel who are at best superior workers; they get a salary and not profits (unless they also happen to own some property in the form of shares). It is in recognition of this fact that economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith had talked about firms being run not by the capitalists but by what he called the "technostructure," in his book The New Industrial State.

This special quality also cannot be what economist John Maynard Keynes had called "animal spirits." The strength of the "animal spirits" may determine, as Keynes had believed, the amount of investment, but it cannot explain the very existence of capitalists' income, and, hence, property.

Even the other justifications for capitalists' income and property lack credibility. One such justification refers to capitalists' being "risk-takers." However, the risks are taken not by the capitalists but by those whose funds are entrusted to them through the intermediation of banks for undertaking projects; if a venture collapses then it is the latter whose funds disappear.

These days, of course, the governments in capitalist countries come to the rescue of banks and other financial institutions, which amounts to socializing risks. But that destroys even more decisively the notion of capitalists having the special quality of being "risk-takers."

Likewise, the idea that capitalists own property and earn an income on it because they undertake "savings"—i.e., refrain from consumption and, thereby, make a sacrifice for which they must be rewarded—would by now be generally debunked.

Leaving aside philosophical arguments about the meaning of "sacrifice," there is a very simple and obvious refutation of this view, that it is investment that determines savings and not the other way around. The savings that are generated when investment is undertaken come out of greater capacity utilization when unutilized capacity exists, and through inflation that forcibly squeezes the real wages and, hence, consumption of workers when capacity is fully utilized.

Investment being governed by the voluntary choice between consumption and savings by a host of individuals, and those opting for savings needing a reward for their sacrifice, is just not the way capitalism works.

Finally, there is the view that capitalists are "entrepreneurs" who introduce "innovations," and thereby impart new dynamics to the economy. As this entrepreneurship is not a quality that is found in abundance in society, those possessing it must be rewarded. The problem with this view is that capitalist property exists and profits are earned on it even when there are no innovations, i.e., even in simple reproduction.

But my object here is not to critique bourgeois theories of why capitalist property, and a category of income earned on this property called profits, exists. The point is that even if we accept any of these explanations for capitalist property, it does not justify why a person not displaying this special quality, which entitles a capitalist to property, according to this explanation, should also have ownership of property, i.e., why property should be inherited.

In fact, to accept that property should be inherited, by anyone who happens to be a progeny of a capitalist, even if this progeny has not demonstrated any special quality, is to go against the explanation that property is a reward for some special quality. The acquisition of property through inheritance is thus a denial of any bourgeois justification for capitalist property.

But then what do we make of the "incentive" argument, i.e., the argument that this special quality that the capitalists possess, for which society rewards them, would not be forthcoming if they are not assured of passing their property on to their children?

This argument, however, amounts to a justification not of inheritance but of blackmail, of capitalists' arm-twisting society into allowing them to pass on property to their children as a price for employing their "special talent."

Apart from its dubious ethical foundation, this argument is not even logically tenable: there is absolutely no reason, for instance, why innovations will dry up in a society where there is no inheritance. If one person stops being innovative because there is no inheritance, then someone else will display innovativeness despite there being no inheritance. There is thus no tenable argument for inheritance in a capitalist society even by bourgeois logic.

This is the reason why most capitalist countries, even in the current neoliberal phase of kowtowing to capitalists, continue to have high inheritance taxes. Japan, for instance, has an inheritance tax of up to 55 percent and even the United States has a "top estate tax rate of 40 percent." Many European countries also have inheritance taxes of around 40 percent. No doubt there may be rampant evasion and loopholes, but the principle of inheritance taxation is widely accepted.

In India, alas, there is neither any wealth tax nor any inheritance tax worth the name even though wealth inequality is increasing rapidly; and, what is more, there is not even any public debate over the issue. This could be because, notwithstanding the promise enshrined in India's Constitution, even equality of opportunity appears to be an unrealizable dream for most people, and they are satisfied demanding only some basic relief from their miserable conditions of life.

But democracy, which requires equality of opportunity (that can never be realized under capitalism), demands at the very least not only an overcoming of wealth inequality but an abrogation in principle of wealth through inheritance.

What this can achieve may be illustrated with some figures. In 2019, it has been estimated that total private wealth in India was $12.6 trillion or roughly Rs 945 lakh crore, of which the share of the top 1 percent was 42.5 percent, which comes to about Rs 400 lakh crore ($5.35 trillion). Even a 2 percent wealth tax on this sum will fetch Rs 8 lakh crore (about $107 billion). A 2 percent wealth tax incidentally is what Senator Elizabeth Warren had suggested as a minimum rate in the U.S. on wealth between $50 million and $1 billion when she was a presidential candidate (Bernie Sanders, who was also a contender in the presidential race, had suggested a progressive wealth tax with rates ranging from 1 to 8 percent).

In addition, if we have an inheritance tax of even one-third, then, assuming that about 5 percent of the total wealth of the top 1 percent of the population gets bequeathed every year, we get Rs 6.67 lakh crore (about $89 billion). These two taxes alone, levied only on the top 1 percent of the population, would be enough to fetch Rs 14.67 lakh crore (about $196 billion), or roughly 7 percent of India's current GDP (taking the impact of the pandemic out of the picture).

The institution of a welfare state in India that ensures five fundamental economic rights—the right to food at affordable prices, the right to employment (or full wages if employment is not provided), the right to free publicly provided health care, the right to free publicly provided education up to university level, and the right to an old-age pension and adequate disability benefits—is estimated to cost an additional 10 percent of GDP over and above the spending already being incurred under these heads.

When the government spends an extra 10 percent of the GDP, this increases the GDP itself through the "multiplier," of which roughly 15 percent comes back to the government (both central and state governments) as taxes. The fresh taxes required for spending an extra 10 percent, therefore, are estimated at 7 percent of the GDP, which is exactly what the two taxes will yield.

It follows that just two taxes levied on the top 1 percent of the population will be enough to finance the institution of a welfare state in India. Let no one say that India does not have the resources to eradicate the miserable state of deprivation in which the bulk of its population lives.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Prabhat Patnaik is an Indian political economist and political commentator.

How 800 families descended from slaves could be pushed out by a deal between Brazil and the U.S.

Antonio Marcos Diniz was only 13 years old when his family was forced to leave their home near Brazil's Atlantic coast in 1983. Along with 311 other families, they had to move 60 kilometers west to Agrovila Peru so that the government could build the Alcântara Launch Center (CLA), in Maranhão, in northeastern Brazil. Today, at the age of 50, Diniz's life may again be turned upside down by the expansion of the same launch center.

The Movement of People Affected by the Launch Base (MABE) estimates that about 800 quilombola families, such as that of Diniz, will be expelled if the expansion of the base takes place. (The term quilombola refers to descendants of African and Afro-Brazilian people who escaped from slave plantations.)

The Alcântara base has one of the most strategic locations in the world for launching satellites. It was built in 1983 in the state of Maranhão, which has the second-worst Municipal Human Development Index in the country. One of the reasons for choosing the location is the proximity to the equator, which allows savings of up to 30 percent in fuel.

In March 2019, an agreement between the governments of Brazil and the United States provided for the expansion of the base and authorized U.S. "launches from a Brazilian spaceport" while opening doors for further "aerospace cooperation between the two nations," according to SpaceNews.

The U.S.-Brazil Technology Safeguards Agreement limits foreign use of the base "for peaceful purposes." However, according to an article written in Brasil de Fato by Brazilian diplomat Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães, Alcântara's location is "ideal for the United States from the angle of its political-military operations in South America and Africa and of its global strategy, in confrontation with Russia and China."

The United States intends to use the CLA—operated by the Brazilian Air Force—by 2021. Guimarães further states that the U.S. has sufficient rocket launch bases, so the main objective of the agreement for the United States is to "exercise their sovereignty, outside the scope of the laws and surveillance of Brazilian authorities."

Expansion Impacts

Before Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, slave ships brought enslaved people from Africa to Brazil's sugar and coffee plantations. Those who escaped these plantations formed secret and independent communities, which led to the establishment of the quilombo settlements. Such settlements are currently being uprooted to build and expand the CLA. The quilombolas, who are the residents of these settlements, are not migrants: they are refugees in their own land.

Agrovila Peru, where Diniz now works as a peasant farmer, is not part of the initial plan for expanding the base. If this plan is allowed to be implemented, the entire makeup of the region will be affected. The fish he eats, for example, comes from neighboring quilombola communities on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, which are the target of imminent removal. The cassava he plants, likewise, is sold to the quilombolas who occupy the coast on the other side of the base.

One of these neighboring communities is Canelatiua, which is home to Neta Serejo. She was one of the founders of MABE in 1999.

"We cannot trust the United States. We know what happens when they decide to enter another country," says Serejo. Brazil was one of six countries in South America that had military dictatorships supported by the United States in the second half of the 20th century.

The foreign policy of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized for its submission to and alignment with Donald Trump and the U.S. government. In an interview with Brasil de Fato, former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim says that the armed forces are more subordinate to the United States and the government today than during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Meanwhile, the Technology Safeguards Agreement has also found support with the Alcântara municipal government and the Maranhão state government. The argument used by both is that the agreement will add to the prospect of economic development in the region. However, MABE asserts that the quilombolas never had access to research or official documents that prove the expansion of the base or its use by the United States will generate income for the current residents.

The removal of quilombolas from Alcântara, for now, has been suspended by an injunction since May 2020. But Danilo Serejo, MABE's legal adviser, says the decision can be reversed at any time—even if the 1988 Constitution guarantees quilombola communities the right to own their land.

The two arguments for suspending evictions were the coronavirus pandemic and the need for a "prior, free and informed consultation process of the affected communities." Such consultation is provided for in the International Labour Organization Convention 169.

Danilo Serejo adds that this prerogative has already been violated: "Prior consent means it should be guaranteed before the agreement with the United States, and not afterward."

David and Goliath

Residents around the Alcântara base describe the struggle to stay in the territory as "a battle between David and Goliath." Quilombola families depend on agriculture and fishing for subsistence, and most of them receive social security benefits, which are their main source of income. Their houses are simple, improvised, and could be destroyed in a single day. On the other side is the largest economic power on the planet, with a carte blanche from the Brazilian government.

"It is not only Alcântara that is at risk, but the whole country's sovereignty," says Diniz.

The market for satellites and rockets generates $550 million per year. About 80 percent of space equipment has some component produced in North America.

The threat to sovereignty lies precisely in the lack of transparency about the agreement and the expansion project. Diniz considers this gap to be revealing: if quilombolas were seen by both governments as people of rights, they would be "deserving" of this information, he says. It does not seem to be the case. According to Diniz, they haven't been offered the chance to give input on the project, and yet they are expected to accept whatever has been decided on the "top floor," with no say on decisions that significantly affect their lives—the same condition their ancestors were subjected to for 300 years.

Danilo Serejo adds that the Brazilian government is racist and has no respect for descendants of slaves. In 2017, Bolsonaro declared that he visited a quilombo and "they do nothing," adding that he didn't think they were any "better for breeding."

The governments of Brazil and the United States have never commented on the possibility of removing the quilombolas families as a result of the expansion of the Alcântara base. Neta Serejo says MABE will keep the struggle alive "in all possible instances" to ensure the quilombolas continue to live in their territory.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Daniel Giovanaz is a journalist and has a master's in history from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC). He covered the 2019 Bolivian elections and was a correspondent for Brasil de Fato in India in 2020. Giovanaz is a Globetrotter/Peoples Dispatch fellow.


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