Leonard Cohen’s Pessimistic Prophecy in “The Future” and the Long Lost Hope for “Genuine Peace” and “General and Complete Disarmament”
“The whole world was celebrating the destruction of the Berlin Wall. And I was ready to celebrate with everybody else. But I also had a feeling it was a terrible thing. That it would result in a shift in power. And a disintegration of order. That it would result in murder. In widespread murder. …
“People accused me of being an incredible pessimist. As they always have. But in this particular case, I think my insights were more or less accurate.”
— Leonard Cohen, commentary on his 1992 song “The Future”
In the above-linked commentary, drawn from a 4 minute passage—beginning at the 3:45 min. mark—of a profound (what we used to call “heavy”) conversational interview Mr. Cohen had with Norwegian reporter Helle Vaagland at the kitchen table of his Montreal flat in 2006 the late great singer-songwriter hinted at how he was able to (seemingly uncannily) predict “The Future.” “Canadians…grow up, you know, on the edge of America,” adding wryly, “and we watch America the way that women watch men: very very carefully.”
But while Cohen gave brilliant poetic expression in The Future to his vision that the “post-Cold War” world would rapidly become (in sum) genocidal (“and now the wheels of heaven stop. You feel the devil’s riding crop. Get ready for the future: It is murder“), it didn’t really take an artistic genius to recognize in 1989 (after 2 terms of reactionary Reaganism and with former CIA Director-turned-President George Bush serving a Reagan “third term”) that America’s rightist ruling elites, suddenly unconstrained by a rival superpower who had “let go of the rope” after a decades-long geopolitical and ideological tug-of-war, would wreak havoc on the world.
And true to Leonard’s pessimistic prophecy, 3 decades of American “endless wars” and lesser but significant uses of US military force ensued (about which more below).
The “disintegration of order” within the vast boundaries of the former USSR (aka the Soviet Union) following its dissolution on Dec. 25, 1991 also led to much military strife between parties to serious conflicts therein.
The Russian Federation’s (aka Russia’s) current invasion of Ukraine, which is starting to resemble Russia’s wars in Chechnya in brutal intensity, is the latest of these, and is further briefly discussed below in one key respect. But the details of the others including the perfidies doubtlessly involved in some if not most or all of them, are beyond the scope of this essay.
America’s Era of Serial “Endless War” (1989 – Present)
Less than 6 weeks after the fall of Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, America commenced our 3+ decades of belligerence by invading Panama (on Dec. 20, 1989) where US military operations “violated the fundamental rights of Panamanian civilians” according to a 2018 ruling by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.
About a year later came the Persian Gulf War (begun on January 17, 1991), where our military fought both “from a distance” via “air power” and “up-close-and-personal” by using bulldozers to bury alive entrenched Iraqi conscripts in Kuwait en masse.
This was followed less than 3 years later by our 1,000 casualties military intervention in Mogadishu, Somalia on October 3–4, 1993.
And less than a half-decade after that we militarily intervened via air power during the war in former Yugoslavia (begun on March 24, 1999) which included our accidental (or “accidental on purpose”) bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999.
This initial decade-plus spate of what can only be called post-Cold War American warmongering was then “put on steroids” by 9/11, an epochal event (whatever its essential nature and origins). 9/11 in turn catalyzed America’s train of gruesome nihilistic early 21st century wars: In Afghanistan (begun Oct. 7, 2001), in Iraq (begun on March 20, 2003), in Libya, (begun on March 11, 2011), in Syria (begun on July 20, 2011), and the US has continued to directly engage in- or seriously support assorted “war on terror” operations to the present day against Islamist militants wherever in the world they may be found.
The compounding banality of evil of our nation’s “endless wars” became so nakedly extreme that I was constrained to write (with an entirely “straight face”) in a Nov. 25, 2015 op-ed article:
“It’s… hard to resist the conclusion that a RICO type cabal has somehow infiltrated the American political class and taken over the federal government. (In sum, we seem to be dealing with the phenomenon [POTUS] Eisenhower warned us about but on steroids.”
Significantly, it was Russia that put an end to this early 20th century unfettered world-turned-playground for America’s warmongers, by militarily intervening to prevent “our Islamist militants” (AKA terrorists) from overthrowing the Syrian nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad. How big a favor Russia did the world in so doing, and the risk of World War 3 this (at least momentarily) presented when “de-confliction” measures failed and F-16s belonging to NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian (Sukhoi) Su-24 fighter jet in the Turkey-Syria border area on Nov. 24, 2015, is under-recognized. Had Russia retaliated and had Turkey invoked NATO’s Article 5, the US and Russia could have become engaged in a shooting war against each other for the first time in their history as nations.
See generally my above-linked Nov. 25, 2015 op-ed article which came on the heels of a much longer dissenting alarum I had just written four days before titled (in pertinent part): “How U.S. Elites Made Islamist Militants the New Red Menace: The American Establishment’s Quarter-Century Scheme to Replace Defunct Soviet Communism with ‘Expansionist’ Militant Islam.”
Although self-published (through the invaluable good offices of la.indymedia.org) I like to think the two essays will hold up as a serviceable “first draft of history” soundly explicating America’s (essentially) criminally insane military adventurism in the early 21st century, at least in major part.
The Restoration of Great Power Rivalry (2015 – Present)
This 2015 nuclear war risk combined with the moral repugnance of the “war on terror” and the sharply rising “credibility gap” American public officials were generating in trying to sustain it, prompted the US establishment to make a significant course correction.
Having recognized that Islamist militancy was too flyspeck an enemy to publicly justify its gargantuan defense establishment and budgets, the US MICIN Complex (my gloss on Eisenhower’s “Military-Industrial-Congressional” elite factions to further include the Intelligence and corporate News establishments) and their “bought and bossed” politicians, began methodically ratcheting-up tensions with Russia and China respectively to levels not seen since the height of the Cold War (if then). See generally, “Renewed Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense—Issues for Congress Updated March 1, 2022” (Congressional Research Service monograph).
Is our nation’s pivot to antagonism with near-superpower-size geopolitical rivals and a return to a long-term “frozen” conflict with them, part of what the Ukraine crisis is “all about”? If restoring plausible enemies “our own size” was the goal, it would “rationally” explain the Biden Administration’s abject unwillingness to do anything meaningful diplomatically (on our own or using our essentially unlimited influence with Ukraine) to defuse the crisis there and forestall Russia’s resort to a hellish military solution. And there is really no other plausible explanation for our leaders’ “ghosting” response to Russia’s reasonable requests for assurances in advance of Russia’s belligerence that Ukraine would never become a forward base for NATO military operations against Russia.
In view of Russia’s successful military intervention in Syria to defeat US efforts to effect regime-change there, and the outrage that plainly elicited throughout the boorish domineering US Establishment, any Russian leader would have drawn the same national security “red lines” regarding Ukraine that President Putin did. And all senior US officials had to have known that spurning Putin and his foreign minister Lavrov’s demands for words and deeds safeguarding Russia’s vital security and economic interests and further safeguarding ethnic Russians residing in eastern Ukraine vulnerable to Ukraine’s Nazi-dominated military, would have resulted in Russia’s resort to a military solution in Ukraine.
“Give Me Back the Berlin Wall…”
Although now shrouded in a “fog of war” (and therefore unclear) the US and the non-Communist Russian Federation (“honorary successor” of the Communist USSR) appear to be engineering a new geopolitical “modus vivendi” to stabilize the world by (at least moderately) re-polarizing it into separate East-West civilizational camps featuring differing values and socio-economic and political configurations of power internally, but hegemonic bloc-like geographic spheres of influence externally.
In sum, as Leonard Cohen (inferentially) foresaw would have to happen someday, a “Berlin Wall” (aka “Iron Curtain”) of sorts is being restored and re-positioned to the western perimeter of Ukraine. And US elites have already given the required strategic countermeasures a name. Welcome to the world: “Containment 2.0.”
The bad news is that both camps will be characterized by political economies marked by oligarchy, with economic and financial resources and power hoarded by a “happy few” lording it over hard-pressed multitudes with insufficient political freedom or civic power to seriously countervail them. In the Russia-influenced East they’re called “oligarchs.” In the American-influenced West they’re called “billionaires” and our most “successful” corporate leviathans.
If we’re lucky though, a healthy competition will now commence over which system, the more socially liberal democratic West or the more socially conservative authoritarian East, does a better job of enforcing progress in the virtuous realms of economic, social, racial, civil and humanitarian justice for the multitudes of “everyday people” in the world’s respective areas of geographical hegemony.
Is Russia’s Maximalist Military De-Nazification Operation in Ukraine “Worth It”?
The good news is that the brave new world being birthed “as we speak” either at a conference table in Belarus and/or militarily on the ground in Ukraine will decisively end the power to do evil there of the toxic remnants of 20th century Nazi-ism and fascism. These elements have been “among us” in both camps since the end of World War 2, but (it turns out) they were strongest in the East, where they festered for decades under the veneers of bastardized Communist systems. And since Russia has cited the moral imperative of de-Nazification in defense of its use of military force to extinguish Ukraine’s sovereignty, it is a claim worth examining more closely, at least in brief:
It is a matter of record that Nazis residing in the former USSR “came out of the woodwork” quite visibly in Ukraine when it gained independence in 1992-1993. Fanatically anti-Communist western-Ukrainian nationalists had evidently absorbed Nazi ideology and revisionist history through family and regional lore (and their proverbial “mother’s milk”) throughout the period of Soviet control. When freed from Soviet autocracy in the early 1990s, these western-Ukrainian nationalists began methodically sanitizing the sordid history of Ukrainians’ perpetration of mass pogroms both individually and in collaboration with Nazi Germany’s military’s operations in World War 2 which targeted Ukraine’s Jewish population for genocidal slaughter, first manually at places such as Babi Yar and then industrially.
See generally “The Holocaust in Ukraine: New Sources and Perspectives. In wartime, where often “truth is the first casualty” it is useful to advert to unassailable historical accounts such as that compiled by scholar Delphine Bechtel in her monograph in the above collection titled “1941 Pogroms as Represented in Western Ukrainian Historiography and Memorial Culture.”
Bechtel writes at p. 2: “Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, pogroms took place in virtually every Galician town or village, from the capital Lemberg/Lwów/L’viv to provincial towns such as Zloczew/Zolochiv, Tarnopol/Ternopil, Zólkiew/Zhovkva, Drohobych/Drohobycz, Boryslaw/Boryslav, Brzezany/Berezhany, Sambor/Sambir, Stryj, Kolomyja, Obertyn, and others, as well as in dozens of villages and hamlets in which the Jewish population was simply wiped away by its peasant neighbors.”
Bechtel then fairly recounts the manner in which some semi-mainstream Ukrainians in the 1990s had “awkwardly” engaged in semi-honest historiography about the Ukrainians’ mass participation in the Holocaust and their collaboration with the Third Reich. Writing in 2013, before the Feb. 2014 Nazi-led Maidan coup against the democratically elected Yanukovych government (an overthrow deplorably and bizarrely supported by the Obama-Biden Administration), Bechtel recounts how hardline Ukrainian Nazis had already overbore the vestiges of such honest historiography:
“[L]ocal authorities and historians in Western Ukraine have taken a more radical stance and have begun even to rehabilitate local nationalists and Nazi collaborators, transforming them into national heroes. [footnote omitted] This process was followed by many municipal museums, starting with the well-known L’viv History Museum located in the “Black House” on the Old Market square.
“The rooms that once celebrated Soviet partisans have gradually been turned into a display of extremist nationalists and sometime war criminals. Among those individuals and groups featured are the theoretician Dmytro Dontsov, the OUN leaders Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, and collaborationist units including Bataillon Nachtigall and the expeditionary groups (pokhidni grupy) that entered Galicia in June 1941 with the Wehrmacht; the Ukrainian Insurrectional Army (UPA), which was responsible for ethnic ‘cleansing’ actions against Poles and Jews in Volhynia and Galicia; and the Division SS-Galizien, formed of Ukrainian volunteers under Nazi command.” (Emphasis added.)
When Russia’s political domination of Ukraine is complete, let’s just say the world will not miss the homicidal Banderaites and their annual vile New Year’s eve Nazi torchlight parades celebrating Bandera’s putrid memory. Nor mourn the fate of the members of the Azov regiment and their counterpart Nazi militants who sadly infested (and alas doomed) Ukraine as a sovereign civil society.
That said, it would take a colder person than I am to echo Madeline Albright’s infamous line about the monumental death toll sanctions took on innocent Iraqi children and deem the terrible costs in death and destruction of the maximalist military means Russia chose to employ in order to decisively disempower the sizable unreconstructed Nazi faction in Ukraine: “worth it.”
A Second Chance for “Genuine Peace” and “General and Complete Disarmament”?
Which brings us back to “The Future.” Is Leonard Cohen’s premonition (which has, sadly, thus far been eerily accurate)—that the end of the Cold War order would usher in an era of “widespread murder”—still “operative” (to date myself by using Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler’s old phrase)? Or might the rapid restoration of Cold War-level tensions now transpiring serve to sober up the prosaic pedestrian power elites in America and Russia and prompt them to forthwith recognize anew that in the nuclear age peacemaking and disarmament are among the highest responsibilities that come with great power status? And in any event: Might the dreadful war in Ukraine serve to catalyze the collective consciousness of all of humanity about the fragility of our world “civilization” (such as it currently is) and its basic incompatibility with modern militarism and war? And if so, what form might this peacemaking and/or raised consciousness take?
World War 1 was supposed to have been “the war to end all wars.” Ditto (in sum) for World War 2. Something close to the opposite transpired. And in “20-20 hindsight” of the present debacle in Ukraine, the (first) post-Cold War era (begun in 1989-1991) has now ended essentially in shambles—the full story, follies and missed opportunities surrounding which will (if the-world-as-we-know-it survives) continue to fill books and articles for decades to come. In short, it didn’t have to be this way.
And “at first glance” it seems almost perversely quixotic to argue with any confidence hat Russia’s military subjugation of Ukraine will have any kind of “silver lining,” much less come to be known as the conflict that “ends all military conflict in the world” for the foreseeable future. But there is a “best case scenario” for the emerging world of Containment 2.0 in which the Ukraine conflagration will mark the beginning of that process.
In sum, in a world starkly re-divided between West and East, where there is rough parity of (usable) military strength, pursuing a strategy of “genuine peace” and “general and complete disarmament” such as that the US and USSR (they were not yet called “the superpowers”) had made a start on doing in the early 1960s, may again come within “the art of the possible.”
Indeed the disappearance in Russia and its closest allies of authoritarian Communism may actually make the age-old dream of genuine peace and disarmament between the US and Russia and among all the world’s great- and lesser powers, much more attainable now than it was before Communism in the USSR ended in Dec. 1991.
The McCloy – Zorin Accords (September 20, 1961)
The eminently “useable past” in this regard includes what has become a “hidden history” to almost all of today’s Americans: Following “an extensive exchange of view [sic] on disarmament pursuant to their agreement announced in the [UN] General Assembly on 30 March 1961″: On September 20, 1961 America and Russia diplomats led by John J. McCloy and Valerian Zorin met at UN headquarters in New York City and signed an accord setting forth principles for truly sweeping world-wide “general and complete disarmament.”
According to Wikipedia’s well-wrought synopsis:
The Agreed Principles for General and Complete Disarmament, as they were also known, emphatically declared that war should “no longer [be] an instrument for settling international problems;” “general and complete disarmament” was to be “accompanied by the establishment of reliable procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes.” The agreement also called for the “dismantling of military establishments … cessation of the production of armaments … elimination of all stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological and other weapons of mass destructions [and] … discontinuance of military expenditures.” Member States were expected to make “agreed manpower” available to the United Nations, such as would be “necessary for an international peace force.”
The full text, which is plainly utopian-sounding today and likely was to the plurality- if not the majority of Americans even then, is here.
President Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” Speech at American University (June 10, 1963)
Less than 3 years later, though, with the US and USSR having narrowly avoided nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the interim, in his June 10, 1963 American University speech, President Kennedy made a highly persuasive case for the wisdom of pursuing what he dubbed a “Strategy of Peace.” In it he yoked proposed short- and medium-run measures for nuclear arms control, nuclear non-proliferation and crisis management (some of which actually materialized and lasted and some of which didn’t) to the ideals memorialized in the McCloy – Zorin Agreement. Indeed President Kennedy “doubled-down” on the latter, as the following extended excerpts make clear:
“Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace,” JFK stated before proceeding to the gravamen of his argument:
“But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles—which can only destroy and never create—is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. …
“Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament, and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs. …
“First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again. …
“We have also been talking in Geneva about our first-step measures of arm[s] controls designed to limit the intensity of the arms race and reduce the risk of accidental war.
“Our primary long range interest in Geneva, however, is general and complete disarmament, designed to take place by stages, permitting parallel political developments to build the new institutions of peace which would take the place of arms.
“The pursuit of disarmament has been an effort of this Government since the 1920’s. It has been urgently sought by the past three administrations.
“And however dim the prospects are today, we intend to continue this effort — to continue it in order that all countries, including our own, can better grasp what the problems and possibilities of disarmament are.
“The only major area of these negotiations where the end is in sight, yet where a fresh start is badly needed, is in a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests.
“The conclusion of such a treaty, so near and yet so far, would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas.
“It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms.
“It would increase our security; it would decrease the prospects of war.
“Surely this goal is sufficiently important to require our steady pursuit, yielding neither to the temptation to give up the whole effort nor the temptation to give up our insistence on vital and responsible safeguards.”
JFK then announced confidence-building steps that his Administration would take unilaterally in hopes of cajoling reciprocity from the leadership of the USSR and a resultant “test ban treaty” (which is in fact what happened):
“[T]o make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on this matter, I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not— We will not be the first to resume.”
Then, in perhaps the most important passage of the speech, JFK added:
“Such a declaration is no substitute for a formal binding treaty, but I hope it will help us achieve one. Nor would such a treaty be a substitute for disarmament, but I hope it will help us achieve it.“
President Kennedy’s recognition that arms control and non-proliferation agreements were not “substitutes for disarmament” evinced his serious policy intentions to (in sum) build a world permanently free from the specter of war and all its torments, both immediate and subsequent, both physical and mental, both spiritual and soulful.
“What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek?” President Kennedy asked rhetorically at the outset of his unjustly forgotten Periclean oration:
“Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.”
With President Kennedy’s removal by sniper fire in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 and the seemingly related removal of Soviet Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev from power in the USSR on October 14, 1964, the initiative they had begun in 1961 to seriously plan for “general and complete disarmament” foundered and was eventually deposited in George Orwell’s “memory hole.” Never to be seen or hard of again. It’s as if it didn’t exist!
Today, alas, if they are remembered at all, JFK’s practically idealistic plans to place the world on a permanent path of “genuine peace” and “general and complete disarmament” are regarded as vestiges of a bygone era, as passé now as the popular antiwar slogans of my youth that well-captured the letter and spirit of JFK’s American University speech at bumper-sticker length. Lorraine Schneider’s poster that adorned college dorm walls from Berkeley to Boston in the 1960s-1970s “War is not healthy for children and other living things” was one. Robert Fulghum’s coinage: “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber” https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/robert_fulghum_389087 is another.
Had he lived to steward his world peace and disarmament project for 5 more years as president and in a post-presidency JFK and his consigliere and chief speechwriter Ted Sorenson would’ve disarmed (so to speak) their rightist critics who would’ve attempted to ridicule general and complete disarmament as (in sum) utopian. Kennedy and Sorenson had gone out of their way to include their first such rejoinder in the speech itself:
“I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream,” JFK said.
“I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.
“Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. …
“With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.
“And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.
“So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it.”
“Thank you Mr. President.” Amen to that.
Alas, when President Biden visited Arlington National Cemetery directly after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021 to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he (shamefully) didn’t take the additional 30 minutes it would have taken him to briefly visit and reflect upon his immense new responsibilities at JFK’s nearby grave marked with an eternal flame.
President Biden may wish to re-read the text of JFK’s American University speech, pay his respects at Jack’s grave at Arlington now and return to the White House to take up the cause of “genuine peace” and “general and complete disarmament”. He should do so for the right reasons—because the moral imperatives of statesmanship during his (suddenly tumultuous) turn as President demand it. But I can say with certainty as a recovering presidential campaign political consultant who is regarded as having “a very keen sense of the yearnings of the American voter”
“It would do wonders for your approval rating President Biden.”
The remote “silver lining” in the current tragic dark war clouds in Ukraine is that it may catalyze the publics worldwide to elevate leaders who will recommit to the only path of sanity for present and future generations of humanity: that of “genuine peace” and “general and complete disarmament.” May it be so.