It is hard to place Richard Falk in any category that usefully describes the man. Princeton scholar, international lawyer, adviser to governments and civil-society groups, activist, advocate of Palestinian rights, prolific writer: The interesting thing about Falk is that in his long career all of these roles so often intersect. Falk always seems to be just off a flight or just boarding one, and one can never presume to know which continent he was on when he wrote an arriving e-mail message.
I had looked forward to meeting and talking to Falk for many months before we finally found a day when we would both be in New York. Because he served as the UN’s special rapporteur on Palestinian rights from 2008 to 2014—a term that provoked much (entirely honorable) controversy—the Middle East was prominent among my questions. We spoke at the Algonquin Hotel for two hours shortly before the year turned, but after two hours we were not quite done. We finished up by telephone not long afterward.
Falk’s books are many, and so are the topics it is worth engaging with him; he blogs with impressive dedication. Our exchange ranged widely, as I had expected: From the Middle East scene and the fate of Palestinians we moved on to the corruptions of the press, Trump’s foreign policy, how to understand terrorism, and the changing fortunes of international law.
This is Part 1 of an exceptionally wide-ranging conversation. Part 2 will appear shortly. As always, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for conscientiously turning the audio recording into a transcript.
Falk’s global grasp and unusually varied experience cast him—for me, at least—as one of those thinkers who can field questions that take in everything. I started with one.
Patrick Lawrence: Global events seem to be moving at an absolutely astonishing pace these days. I wouldn’t put so big a question to many people, but I have an idea you’ll have an opinion as to whether they’re moving in a good or bad direction. Maybe I’m asking you whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.
Richard Falk: I always tell people when they ask this question that I’m not smart enough to believe either one, because it presupposes an awareness of the future. And one thing I think we all should have learned is that we’re not smart enough to anticipate the future. Lots of things have happened that couldn’t have been anticipated. The collapse of apartheid, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring—all those things came unexpected by the so-called experts, and people like me come along afterward and try to tell you why it had to happen that way.
At this point, if I were to judge from the trends and tendencies that seem dominant, I would be very doubtful that the human species has very good prospects for longevity on the planet.