Does New Zealand have a Strategic Culture?
Posted on 16:28, May 27th, 2010 by Pablo
Given the pacifist tendencies of many KP readers, the question in the title of this post may seem unusual and of little importance. Little attention has been paid by most public media, much less the Left-leaning ones, to the issue of strategic culture both in general and with specific reference to Aotearoa. My interest in the subject has been sparked by my current book project, where I try to analyse the post Cold War security politics of three “peripheral” democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal. Among other things that I have discovered as part of the project, it appears that there be no, or at least different conceptualisations of, a unique kiwi strategic culture. Let me elaborate on both the subject and the specifics of this.
Strategic culture refers to the security perspectives, traditions, institutions and behaviour of a country. Although it has often been confused with it, strategic culture is more than just a military war-fighting tradition. It is more than a diplomatic posture. It encompasses the full array of security concerns, from intelligence-gathering techniques and priorities to trade orientation and diplomatic alliances, that make up the larger framework with which policy-making elites perceive the strategic environment in which they operate.
As an example of one dimension of strategic culture, let us look at the core feature with which it is most often confused: war-fighting tradition. Much has been written about different cultural and national “styles” of warfare, be it, among others, Arab, American, Australian, British, Chinese, German, French, Israeli or Russian. Some emphasise mass over maneuver, others prefer tactical flexibility to centralisation of command, and still others prefer deception and stealth across ill-defined fronts rather fixed lines of combat in well-demarcated battle spaces. The array of war-fighting styles also extends to unconventional or guerrilla war-fighting—urban guerrilla warfare is not the same as rural insurgency, nor is the ratio of ideological-psychological work to kinetic operations the same in all contexts. Although there is plenty of overlap in all war-fighting styles, each is a unique adaptation, based on terrain, culture, technology, organisational capacity, leadership characteristics and the ethno-religious and national make-up of the fighting forces involved, as well as the ideologies that justify what they are fighting for.
The question thus begs: does NZ have a distinct war-fighting tradition? If so, what are its characteristics? Whatever the answer, that is only part of the picture.
That is because strategic culture involves geopolitical perspectives and geostrategic orientation, institutional morphology and historical practice. Countries with large land masses and multiple borders see things differently than do island states. Countries with ample resources and robust economies of scale in value-added manufacturing conform their approaches to trade and security differently than resource poor agro-export platforms. Countries with on-going territorial, cultural or political disputes tend to “see” threats differently than those that are not encumbered by such conflicts. Countries governed by authoritarians often perceive things differently than well-established democracies. So do countries with long histories of warfare (internal as well as external) when contrasted against countries with peaceful internal histories and little involvement in foreign wars.
Domestic political dynamics over time, as well as specific histories of military and diplomatic alliances, also impact on the specifics of strategic culture. The number of variables is larger and more varied than this, but the point should be clear: strategic culture is a product of national character molded by historical practice, current political dynamics, institutional framework and geopolitical context.
In highly simplified fashion the equation looks like this: strategic culture—> geopolitical orientation—> geostrategic perspective—> threat environment assessment and contingency planning—> security force orientation—> force composition—> force staffing, training and equipment—> force deployment and operations. This includes intelligence and police services as well as the military, because it includes internal and external security roles. The most important thing to note is that strategic culture is the point of departure for all that follows; absent a strategic culture there is little basis for a coherent strategic vision over time , which in turn impacts negatively on all of the other variables arrayed along this particular chain of causality.
Which brings up the point of this post: does NZ have a distinct strategic culture? One of the things that emerged during my discussions with numerous observers during my visit to NZ in February and March was an unspoken consensus that NZ does not have a strategic culture to call its own. This is in part a product of the apparent ad-hoc approach to policy-making I mentioned in a previous post. But it also appears to be rooted in organisational dysfunction and incompetence as well as a dependence on foreign patrons for strategic guidance. Many of the most informed people I spoke with were openly derisive of the competence and vision of the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS leadership, particularly the civilians that ostensibly provide the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS with policy guidance (the name Mark Burton was mentioned more than once as absolute proof of how ineptitude can still find its way into the upper echelons of security policy-making). Plus, advancement within the security bureaucracies is seen as being tied to toeing both the (incumbent) party line as well as the extant corporate culture, however misinformed or dysfunctional they may be. Thus, even though there are futures forecasting shops in various security agencies, very little is actually forecast that the bosses do not want to hear or read, and most of what is forecast is make-work destined for annual reports rather than designed to serve as a basis for strategic planning over the medium term.
The same accusation has been made of the plethora of security agencies that have emerged since 9/11, which may be in part why the National government has made the decision to convert the External Assessments Bureau into a National Assessments Bureau with oversight authority over the whole lot. But the latter does not indicate a move to develop a defined strategic culture. It is just an attempt to impose some form of managerial rationality on the intelligence-security combine in order to overcome areas of duplication, overlap and turf battles.
There was also the view expressed that when it comes to security, NZ has traditionally looked to Australia, the US and the UK (in the current order) for strategic guidance rather than develop a distinctive strategic culture of its own. This is believed to be a result of NZ dependence on these countries (and others, such as France) for military equipment and training and intelligence flows. But NZ has a distinctive approach to things like nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peace-keeping, so surely that is reflected in a unique perspective on the external security environment and the role that NZ should play in it. Here again, my supposition that NZ has a distinct way of viewing things from a security perspective was contradicted or dismissed by the knowledgeable interlocutors with whom I spoke. Yet I remain unconvinced that their skepticism is fully warranted. Surely there is an appreciation of the need for a uniquely Kiwi approach to strategic affairs?
Which leaves me with my opening question. I know that Chile and Portugal have distinct strategic cultures that informs the way in which they engage the post-Cold War world on security matters. These distinctive strategic cultures give them coherency and predictability when construing threats, organising their security forces and engaging in security planning. Can we say the same thing for NZ?