Archive for ‘March, 2018’

New Zealand goes it alone.

datePosted on 18:47, March 28th, 2018 by Pablo

The New Zealand Labour government’s refusal to join international collective action against Russia over the nerve agent attack in the UK on former spy Sergei Skripal is perplexing. The 27-nation solidarity coalition expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from their soil includes all of New Zealand’s major security partners as well as important trade counterparts. New Zealand is a member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, so it has better knowledge than most as to what evidence the UK has to indicate that Vladimir Putin’s regime ordered the hit on Skripal. New Zealand is an extra-regional NATO and EU associate, and like the majority of the members of the coalition, it is a democracy. New Zealand fashions itself as a good international citizen and honest broker in international affairs, so it seems odd that it would not join its closest diplomatic interlocutors in what is largely a symbolic gesture of repudiation of Russian misbehavior abroad.

The decision was made all the more quixotic by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s claim that there are “no undeclared Russian intelligence operatives” in New Zealand and hence there was no need to expel anyone. She claimed to have assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) that was the case, even though MFAT has no counter-intelligence function nor the ability to ascertain who is and who is not a Russian intelligence officer, declared or undeclared (that is the job of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS)). She later changed her story to saying that her advice did in fact come from the SIS, but without acknowledging her original misstatement (which happened during a RNZ interview so is recorded for posterity). Her repeated comments that if there were such spies in New Zealand they would be expelled produced derisive headlines around the globe but more importantly, raised questions about her competence when handling security matters.

Discussion in New Zealand about the issue has been muddled by the PM’s remarks. The minor aspect of the story is about whether there are Russian intelligence operatives in NZ and whether they should be expelled. The answers to that are “yes” and “possibly.” “Possibly” depends on the answer to the major aspect of the story: the reasons why NZ decided not to join the so-called “expulsion coalition.” I shall focus on the latter but suffice it to say that all of the 150 Russian personnel expelled by the coalition hold diplomatic passports so by definition are not working undercover as spies without diplomatic immunity. Nor were all of those expelled intelligence officers working under official cover (i.e. with diplomatic immunity).

The detour into what constitutes an “undeclared intelligence agent” was unnecessary and unhelpful in clarifying the reasons behind NZ’s decision to reject the UK request to join it in repudiating the Russian assassination attempt. That reasoning continues to remain unclear at present. Claiming that the decision to not adhere to the collective expulsion action is because there was no one who met the definition of “undeclared intelligence agents” operating in New Zealand is a diversion from the underlying rationale because it puts the focus on the instrumentalities of response rather than the reasons for it.

So why has New Zealand chosen to isolate, or perhaps better said, alienate itself from its traditional allies and major security partners? To be sure, members of the coalition have their own histories of foreign skullduggery and intrigue, to include extrajudicial killings abroad. Moreover, diplomacy is often no more than hypocrisy masquerading as self-righteousness standing in defense of principle. Perhaps the Labour government wants to give the lie to the posturing of its most important allies.

Even so, pragmatic assessments usually inform foreign policy decisions, particularly those involving choosing sides in international disputes. That is particularly true for small states when confronted with the demands of quarreling powers to take a position in favour of one side or the other. This “Melian Dilemma” is an unavoidable part of being small in a world dominated by competing great powers, so Lilliputians such as New Zealand usually think long and hard before taking an unpopular stand—particularly amongst its friends.

New Zealand’s decision not to participate in the solidarity coalition was made in the face of a direct request from the May government and in spite of the fact that the collective action is largely symbolic. Although Russian intelligence operations will be adversely affected in places like the UK, US and Germany, many of those being expelled are “normal” diplomats who can be recalled at some future date. So the downside to joining the coalition would seem relatively small even with Russian threats of retaliation, and the upside in terms of being seen to be a good diplomatic partner that supports international norms could well outweigh whatever the Russians can respond with.

Perhaps there lies the explanation. New Zealand’s foreign policy in recent years has been trade obsessed and speculation has it that members of the foreign policy establishment see the possibility of advancing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Russia in the vacuum left by the trade sanctions levied on it in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and annexation of Crimea. New Zealand and Russia opened talks on trade before the sanctions were imposed, then suspended them afterwards. Official advice from the foreign ministry is that violating the sanctions regime to try to exploit a possible window of opportunity vis a vis Russia is counterproductive at best.

But talk in Wellington is that some in the Labour-led government are keen to resume negotiations, so taking a contrary stance on response to the nerve agent assassination attempt is a means of currying favour with Putin at a time when other competitors are not. Given that Foreign Minister Winston Peters has questioned claims that Russia was involved in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, or that it interfered in US and European elections, and has refused to name Russia as the perpetrator of the attempted Skripal hit, what once seemed to be an unhinged rationale for resuming bilateral trade negotiations is now being given credence.

It is also possible that Labour is attempting to stake out its “independent and autonomous” foreign policy credentials after nine years of the previous government’s rapprochement with the US and the other Five Eyes partners. Given the animosity felt towards Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Teresa May) amongst Labour supporters as well as those of its coalition partners (New Zealand First and the Green Party), this is a way of playing David versus Goliath(s) for domestic audiences.

New Zealand could also be signalling the international community. After all, over 140 nations did not sign up to the collective action, including major trading partners in Asia and the Middle East. No Pacific Island nation (other than those represented by France, the UK and US) signed on to the deal. So in terms of demonstrating its sovereign resolve to remain out of great power conflicts when and where possible, this Labour government may be channeling the spirit of independence championed by David Lange during the 1985 nuclear showdown.

And yet, pragmatic assessment of the situation would advise the Labour-led government to address the short and long term costs and benefits of alienating its most important foreign partners by refusing to join in the symbolic repudiation of Russia. By any objective measure, to include the possibility of securing bilateral trade with Putin’s regime, the costs of doing so will clearly outweigh the benefits even if it does not interfere with the daily business of intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the Five Eyes and other security partners.

On the other hand, virtue signalling its independence may garner New Zealand some favor with those outside of the “exclusion coalition” as well as domestic audiences. The play is both short and long-term in nature, with the question being will a short term move of this sort translate into longer term benefits or losses.

In the diplomatic world the shadow of the future hangs heavily over present decision-making. Sequels are uncertain and memories are elephantine in nature. The consequences of being shortsightedly contrarian are determined not by the contrarian but by those refused support on a matter of international consequence and foreign policy alignment. On the other hand, standing up to great power partners may risk the wrath of those slighted but win broader appeal among those in the global community who are averse to the machinations of the mighty.

With that in mind the question remains: what exactly were the reasons for this move and what does the New Zealand Labour government expect to gain from its contrarian (even if principled)  stance?

A shorter version of this post appears in The Guardian on line, March 28, 2018.

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today