Archive for ‘April, 2021’

Deceptive and dangerous dichotomisation.

datePosted on 17:08, April 17th, 2021 by Pablo

Humans are hard-wired to classify, categorise and compare, or in other words, to taxonomize. We may be born tabula rasa but quickly are taught that the world is divided into types of things, subtypes of those and assorted other categories. The operative term is “taught” rather than “realise.” Taxonomies are not a product of nature or divine intervention but a product of human invention and imagination. Consider the Introduction to The Order of Things by Foucault, in which he gives tribute to Jorge Luis Borges:

“This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970) xv.

In a recent conversation about foreign policy I was reminded of this by way of Italian political theory. Italian political theory is under-appreciated in Aotearoa and often misunderstood or misinterpreted. The works of the two most popular Italian political theorists in NZ, Niccolo Machiavelli and Antonio Gramsci, are regularly mangled by commentators who in many instances do not read Italian, and it is telling that one of the more accurate contemporary NZ readers of Gramsci is an Italian-born member of the Wellington Twitterati (the irony of paraphrasing various passages from the Prison Notebooks and Notes from Prison into 140 characters is clearly lost on many in those circles). While Gramsci and Machiavelli certainly are worth better consideration, so too are others. One that springs to mind in the context of taxonomies is Norberto Bobbio.

Bobbio wrote of the value of the “Great Dichotomy” as an analytic device. The separation of phenomena as bifurcated and opposed entities helps to clarify their differences and commonalities in a form of juxtaposition: either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, black/white, happy/sad, quality/quantity, substance/symbol, many/few, peace/war, base/superstructure, public/private, state/society, individual/collective, dictatorship/democracy…the analytic “cuts” are limited only by the imagination. Plus, there can be subsets of dichotomies contained within a larger dichotomous whole: “family” is a subset of the public/private “great” dichotomy, as is the notion of individual versus collective rights. The universe defined by them can admit no overlap or analytic other: they are the totality of what exists in a given sphere. The idea behind the use of dichotomies as analytic constructs is to distill the subject of study into its core analytic parts, to counterpoise, declutter and distinguish the essential of any given phenomenon from the non-essential.

Because Bobbio is grounded in the neo-Gramscian Marxist (and thus Hegelian) tradition, he views the relationship of dichotomous opposites as dialectical: thesis/antithesis. The important aspect of this is that each pole influences the other, leading to a fluid sequence of interaction that game theorists call “extensive form” (where the outcome of each specific interaction or play is different, as opposed to iterative games where the outcomes remain the same over time). This is helpful when studying many social phenomena because humans have a tendency to be unpredictable and inclined to respond in unexpected ways to similar situations or stimulae. That is why the study of human society–the social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and political science–are considered “soft” sciences. As opposed to “hard” or “exact” sciences such as physics or chemistry, the study of human behaviour cannot be reduced to absolutely predictable responses to given conditions that can be identically reproduced in laboratory settings in which all variables are controlled. To be sure, social scientists endeavour to impose rigorous quantitative frameworks on what and how they study, such as in the field of economics. But for all of those efforts it remains the case that the study of human behaviour is an inexact science when compared to the physical world in which we live. This is one major reason why using great dichotomies is a useful methodological approach to social science research.

Certainly the use of dichotomies as analytic tools has helped social scientists break the order of things down to their component parts. But there is a downside to the use of such devices, and that is evident in their application to foreign policy.

Foreign policy elites fully understand that the world of international affairs is complex and full of nuance and subtleties. But for them to undertake action they have to conceptualise the global landscape in simpler terms. Analytic schools such as realism attempt to do so by distilling the relations between states (and increasingly non-state actors) as essentially being about relative power, its distribution and its use. Power comes on many dimensions–economic, diplomatic cultural, military–and can be persuasive or coercive in nature. It may be enduring in some instances and short-lived in others, mostly because it is contingent on and contrary or complementary to that of other actors. The use of power is a product of self-interest pursued in a competitive setting, that being the “state of nature” that Hobbes saw as a defining feature of human life and which international relations scholars transposed onto the “anarchic” environment in which nation-states and other international actors exist and operate.

There are other schools of thought when it comes to international relations–systems theory, idealism, constructivism, symbolic politics, amongst others. In practice there is often a combination or hybrid approach employed by foreign policy elites depending on circumstances even if one fundamental strand remains dominant. Thus we hear of “principled but pragmatic” approaches or “independent and autonomous” foreign policies. The beauty of realism as an organising principle rests in its ability to distill the relations of nation-states and other international actors to an either/or proposition: either you have relative power vis a vis other actors or you do not. Everything flows from that.

The problem rises when foreign policy elites decide to use great dichotomies not as organising principles but to advance their political or partisan agendas rather than the national interest. They may do so out of ideological conviction or as a way of eliciting popular support for a foreign policy initiative or stance. But doing so often leads to a dishonest or mistaken read on international affairs, something that can be counterproductive if not catastrophic in the long term.

Consider the case the Dulles brothers in US foreign policy in the 1950s. John Foster Dulles and Allan Welsh Dulles were pillars of the post-war US foreign policy establishment. The former was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State while the latter was the first and longest serving civilian CIA Director. During that decade they were decisive in shaping the contours of what became Cold War US foreign policy, using one ideological and one practical tool to create a Great Dichotomy lens through which the US looked at the world. That ideological side of the lens was anti-communism. The practical side of the lens was based on George Keenan’s famous “long telegram” under the pseudonym “Mr. X” in which he outlined the need for a “containment policy” directed at the USSR in order to curb its expansion at the expense of the so-called free world.

From their seats of power the Dulles Brothers put anti-communist containment in practice. The world was divided into dichotomous spheres of influence in which the US and USSR had unchallenged supremacy and which were considered “shatter zones” if the rival power dared to contest primacy in them. Outside of the shatter zones existed peripheral zones where contestation for primacy was allowed, to include open conflict using proxies, surrogates and even the armed forces of the respective poles in the bipolar balance of power of those times. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and to a lesser extent South America were seen as regions where conflict could be managed, weapons trialled and strategic influence won or lost.

The problem of seeing the world through the anti-communist containment lens was that it over-simplified the dynamics of the post-colonial and postwar worlds. The communism versus democracy (read: capitalism) argument failed to account for national liberation movements and other forms of post-colonial resistance and struggle that were not related to the Great Power rivalry and which were not reducible to a mere struggle between communists and democrats. This led the US to back numerous rightwing dictatorships, foment coups, subvert progressive governments and wind up bogged down as the adversary in futile post-colonial wars of national liberation in Indochina and elsewhere that were initiated against other western colonial powers (France, in the case of Vietnam). The Soviets also had their share of misreads, straying into Afghanistan as if the graveyard of Empires was not a historical fact and bolstering Communist China and North Korea to the point that their strategic interests came to share pride of place in Soviet foreign policy considerations in East Asia and eventually superseded them.

The result was that the US continually came down on the wrong side of history in many places because it was blinded by its Great Dichotomy perspective. That was particularly the case in Latin America and glaringly apparent in the retreat from Vietnam (where US soldiers literally died on the same ground that their French predecessors did), but it nevertheless remained the foundational tenet of US foreign policy until well after the end of the Cold War and even persists to this day with regards to its approach to Cuba, Venezuela and other socialist regimes.* In fact, if one was to only listen to rightwing voices in the US, the US is still in a Cold War with communists except that China has been substituted for Russia in this latest version of dichotomisation (and Russia has become an ally defending so-called “Western values” in the minds of the more rabid or coopted quarters the US Right).

This would be merely a thing of historical interest were it not for the fact that the world today is once again being subject to dichotomous foreign policy machinations. On the one hand, the Biden administration speaks of a new balance of power between “autocracies and democracies,” with the US leading one side and the PRC and Russia leading the other. For its part, China has been pushing a more North-South worldview that is grounded in the colonial versus post-colonial dichotomy. It rightly points out that the international system and its component parts, including the UN, international organisations, norms and regulations as well as its economic structure, were all created to benefit the colonial exploiters well after they gave up their imperial pretensions. The PRC positions itself as the vanguard of a new post-colonial world order where that inherent bias would be replaced by a more equitable distribution of power. For its part, the US claims that after the retreat from world affairs under Trump and the rise of autocratic powers world-wide, the US is back to claim its position at the head of the table of nations dedicated to the rule of law, free markets and open and fair competitive elections.

Neither of these competing views is entirely true, of course. But they are mutually exclusive. This makes them the two axes of a foreign policy Great Dichotomy where the world is being divided into two competing blocs whichever side one takes. The fact that reality does not accord with the construction does not matter to the foreign policy elites that are driving the narrative because their goal is to shape and influence perceptions about the emerging multipolar international system.

This poses problems for a country like New Zealand because it may sit uncomfortably on the dichotomy fault line being constructed between these competing foreign policy perspectives and may in fact prefer to straddle it rather than choose a side (assuming that it accepts that such a divide is in fact in the making). The trouble is that as a small state faced with great powers heading towards confrontation, NZ’s position is akin to that of a homestead straddling the fault between two tectonic plates–it can do nothing to prevent the larger shifts that will have dislocating, if not devastating effects on it when the moment of clash eventuates.

In the end, whether or not the emerging multipolar system is being carved up into competing blocs , it is the perception of such that ultimately matters. And that is where small states can have an impact because, even with the pressures placed on them, they can try to resist the narrative that the world is now in the grip of a Great Dichotomy involving great power competition over how to shape the emerging international order. Here is where both Machiavelli and Gramsci may be of help, because the former was the consul of a small empire faced with the rise of more powerful states, while the latter spoke of the importance of waging wars of counter-hegemonic (ideological) position rather than wars of (physical) manoeuvre against a hegemonic elite. In their own way, each understood both the elegance and dangers inherent in seeing the world in dichotomous fashion.

It is in the combination of their perspectives where the deliberate deception of the contemporary foreign policy dichotomy may best be understood and countered.

*As a personal aside, I saw firsthand evidence of this perspective when I went through the security vetting processes that allowed me to get the clearances that I needed to work in the US security apparatus. On at least three occasions from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s I was asked by polygraph interrogators if I was a communist or a member of a communist party. I could honestly say no and then volunteered that I supported the Peronist Party and Montoneros as a youth in Argentina. The response was always the same: as long as I was not a commie, then everything was fine.

Principled, pragmatic or expedient.

datePosted on 16:44, April 11th, 2021 by Pablo

For several decades under Labour and National-led governments New Zealand has claimed to have an independent (and sometimes autonomous) foreign policy. This foreign policy independence is said to be gained by having a “principled but pragmatic” approach to international relations: principled when possible, pragmatic when necessary. More recently NZ foreign policy has shifted from traditional diplomacy in which trade was a component part to a trade focused orientation to which all other aspects of diplomatic endeavour are subordinated. Seen as a marriage of belief in Ricardian notions of comparative (and now competitive) advantage with a pragmatic understanding that NZ is dependent on trade for its survival and prosperity, the “trade for trade’s sake” approach continues to reign supreme to this day.

It turns out that foreign policy pragmatism or principle may no longer obtain in certain instances, especially when trade is involved. Take the issue of NZ military-related exports. It has been revealed that NZ firms and (possibly) public agencies export everything from airplane parts to small arms, explosive ordinance, training simulators, muzzle flash suppressors, missile guidance systems and artillery range finders to 41 countries and territories. (The term “possibly” is used here because all of the NZ exporting entities are redacted in the export list made public by MFAT. While some private exporters can be broadly identified by the nature of the items sold, other special license categories make ambiguous the provenance of the equipment in question).

Most of these exports go to NATO members and other liberal democracies, while other recipients are regional partners like Singapore, Malaysia , Australia, Tonga and Indonesia. The bulk of what is exported is what might be considered to be on the soft rather than sharp end of the so-called “kill chain:” items that do not impart lethal force directly but which contribute to the accuracy and lethality of weapons systems that do.

None of this would be controversial if it were not for the fact that some of the recipient countries have checkered human rights records (like Indonesia) while others have outright dismal histories of authoritarianism and military criminality. That includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and the PRC. Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead a coalition of Sunni Arab states that have been credibly accused of committing war crimes and genocide against Houthi populations in Yemen. Saudi Arabia does not recognise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the UAE was not party to the UDHR vote) and along with the UAE does not recognise a number of human rights conventions involving women’s rights, labour rights, political and social rights. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia also are not party to the UDHR and while not as dismal as the Sunni oligarchies, have subpar records when it comes to adhering to international human rights norms and agreements. NZ exports military training material to the PRC, whose human rights history is known for all the wrong reasons. There are other dubious recipients but the issue is clear. In spite of claiming to be a champion and defender of human rights as a matter of principle, NZ exports military equipment to egregious violators of human rights both at home and abroad.

Some will argue that NATO members and other democracies like Australia also violate the laws of war and human rights in their own territories. There is merit to those arguments. But the difference between Australia, Canada, the UK and US and, say, Saudi Arabia and the UAE when it comes to military conduct in conflict theatres is that war crimes committed by the forces deployed by liberal democracies are exceptions to the rule and are punished (even if initially covered up) rather than systematically encouraged and later denied. Domestically, while systemic racism clearly exists throughout the liberal democratic world, it is no longer genocidal in nature even if in previous eras there was a significant element of that.

Conversely, places like the PRC systemically abuse human rights at home, deny individual and collective rights as a matter of course and treat ethnic and religious minorities as if they were foreign enemies. Turkey has grown increasingly authoritarian under President Erdogan, with its treatment of its Kurdish minority a particularly black mark on its record. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are known for their mistreatment of foreign workers, Shiia Muslims in particular but not exclusively. Jordan and Bahrain, other recipients of NZ strategic license exports, are Western allies but not known for their adherence to human rights conventions.

Even Israel, a supposed liberal democracy and a Western ally that is another recipient of NZ military-related exports, systematically violates the rights of Palestinians inside and outside of its recognised territorial limits, including targeting of civilian populations during times of conflict (in Gaza) and forcibly annexing Palestinian territory (in the West Bank) as part of an expansionist doctrine that seeks to eventually expel Palestinians from what they and Israelis consider to be their homelands. Within Israel, in spite of recent electoral gains by so-called “Arab” (Joint List) parties, Palestinians are more often seen and treated as a subversive fifth column rather than full citizens (Arabs make up around 20 percent of the Israeli population).

Most liberal democracies simply do not act this way. The West may be guilty of many things, particularly during the colonial era and Cold War, but even if flawed most liberal democracies at a minimum pay lip service to the rule of law based on civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad. A fair number of the recipients of NZ strategic exports in recent years make no such pretence.

None of this would matter if NZ had a realist approach to foreign policy that was completely pragmatic in orientation based on national self-interest. Matters of principle would not factor into foreign policy-making and trade relations. But that is not the case. Instead, NZ is a very vocal defender of small state and minority rights in the international community as an extension of its championing of international human rights, international norms and the rule of law. That makes trading with authoritarians somewhat hypocritical and exporting military equipment to murderous regimes downright reprehensible. Especially when done for a buck–that is, for the profit gain of NZ private firms.

To be clear, almost any hunting-related equipment can be converted for dual use military purposes. But there is much more to the NZ export list (released by MFAT to a couple of investigative reporters under OIA requests) than converted hunting equipment. It also is interesting that most of the redactions in the sanitised export list are justified on commercial sensitivity rather than national security grounds. If items were merely dual use conversions from hunting equipment, one would think that there are little commercial sensitivities involved given the global scope of the hunting industry. Nor are end users always identified on the list, which makes MFAT assurances that it knows what is ultimately being done with the exports somewhat disingenuous. Either it knows and does not want to say or it does not know even though it allowed the export license request for those items to be approved.

Consider this example. MFAT approved the sale of a general utility aircraft from a Hamilton-based aerospace company (now bankrupt) to a PRC-based aviation firm in spite of numerous concerns about the end use of that aircraft. A year or so after the sale went through the plane was photographed at an airshow wearing North Korean military livery, sparking an investigation into how international sanctions on North Korea were circumvented in the process (the sanctions violation was considered a first order offence given the military use of the aircraft). In the legal process that followed, which resulted in the conviction and fining of the Hamilton firm for violating the international sanctions regime and NZ strategic export requirements, MFAT admitted that it had no clue as to who the end user might be beyond the PRC firm that, incidentally, owned a half interest in the Hamilton company and controlled its board of directors. In other words, it took the exporter’s word as an article of faith and as a result contributed to an egregious violation of UN sanctions that NZ voted to support. Diplomatically speaking, that tarnished NZ’s reputation because neither principle or pragmatism, much less due diligence, was applied to the sale.

Even training equipment has to be considered in proper context. Artillery range finders used for training purposes (which MFAT claims was the case with Saudi Arabia) are being used to train artillery for war, not fun and games. Saudi artillery is regularly used in the Yemen civil war, so it a stretch to say that exporting equipment that trains troops to be more accurate with their artillery fire is not related to the Yemeni conflict. Likewise, even if small in terms of numbers and monetary value, exporting sidearms and squad weapons to human rights violators ignores the fact that they could be used against domestic populations and foreign civilians as well as foreign adversaries.

Again, none of this would be of concern if NZ did not proclaim itself to have an independent foreign policy based on principle as well as pragmatism. If it was a country powered by a military-industrial complex such as the US, it would all be in a day’s business to export military equipment to assorted nefarious regimes. But not so NZ, which has staked its international reputation on being an agent of honest virtue–a good global citizen, as it often says.

The truth is different. If NZ was truly independent it could resist the pressure to act as a cut-out or front for its allies’ military-related services (say, by not allowing the national airline to serve as a sub-contractor for the reconditioning of Saudi Navy gas turbines usually serviced by US Navy contractors). It could pick and choose about when to be principled and when to be pragmatic when it comes to military-related exports (say, by exporting to NATO or liberal democratic partners only). After all, although clearly lacking any basis in principle, it is really pragmatic for NZ to sell the Saudis and Emiratis military equipment when they are involved in industrial-strength war crimes in pursuit of a genocidal campaign in a neighbouring country? Will the diplomatic benefits of courting such states outweigh the costs of making its rank hypocrisy visible to the rest of the international community?

In a past life I was involved in the decision-making chain involved in US military sales and training, etc. to Latin American countries. The primary criteria for vetting military equipment and training requests was twofold: the nature of the equipment or training requested and the character of the political regime (government) making the request. If the equipment or training was too sensitive or excessively lethal and/or the regime doing the requesting was of dubious disposition, then the request was denied. If the decision was anything other than an outright “no” on the primary grounds, then other criteria was applied: state of trade and diplomatic relations with the requesting state, the geopolitical balance in the (sub) region in which that state was located, the possibility of a domino proliferation impact, the presence of other foreign weapons suppliers as substitutes for US exports, etc. Once all of this was factored in with input from the various elements of the inter-agency consultation process (involving the State Department, CIA, NSC, Treasury, Commerce and other federal agencies with a potential stake in the matter), sometimes after sounding out other countries in the region about their reactions, a recommendation was sent to the White House for approval/denial. If the White House approved the sale/mission, then the recommendation was sent to Congress for approval, something involving several committee votes and then a general vote in both Houses. The process was slow and circuitous but in the end it was comprehensive and transparent.

Although it is possible that there are similarly robust weapons exportation strategic license vetting protocols in place in NZ, that does not seem to be the case. MFAT appears to make the call, perhaps after consultation with DPMC and/or Cabinet. Parliament is not involved in the decision-making process. No public notification is made. In other words, the entire NZ strategic export licensing regime is opaque at best. You can read the official criteria here.

MFAT says that the vetting process is rigorous and that it knows exactly where NZ sourced military equipment winds up. Yet it has only denied one out of 254 special export license requests in the last three years (to the Saudis for mortar stands and fire control (observation tower) equipment, supposedly in response to the Khashoggi murder). If foreign policy principle were involved, one might expect that the approval rate would be somewhat lower for authoritarian-ruled countries. But if pragmatism and trade are the criteria in play, does it make sense to supply murderous regimes with any kill chain components? Or is the fact that the entire decision-making process for granting special export licenses is so opaque that MFAT and the suppliers thought that they would never be found out if it were not for the good work of a couple of intrepid reporters?

More than principle and pragmatism as guideposts for foreign policy, it seems that trade-promoting expediency is the new normal in NZ foreign affairs, something that continues under the Ardern government. But with expediency comes a loss of independence and autonomy as well, because among other reasons, states with their own agendas can use NZ’s trade zealotry as third party cover for transactions they themselves may be reluctant to admit publicly (even the US has suspended weapons sales to Saudi Arabia because of its behaviour in Yemen). Or authoritarians can hold non-military trade relations with NZ hostage to the provision of military equipment. Either way, that makes NZ a foreign policy tool of others rather than an honest broker in international relations and global good citizen.

Just like the fact that NZ’s “clean and green” image is more myth than reality, the foreign policy reality is that at least when it comes to trading in the paraphernalia of death, NZ is unprincipled, hardly pragmatic and dominated by logics of trade expediency rather than a commitment to the upholding international human rights. While it would be too much to expect a National-led government to put principle before trade expediency, that this continues to occur under a Labour-led government (in which the Prime Minister claims that she was unaware of the strategic export recipient list until asked about it by the media) is all the more outrageous given its constant repetition of the “independent, principled but pragmatic” foreign policy mantra.

If NZ is to regain a semblance of integrity in diplomatic circles, its foreign policy decision-making matrix must change away from trade obsessed expediency and towards the principled but pragmatic orientation that grants it the independence that it claims to have. Conversely, if it wants to put trade before everything else, then it might as well fess up and open up the country’s foreign policy to the highest bidder.

Selwyn Manning and I dedicated this week’s video podcast to the potential emergence of rival blocs within the transitional process involved in the move from a unipolar to a multipolar international system currently underway. However one characterises the phenomenon–autocracies versus democracies, East versus West, colonial versus post-colonial–the global order is increasingly bifurcated and dichotomous. Although a move to multipolarity is seemingly beneficial because it is theoretically more stable over the long term (at least when compared to bi- and unipolar systems), the consequences of the orchestrated shift into adversarial alliance blocs may be detrimental to peace and stability over the short term. You can catch the show here.