Archive for ‘December, 2021’

The incremental shift.

datePosted on 14:13, December 28th, 2021 by Pablo

In the build up to the Xmas holidays I was interviewed by two mainstream media outlets about the recently released (December 2021) Defence Assessment Report and last week’s 5 Eyes Communique that included New Zealand as a signatory. The common theme in the two documents was the threat, at least as seen through the eyes of NZ’s security community, that the PRC increasingly poses to international and regional peace and stability. But as always happens, what I tried to explain in hour-long conversations with reporters and producers inevitably was whittled down into truncated pronouncements that skirted over some nuances in my thought about the subject. In the interest of clarification, here is a fuller account of what is now being described as a “shift” in NZ’s stance on the PRC.

Indeed, there has been a shift in NZ diplomatic and security approaches when it comes to the PRC, at least when compared to that which operated when he Labour-led coalition took office in 2017. But rather than sudden, the shift has been signalled incrementally, only hardening (if that is the right term) in the last eighteen months. In July 2020, the the wake of the ill-fated Hong Kong uprising, NZ suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, citing the PRC passage of the Security Law for Hong Kong and its negative impact on judicial independence and the “one country, two systems” principle agreed to in the 1997 Joint UK-PRC Declaration on returning Hong Kong to Chinese control. At the same time NZ changed its sensitive export control regime so that military and “dual use” exports to HK are now treated the same as if they were destined for the mainland. 

In November 2020 NZ co-signed a declaration with its 5 Eyes partners condemning further limits on political voice and rights in HK with the postponment of Legislative elections, arrests of opposition leaders and further extension of provisions of the mainland Security Law to HK. The partners also joined in condemnation of the treatment of Uyghurs in Yinjiang province. In April 2021 Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta gave her “Dragon and Taniwha” speech where she tried to use Maori allegories to describe the bilateral relationship and called for NZ to diversify its trade away from overly concentrated partnerships, using the pandemic supply chain problems as an illustration as to why.

She also said that NZ was uncomfortable with using the 5 Eyes intelligence partnership as a public diplomacy tool. I agree completely with that view, as there are plenty of other diplomatic forums and channels through which to express displeasure or criticism. The speech did not go over well in part because NZ business elites reacted viscerally to a large tattooed Maori woman spinning indigenous yarns to a mainly Chinese and Chinese-friendly audience (and other foreign interlocutors further afield). From a “traditional” (meaning: white male colonial) perspective the speech was a bit odd because it was long on fable and imagery and short on “hard” facts, but if one dug deeper there were plenty of realpolitik nuggets within the fairy dust, with the proper context to the speech being that that Labour has an agenda to introduce Maori governance principles, custom and culture into non-traditional policy areas such as foreign policy. So for me it was the balancing act bookended by the trade diversification and 5 Eyes lines that stood out in that korero.

Less than a month later Prime Minister Ardern spoke to a meeting of the China Business Summit in Auckland and noted that “It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile.” That hardly sounds like appeasement or submission to the PRC’s will. Even so, Mahuta and Ardern were loudly condemned by rightwingers in NZ, Australia, the UK and US, with some going so far as to say that New Zealand had become “New Xiland” and that it would be kicked out the 5 Eyes for being soft on the Chinese. As I said at the time, there was more than a whiff of misogyny in those critiques.

In May 2021 the Labour-led government joined opposition parties in unanimously condemning the PRC for its abuse of Uyghur human rights. The motion can be found here.

In July 2021 NZ Minister of Intelligence and Security Andrew Little publicly blamed China-based, state-backed cyber-aggressors for a large scale hacking attack on Microsoft software vulnerabilities in NZ targets. He pointed to intolerable behaviour of such actors and the fact that their operations were confirmed by multiple Western intelligence agencies. He returned to the theme in a November 2021 speech given at Victoria University, where he reiterated his concerns about foreign interference and hacking activities without mentioning the PRC by name as part of a broad review of his remit. Rhetorical diplomatic niceties aside, it was quite clear who he was referring to when he spoke of state-backed cyber criminals (Russia is the other main culprit, but certainly not the only one). You can find the speech here

In early December 2021 the Ministry of Defense released its Defense Assessment Report for the first time in six years. In it China is repeatedly mentioned as the major threat to regional and global stability (along with climate change). Again, the issue of incompatible values was noted as part of a surprisingly blunt characterisation of NZ’s threat environment. I should point out that security officials are usually more hawkish than their diplomatic counterparts, and it was the Secretary of Defense, not the Minister who made the strongest statements about China (the Secretary is the senior civil servant in the MoD; the Minister, Peeni Henare, spoke of promoting Maori governance principles based on consensus and respect into the NZDF (“people, infrastructure, Pacifika”), something that may be harder to do than say because of the strictly hierarchical nature of military organisation. At the presser where the Secretary and Minister spoke about the Report, the uniformed brass spoke of “capability building” based on a wish list in the Report. Let’s just say that the wish list is focused on platforms that counter external, mostly maritime, physical threats coming from extra regional actors and factors rather than on matters of internal governance.

Then came the joint 5 Eyes statement last week, once again reaffirming opposition to the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its gradual absorption into the Chinese State. Throughout this period NZ has raised the issue of the Uyghurs with the PRC in bilateral and multilateral forums, albeit in a quietly diplomatic way.

I am not sure what exactly led to NZ’s shift on the PRC but, rather than a sudden move, there has been a cooling, if not hardening trend during the last eighteen months when it comes to the bilateral relationship. The decision to move away from the PRC’s “embrace” is clear, but I have a feeling that something unpleasant may have occurred in the relationship (spying? influence operations? diplomatic or personal blackmail?) that forced NZ to tighten its ties to Western trade and security networks. The recently announced UK-NZ bilateral FTA is one step in that direction. AUKUS is another (because if its spill-over effect on NZ defense strategy and operations).

What that all means is that the PRC will likely retaliate sometime soon and NZ will have to buckle up for some material hardship during the transition to a more balanced and diversified trade portfolio. In other words, it seems likely that the PRC will respond by shifting its approach and engage diplomatic and economic sanctions of varying degrees of severity on NZ, if nothing else to demonstrate the costs of defying it and as a warning to those similarly inclined. That may not be overly burdensome on the diplomatic and security fronts given NZ’s partnerships in those fields, but for NZ actors deeply vested/invested in China (and that means those involved in producing about 30 percent of NZ’s GDP), there is a phrase that best describes their positions: “at risk.” They should plan accordingly.

Along with the New Year, there is the real possibility that, whether it arrives incrementally or suddenly, foreign policy darkness lies on the horizon.

The unshackled straitjacket.

datePosted on 15:27, December 18th, 2021 by Pablo

In the 1980s the political scientist Jon Elster wrote a book titled Ulysses and the Sirens where he uses the Homeric epic The Odyssey to illustrate the essence of democracy. In book 12 of The Odyssey, the enchantress Circe warns Ulysses of the dangers posed by the mythical Sirens, purportedly half women and half bird but in reality monsters, whose songs were irresistible to men and who endeavored to lure wayfarers to their deaths on the rocky cliff faces of the Siren’s island. Circe advised that only Ulysses should listen to their “honeyed song,” and that his men should plug their ears with beeswax while he be lashed to the mast of his ship after his men plugged their ears, and that even though he cried and begged them to untie him once he came to hear the Siren’s alluring tones, that he only be freed once his ship was far our of reach of the Siren’s voices. So it was, as Ulysses heeded her advice, made safe passage in spite of the temptress’s calls, and he and his crew proceeded on their decade-long voyage home from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca. As it turns out, it did not end well for all, which is a story for another day. (Thanks to Larry Rocke for correcting my initial mistaken read about their fate).

Elster’s use of the story is designed to highlight three related things. First (the minor point, about the false promise of ethereal options), that, as with the Sirens, while there may be many seemingly attractive alternatives to the inefficiencies of democratic governance, the perils imbedded in purported alternatives outweigh the (mythical) rewards that they claim to confer. Second, that a good leader prizes wise counsel and heeds their advice. Third (the major point), that democracy at its essence is a self-limiting (self-binding) form of governance in which incumbents of political decision-making positions deliberately refrain from making full or untrammeled use of the powers vested in them by virtue of the popular vote. The underpinning belief is that political decision-makers will adhere in principle to self-limitation because they understand and share Elster’s view of democratic governance: it is not just about the means of power acquisition and subsequent use once it public office; it is about (self) restraint in the exercise of power in pursuit of the common good. Power is exercised not for personal or partisan again. It is exercised for the benefit of all. And for that to happen, self-restraint is necessary.

Unfortunately, humans are not those most righteous of creatures so in recognition of human fallibility in practice limits are placed on public authority not by voluntary adherence to principle but by institutional mores, norms, laws and conventions. Constitutions are the highest expression of that enforced restraint in the exercise of power, and systems of checks and balances between different branches of government are the means by which self-restraint is imposed and enforced. The key to adherence is that all actors accept the importance of self-limitation in the first place and understand that the constitutional/institutional rules are designed to encourage collective compliance in the face of temptations to pursue individual or partisan agendas and policies inimical to the common good.

I call this the “straitjacket” theory of democratic politics. Politicians voluntarily accept the limitations on their powers imposed by systems of checks and balances when assuming public office. The understand why self-restraint is the essence of democracy, along with consent and compromise in the pursuit of second-best solutions that, if not satisfying everyone all of the time, satisfy enough people most pf the time so that the political system because self-reproducing (and re-generating!) on its own terms. There is a material as well as social-cultural component to this grand contingent compromise (i.e. expectations have to be met in order for collective consent to continue to be given), but the combination of universal laws and institutional norms and mores promote a type of political socialization in which self-restraint is seen and promoted as a civic virtue, not a weakness, because it promotes exactly that type of compromise when it comes to policy outcomes.

The rule of self-restraint applies to all political actors in a democracy, local and national, in government or in Opposition. The temporal boundaries of electoral cycles means that all actors get to compete again at some pre-determined and relatively short-term date. That means that losers today can become winners in the near future, and that current winners need to deliver on their promises if they are to win again. The implicit bargain is clear: governments do not press full advantage even if widely popular and Oppositions do not go full contrarian on every government initiative. That encourages moderation in debate and policy outcomes because adopting extreme, polarized positions violates the law of self-restraint and in so doing inhibits compromise on collective outcomes. If sides go for broke today when it comes to policy, they may find themselves on the receiving end of equally extreme counter-measures down the road, with the vicious cycle continuing from there. Recognition of this fact–that today’s political behavior casts a shadow on the future for better or worse–is another contributor to the adoption of self-limiting strategies by political actors. This is not just a matter of principle. It is a matter of pragmatism for those committed to operating under democratic governance paradigms.

From a cynically Marxist perspective, the need for political self-restraint in pursuit of contingent compromises rests on the fact that otherwise the rapacious and undemocratic nature of capitalism would be exposed by the zero-sum politics of its political puppets. Over the long term that augers poorly for capitalist political control and the social and institutional advantages that go along with it, so moderation and self-restraint under democratic institutions are, as Lenin noted, the best “political shell” for capitalism. The idea is to not get too greedy or partisan when it comes to profit-taking and political competition and to macro-manage the economy consensually so that profit-driven or partisan avarice is constrained. That way capitalist hegemony can be disguised and maintained rather than exposed and challenged. Someone who appreciated this fact in a non-Marxist way was John Maynard Keynes, and the phrase “Keynesian compromise” is often used describe his approach to political economy.

Whatever the interpretation, for today’s liberal democracies and a few of the newer experiments in that political form, this has been the unwritten political understanding that overlaps the social compact between governed and governors. There are always exception to the rule and moments in which principle falls hard on the sword of hypocrisy, opportunism and privilege, but in the main the enduring feature of democracy has been that those in positions of power do not take full advantage of the authority vested in them. In may not always be a matter of voluntary choice for them, but they understand why the straitjacket must be worn.

Those days are over. In the US but also in other parts of the world where US-style politics has leached like a cancer onto local democratic politics (think Brazil, but even places like Chile, the UK or Italy), politicians not only do not adhere to self-binding strategies but no longer accept the straitjacket premise. Whether a matter of principle or pragmatism, the shadow of the democratic future holds no sway over them and so self-restraint or limitation in the use of their authority is no longer considered a virtue. Instead, they work hard to use procedural, institutional and legal maneuver, aided and abetted by external forces such as direct pressure and gaslighting campaigns channeled via lobbyists, partisan and social media, to undermine and subvert the system from within—in other words, to unshackle the straitjacket, political Houdini-style in order to impose their partisan and personal preferences on society.

Hence the rise of a phenomenon known as the “constitutional coup” whereby disloyal Oppositions attempt to impeach government incumbents on false or flimsy grounds (again, Brazil is a sad example). Now there has appeared something known as the “procedural coup” where one (or two) branches of government attempt to usurp and override the decisions of another, effectively voiding the balance-of-power premise inherent in constitutional systems such as the US. And it was exactly that goal that motivated Trump and his supporters on January 6—to usurp the power of Congress to declare a winner in last year’s presidential race.

That has been laid out in gory detail by the investigations into the January 6 insurrection-turned-coup attempt in the US, where it has been revealed that there were orchestrated links between the White House, Republicans in Congress and insurrectionists to violently impede the certification of the Biden presidential victory. It is seen in Republican attempts to stack state election offices with partisans and to gerrymander and engage in voter suppression programs that skew elections in their favor. It is seen in GOP and rightwing activist groups coercively attempting to gain control of local government offices and school boards via impeachment and recall campaigns waged against serving incumbents. It is seen in the insanity of GOP House members spouting Qanon and other MAGA extremist beliefs in and outside the debating chamber, including threats of physical harm to Democrat colleagues. None of this is an exercise in self-restraint and clearly is an attempt to loosen the fetters of institutional noms and practices.

The US is the exemplar of democratic corrosion but it is not alone. Already the same type of tactics—cries of election fraud before elections are held in places like Brazil and Chile; instigation of civil, including militia resistance to duly constituted government mandates such as in Australia; attempts to delegitimize government with calls to arrest, try, imprison or execute public officials because of their use of public health orders to impose pandemic control measures, all with a wink and nod from opposition politicians, such as in Aotearoa–the very edifice of global democratic governance is being shaken from without and within.

It is the latter threat that is the concern here because a stable democracy is impervious to seditious conspiracies. In contrast, unstable or fragile democracies whose political leadership is ridden with ideological extremists, charlatans, grifters, profiteers and other unscrupulous self-interested maximizers of egotistic opportunities, in which the fundamental law of self-restraint no longer applies, is fertile ground for authoritarian usurpation from within or without.

It is quite possible that the US is too far gone down this path to avoid a civil war. But if democracy is going to be saved there as well as elsewhere, then we must return to the foundational principles upon which that political edifice rests: that those in public office practice self-restraint in the use of their authority and abide by the the imposed limits placed upon that authority by the system of checks and balances inherent in the tripartite division of government powers. Only then can we return to the type of horizontal as well as vertical accountability that a political system built on self- or imposed restraint can uniquely offer the society that it governs.

Warnings versus threats in foreign relations.

datePosted on 13:42, December 12th, 2021 by Pablo

Over my years in academia and then as a security official in the US, I came to believe in the importance of analytic, conceptual and terminological precision. I realised that being precise and demanding precision from others when speaking or writing was not just a pedantic obsession. Words have meaning and specific words have significant meaning. Once uttered or written, words have real world implications and consequences, and if they are used carelessly the results are mostly for the worse because imprecision adds elements of confusion or misunderstanding into social discourse. That may or may not be done deliberately, but the potential damage is universal. Consider the following.

Perhaps because political discourse has been “securitized” after 9/11, or perhaps because the number and types of dangers have increased over the last decade, it seems that the use of the word “threat” has become standard practice in discussions of international relations and foreign policy. Social media has added additional channels through which to convey the pervasive sense of darkness on the horizon.

We hear of the threat posed by climate change; the threat of unchecked migration on once-stable liberal democracies; the threat of Chinese/Russian/US/Iranian/Israeli/North Korean aggression; the threat of various types of sub- and non-state ideological terrorism; the threat of drugs; the threat of crime; the threat of non-heteronormative Christian patriarchical lifestyles on “traditional values;” the threat of cyber crime and warfare; the threat of disinformation and direct influence campaigns on domestic politics; the threat of the surveillance and other aspects of the “Deep” State; the threat of species and planetary extinction, and so on. To consume news and current events reporting these days is to consume a multi-variegated diet of threat.

But is the use of the term justified? Could it be that the English-language media are conflating “threat” with “warning,” which is not the same thing? In order to better understand the concepts of “threat,” “threatened” and “threatening” in the discussion of international affairs, this essay will attempt to unpack its conceptual foundations. Among other things, this will allow us to differentiate between warnings, on the one hand, and threats properly construed.

A threat is a danger in the making: imminent, forthcoming or potential. Threats can be physical, material (say, economic), cultural (e.g. to identity), social (to cohesion), psychological and/or spiritual. Threats can be the work of nature, humans or both working consciously or unconsciously in concert (e.g. the impact of carbon emissions on oceanic water temperatures and sea levels or of a human-made virus escaping from a laboratory). They can be existential or circumstantial, They can be immutable, intractable and ever-present or they can be ameliorated, mitigated or eliminated.

When we speak of “threatening” or “threatened” we are referring to future courses of action in which danger materializes and is applied. Again, this danger can come in many guises, from kinetic force to psychological pressure or enforced material deprivation. If consciously applied as an act of human volition, the object is punitive: to place a targeted subject under some form of duress by invoking a danger towards them, where the threat is a signal of intent. Conversely, to be threatened to is to believe and perceive to be in danger. That is not always due to the actions of others—a tornado touching down a half mile away is a mortal threat to those in the vicinity.

This is different than a warning or being warned. A “warning” does not always carry with it the certainty of danger or punitive action and while it may precede a threat, to be warned is not the same as being threatened. A warning is advice about something to be avoided or at least aware of, or of the ramifications of potentially negative course of action, or a caution against further action. To be warned is to be put on notice that failure to respond to or ignore a given activity might or could result in adverse consequences. These may or may not involve the threat of danger. The importance of the distinction is in the implicit punitive action inherent in a threat. One can be warned about an impending threat (say, thunderstorms that start to develop funnel clouds), but warnings can also be advisory or precautionary where danger is not involved (for example, a warning about shaking a fizzy drink bottle before opening it). 

In foreign relations states issue warnings all of the time, both to others as well as their own citizens. States may warn friends and allies as well as adversaries. These warnings may ascend a ladder of punitive sanction into open threats (against others) or legal sanctions (against citizens), but properly understood are at the low end of state advisories. That is why much of what is reported as “threats” and “threatening” on the part of states are in fact no such thing—they are warnings of various sorts.

In international relations, for a threat to be credible and move beyond a mere warning, the author must display the capability, intent, and relative power to punitively apply duress to the subject of the threat. Moreover, the subject must understand the threat as given and be unable to deter or reply in kind. In other words, for a threat to be credible and for a recipient to feel genuinely threatened, there must be a power imbalance between author and subject that the subject cannot counter short of acquiescence. For example, New Zealand may credibly threaten small island neighbors in the South Pacific, assuming that the latter do not have the protection of a larger state. But New Zealand cannot threaten larger states. Conversely, larger states such as the US or China can threaten many entities in many ways given the relative power asymmetries in their favor. Middle powers such as Australia may threaten some states and other actors but not others, again, depending on the power balances involved in each relationship (which are bound to involve inter-connected others as well). The point is that while all states can issue warnings of various sorts, threats are contingent on their credibility, which in turn are dependent on the power relationships underpinning them. Without power asymmetries in their favour, threats are idle at best or bluffs at worst. This can lead to unintended negative consequences for those who play loose with the concept.

Here is a genuine threat: the current Russian military buildup along the Eastern Ukrainian border. This is not merely a drill. Forward placement of fuel trucks amid multi-platform armoured columns, deployment of field artillery and ground attack aircraft and presence of paratroop units signal real intent. Russia has clearly stated that it will not allow Ukraine to join NATO and will use force to do so. It has a proven track record in this regard, as the 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of parts of the Kherson Oblast and Donbas regions attest. Similarly, Russia’s invasion of the Transcaucasia region of Georgia and support for separatist government in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 was argued along the same lines: Russia would not stand for Georgian integration into NATO because, as is the case with Ukraine today, it is considered a strategically important buffer zone protecting the Russian mainland from Western aggression. Whatever the legitimacy of its rationale, given its proven reputation to use force, its military superiority over Ukraine and the West’s inability to deter it with sanctions and unwillingness to use counter-force to bolster Ukrainian defences, the massing of Russian military units (some 100,000 strong) along Ukraine’s border is very much a threat that will likely lead to action

Russian military forces at staging area near Ukrainian border. Photo: Mazar Technologies.

Now consider this contrasting example: we read and hear about how military aircraft from the PRC regularly enter into Taiwanese airspace in order to convey a threat about a potential future invasion. However, the reality is that Chinese warplanes fly sorties in the Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) that includes part of the mainland provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi as well as parts of the East China Sea (Sea of Japan) and South China Sea. This is is not Taiwanese territorial airspace and the Taiwanese do not bother to respond to most PLAA flights exercising over the mainland. At most, the PLAA flights in the Taiwanese ADIZ can be construed as warnings about future intent and capabilities, but of themselves are not a threat. That would change if PLAA sorties violate Taiwanese sovereign territorial airspace, at which point the threat should be considered real.

The image above is of PLAA sorties into the Taiwanese ADIZ in September 2020, including those that cross the so-called median line that divides the Formosa Strait. The PRC has its own ADIZ that includes all of the airspace above Taiwan as well as the entire East China Sea and most of the northern South China Sea, yet does not assert overflight rights in Taiwanese 12-mile territorial airspace. This belies claims that it is engaging in “threatening” behaviour towards Taiwan, at least for the moment.

The problem with misidentifying PLAA exercises in the ADIZ as threats to Taiwan is that this can lead media commentators and nationalist politicians in the PRC, Taiwan and elsewhere to misread what is happening and prepare accordingly. That in turn creates a classic security dilemma whereby policy makers misperceive or misconstrue what is really happening (warnings) for something that it really is not (threats), prepare as if what is misconstrued is real and, hyped by media-driven nationalist fervor, get locked into pre-emptive or preventative war logics that cause them to stumble into armed confrontations that are otherwise avoidable. At that point the escalatory chain to all-out war is unlocked.

This returns us to the original point of the post. There are practical implications to the misconstruing of or confusion between warnings and threats. Media conflation of warnings and threats can lead to miscalculation and unintended negative consequences. For media types, conceptual and semantic precision is often downplayed in favor of attention-grabbing but erroneous statements. This is particularly the case for headline writers in print and audio-visual media, who want to drive eyeballs onto stories in order to generate clicks or views that in turn translate into advertising revenue.

This logic is impeccable in revenue-generating terms, but the media do not have to suffer the consequences of their terminological imprecision. Those are worn by others, and the others are not just security policy makers in contested spaces.

That is why insisting on discursive precision is not just a pedantic concern. Instead, it is the real-world implications that argue best for analytic, conceptual and terminological precision in foreign policy discussions.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” year-end review.

datePosted on 14:36, December 2nd, 2021 by Pablo

Selwyn Manning and I wrapped up this year’s “A View from Afar” podcasts with a review of the past year and some speculation about what is to come. We meander a bit but the themes are clear. You can find the show here.