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Confronting Despotic Interference.

datePosted on 13:51, October 10th, 2018 by Pablo

It is hard to fix a precise date when despotic politics entered the liberal democratic world, and then again when it began to corrode the rules-based international order. Some say that it started with the emergence of right-wing nationalism in Europe in response to the importation of authoritarian cultural values on the back of mass migration from non-European regions. Others see the rise of despotism as the response to the sclerosis and decay of liberal democracy in advanced capitalist states, where corporate influence, political corruption, post-industrial decline and technocratic indifference to popular concerns conspired to undermine confidence in the institutional system. Still others saw it as a response to unfulfilled expectations in newer democracies, where hopes of equality of opportunity and choice were dashed by a return to oligarchical politics dressed up in electoral garb.

Whatever the cause, the response has been the corrosion of democracy from within exemplified by the rise of new form of despotic politics, and despots, that promise much and which use imposition and manipulation rather than persuasion and compromise as their main tools of trade. Democracy is increasingly rule by the the few for the few, with the mass of citizens serving as pawns in inter-elite struggles and useful fools susceptible to demagogic appeals.

Much attention has focused on the rise of right-wing national populists like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Dutarte or Recep Erdogan. But the turn to despotism in seen on the left as well, such as in the case of the Venezuelan regimes led by Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, the post-revolutionary Sandinistas led by Daniel Ortega and the South African ANC under Jacob Zuma.

To this can be added the places where despotism never left the scene and defied the successive waves of democratisation that marked the late 20th century. That includes the Middle East in spite of the so-called Arab Spring, most of Sub-Saharan Africa and much of  East, Central and Southeast Asia. Throughout the “Stans” despots reign and places as different as Morocco, Jordan, North Korea and Singapore are ruled by authoritarians of varying degrees of benevolence and legitimacy.

Whatever the date of origin, the rise of despotism is inevitably due to a mix of factors and motives, many idiosyncratic to the country in question. Hungary is not like Italy, which is not like Turkey, which is not like the Philippines or the US. And yet in spite of their variance  across the globe there has been a shift to despotic politics, something that in turn has had a pernicious impact on the international system. The truth is that, much like the waves of democratisation that preceded it and to which it is the antithesis, we have entered a new age of despotism that has international as well as national ramifications.

The global rise of despotic politics has clearly been encouraged by the election of Donald Trump in the US. His attacks on the media, “fake news,” the so-called “Deep State,” his vilification of minorities and political opponents, his xenophobic and racist dog-whistling and his courtship of foreign authoritarians in parallel with his insulting of long-time US allies and trade partners all provide an environment in which the US in no longer seen as a defender of human rights, press freedom and the international rule of law. On one level this has encouraged other despots to emulate him (e.g. Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan of “Make Brazil Great Again,” Matteo Salvini’s calls for erecting an Italian wall against Arab and African immigrants and Dutarte’s dismissal of reports of extra-judicial killings by his police as “fake news’). On another level the US retreat from international affairs and the poisonous impact of domestic despotism in other democracies has led to breakdown in respect of international norms by despots and ostensible democrats alike. It is, in a phrase, a move back towards a Hobbesian state of nature in international affairs.

Into the vacuum left by the US abdication of its traditional international role have entered the politics of despotic interference. Unlike the hard power of military force, soft power of diplomatic persuasion and smart power of hybrid approaches using both in concert, despotic interference is one application of authoritarian “sharp power” where the projection of influence has hostile and subversive intent. Among other objectives, despotic interference is designed to influence foreign perceptions in a favourable way while stifling dissent at home and abroad by nationals and foreigners alike. It offers honey to those who bend to its will and vinegar to those who do not.

Seen in Chinese “influence operations” such as those outlined by Anne-Marie Brady with regard to New Zealand, or in the cyber warfare practiced by Russian military intelligence against Western targets (including hacking attacks on the World Anti-Doping Agency, Democratic National Committee and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), authoritarians no longer feel constrained by the rules of diplomatic respect and non-interference in the sovereign affairs of foreign states. The most unpleasant of these include attempted murder by poison, as practiced by the Russians against a turn-coat Russian spy living in Salisbury, UK and a male member of the Pussy Riot dissident group. In their murderous intent the Russians are not alone. This week a Saudi journalist disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish authorities believed that he was either killed or kidnapped when in the consulate. Not to be outdone, bodyguards of Turkish president Erdogan physically assaulted, in front of the Washington DC police and assembled media cameras, Turkish expat protesters on the occasion of a state visit to meet with president Trump. For their part, the Chinese have used strong-arm tactics against dissident groups abroad such as Falun Gong and, as Australia has found out, muscled its way into political and corporate circles without regard to the conventional niceties of democratic competition (such as having mobs of pro-Chinese students assault and intimidate compatriots voicing non-Party lines). In fact, just like the Russian poison campaign, the Chinese appear to be interested in intimidating opposing views regardless of where they are located.

Many will respond to this line of thought with the usual “whataboutism” that the US and other former colonial powers and mature democracies have extensively intervened in the domestic affairs of other states.  That is obviously true and to be condemned, but it ignores the fact that if we value democracy as an intrinsic good and believe in the right to dissent, then the recent turn towards despotism and despotic interference are inimical to basic values of free and fair societies. That does not excuse the historical excesses and crimes of the US and other liberal democracies when it comes to their meddling in other countries affairs, but it does recognise that what has emerged in recent years is a new form of interventionism that has a negative impact on rules-based societies, to include the international community.

This is where New Zealand comes in. In the months after Professor Brady published her now famous “Magic Weapons” paper, in which she details how the Chinese Communist Party uses “United Front” organisations to advance its interests and suppress dissent in New Zealand and elsewhere, her office and home were burgled by parties unknown. The thieves left valuables behind but took her lap tops, phones and memory sticks, and in the home robberies rifled her bed sheets. Given the brazen nature of the burglaries and public nature of most of what was on her devices, it appears that the break-ins were done as acts of intimidation and warning rather than as information-gathering operations. The question is who would have motive to do so?

If the thieves were acting on behalf or under the orders of Beijing, then the burglaries were a step up from influence operations into criminal acts committed on sovereign New Zealand soil.

The New Zealand Police involved the SIS in the investigation, and most recently announced that the detective work had been handed over to Interpol and that leads were being pursued abroad. This implies that the New Zealand authorities believe that the perpetrators are now overseas, which means that they likely will never be brought to justice even if identified. And if they were Chinese agents, what is the New Zealand government going to do in response? Therein lies the rub.

Despotic interference, to include influence and disruption operations and the direct intimidation of dissidents and critics abroad, happens because those ordering the interference believe that they can get away with it. What are the target countries to do in the face of a hacking episode, a simple burglary or assault on a foreign national because of his/her political beliefs? Escalate things into a diplomatic confrontations? Declare War? Begin trade embargoes?

The beauty of despotic interference is that it does not invite easy retaliation and in fact makes a proper response very difficult to calibrate. The situation is all the more difficult for small target states like New Zealand, especially when the perpetrator of a criminal act of interference happens to be the government of its largest trading partner and a major source of foreign direct investment in the local economy. And yet to allow acts of despotic interference to go unpunished only encourages more of the same, so policy makers in targeted states are caught in a vicious circle about how to appropriately respond.

This is the situation New Zealand will find itself in if the burglars in the Brady break-ins are identified as having links to the Chinese state. Its response options are limited. It might issue a formal protest to the Chinese ambassador in Wellington or expel a low ranking diplomat. It might withdraw the New Zealand ambassador to Beijing for consultations. If the burglars entered New Zealand on student visas, then reducing the number of such visas issues to Chinese nationals might be considered. Limitations on tourist numbers could be considered and military-to-military contacts reduced.

The problem is that the response has to be seen as proportionate and discrete because the Chinese are acutely interested in saving face and are known to react disproportionately to even small slights. This is a serious problem for New Zealand given its trade dependency on China and the as of yet unchecked influence of Chinese money and favours in local politics (unlike Australia, New Zealand has placed no restrictions on fund-raising or influence peddling by suspected Chinese agents operating in Aotearoa). But New Zealand also cannot be seen as doing nothing in the face of such a criminal violation of sovereignty.

There lies the conundrum. If Western liberal democracies do not respond to acts of despotic intervention then they will likely continue and even increase. But many within Western liberal democracies, to include those in policy-making circles, no longer have faith in democratic values or see them in purely instrumental and opportunistic terms. The example being set by Trump in the US is emblematic in that regard but the consequences are felt globally, both in his imitators in other democracies and in the emboldenment of other despots such as Putin and Xi when it comes to meddling in the domestic affairs of sovereign democratic states. In that regard New Zealand is no different, with apologists for China denying or downplaying the pernicious nature of  its honey and vinegar approach to Antipodean affairs.

In that regard New Zealand again has become a laboratory rat for larger geopolitical experiments. In this instance the research question, to quote Lenin, is “what is to be done?” Rather than addressing the imperatives of making revolution, here the question is directed at how to respond to despotic interference in order to deter future applications of it. As mentioned, Australia has already tightened legislation governing foreign money and accounting transparency in campaign financing. All of the Five Eyes partners save New Zealand have placed restraints on the involvement of Chinese telecommunications companies in strategically sensitive infrastructure. But even in the face of the criminal violation of Anne Marie Brady’s privacy and academic freedom, New Zealand authorities have only offered vague assurances that it will respond forcefully if the culprits are found to be working for a foreign state.

The answer to the question of what is to be done is whether to draw a line on despotic interference in New Zealand given that it may have escalated into criminal behaviour, or downplay the episode given the diplomatic and economic necessity of avoiding offence and therefore injurious retaliation from an authoritarian great power.

To a significant degree, the true nature of New Zealand’s autonomy and independence in foreign affairs will be seen in how it responds.

Venezuela Agonistes.

datePosted on 16:04, September 12th, 2018 by Pablo

There are two things remarkable about coverage of the Venezuelan crisis. The first is the silence of the Left in the face of it. This includes the champions of the so-called Latin American “Pink Tide” who saw in the Boliviarian Revolution an alternate developmental model that along with the left leaning regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Nicaragua offered hope for a new socialist bulwark in the Western Hemisphere that, unlike the Castro regime in Cuba, was both socialist and democratic. Or at least, that was the thought in the early 2000s. Now, rather than offer robust critiques of what went wrong, those champions have gone quiet, perhaps hugging small comfort pets against their Che Guevara t-shirts while muttering into their pillows something about the sulphuric impact of “neo-imperialism” and globalised corporate control.

The second remarkable aspect of the coverage of Venezuela is the continued misrepresentation by conservative (and even mainstream media) commentators that Venezuela demonstrates (yet again) the failures of socialism in practice. Allow me to address this fallacy.

Before I do so let’s briefly note what is clearly an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state (seen, in Gramscian terms, as economy+civil society+political society).  Regardless of external factors and interference (such as oil prices, Cuban security assistance and US government hostility) and the disloyal nature of most of the traditional opposition to the Boliviarian Movement, the crisis has at its core the incompetence and corruption of the Maduro government. The seeds for the decline were sown by Hugo Chavez himself with his prolifigate spending and cult of personality, but the bitter fruit of criminality, cronyism, patronage, partisanism and despotic maladministration ripened, then rotted under Maduro.

This not entirely surprising because in truth the Boliviarian experiment was always more populist than socialist. Socialism is not just about downwards redistribution of income and expansion of public goods and services via the use of tax revenues.  It is not just about progressive tax reform to make the rich pay their fair share. It is not just about nationalising privately held productive assets or at least strategic economic assets. It not about state ownership of the means of production. And it definitely does not involve a self-appointed authoritarian revolutionary “vanguard” telling everyone what their best interests are, what to do in pursuit of those interests, and concentrating power in a small partisan elite in order to compel others do so.

Instead, socialism involves equality in and of production, to include worker control of decision-making on everything from occupational health and safety to production levels to distribution and reinvestment of profit. Socialism involves decentralisation and local autonomy in political decision-making, to include about the distribution of public goods, social investment and economic development. It involves not just matters of production, particularly with respect to control of productive assets, but also of decision-making behaviour within production and the attendant social relations linked to it. Socialism has cooperatives as a basic unit of social integration; national populism has paramilitary militias and neighbourhood political snitches.

There is more to socialism than what I have outlined, but the point should be pretty clear: socialism is about devolving power to the people, not concentrating it in the hands of a central government. Even if a transition period is needed after bourgeois rule, the move to socialism involves expansion of the number of decisional sites that determine the material, cultural and political fortunes of the average citizen. To do so requires dismantling of a capitalist state apparatus, which is characterised by top down managerial control of public and private policy decision-making, and its replacement with a socialist state in which policy decisions ultimately rest in the hands of immediate stakeholders and are conveyed upwards into national-level platforms. The transition between the two–from a capitalist state to a socialist state–is the hard part of any change from liberal to social democracy (even more so than in violent social revolutions where the destruction of the capitalist state runs in parallel with the elimination of capitalism and its elites), and in Venezuela’s case it was never done. Both Chavez and Maduro have relied on a capitalist state to implement and enforce their populist, and increasingly authoritarian mode of governance.

Rather than socialist and democratic, the Boliviarian revolution is a left-leaning national populist regime using a state capitalist project and corporatist forms of interest group intermediation marshalled along partisan lines in order to redistribute wealth via partisan patronage networks to its support base and to its leaders. It has uncoupled wealth redistribution from productivity and, for all the achievements in education and health made under Chavez, those gains were lost once prices for the single export commodity it relies on (oil) fell and the revenues from oil experts shrunk. Corruption and incompetence, coupled with private capital flight and the exodus of the managerial class (mostly to Florida), accelerated the downward spiral, and now Venezuela is for all purposes a failed state. Inflation is stratospheric, food scarcity is rife, there are shortages of essential medical supplies, power and potable water, petrol supplies (?!) are increasingly spotty, unemployment, under-employment and crime are at all-time highs (the murder rate is 85 per 100,100 population, one of the highest in the world). Violent street protests have become the norm, and spot curfews and other coercive and legal curtailments on freedom of movement and speech are now the most widely used tools with which the Maduro regime handles dissent. For a purportedly Leftist regime, there is no worse indictment than that.

That Chavez, Maduro and their supporters refer to the Boliviarian regime as “socialist” is offered as proof  by some that it is, and that is it is therefore socialism that has failed. That is hopelessly naive. “Socialism” is the label that the Boliviarians have cloaked themselves in because they know that given its history, “populism” is not in fact very popular in Latin America. In its own way the US is finding out why that is so, but the important point to note is that there is nothing genuinely socialist about they way the Boliviarians behave.

The current reality is that the Boliviarian regime has descended from a left-leaning national populist form into an Scotch-addled kleptocracy (Venezuelans have one of the highest per capita intakes of Scotch in the world, and in recent years the regime has taken to hoarding supplies of it). In the measure that it is besieged by its own weaknesses and the rising opposition of the popular base that it ostensibly serves, it increasingly relies on coercion and criminality for its sustenance. Military and government involvement in the narcotics trade, the presence of Cuban intelligence in and out of the armed forces and security apparatus, covert links to states such as Syria and North Korea, the presence of operatives of extra-regional non-state actors such as Hezbollah in government circles–all of these factors suggest that Venezuela’s national interests are no longer foremost in the minds of the Boliviarian elite.

This has not been lost on the population, and the last year has seen over 1.5 million Venezuelans emigrate. This is on a par with Syrian and Rohinga refugee flows and amount to more than 4 million Venezuelans now living outside their motherland (with most leaving after 1999 when Chavez was first elected). The refugee crisis has impacted the relations between Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, with their borders heavily militarised and safe passage corridors opened for migrants to proceed to countries such as Ecuador and Peru. The extent of the Venezuelan refugee crisis is now regional in nature.

Not surprisingly, there have been some moves against the Maduro regime from within the armed forces. This have failed due to basic incompetence of the plotters and the fact that the Venezuelan military is stocked with Boliviarian sycophants buttressed by Cuban intelligence agents who spend more time looking for moles and dissidents than they do improving national intelligence collection capabilities per se. The combat readiness of the Venezuelan military has been replaced by proficiency in crowd control, and the High Command is staffed by flag ranked officers who have more good conduct medals and Boliviarian revolutionary awards than they do insignia demonstrating operational proficiency in any kinetic endeavour. May the goddess help the Venezuelan armed forces should they ever pick a fight with the battle hardened Colombian military or the well-disciplined Brazilians.

For a military coup to happen, there need to be vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military and push and pull factors compelling it to act. Vertical cleavages are those between officers and the enlisted corps, including rivalries between flag, field and company ranked officers, Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and the enlisted soldiers they command. Horizontal cleavages are this between armed services–Army, Navy, Air Force, national gendarme, border patrol, interior ministry secret police, etc–and within those services (say, between armour and infantry in the land forces, or surface fleet and submariners in the Navy).

The Boliviarians and their Cuban advisors have been very good at purging non-loyalists from the officer corps. Their control over NCOs and enlisted personnel is a bit more tenuous, as evidenced by recent attempts to kill Maduro using a drone and an earlier helicopter attack on military installations. But the big cleavages needed to form a coup-making nucleus simply do not exist in the measure that is required, even if the push and pull factors are clearly present. The push factors are those internal to the military that compels it to act, for institutional reasons, against the government (such as loss of discipline, corruption, lack of effective military leadership etc. that erode the ability of the armed forces to discharge their basic defence functions against foreign counterparts ). The pull factors are the external societal conditions, to include family ties of military personnel and civilian elite pleading for the restoration of social order, that draw the uniformed corps towards intervention. So the coup “equation” is just half complete: the motives for intervention are present but the organisational or institutional conditions as of yet are not.

Not that a military coup is a panacea for Venezuela. It could well make things worse. Perhaps this is where a bit of good news has emerged. It turns out that the US was approached by military coup plotters for support and turned down the request. This, in spite of Donald Trump’s public statements about US military intervention against the Maduro regime. It seems that, even if not for all the right reasons, seasoned diplomats understood the downside of agreeing to the request and cooler heads prevailed.

It is praiseworthy that the US, or at least its foreign policy decision-makers, understand that Venezuelans need to be the sole owners of their collective destiny. This destiny might or might not include the reactionary wishful thinkers in the self-exiled community that has made Weston, Florida, a mini-Caracas (and whom have joined with the ageing Cuban exiles to form an anti-communist mafia that fund-raises in “dark” ways). Whether they join or not, the key to resolving the Venezuelan crisis involves providing Maduro and his entourage with a safe passage out of government and an incremental and negotiated restoration of the productive apparatus to a mix of interests of different political persuasions under an agreed upon caretaker regime. This will be a difficult process even with military tutelage and arbitration since the military itself will have to be reformed.

However, since the Boliviarian Revolution was never socialist and the capitalist state remains intact even if decrepit, the foundations for a rejuvenated economy are present. Likewise, many of the social gains made by the lower classes under the Boliviarians have taken enough social root so as to be non-removable if violence is to be avoided. So the foundational compromise underpinning the new democratic regime  seems to involve an exchange whereby a return to private ownership of some aspects of the Venezuelan economy under broader market steerage is traded for ongoing state control of strategic assets and the extension of social guarantees involving health, education, housing and welfare. The tax regime will need reforming and the art of tax evasion by the wealthy will need to be curtailed for this to happen, so it is unsure if the majority in the opposition will accept anything other than the status quo ante the emergence of the Boliviarians.

If we remember the sclerosis of Venezuelan democracy before Chavez appeared on the scene, where the two major parties–Accion Democratic and COPEI–alternated power in a concertative arrangement where elites siphoned off the country’s wealth while buying off popular consent with oil revenue-derived subsides of public goods and services, then we can understand why the back to the future scenario will not work. It will take a sincere effort by fair-minded people on both sides, Boliviarians and Opposition, to recognise that the experiment is over and the country needs a new course that is not a repeat of the past, be it recent or distant.

And there is where I will leave with a note of optimism. Unlike many Latin American countries, Venezuela has a historical precedent of reaching consensus–or at least elite agreement–on the characteristics and contours of a new political system. The 1958 “Pacto de Punto Fijo” (roughly translated as the Full Stop Pact) defined the features of the new democratic regime after years of unstable oligarchical and often violent rule. It led to the power alternation agreement between AD and COPEI under conditions of electoral competition and state control of the oil sector in which agreed upon parameters for public revenue expenditures were respected. While it deteriorated into a lighter version of the current cabal of thieves, it lasted for forty years and only fell because it did not recognise, because of its institutional myopia, the social forces that lay at the root of the Chavez phenomenon and emergence of the Boliviarian movement.

In other words, Venezuela needs a new foundational Pact the provides peaceful exit and entrance strategies to the Boliviarians and their inevitable successors. Otherwise there will be blood whether the imperialists get involved or not.

An authoritarian nut in a democratic shell.

datePosted on 16:51, July 31st, 2018 by Pablo

At the turn of the 21st century I was teaching an upper division undergraduate  course titled “Comparative Regime Transitions” in which I explored the four “waves” of democratisation that had occurred since the early 1970s in Southern Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and East Asia. I noted that I had also witnessed the rise of concurrent waves of new-form authoritarianism during that rough world time time frame in which old types of despotic leadership were replaced by bureaucratic authoritarians from the Left and Right in response to the crises of oligarchic, populist and weak democratic regimes. These varied from the military nationalists of the Arab world to the revolutionary regimes of Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua and the military junta led-regimes of the Southern Cone of South America, the Philippines, South Korea and Turkey. I also pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, authoritarianism was the more natural political fit for many societies organised along hierarchical lines drawn on gender, class, race, religious or ethnic differences.

My point in doing so was to remind students that contrary to the belief of those like Francis Fukuyama who claimed that the emergence of electoral (if not liberal) democracy as a seemingly global trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s signalled the “End of History” where the political and economic combination of democratic regimes and capitalist production triumphed over all others (particularly authoritarian capitalism and socialism), human history was dialectical rather than linear. There is no simple progression towards a (preferred) end state and the possibility of reversal is always latent in the move from one political-economic form to another. In this I was channeling my view that Hegelian dialectics, rather than dialectical materialism or any number of property and individual-centric “liberal” theories, best explained the superstructural dynamics inherent in political regime change. They are grounded in but not reducible to changes in production and the social division of labour attendant to it, which means that they have a pattern of historical development all of their own.

This belief comes to mind when I think of today’s widely lamented condition of globalised democratic decline and decay. In both the developed and developing world new and old democracies alike are crumbling from within, beset by a nasty combination of corruption, power-grabbing, institutional sclerosis, gerrymandering, electoral manipulation, economic inefficiency and income disparity, racial and ethnic conflict, migration pressures, youth alienation, crime, judicial bias, incompetence or indifference, poverty and assorted other social ills. This has prompted a return to authoritarianism under electoral guise; that is, in its newest version, the turn to despotism occurs under conditions of electoral rule and is instigated from within the institutional edifice of ostensibly democratic governments in response to what is claimed to be the crisis of civil society.

Here is context in order to explain.

In the 1980s a considerable body of academic writing was focused on the demise of authoritarian regimes and the restoration, resurrection or return of democratic forms of governance throughout the world. This followed on earlier academic work that focused on the causes of democratic breakdown. I was lucky to have been mentored by several of the leading figures in that discussion, and through them was exposed to the work of other intellects who together with my mentors formed what came to be known as the first generation of “transitologists,” i.e. people who studied the fluid dynamics of regimes in processes of decline or rise rather than the durable features of stable regimes. As it turns out, regardless of the specific ideology of the regime in question, authoritarians tend to fall for broadly the same reasons having to do with the nature of their rule over time. Likewise, democracies rise and fall due more to general institutional failures than whether they are right or left-leaning in nature.

(For those interested in the dynamics of authoritarian and democratic transition and who may think that recent writing on the subject is all that there is, I commend the companion four part volumes that started the whole transitology industry: The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Johns Hopkins, 1978 and Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Johns Hopkins, 1986).

Into the mix came the person of Juan Linz. A Spanish born sociologist at Yale and one of the editors of The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Linz was more than professionally concerned about dictatorship and democracy. He had seen both in his homeland and worked hard to understand why democracies could fail from within rather than be overthrown from without. As it turns out, just like the reasons for a coup d’état, there are “push” and “pull” factors in democratic decline. The pull factors are those that come from outside the government of the day, be it a disloyal opposition, military plotting, rising civil unrest, business sabotage, irredentist or separatist strife, economic downturns, etc. These should normally be handled by the government through the institutional process into order to reach mutual satisfactory, or at least second best social outcomes: not everyone gets everything that they want but most get some of what they want. When the institutional process fails to meet expectations and achieve those solutions, the external pull to replace those in power gowns stronger if not irresistible.

Linz understood this but also knew that absent an armed insurrection or military interruption, pull factors alone could not bring down a democracy. He consequently focused on the push factors that impelled democratic governments to turn towards authoritarianism as a response to crisis. His concern was on more than the individual whims of megalomaniac presidents and political cabals intent of holding on to power. Instead, it was on deficiencies in institutional design that left some types of democracy more prone to authoritarianism than others.

He outlined a number of factors in his considerable body of work but pinpointed two, one general and one specific, that made some democracies more susceptible to the “authoritarian temptation” than others: presidential systems and the use of Executive decrees. Basically, there are two types of democratic government, presidential systems and parliamentary systems. The latter are dominated by parties that form governments based on the percentage of votes received and the ability to attract coalition partners. The government is led by a Prime Minister who is the leader of the dominant or majority power of any given coalition, but parliament remains a strong check and balance on what the government can do when it comes to policy-making. In contrast, presidential systems, also known as Executive-dominant systems, are those in which the chief executive of the nation–the president–is elected separately from the legislature (parliament or Congress). Here the Executive branch has much more power and authority to enact policy free from the checks imposed by the legislature, to the point that it is the “first amongst equals” when it comes to the three branches of democratic governance.

For Linz presidential systems have a built-in bias towards ruling without the advice and consent of the legislature or judicial review. That is where the more specific design flaw comes into play. Executive decrees or orders are designed to by-pass the legislature in order to provide efficient and decisive policy-implementation in times of crisis or emergency. Normally a president would not make use of such prerogatives if the national condition was stable and peaceful and indeed in most instances that is a case. But take a president confronted with the pull factors mentioned above and/or one who wishes to perpetuate him/herself in office, impose a specific agenda against the will of the people and its elected representatives, or in others ways benefit or take advantage of executive privilege for personal, private or political gain, then the authoritarian temptation becomes authoritarian practice.

This is the phenomena that we are seeing now. It is not just that right-wing national populists are being elected into office and using demagogic language and behaviour to advance their goals. It is not just elected post-revolutionaries like Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro who have turned on their people when these take to the streets in protest against incompetence, corruption and wide-spread scarcity. It is their use of executive powers that is turning their governments into authoritarian vehicles. Donald Trump is a variant on this theme, where executive orders and decrees are used by everyone from Rodrigo Dutarte to Recap Erdogan to Maurico Macri and are championed by leading political contenders such as rightwing extremist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (who openly supports Dutarte’s approach to crime and waxes nostalgic about the days of military rule). In all instances these political leaders have advocated for or turned to the use of executive decrees and orders to impose unpopular or anti-democratic policies.

The situation is made worse when the powers of the presidency are defined more by custom and tradition than by law. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the Trump presidency, where time-honoured practices and norms have been repeatedly trampled by the vulgarian in the Oval Office because, as it turns out, there is nothing in law that prevents him from doing so. Presidential practice in the US, as it turns out, is about as much grounded in law as is the interior decoration of the White House because most of it is informal and therefore dependent on the president’s disposition when it comes to adherence to informal norms and customs.

Be that as it may, time and time again, using the pretext of fighting crime, restoring order or handling some other type of national emergency, executives in presidential systems have resorted to decrees and orders to accomplish their ends. And now, in a spectacle that Linz perhaps fortunately did not live to see, we have parliamentary majorities giving extraordinary powers to prime ministers in order to do the same thing. Witness Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and his xenophobic policies or Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s assaults on judicial independence, which come after their parties gained large coalition majorities that allow them to push through laws in spite of popular opposition or the strictures of decency and fair play.

The key point is that Linz’s bottom line is correct: the combination of a constitutionally strong executive and decree or order-making powers accorded to it is an authoritarian nut in a democratic shell. Short of changing to a parliamentary system with multiple party representation in government, the best immediate solution to the authoritarian temptation inherent in presidential systems is to strip presidents of decree or order-making privileges except in cases of dire national emergency (with what constitutes a dire national emergency spelled out in a constitutional or legal amendment). While this may not prevent the abuse of majorities in parliamentary systems to ram-rod legislation under “urgency,” it can weaken the temptation to go full authoritarian when the law does not explicitly prohibit doing so because it might cause a parliamentary revolt or conscience votes of no-confidence within the ruling coalition.

It is doubtful that any president will abolish the decree or order-making privileges. History has shown that even the most fair minded incumbents tend to leave Executive decree-making powers on the books “just in case.” One only need think of how Barack Obama used Executive Orders to muzzle leakers and whistleblowers to understand that the authoritarian  temptation is powerful even in the best of cases. So the solution has to be found elsewhere, in legislative reform and judicial review that constrain or eliminate the decree-making powers of the Executive.

Even with the cases noted, parliamentary systems are the best safeguards against the authoritarian temptation, something that can be reinforced by eliminating first-past-the-post variants and requiring supermajorities (say, two thirds) to pass legislation under urgency or emergency. A number of parliamentary regimes have in place just such mechanisms but others, including New Zealand, to my knowledge do not. In addition, in parliamentary systems where custom and practice rather than law governs much of what Prime Ministers and their cabinets do (for example, when it comes to national security), the need to increase parliament’s check and balance (if not veto) power is all the more necessary. Getting rid of simple majorities both for government formation and legislation passage is a step in that direction.

When we look at the problems of contemporary democracy, it is not enough to focus on the external or pull factors that cause or facilitate democratic decline–social media manipulation, corporate influence, rank partisanship etc. All of these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the breakdown of democracy. What is sufficient is an inherent institutional disposition towards authoritarianism, something that the combination of presidentialism and executive decree-making authority all but assures.

Word: It is time to re-read Juan Linz and craft our remedies accordingly.

In defence of public ostracism.

datePosted on 14:40, June 26th, 2018 by Pablo

Public confrontations between Trump officials and activists, ordinary citizens and at least one restaurant owner have reignited the debate about “civility” in political disagreement. The editorial boards of leading US newspapers and Democratic leaders have called for restraint and asked those with anti-Trump opinions to refrain from harassing or confronting Trump officials in the public space when the latter are in a private capacity (such as eating in a restaurant). They claim doing so will play into Trump’s hands by reinforcing the narrative that the “Left” is an unruly mob uninterested in the right to privacy and free speech.

That is nonsense.

This is no longer a situation where taking the moral-ethical “high road” when the opponent goes low is practically effective. The “high road” strategy has not worked in the US since the Reagan days, when Republicans adopted a “stop at nothing” approach to politics that eventually produced the Trump presidency. Time and time again Democrats and progressives have been trumped by a disloyal Rightwing armed with unsavoury and unethical tactics such as Swiftboating and race-baiting. The situation at present is an ethical nadir that calls for what game theorists define as a “tit for tat” strategy: open with a cooperative (read: civil) move, then repeat the opponent’s move (with a turn to cooperation by the opponent rewarded for it). When Trump was elected the Democrats and public at large waited to give him the benefit of the doubt and some political space to prove his opponents wrong. He responded by proving them right and turning the White House into a cesspit of incivility, aided and abetted by a coterie of surrogates, advisors and sycophants who all share his sociopathic tendencies. Thus the proper retort is to respond in like kind, albeit with a twist.

Let’s begin with the fact that the US “Left” or what passes for it is of the soft (non-violent) persuasion. For all the talk about Antifa and Trotskyites smashing things, the bulk of Left violence is the garden variety protest march-turned-small riot where either a few provocateurs try to incite a bigger riot by breaking windows, looting and/or assaulting police or opponents (because most of the “militant” Left rallies are in fact counter-protests against white supremacists and neo-Nazis); or the Left protestors engage with Rightists in physical confrontations using sticks, bottles, Mace, edged and other improvised weapons (the Right does in fact bring firearms to many protests and its adherents of course have used them on more than one occasion, but the majority of the Right-on-Left fights involve variants of basic hand weapons). There have been no assaults on Trump officials and no attempts on the lives of anyone in his administration.

The US Left is mostly about shouting slogans and making witty placards against the status quo; the US Right is mostly about threatening or carrying out violence in defence of racial and ethno-religious supremacy. So when it comes to civility or the lack thereof, it is not the Left that is the problem.

Then take the Trump administration itself, which is anything but “civil.” There are two dimensions to its incivility: its policies and its tone. Trump and minions like Sarah Huckabee Sanders regularly use insults, character assassination, dog whistles, stereotypes and slander to belittle and undermine opponents and critics (and allies!) at home and abroad. The list of such is far too long and readers will be all to familiar with them for me to recount here. This is an administration that thrives on the politics of personal attack and which regularly sets new lows when it comes to Executive discourse. In fact, the immediate response of both Sarah Sanders and Trump to her denial of service at a restaurant (where her presence was opposed by the majority of staff) was to use their official Twitter accounts to disparage the establishment and its owner. In effect, Trumpsters whining about being confronted in their private time is just a case of crocodile tears on the part of bullies unaccustomed to being personally called out on their behaviour.

Add to that its callous disregard for fundamental ethics on a number of fronts (conflicts of interest, disclosure of confidential material, use of taxpayer money for private pursuits), and what we have today is the most uncivil US administration ever. Heck, Trump makes George W. Bush look dignified and smart and Richard Nixon look honest and statesmanlike, so there never again can be an argument as to who is the worst US president of all time. If nothing else his record when it comes to incivility will be hard to beat.

Then there are the policies of the Trump administration and the ways in which they are implemented or attempted. The Muslim ban, the ban on transgender military service, the opening up of wild lands to fossil fuel exploration, the withdrawal from international treaties and agreements, the removal of protections for disabled people, the cutbacks in funding for special education, denial of climate change and removal of scientists from White House offices, the edict to engage in forced separation of undocumented immigrant families–these and many more policies are underpinned by overtly racist, classist, misogynist, xenophobic and authoritarian attitudes that reek of contempt for the institutional process, the meaning of public service and the basic democratic principle of public accountability.

More importantly, Trump administration policies are mean in intent and consequence. They are designed to hurt rather than help people. They are designed to use the power of the federal government to punish and oppress outlier groups and reward and advantage insiders. They are blunt instruments of malevolence aimed at pounding the body politic into complying with a vision of society based on hierarchy, hate, privilege, stratification and self-interest/greed. In word and deed, Trump and his cabal hurt tens of thousands of people on a daily basis and make no apologies for it.

So what is so civil about that? And why should we be civil to them in return? Is not staying silent in the face of official incivility submission or acquiescence to it? I believe that it is.

Instead of silence, I think that we should make things very personal to every single Trump minion, surrogate, spin doctor, media acolyte, political donor and corporate toady. The message, delivered up close and personal, should be that the policies of hate and greed have no place in a secular cosmopolitan society and the politics of personal attack can work two ways. In this case the attack is not physical even if confrontational: the Trump entourage need to understand and feel in their personal lives the discomfort of threat and opprobrium. The repudiation of Trump policy needs to be made personal to them because both the administration lackeys as well as the foot soldiers implementing their policies believe that they are personally immune from liability or accountability.

Those at the top believe that the office of the presidency protects them from personal reproach, and those at the bottom believe that anonymity protects them from individual retribution. If we cannot confront the originators of bad policy in the public space and their personal lives and if we do not equally confront the enablers and implementors of uncivil policies, where is dissent and opposition heard? The courts, which are increasingly stacked with Trump appointees? Congress, where both chambers are controlled by the entity formally known as the Republican Party but which is now a Trump coat-tail and rubber-stamp machine?

No, the time for civility ended a while ago. The truth is that “civility” in political discourse has been eroding since the Reagan era, mostly thanks to the antics of the media and Political Right. So the calls for Left civility are both hypocritical and self-defeating because they work to silence those who wish to stand up to political bullying while ignoring the bullies themselves.

Mind you, I am not talking about physically attacking people or confronting their dependent children in any way. I am not advocating people go out and deliberately harass  Trump administration officials. What I am defending is the practice of calling out those responsible for despicable policies regardless of place. If we are going to ostracise or “name and shame” sexual offenders, local fraudsters, animal abusers and assorted other low-lifes and miscreants who are not in the public eye, why should we defer from doing so to those that are?

The best way to drive home to Trumpsters the fact that their actions have negative consequences is to make things personal understanding that timing and place need to be factored into the equation in order to be effective (e.g. yelling at people outside of church or at kid’s sporting events may be counter-productive while a quiet or polite rebuke in a parking lot may make the point better. There are plenty of ways to be direct and personal without seeming creepy or unhinged). It is not as if these agents of misery are constantly exposed to public wrath. They have enough time to enjoy the bubble and echo chamber that is their political support base in and outside of the institutions of office. They have the option to defend themselves via argument or escape, and many have bodyguards to buffer them from physical aggression. So let’s stop this nonsense about civility and lets make things real: in order to gain respect one has to give respect. In order to be treated with civility one must be civil as well. And if one disrespects entire groups of people and ruins the lives of thousands while catering to the baser instincts of the minority that are one’s political adherents, then better be prepared to hear about it in person.

Because civility is not about silence or submission. It is about consent. And when consent is lost, then civility includes the right to make personal to those who rule the reasons why.

A return to the banality of evil.

datePosted on 13:17, June 20th, 2018 by Pablo

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” in Nazi Germany, she was referring not to the leaders but to the thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, civil servants, cops, tax collectors and everyday citizens who went along with the Nazi project or simply said that they were “following orders,” “doing their jobs” or being “good citizens.” The Nuremberg trails put paid to those excuses.

Today in the US we have a variant on the theme. It may not quite be holocaust in size, but the forced separation of children from undocumented parents in order to use them as pawns in Drumpf/GOP attempts to extract Democrat concessions on immigration reform (pay for the wall, etc.) is abhorrent nevertheless. And while attention rightfully is focused on Drumpf and his minions, my question is this: who are the people who are enforcing this wretched policy? These are the people who take the evil abstract of forced family separation and turn it into executable action via bureaucratic procedures and regulations (e.g. wearing of surgical gloves when handling detainees, using female agents to process women, providing water and x amount of calories via solid food at regular intervals, etc.). Who are the border patrol, local law enforcement and homeland security agents and private contractors who are doing the actual separation and detention of children in cages? Are they doing this because they agree with Drumpf, are racists themselves or are just plain psychopathic? Or are they going to tell us that they are only following orders and doing their jobs?

Until we make those carrying out this atrocity as personally responsible as Drumpf, Sessions, et.al, we will continue to see the steady undermining of the moral foundations of the Republic. Make no mistake about it: these enforcers of the morally reprehensible are neighbours, friends, family members and church goers who go about their lives as if all was normal. And that is exactly what Arendt was describing. It is the banality of such evil that eventually makes it normal.

Less NZ readers think that it cannot happen here, just hark back to the Police invasion of Nicky Hager’s privacy in search for the elusive “Rawshark” source. You may recall that I wrote a post about how the cops used Customs, Immigration and airline companies to obtain the personal data of thousands of passengers who flew on certain dates between Auckland and a foreign country where the Police suspected Rawshark was vacationing. None of this was done under warrant, but instead, just as in the case the banks that gave up Hager’s financial records so readily, they did so willingly upon request. All of those involved will defend their actions as cooperating with the Police but in fact they were under no obligation to do so without a warrant. But they did.

We now learn that a private security firm has a hand in glove relationship with NZ public agencies in spying on people who pose no threat to national security, and that in fact the private security firm may have business steered to it by a NZ intelligence agency in spite of the obvious–or at least appearance of–conflict of interest. Here as well we have a case of people just doing as they are told without consideration of the ethics or morality about what they are being told to do, some in pursuit of profit and some for reasons known only to them. They are following orders, doing their jobs, chasing leads and tip-offs without consideration of the fact that what may be legally permissible (or at least not outlawed) may not be morally or ethically proper.

These, in sum, are Kiwi examples of evil gone banal. And there are bound to be others, so perhaps the abomination that it is the Drumpf policy of separating undocumented asylum-seeking families at the southern US border should serve as a reminder to New Zealanders as to the depths to which a nation can plunge if it allows that evil banality to become the new normal.

Cherry picking on Chinese influence.

datePosted on 11:32, May 29th, 2018 by Pablo

Concern about Chinese influence operations in Western democracies has increased over the last few years, including here in NZ. The concern stems from the fact that, although not espionage or intelligence gathering per se, such operations–which involve money spent on individuals and organisations, establishment of pro-China fronts and media outlets, and placement of individuals linked to or controlled by the Chinese Communist Party in positions of corporate and political importance–corrupt Western democratic systems and undermine the political, social and economic values that underpin them.

The impact of Chinese influence operations has been the subject of considerable discussion in Australia, to the point that politicians have been forced to resign because of undisclosed ties to Chinese interests and intelligence agencies have advised against doing business with certain Chinese-backed agencies. As usual, the NZ political class and corporate media were slow to react to pointed warnings that similar activities were happening here (people may remember my essay on a Chinese fifth column from a few years ago). It was not until Canterbury University academic Anne Marie Brady published an essay last year on so-called Chinese “magic weapons” that the extent of Chinese influence in the local political and corporate worlds was revealed and became a matter of public interest.

It is significant that Brady’s work was first published in the US for a think tank focused on Chinese international affairs, and her first public exposure happened in Australia at a parliamentary committee hearing. That is because, unlike the US and Australia, NZ politicians are not particularly interested in digging into the nature and extent of Chinese influence on the party system and government policy. This, in spite of the “outing” of a former Chinese military intelligence instructor and academic as a National MP and the presence of well-heeled Chinese amongst the donor ranks of both National and Labour, the close association of operatives from both parties with Chinese interests, and the placement of well-known and influential NZers such as Don Brash and Jenny Shipley in comfortable sinecures on Chinese linked boards, trusts and companies.

As I have written before, there is enough to this pattern of behaviour to warrant scrutiny from NZ intelligence agencies and the police. But we also need to put Chinese influence operations in perspective. How are the Chinese any different than the Indians or Polynesian groups when it comes to infiltrating political parties, other than the amount of money available to them? How are these influence operations substantially different than those of other governments such as the US, which funds an array of scholarships, visitor programs, parliamentary delegation junkets and the like? How are Chinese backing of friendship and solidarity groups different than those backed by other foreign governments? How is Chinese corporate fund raising, “fact-finding” and conference travel and other ear-bending efforts any different than the lobbying of corporations, business associations, advocacy groups, etc.?

The answer seems to be that the Chinese are authoritarian, have lots of money to spend on making friends and influencing people and do so in a clearly transactional fashion, much as they do via their chequebook policy in the South Pacific. The implication is that they engage in corrupt practices when necessary and will not adhere to the strictures of democratic governance other than as lip service when it comes to pursuing their interests. Since NZ is, in essence, just another Pacific Island nation, why should this come as a surprise? In fact, the more interesting issue is why, fully knowing that the Chinese are using influence operations for purposes of State that go beyond international friendship or business ties, do so many prominent New Zealanders accept their money and/or positions on front organisations? Is the problem not so much what the Chinese do as as a rising great power trying to enlarge its sphere of influence as it is the willingness of so-called honourable Kiwis to prostitute themselves for the Chinese cause?

Last week the beat up on Chinese influence in NZ took a strange twist. At a US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCESRC) hearing, an ex-CIA analyst said that the Chinese had penetrated the “political core” of the country and that in light of that the US should reconsider keeping NZ in the Five Eyes signals intelligence sharing network.

The absurdity of these remarks needs to be deconstructed, not only for what was said but for what was not said. Let it also be noted that although nominally a bipartisan agency of the US Congress, the USCESRC has increasingly become a China-bashing forum, something that has been accentuated under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who oversees Commission appointments) and President Trump. This also matters because the witnesses called to testify before USCESRC are often cherry picked for their views on matters of US-China relations.

In his case the ex-CIA analyst rightly pointed out that, in contrast to the US and Australia, the NZ political elite were blasé about the extent of Chinese influence in local politics. But he took a step too far, downplaying the record of the previous National government and criticising the new Labour government for casting a blind eye on pernicious Chinese influence within its ranks (the only mention of National was a reference to the Jian Yang case). He then jumped the shark by recommending that the US and other 5 Eyes partners reconsider NZ’s membership in the signals intelligence sharing partnership.

Let’s be very clear: for the previous nine years National was in power, the deepening of Chinese influence was abided, if not encouraged by a Key government obsessed with trade ties and filling the coffers of its agrarian export voting base. It was National that ignored the early warnings of Chinese machinations in the political system and corporate networks, and it was Chinese money that flowed most copiously to National and its candidates. It is not an exaggeration to say that Chinese interests prefer National over Labour and have and continue to reward National for its obsequiousness when it comes to promoting policies friendly to Chinese economic interests. In fact, it is National that had a Minister, in the person of Judith Collins, attempt to use her position and manipulate the NZ ambassador to China into pushing her husband’s dodgy Chinese-backed business.

All political parties protest that they strictly adhere to campaign finance law and on paper they clearly do. But the whiff of dark money, dirty politics and other forms of unacknowledged influence trading has long clung to National in a measure not shared with its opponents. Put succinctly, contrary to what the the ex CIA analyst intimated, the influence of Chinese interests has been strongest when National is in government. And it is not just the Chinese who have availed themselves of the favourable climate operative during National’s tenure.

Not that National is solely to blame when it comes to trading favours. Labour clearly has consorted with some unsavoury Chinese donors and it remains to be seen if it will be any different than National now that it is out of the wilderness and back into government. But if foreign penetration of the “political core” is such a concern, it is surprising that no serious mention has made either at home or abroad of Winston Peters’ ties to Russia via the horse industry and beyond. In fact, when one looks at Peters’s links to an assortment of industries and interests, it is not just foreigners who appear to have an inside track on his thinking. Even so, the notion of a “political core” being compromised assumes that a whole array of constituent groups, from unions to manufacturers to iwi, are in the pockets of the Chinese no matter who is in government. Perhaps they are, but if so, I have not heard about it.

Labour may have the likes of Raymond Ho in its ranks and some dubious Chinese businessmen among its supporters, but it comes nowhere close to National when it comes to sucking up to the Chinese. That is why Jian Yang is still an MP, and that is why we will never hear a peep from the Tories about the dark side of Chinese influence operations. For its part, Labour would be well-advised to see the writing on the wall now that the issue of Chinese “soft” subversion has become a focal point for Western democracies. After all, Chinese influence operations that work to subvert basic value structures do so against a backdrop of aggressive Chinese cyber attacks and intelligence gathering in the countries in which influence operations are most prominent, NZ included.

But that is also why the recommendation that NZ be excluded from 5 Eyes is ridiculous. First, because for all of the talk about counter-terrorism, the bulk of counter-intelligence efforts by NZ (through the SIS and GCSB) and its 5 Eyes partners are directed at state actors, China in particular. Even if the NZ political elite were totally compromised by the Chinese, the security bureaucracies would insulate their operations from political interference and would likely work with the Police to demonstrate when and where politicians were acting on behalf of Chinese rather than NZ interests. It is the NZ intelligence community (NZIC), more than anyone else, who know the full extent of Chinese activities in the country, and the NZ intelligence community is fully ensconced in Anglo-centric democratic intelligence networks. It is therefore not likely that the NZIC would overlook the type of Chinese influence operations that result in capture of NZ’s “political core.”

Secondly, getting thrown out of 5 Eyes is not simply a matter of being told to take one’s toys and go home. The equipment at the listening posts at Waihopai and Tangimoana and at GCSB headquarters in Wellington is acutely sensitive and there are numerous citizens of partner countries working at those installations. Dismantling and removing equipment, files, archives and other sensitive material from such facilities will be time consuming, diplomatically fraught and operationally vulnerable, especially when it is well known that the Chinese, foremost amongst others, are extremely interested in them.  Institutional history, to include linkages with 5 Eyes partners and broader security networks, would have to be purged in order to avoid it falling into adversary hands. So getting kicked out of 5 Eyes involves much more than a rebuke, and, given NZ’s taskings within the 5 Eyes network, it is precisely the Chinese who will benefit the most from the expulsion.

If the US and other 5 Eyes partners are as worried about NZ being compromised by the Chinese as the ex-CIA analyst suggests that they are, a message of concern would have been sent to the NZ government in at least three ways: via diplomatic communications from the US embassy (which undoubtably has sent reports back to the State Department about the prevalence and impact of Chinese influence operations and intelligence gathering in NZ); by a diminishing of intelligence feeds from those partners in an obvious fashion; and by direct communication between the intelligence chiefs involved. This could well have been the purpose of the visit by the US Director of Intelligence to NZ a few weeks ago and if so, the gravity of the concerns have now been made clear to the Ardern government. However, the PM as well as the Opposition leader have both said that nothing has been brought to their attention that causes them to believe that NZ’s political system has been compromised by Chinese agents.

Given my antipathy towards authoritarians, I hold no particular affection for the PRC. But I do recognise that it does so as a maturing great power and accept that its behaviour is not going to change any time soon unless action is taken to circumscribe its activities in the West–a problem for societies founded on notions of freedom of association, movement and speech (including of opinion and the press). Because these rights are seen as Achilles Heels to be exploited by authoritarian rivals such as China and Russia, it should be expected that they will continue to be used as avenues of exploitation by them (as has been well demonstrated in the US).

What I deplore the most, though, is attacks on left-leaning governments (such as they are) like the current Labour government in NZ for supposedly going soft on Chinese influence pandering when in fact it has been right-leaning governments, not only in NZ but elsewhere, that have most assiduously courted Chinese investment and better diplomatic ties in spite of the PRC’s authoritarian character and dubious record when it comes to human rights and adherence to international conventions. For the NZ media to pick up and bang this hammer when it is part of an orchestrated attack on the Chinese by the US doing so for geopolitical reasons of its own demonstrates how shallow and uncritical reporting has become in Aotearoa. The issue is serious, which is precisely why it should not be subject to partisan manipulation or, ironically, pressure from allied states.

So yes, NZ has a problem with Chinese influence operations on its soil, particularly the willingness of NZers to serve Chinese interests for a handful of coin. But no, it is not just the fault of Labour and no, it is not as bad as has been alleged by the ex-CIA analyst. Nor is what the Chinese do in terms of influence mongering that dissimilar to what many other entities do when pushing their message in the NZ political system.  So let us take better notice of the phenomenon and address it for what it is without succumbing to the apocalyptic diatribes of people whose concern about Chinese influence operations has  less to do with the particularities of NZ and more to do with the broader strategic competition that sees China on the rise and the US in decline.

BONUS LISTEN: Here is an interview done on RNZ by the ex CIA analyst in question. Readers can form their own opinions as to whether he sounds like an authoritative and credible source for the claims he has made: https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018646774/ex-cia-analyst-admits-trump-irony-in-china-influence-warning

This week Mitch Harris and I talked about Trump’s  attacks on the so-called “take a knee movement,” his lack of compassion for the Puerto Rican victims of two hurricans and the increasingly risky rhetoric he uses vis a vis North Korea. It can be found here.

Bowing to petty tyrants.

datePosted on 15:16, May 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I just got back from a trip to my hometown, Buenos Aires. During the time that I was there, the center-right president, Mauricio Macri, made a state visit to the White House. Like Donald Trump, Macri is the son of a millionaire who continued the family business and branched out into sports, entertainment and then politics. Unlike Trump, Macri was a two-time mayor of Buenos Aires who was widely recognized as having cleaned up the city and instituted a number of important public works and modernisation projects. He is not universally popular but he is generally acknowledged as competent. Oh, and he is reported to have business ties with the Trump Organization.

I write this in order to provide background to Macri’s visit to the White House. Not so much because of what was said during his meetings with Donald Trump but because of what did not happen. It turns out that in March the Argentine official government gazette, the Boletin Oficial, published an announcement that after the state visit President Macri would be awarding Argentina’s highest honor to a foreigner, the Order of San Martin, to Jimmy Carter for his focus on human rights in general and the efforts he led–channeled through his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, the late Patricia Derrian–to uncover the fate of the “disappeared” under the Argentine military bureaucratic dictatorship of 1976-82.

I was involved in human rights work in the late 70s and early 80s in Argentina and can personally attest to the fact that Carter and Derrian saved hundreds if not thousands of Argentine lives simply by asking the junta about the whereabouts of political prisoners. Carter was also the first US president who made the provision of foreign aid, both military and economic, contingent on a country’s human rights certification by the State Department (where the State Department investigates and evaluates a country’s human rights record before recommending for or against channelling aid to it). Although Republican presidents have tried to weaken the human rights certification provisions in US aid programs, Democratic presidents have largely adhered to the parameters first enunciated by the Carter administration.

Before Macri traveled to Washington, the Trump administration asked the Argentine government to cancel the award ceremony for Carter. This, in spite of the fact that the ceremony was not part of Macri’s state visit and was to be done outside of the official schedule of events. So, to repeat, let’s get this straight: at the insistence of the Trump administration, the US government formally asked the head of a sovereign state to not award a former US president a rare honor for that president’s championing of human rights world-wide and his specific role in opposing the murderous actions carried out by the Argentine military and its accomplices during the infamous “dirty war” of the 1970s and early 1980s.

That is reprehensible. It is not only an insult to President Carter but to the Argentine government, the Argentine people and the history that they commonly share. Sadly, against the advice of his Foreign Ministry, President Macri bowed to the US request and cancelled the award ceremony.

Speculation about why he did so ranges from not wanting to get off-side with the White House, diplomatic necessity and/or Macri not wanting to jeopardize any future business ties with the Trump Organization. Whatever the reasons, Macri has justifiably been condemned for acquiescing to the request. His best option now is to invite Jimmy Cater to Argentina in order to receive the award, something that in retrospect is probably the more rightful place where to do so.

But why would Trump and his minions make such an outrageous demand? Is it because Trump hates Democrats or Jimmy Carter specifically? Perhaps. Could it be that he has no regard for supporting human rights as a matter of principle or practice? Possibly. Or is it because the Trump administration is currently in the process of cozying up to tyrants such as Dutarte, Erdogan and Putin as well as a number of lesser despots and has even spoken of being “honoured” to meet with that “smart cookie,” Kim Jun-un? If so, could it be that Trump did not want a reminder of when the US actually acted as a moral champion interfering with his value-free power politics approach to international relations? Again, whatever the reasons–and most of them reduce at best to needing any and all partners in the fight against common enemies and threats, even though the commonality of those enemies and threats is in dispute–Trump has shown himself to be a bullying coward lacking in any decency, while Macri has been revealed to be a quisling in the face of the bully’s demands.

There is a lesson here for NZ. Trump will interfere with sovereign decisions of other states under the implicit threat of retaliation. He has no moral compass and no ethical compulsion to respect another country’s decision to uphold international standards (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) should he find it inconvenient to do so. Given that NZ still clings to the fiction that it maintains an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy, it likely will not be long before that claim is put to the test by the sociopath in the Oval Office. And with the defense agreements signed between the US and NZ over the last eight years, it will likely be NZ support for Trump-instigated conflicts where that test will be.

The National government has two choices in that event: like Macri, forsake national interest and bow to the bully; or prepare contingency plans for the repercussions of saying “no.” The question is whether National has the spine to even consider the second option.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Foxes in the hen house.

datePosted on 12:44, January 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Here is a thought. Among all the wretched news coming out of the US this past week, two somewhat lesser items struck me. One was that Trump’s son-in-law was granted a high level security clearance, and the other was that former Brietbart boss, white supremacist and pro-Russian provocateur Steve Bannon has been given a Principal’s seat on the National Security Council, displacing both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff (who now attend on an “as needed” basis).

During the time I spent in the US security apparatus I held several levels of clearance, working my way up to the fairly high Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level. The scrutiny I received in order to get that clearance was pretty intrusive and lengthy: polygraph and drug tests, background checks run by the DIA that included interviews with college friends, my former wife, work colleagues at various places and even neighbours, and an FBI background check. The process took about 10-12 months.

Bannon and Jared Kushner will be privy to sensitive information well above my ultimate pay category, and yet the latter was granted a clearance in a month and the former, for all we know, has yet to receive one. I know that elected political officials do not have to undergo the sort of background checks that I did (something that is always troublesome when congressional testimony is given behind closed doors to congresspeople who are known to have serious skeletons in their closets that make them liable to blackmail). But political appointees as well as career civil servants and military personnel must have those checks done before assuming the jobs in which they handle highly sensitive information. Mistakes have recently been made in security vetting due to outsourcing (Edward Snowden) and people can grow disenchanted and violate their oaths (Chelsea Manning), but for the most part the security vetting process allows the government some degree of confidence that the person being scrutinised cannot be blackmailed, is not financially vulnerable, is not addicted, criminally violent, mentally ill, etc.

So my questions are these: Has Steve Bannon undergone any security vetting, particularly given his background and links? Why did Mr. Kushner receive an expedited clearance rather than a thorough one? There are other individuals in the Trump White House who also have access to this type of information without full security vetting (including a Brietbart editor), but for the moment I wonder about those two fellows.

This is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Given Trump’s attacks on the military and intelligence leadership and the ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia in the wake of official claims that Russia sought to influence the US presidential election in his favour, these sort of moves could set the stage for a constitutional crisis in civil-military/intelligence relations. After all, if Bannon is talking to the Russians and Kushner is pillow whispering to Ivanka about policy matters that impact on the family businesses, why would the intelligence community and military brass feel comfortable with them receiving full classified briefs on such matters? Would it not be advisable for the security community to withhold highly sensitive information from them and direct that information to others such as NSC advisor Gen (ret.) Mike Flynn (also of some very suspect ties) on an “Eyes Only” basis? Or should they just give full briefs and let the chips fall where they may?

Neither option is a good choice, but one has potentially catastrophic consequences while the other undermines the foundations of elected civilian supremacy over the military and intelligence communities.

 

There are lessons here for New Zealand. The NZSIS is responsible for security vetting of people who will handle sensitive classified information, but its record is mixed in this regard. In 2010 it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the head of the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), the scientific arm of the NZDF, was a serial fraudster and liar who among other things claimed to have been a member of the 1988 UK bobsled team and a former Royal marine who had worked for MI5 and MI6 in the UK and who had invented the guidance system for the Polaris (submarine launched and nuclear tipped) missile (you can find the NZDF Court of Inquiry Report on Mr Wilke here).

Mr. Wilce was recruited by Momentum Consulting (which was paid $25,000 for the job), a firm that included among its directors and executives National Party stalwarts Jenny Shipley and Michelle Boag. Momentum was supposed to have confirmed Mr. Wilce’s bonafides and the NZSIS was supposed to do his security vetting before granting him a high level clearance, but none of that happened. It was not until Mr. Wilce had been in the DTA job for five years that a whistleblower outed him.

In recent years the SIS has reported that security vetting takes up more and more of its time and resources, to the detriment of its domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence and counter-espionage activities. Delays in obtaining clearances are commonplace and pressures to expedite them are strong. That was exactly the situation that led to Edward Snowden being granted a high level security clearance. As it turns out, the firm that was contracted to do his security vetting by the NSA simply rubber stamped the clearance authorisation because it was swamped with such work.

Employees of New Zealand’s intelligence community and military personnel certainly undergo serious security vetting before they can be trusted to handle classified information. Perhaps, like the US, elected officials are exempt from the requirement, but what about parliamentary staffers and those employed in the DPMC? Given the revelations in the Dirty Politics book, can we be assured that the likes of Jason Ede and Phil de Joux (or even Roy Ferguson and Sir Maarten Wevers) have been vetted properly? Is everyone who is privy to classified material treated the same as military and intelligence personnel and subjected to a thorough security vetting process? Is outsourcing recruitment of people to sensitive positions still the norm? If so, is that outsourcing going to politically connected firms or is there now in place some objective standard of applicant vetting rigour that needs to be met?

I ask these questions because if anything, New Zealand appears to have a much looser government administrative system that does the US. Shoulder-tapping, “who-you-knows,” nepotism, cronyism, old boy networking–perhaps it is a small country thing but it seems to me that such practices occur fairly frequently when it comes to high level civil service positions (to say nothing of the private sector). If that is so, then it is fair to ask if these practices override the good sense need for security vetting of those involved with intelligence and military matters.

I stand to be corrected if wrong in this appraisal, but the issue still remains as to who with access to sensitive intelligence and security information outside of NZ intelligence and military officers undergo the type of security vetting that I underwent back in the US and which Messrs. Bannon and Kushner managed to avoid.

Put another way and stripped of the US baggage: are there Bannons and Kushner facsimiles in our midst?

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