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Sedition from within.

datePosted on 15:49, November 13th, 2020 by Pablo

The refusal of Donald Trump and his supporters in the media and Republican Party to acknowledge his defeat in the presidential election has taken an ominous turn. What at first could be discounted as the childish petulance of a sore loser is now morphing into the makings of a constitutional coup. The move is two sided, involving the de-legitimation of the electoral process as a foundational institution of the political system; and the hollowing out and/or partisan stacking of key agencies that otherwise would be the most resistant to that type of subversion. This is, in effect, sedition from within.

In the last days Trump has fired the Secretary of Defense and forced the resignations of key aides, including the DoD Chief of Staff and head of special operations and low intensity conflict. He has replaced them with craven loyalists, including Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, a former Army special forces soldier and recently Director of Counter-Terrorism at the NSC. Miller has an intense hatred for Iran and supports Trump’s efforts to immediately withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in order to re-deploy them on Iran’s Western flank, which in turn will be part of the “maximum pressure” campaign Trump wants to wage on the Persian State. US military commanders object to both the withdrawal and to the lop-sided re-deployment, to say nothing of being drawn into yet another (senseless) war of opportunity.

Trump is rumored to be getting ready to fire the CIA and FBI directors. He has purged professional careerists in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and replaced them with hyper partisans. He has politicised and promoted partisans and loyalists in the Border Patrol and Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The pace of this “purge and replace” process has quickened since Election Day. If he continues to do so, by Inauguration Day he will have cleared a path in the repressive apparatus of so-called “constitutionalists” in favor of loyalists.

The Miller appointment is also ominous because Acting Directors do not need Senate confirmation and one of the main missions of US Army special forces is to train indigenous militias in guerrilla warfare. Already there is speculation that his experience can be used to forge links between DoD, Republican-led state governments and various rightwing militia groups in the event that Trump’s refusal to abdicate turns into physical confrontations between his supporters and Biden supporters and/or local government security agencies. This puts pressure on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and service branch leadership as to what they will do in the event that DoD lends its institutional weight and resources to the pro-Trump insurgents, egged on from within the Oval Office.

The Trump administration has already held a trial run of sorts when it comes to politicised domestic repression. A few months ago armed federal “agents” wearing uniforms without identification were sent into Portland to counter BLM protests. They were not invited by the mayor or the Oregon governor. They stayed for several weeks, making arrests, using batons and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators, seizing people and removing them in unmarked vans to locations outside the city centre. They worked alongside the Portland Police, who in turn cast a blind eye on armed right-wing militants showing up to counter-demonstrate against the BLM crowds. It turns out that these unidentified federal agents were recruited from within the Border Patrol, ICE, Customs and other agencies overseen by DHS. They were removed from Portland when their activities were exposed in the media and were subsequently prohibited by several local jurisdictions–Chicago and New York among them–from deploying there in spite of Trump’s threats to “send them in.”

Then, of course, there was the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray by National Guard and other federal security units against peaceful demonstrators in and around Lafayette Square in Washington DC. When DC based National Guard troops–many of them African Americans–baulked at repressing their fellow Washingtonians, Trump had supportive Republican governors supply National Guards from their respective states (National Guard units are commanded by state governors or, in the case of federal territory like the District of Columbia, by the president himself). He went so far as to stage a photo opportunity outside St. Johns Episcopal church adjacent to the square in which the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and then-defence Secretary Mark Esper were paraded out and used as props (both Milley and Esper later claimed that they were unaware of what was going on when they were invited to join the president for a walk into the Square).

Trump has refused to allow Biden to receive the daily intelligence briefs that incoming presidents are normally provided. He has made no plans or engaged in the usual niceties of transitions between administrations. Instead, he has dug his heels in on the fraudulent election claims and in this he has been supported by (with a few exceptions) the Republican Party at all levels, rightwing media, and foreign despots like Jair Bolsonaro. Whether out of prudence or preference, the autocrats running China and Russia have remained silent on the issue.

If Trump is able to corrode the institutional apparatus by hollowing it out and stacking it with cronies, then one of the last defences against a full authoritarian take-over of the executive will have to be the courts. But Trump has the Bill Barr-led Justice department running cover for him, not only in cases involving his administration, his campaign or disputes with Congress, but even attempts to represent him in personal matters such as defence against lawsuits stemming from rape allegations dating back to his days as a private citizen. He has named over 200 judges to federal courts and has successfully placed three Supreme Court judges on the highest bench in the land. He is banking on them coming to his side when push comes to shove regarding the presidency. It remains to be seen if they will do so but the fact that it may even come to that is alarming of itself.

Opinion polls show that Republican voters are much less supportive of democracy as a construct and much more supportive of governments that cater to their policy preferences. That is to say, when it comes to democracy, for US conservatives it is all about deliverables. This is a variant of the old “trains run on time” argument made about Mussolini–that efficiency is more important than representativeness, equality or transparency when it comes to governance. It is this instrumental view of democracy–that it only works or is preferable if it works in one’s (partisan) favour–that under-rides popular support for Trump’s authoritarian moves.

The anti-democratic trend is visible world wide in both new and mature democracies, but in the US it has a distinctly partisan aspect to it. Normally anarchists, communists and assorted other Leftists would be the most opposed to what Lenin called capitalism’s “best possible shell.” But in the US it is the right-wing view that this political shell–bourgeois democracy–covers the work and policies of nefarious liberal elites. QAnon elevated the nefarious nature of elite behaviour into the realm of pedophilia and sex-trafficking in Deep State-operated circles, so the crazy is strong and runs deep on that side of the US ideological ladder.

That is what makes Trump’s moves more alarming than they should be under “normal” circumstances. There are a lot of people who welcome his sedition and in fact want to be part of it. For many it is a defence of the historical status quo that motivates them, heterosexist, patriarchical, racist, xenophobic and classist as that may be. For others it is just an opportunity for taking advantage. Whatever the motivation, this coalition of deplorables are ready, able and willing to join the Trump-led subversion of American political institutions. And they are here to stay whether he remains in office or not.

The danger of a US constitutional coup is compounded by the fact that many people in and outside the federal bureaucracy do not believe that “it can happen here.” For every MAGA maniac frothing about the Deep State, there are many reasonable others who believe that the US institutional foundation is too solid to be usurped or overthrown. They simply cannot grasp the notion that a coup can occur in the US, much less one that is carried out quietly, incrementally and from within the State apparatus. And yet for the entirety of his presidency, Trump has been preparing the ground for exactly that, using the justifications of “draining the swamp” and fighting the Deep State as the cover for his seditious intent.

That brings up the question about Republicans. Although it is widely understood that they at first thought that they could control Trump and bend him in their preferred image, by now they must realise that was a pipe dream. So the question of the moment is why do major components of the Republican Party and rightwing ecosystem continue to cling to him after the election and tie themselves to his attempts to overturn the results? Is it their desire to ride his political coattails? Or what he could do to them down the road? Is it fear of what his MAGA base can do to them now and down the road? Or are they sincere in thinking that the election was stolen (only where he lost) and that usurping the constitution and institutional foundations is justified by that circumstance even if it destroys the Republic?

It may pay for the GOP to remember that Trump was a Democrat before he switched to being a Republican ten years ago. It may pay for them to recall that he said that he switched because Republican voters were dumb and it was easier to dupe them. It may pay for them to remember that before he embraced evangelical Xtians he led a degenerate atheist lifestyle that has only been slightly tempered by his move into public office. It may pay for them to remember how he turns on those in their ranks who question his actions, and on Fox News when it stops blindly cheerleading for him. Because what that should tell them is that their loyalty to him is not reciprocal, and that his actions are based in personal self-interest, not principle or partisan conviction. That is the ultimate motivation for his sedition from within.

It may seem far-fetched, but of this the US constitutional coup could be made.

Setting them up to fail?

datePosted on 14:55, November 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

There has been some excitement about the naming of Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister and Peeni Henare as Defense Minister in the new Labour cabinet. At first glance neither one appears to have much experience or background in the portfolios that they are now responsible for, but Mahuta is the first female (and Maori) Foreign Minister, complete with a moko kauae. Henare, first elected in 2014, has been Minister for Civil Defense during the last year and half. He is also Minister of Whānau Ora. They comprise part of a cabinet that is considered to be one of the most diverse in NZ history and have received global attention as a result.

Mahuta first entered parliament in 1996 on the Labour list, then was elected in 1999 to the Te Tai Hauauru seat (beating Tuku Morgan), then transferred and won the Tainui/Hauraki-Waikato in 2002. She has been re-elected ever since and made a run for the party leadership in 2014. She was Minister for Customs, Youth Development, Local Government and Associate Minister for the Environment from 2005-2008 during the 5th Labour government and prior to her appointment as Foreign Minister was Minister of Local Government and Maori Development in the 6th Labour government (the first of which she retains). While in Opposition she served as the Labour spokesperson for Maori Affairs, Education, Energy and Conservation. She is also Associate Minister of Trade and Export Growth, Environment and Housing.

After 24 years in parliament, Mahuta surely knows her away around the Beehive and the domestic policy scene. But questions remain about her and Henare’s suitability for the positions they have been given. The breakdown of the questions goes something like this:

The symbolism of diversity is a powerful thing. However, beyond its symbolic value diversity in cabinet is a laudable goal only if it is accompanied by substance. The latter is defined as competence, background or experience in the policy areas for which the appointee is responsible, or the ability to learn fast. Diversity without substance is a cynical form of tokenism because it rewards those without merit in order to engage in empty symbolism as a PR tactic. It also sets up the appointees for failure if s/he is out of depth or is unable to overcome resistance from inside and outside of the Ministries for which they are responsible. That in turn serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about the ethnic, religious, racial or other groups to which they belong.

A big problem for ministerial neophytes of any persuasion is that they run the risk of bureaucratic capture by the agencies that they ostensibly oversee. Bureaucratic capture is a phenomenon where career bureaucrats surround a Ministerial appointee with everything from puffery and flattery to stonewalling and sandbagging in order to get the new leader to absorb and accept institutional logics as his or her own. This may include the “baubles” of office: getting to play with big boys toys in the case of Defense, and jetting off to exotic lands in the case of Foreign Affairs. All courtesy of the taxpayer. The syndrome is familiar.

Another problem is bureaucratic resistance or shunning. This phenomenon is when career bureaucrats endeavour to resist policy initiatives and change instigated by the new appointee by diluting or subverting the message within the institutional maze (which the new Minister is unfamiliar with), or simply ignore directives that do not suit or run contrary to their entrenched interests until the initiatives are dropped. This is an all-to-common problem in the intelligence and security field, where cadres of so-called “old boys” work hard to prevent real effective institutional reform from happening so long as they feel that the status quo works for them. The resistance to reform is less visible in Foreign Affairs because of the arc of modern diplomacy (multi-faceted, involving a variety of actors and subjects), but it remains in some institutional niches nevertheless.

In Foreign Affairs and Defence there is the additional problem that newly appointed Ministers must immediately engage with foreign interlocutors. Many of these foreign diplomats and military officials have great experience and often a considerable degree of cynicism when addressing areas of mutual interest. They very often have different cultural backgrounds, different ideological motivations, different economic interests and different ways of conceptualising the international order (say, being realist rather than idealist or constructivist in perspective). Without the shared cultural and ideological referents common to home, Ministerial neophytes thrust onto the world as the senior faces of NZ face formidable challenges unlike those found domestically.

The questions about Mahuta and Henare are therefore driven by concerns about their experience and competence when confronting these realities, and about whether their domestic experience can immediately translate into the skillset required to effectively engage both the internal (bureaucratic) and external (foreign interaction) aspects of their jobs.

Not surprisingly, some of the responses to those asking these questions have been to accuse them of being racist. That could well be true for some people, but the knee jerk, reflexive defensiveness of these reactions simply serves to obscure the reality of tokenism and overlook incompetence in the event that it does occur.

More reasoned rebuttals focus on Mahuta’s long career in parliament and the range of portfolios she has held over the years. Although Henare has a much shorter parliamentary career, he is seen as a competent quick learner in the areas in which he has previously been given responsibility. So the reasoning goes that even if they do not have deep experience in military-security matters and foreign affairs, both Mahuta and Henare are well equipped to rapidly get up to speed on their portfolios.

Beyond that, there is the domestic political side of the appointment equation to consider. Mahuta and Henare represent important Maori constituencies that Labour seeks to retain as a support base. Henare comes from a distinguished military lineage, so the symbolism of his appointment bestows mana on his office and in the eyes of many of his troops. Mahuta, known as “The Princess” in some circles, is Maori royalty. This might prove very useful when engaging Pacific Island nobility on matters of regional and mutual concern, and her familiarity with pomp and circumstance makes her a natural for ceremonial occasions when representing the State.

Other assessments of the appointments are mixed. There is a line of thought that posits that, on the one hand, the Mahuta appointment is a way of getting a long serving, important yet underwhelming MP out of the way via a golden parachute into a glamorous job while on the other hand a young, up-and-coming Maori MP is given his first shot at playing with the Big Boys. If they do not pan out, this reasoning holds, then no harm done because others will be running the show in any event.

That dovetails with the belief that PM Ardern is going to be the de facto Foreign Minister, using the leverage of her global celebrity to advance major NZ initiatives on the world stage while Mahuta works on what a knowledgeable friend of mine calls the “mice and rats” of foreign affairs. Mahuta will also be a visible indigenous symbol of the multicultural and polyethnic nature of NZ society. So, while Ardern does the heavy lifting in things such as climate change, non-proliferation and bilateral relations with the likes of the PRC and US, Mahuta can provide the ceremonial face of NZ diplomatic representation to the global community.

For Henare the issue is simple: translate his generally well-regarded work in Civil Defense into an understanding of the logistics and operational requirements of complex service organisations such as the MoD/NZDF that operate under relatively tight budgetary constraints and with significant institutional shortcomings when it comes to personnel, material and overall force readiness, and which recently have (in the case of the NZDF) suffered some serious incidents of professional and personal misconduct within both senior and junior ranks. That notwithstanding, much of what the NZDF does under MoD policy directives IS civil defense, be it in terms of disaster relief, humanitarian interventions and emergency engineering and transport. So the experience he has gained in his previous portfolio, even if relatively short, should well suit him for his new role. More to the point, none of this will interfere with how the NZDF leadership see and approach the world around them.

The most jaded idea being advanced is that, regardless of whether they are competent or not, both of these politicians will be the subject of bureaucratic capture. Senior managers and careerists in Mfat and MoD and NZDF will in fact run these agencies largely unimpeded by their respective ministers, who will cut ribbons, shake hands and bestow honours instead. A “Yes Minister” scenario will prevail, if you will.

Not all the reaction to these appointments has been negative or questioning. Many at home and abroad are celebrating the diversity represented in the new Cabinet and the individual achievements of Mahuta, Henare and their non-Pakeha, non-straight and/or female colleagues. The era of the straight white male in politics is seen as coming to an end, with NZ leading the way.

Perhaps that is true but it is not for me to say. Along with being called a racist for having broached some of the afore-mentioned questions on social media as well as being labeled a member of the Pakeha international relations and security community (I have to plead guilty to that one), I am loathe to tread further into the minefield that is identity politics in Aotearoa. Moreover, since I focus on matters of international and comparative polities and security, I cannot offer a knowledgeable opinion about appointments made to domestic-focused portfolios or about which of the scenarios outlined above is the closest to the truth. It seems likely that there is a mix of factors and reasons involved in these appointments, both opportunistic and sincere.

All I can hope for is that both of the new ministers are not being set up to fail and that even if their learning curves are steep, that they succeed in gaining command of the important instruments of State that they have been directed to lead. Time will tell.

Counterfeiting information.

datePosted on 14:24, October 30th, 2020 by Pablo

Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.

In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.

Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.

This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.

The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.

It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.

I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.

Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.

When the dictator wears capes.

datePosted on 14:41, October 26th, 2020 by Pablo

Today Chileans voted overwhelmingly to elect a constitutional assembly and redraft the 1980 Constitution promulgated by the dictatorship of Agusto Pinochet. I regret that my old friend Bob Barros, whose death I wrote about a while ago, is not around to see this moment because he was the first person to write a book length analysis of the Chilean dictatorship’s attempts to institutionalise its rule via legal means, including constitution drafting.

The process for redrawing the foundational charter will involve electing a citizen constitutional convention next year, then voting on its draft version of a new charter in 2022. Presumably authoritarian clauses such as granting the military 15 percent of pre-tax copper revenues will be removed in the process.

But that is not what I am here to write about. Instead, I bring Chile up because events in the US remind me something my father told me years ago when we were watching Pinochet trying to neutralise the transition to democracy by organising a referendum in 1988 on extending his rule for another eight years. The wording of the referendum was deliberately phrased in Pinochet’s favour, with a “Yes” vote being a reaffirmation of support for the Motherland while a “No” vote was construed as unpatriotic and a negative slap at all that was good in Chile.

As it turns out, in 1989 I just happened to be a Research Fellow at a think tank at the same time that one of the architects of the 1988 “No” campaign was in residence. His name is Eugenio Tironi, a sociologist, who was one of those responsible for turning a “No” vote into a positive affirmation of support for democracy and a “Yes” vote as continued support for oppression. His accounting of the obstacles the “NO” campaigners faced, both in terms of physical intimidation (it was a murderous regime that they were confronting after all) and in terms of the institutional deck being stacked against them, was inspirational. The “No” vote won with 56 percent in that contest and the rest, as they say, is history. Yet, even though there have been amendments to the 1980 constitution, it took forty years for it to be designated for comprehensive review.

Again, I digress. During those years my father, who had been the head of the American Chamber of Commerce and managing director of a foreign multinational in Chile in the 1970s and was a friend of Pinochet and some of his ministers, strongly debated with me the merits of the so-called “Chilean Miracle,” military authoritarians as political circuit breakers and the role of the “Chicago Boys” in crafting Chilean economic policy. I have a University of Chicago Political Science Ph.D. from that era and had many run-ins with the Chilean (and Argentine, Brazilian and South Korean) economics graduate students of the time, many of whom were junior military officers directly involved in atrocities and other human rights abuses. Let’s just say that we did not get along on or off the soccer field.

By 1989 I had written a bit about military authoritarianism, state terror, democratic transitions and issues of labour politics and civil-military relations in transitional moments. I had begun also begun my affiliation with various US security agencies, something that lasted until I emigrated to NZ. So the discussions with my father were driven by ideological difference but for both of us the conversations were grounded in practical experience in Latin America–his doing business for over 30 years in the region and mine as a result of the mix of personal and professional experiences dating back to my childhood in Argentina.

During the 1988 referendum in Chile by father and I happened to be spending time together when out of the blue he said “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” Seeing the dumbfounded look on my face he explained that it was a variation on the “emperor has no clothes” theme. To wit: when a military dictator starts looking like Elvis in his final (Las Vegas) years, it means that he no longer has anyone around him to give him objective assessments of his position. Surrounded by sycophants and yes-men, the dictator loses an important feedback loop by which to judge the efficaciousness and popularity of his actions. At that point he starts making mistakes and yet no one will point out to him where he went wrong. By the time he realises that he has gotten himself into trouble via faulty decision-making, the knives are out and the rats are jumping ship.

That was what the 1988 referendum was for Pincohet. I mean, look at the guy:

Heck, his whole entourage had the syndrome:

It is possible that “el Viejo,” as we called my old man, may have warned “Don Agusto” that his uniform had limited mileage, even if his advice went unheeded. At a minimum my father understood that the general needed to drop the capes when sharing public space with foreign executives. Around my Dad he apparently did (sorry for the scan but it tells the story nevertheless):

The captions write themselves at this point but suffice to say this was before Pinochet went full Elvis.

The larger issue is that once you reach the wearing capes state of affairs, it is all over but the shouting.

That brings me to Donald Trump. True, he does not wear capes (although he does wear long overcoats, as Barbara has kindly pointed out in a comment) and true, he is an elected wanna-be Pinochet not installed by coup. But if his ridiculous hair and fake tan are not clear indicators of his “cape syndrome,” then the fact that he is now standing on balconies and stages barking about socialism, low water pressure, “rounding the corner” on Covid-19, repeating that more testing means more cases, then refusing to quarantine or socially distance numerous infected White House employees while claiming that he is “immune” and saying that Biden is going to allow dark males to rape and pillage in white suburbia are all one needs to understand that he is mentally and politically done. Either he is not listening to his advisors or they are not telling him the truth, but either way his path is his downfall. For a guy who supposedly is the most powerful person on earth, his world is really small and strikingly insular.

I mean, really:

Come to think of it, Trump probably has a cape or two in his closets, complete with matching hoods, but breaking them out at rallies might be too much for most voters (although one has to admit that it would be a truly epic moment in US political history if he did so). So when it comes to determining if he has reached peak “cape,” we will just have to settle for what he says and does (and not do).

All of which suggests that he is delusional when shouting MAGA! when in fact he is swimming upstream into a blue tide.

PS: It has come to my attention that Darth Vader and some of his minions also wore capes. Make of that what you will.

This last week’s podcast featuring Selwyn Manning and I focused on post-election analysis in two small states, one land locked and the other surrounded by water. Check it out here.

I have been thinking about US foreign policy after the upcoming election. My working assumption is that try as he might, Trump will lose the election and be forced from office. There will be much litigating of the results and likely civil unrest, but on Jan 21, 2021 the Orange Merkin will no longer disgrace the office of US president.

The damage to the US reputation and interests done by the Trump administration has been extraordinary and will take much time and effort to reverse, and even then some of the damage may be irreparable. The scope of what has to happen is too broad to discuss in a short KP post, but here is some food for thought: If Biden wins the US election he should name Barack Obama as ambassador extraordinaire/special envoy to lead the repair, restoration and reform of US foreign relations.

That is a very big task, which is why no one can do more to undue the damage wreaked by Trump than POTUS 44. Obama is the most respected politician in the world according to global surveys and his party is (slowly) moving leftwards. The latter is important because it means that some of the old shibboleths of US foreign policy like unconditional support for Israel or Saudi Arabia can be challenged from within the Democratic establishment of which Obama is part. More broadly, he represents both continuity and change in US foreign policy, and has the stature to confront, cajole and convince international interlocutors. Unconstrained by the strictures of the presidency yet deeply aware of US failures and flaws–including his own while POTUS–as well as its strengths and interests, Obama would have relative freedom and autonomy when negotiating on the country’s behalf. That affords him some room for manoeuvre when addressing thorny matters of international import.

All he needs is institutional (presidential, most importantly) support and the awareness that the US cannot return to the status quo ante. Post-Trump and post-pandemic, with new power contenders firmly entrenched in the international scene and with a broad erosion of international norms and mores, the world is a different place than it was during his term in office, and not necessarily one that looks to the US for unchallenged leadership or moral guidance. That is precisely why someone of his stature is needed to help redefine and reconstitute US foreign relations.

Theoretically Obama could take a step down to SecState, but that is awkward given his previous job and prior relationship with Biden. Making him a global Mr. Fix-It answering directly to POTUS 46 gives him institutional weight commensurate with his stature as ex-president. That frees up the eventual SecState to concentrate on rebuilding the foreign service (decimated by Trump’s minions) and conducting the daily business of diplomacy while Obama concentrates on the hard nuts to crack: the suspended START intermediate range missile negotiations with the Russians, the abandoned Iran nuclear limitation deal, the cancelled Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade compact, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the DPRK impasse, etc. He knows the issues, he knows the principles and principals involved and he knows the history behind and between them.

There will be much on Obama’s plate, to be sure, but with enough resources devoted to the task such a division of labor between him and the State Department could more rapidly address the myriad areas of foreign policy that have been left derelict or deliberately damaged by the mediocrities currently running the White House, Foggy Bottom and other agencies of the federal government responsible for foreign policy issues. That makes the selection of SecState especially important, as the person would need to be able to handle Obama’s plenipotentiary status and also the demands of running the foreign policy bureaucracy while supporting the ex-president’s endeavours.

Biden has already singled that he will use some “old hands” (mostly Obama staffers) in his foreign policy team and will re-assert the preference for democracy and human rights in his approach to foreign relations. But his nostalgic perspective will need to be seriously tempered by two incontrovertible facts, one internal and external. Externally, he will take office at a time when the US is a declining power confronted by rising and resurgent powers and an absence of consensus on how nation-states should behave in such transitional times. It no longer has the will or the ability to be the world’s policeman and the US-led global economic model operative during a half century has seen its frailties exposed by Covid-19. The US must adjust accordingly.

Internally, Biden must agree to a significant number of the foreign policy demands of the left-wing of the Democratic Party not only in order to win the election but in order to achieve stability within government after it. He will try to do so incrementally rather than radically but the bottom line is that he has to do so given the changing times in which we live.

Then there is the military aspect of foreign policy. Since Bush 43 the US has been over-reliant on the military as a blunt instrument of foreign policy to the detriment of diplomacy. The traditional dictum that the military should be used only when diplomacy fails has long been discarded, and the Trump administration simply does not comprehend that “military diplomacy” is not always about the deployment, threat and use of force. The relationship between diplomacy and military force is not a zero sum game. The approach to it therefore has to change.

Recently Hillary Clinton has written about the need to reconsider the “Four D’s” of foreign policy: defence, diplomacy, development and the domestic sources of US international relations. Although she (like Biden and Obama) remains wedded to the liberal internationalist school of thought whereby market economies and democratic politics are considered to be the best economic-political combination for both national as well as international politics (something that is under serious challenge on a number of fronts including from within the US), her call for a review and revision of the priority placed on the four pillars of US foreign policy represented by the “D’s” is worth considering.

In fact, although there is a need to bring in fresh and more progressive voices into the US foreign policy establishment, Hillary Clinton might just make an excellent Secretary of Defence should she be willing to take the job. After all, no one is going to say that her relatively hawkish views are ill-suited for the job running the Pentagon, and her vast experience can be used to bring entrenched interests within it into line, assuming that she believes her own words about the need for institutional reform. Like Obama, she can represent continuity and change, this time in US military policy. She knows the issues, she knows the principles and principals involved, and she knows the history behind and between them.

After the disaster that is Trump and company, her perceived flaws pale in comparison–and they will not be up for electoral scrutiny in any event since SecDef is a nominated position confirmable by Congress, not an elected position subject to the popular vote. Should the Democrats cut into the GOP Senate majority or win control of the Senate in November, then she should be given serious consideration for the job.

There will be much work to be done. The US needs experienced hands to undo the damage, but it also needs an ideological rethink given the changed context post-Trump. In an ironic way, Trump has cleaned the slate and therefore cleared the way for a new approach to US foreign policy. That moment is soon to arrive. So long as Biden, Clinton and Obama have learned from the past and are listening to the left side of the Democratic base, it seems sensible to use them in their reconfigured roles.

For more on this check out this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast.

Media Link: Pre-election craziness in the US.

datePosted on 10:06, October 9th, 2020 by Pablo

This week in our “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I reflect on Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour in wake of contracting Covid-19 and the domestic and foreign implications it has in the run-up to the November 3 national elections. You can find it here.

The Chinese List.

datePosted on 10:41, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo


News that Zhenhua Data, an arm of China Zhenhua Electronics Group, a subsidiary of the military-connected China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), maintains a list of 800 New Zealanders on a “Overseas Key Information Database” that contains personal information on more than 2.4 million foreign individuals, has caused some consternation in Kiwi political circles. The list of New Zealanders includes diplomats, politicians, community leaders, senior civil servants, defense and military officials, criminals, corporate figures, judges, B-list celebrities and Max Key. Complete with photos, information on these people is gleaned from public sources, particularly social media accounts, in what is one type of open-source intelligence gathering. Involving twenty “collection sites” around the world (including the US, UK and Australia) the larger global canvass is a broad first cut that extends to family members of prominent figures, upon which subsequent analysis can be conducted in order to whittle down to particular persons of interest in search of vulnerabilities, pressure points, sources of leverage, influence or opportunity across a range of endeavour.

However, there is a context to these efforts because Zhenhua Data is not the first company to compile records on “high value” foreign individuals nor is the People’s Republic of China the first or only State to (directly or indirectly) engage in this type of data collection.

Less than a decade ago, Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts shared information stored in a vast digital data bank obtained by bulk collection of personal data from US and foreign individuals and groups. Information for actionable intelligence “nuggets” was extracted via data-mining using computer algorithms and, increasingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Although the bulk collection program was later found to be illegal under US law, the practice of data-mining has continued in private and public sectors around the globe. Anyone who uses social media has their personal information stored and analysed by the providers of such platforms, who then sell that data to other firms. For profit-oriented actors, the objective is to tailor product advertising based on consumer preferences and characteristics. For governments the objectives can be security-related or oriented towards more effective public good provision, such as for public health campaigns. The overall intent is to get an actionable read on the subjects of scrutiny.

Added to this is the fact that intelligence agencies have long used network analysis as an intelligence tool, most recently in the fight against violent extremism. The larger purpose of network analysis is to connect dots on a large scale by establishing overt and covert linkages between disparate entities, both individual and collective. There are variations to network analyses, including what are known as “mosaic” and “spiderweb” tracing processes. Uncovering linkages helps futures forecasting because it can identify patterns of connection and behaviour, including funding sources, favours owed, personal ties, foibles and affectations. More recently, bulk collection, data-mining and network analysis have been wedded to facial recognition technologies that provide real-time physical imagery to records compilation efforts. This includes images of people in groups or in public spaces, which can be frame-by-frame analysed in order to help discern hidden or covert interactions between members of suspected networks as well as specific individuals.

None of this is particularly new or particular to the PRC. In fact, it is a routine task for intelligence agencies that is used as a first cut for more targeted scrutiny. Along with the Five Eyes partners, Israel and Russia have been pioneers in this field.

When taken together, open source data-mining coupled with social network analysis using a combination of advanced computer technologies creates a chaff/wheat separation process that allows further specific targeting of individuals for purposes important to the State doing the undertaking. In the case of Zhenhua Data, the list of targets includes those designated as “politically exposed persons” and “special interest persons.” Beyond general knowledge of “high value” individuals, the presumable objective of the exercise is to identify and locate hidden connections and personal/group vulnerabilities that can be leveraged for the benefit of the Chinese State. The application of specific designators provides an early filter in the process, from which more focused signals and human intelligence efforts can be subsequently directed.

Zhenhua Data is not alone in using its private business status as a front for or complement to State intelligence-gathering operations. The US firm Palantir, co-founded by New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel with seed money provided by the CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, specialises in big data analysis, including software-based analytic synergies involving data mining, AI and facial recognition technologies. Palantir has an office near Pipitea House, Headquarters of the GCSB and SIS, and its local clients exclusively reside within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC).

The question, therefore, is whether Zhenhua Data is doing anything different or more insidious than what Palantir does on a regular basis? The answer lies in ideology, geopolitics, values and alliances. In New Zealand Palantir works for the Five Eyes network and local intelligence and security agencies. Its relationship with the spies is hand-in-glove, so it has a Western code of business conduct when dealing with confidential and private information and operates within the legal frameworks governing intelligence-gathering activities in Western democracies. Its orientation is Western-centric, meaning that its geopolitical outlook is driven by the strategic concerns and threat assessments of Western government clients. Although it may have a relationship with the New Zealand Police, it presumably is not involved in bulk-scale intelligence-gathering in New Zealand and what foreign data-mining and network analysis it does should serve the purposes of the New Zealand government. But the fact that Palantir and Five Eyes as a whole engage in mass data-mining and social network analysis is incontrovertible.

Zhenhua Data, in contrast, is believed to be a military-directed technology front. It is seen by Western intelligence agencies as an integral component of Chinese “sharp power” projection whereby so-called “influence operations” are directed at the elites and broader society in targeted countries with the purpose of bending their political, economic and social systems in ways favorable to Chinese interests. For the New Zealand security community, which as part of Western-oriented security networks has identified the PRC as a non-friendly actor in Defense White Papers and Intelligence Annual Reports, Zhenhua Data is not a benign entity and its intent is not good. Numerous academic and political commentators concur with this assessment.

The issue seems to boil down to whether data-collection activities are seen as good or bad depending on who does it, under what circumstances, and where one’s loyalties lie.

In other words, how one sees Zhenhua Data’s data-gathering efforts depends on how one feels about the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), authoritarian rule and China’s move towards achieving Great Power status in world affairs. If one views authoritarians, the PRC, CCP or Chinese foreign policy with suspicion, then the view will be negative. If one perceives them with favour, then the perspective will be positive. Conversely, if one views the activities of the Five Eyes network and partners like Palantir with suspicion, then Zhenhua Data’s list is of little consequence other than as a non-Western equivalent to Palantir and an indicator of possible things to come.

Ultimately that is a matter of values projected onto real world practices. Stripped of the value assessment, Zhenhua Data is doing what it has to do in order for the PRC to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 

Sort of like Palantir, Chinese style.

This essay was originally published in The Spinoff, September 17, 2020.

Why do they do it? A note on the passing of Robert Barros.

datePosted on 11:14, September 8th, 2020 by Pablo

I recently heard that my old friend Robert “Bob” Barros died of cancer in Buenos Aires last month. Bob was part of my graduate student cohort in Political Science at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, and we studied under the same group of neo-Gramscian/analytic Marxist “transitologists” who helped redefine and renovate the study of comparative politics world-wide.

Bob wrote a number of influential works, particularly Constitutionalism and Dictatorship, a study of the Pinochet regime’s attempts to provide a legal mantle to its rule (and aftermath); “Personalization and Institutional Constraints,” on the tension between personalist dictators and their attempts to institutionalise their rule; “On the Outside Looking In” and “Secrecy and Dictatorships,” which addressed the methodological and substantive problems in studying (opaque) authoritarian regimes.

Bob’s work received awards and international recognition. Yet rather than seek the material comfort and security of a tenured position at a US university, he chose to follow his love of the Southern Cone by moving to Argentina to work at a small university there. He eventually found a partner and had a daughter with her. The last time I saw him was in 2017 when my family and I visited my childhood and his adopted home town.

Rather than write an obituary for Bob I thought I would share an anecdote about him and how it reflects on intellectual enterprise and scholastic endeavour. It goes like this:

While in graduate school Bob, I and other students of Latin American society would regularly get together over coffees to ruminate about life in general and politics in particular. The students came from a cross section of disciples–history, sociology, anthropology, political science–all connected by the Centre for Latin American Studies. We shared classes together and that became the basis for many personal and professional friendships that continue to this day.

(As an aside, I never saw such gathering after I arrived to teach at a university in New Zealand. Instead, grad students headed to the campus pub for piss-ups and academic staff met for tea and gossiped in the departmental common room, then retreated to their offices and later homes. There was, in the ten years that I lasted in that environment, no sense of intellectual community that I could discern of, at least in what passed for political studies those days. From what I am told, the contrast between my grad student experience and those of today’s grad students at that NZ university remains the same).

During some of those Chicago Kaffeeklatschs we debated whether the Argentine and Chilean juntas kept records on the atrocities they committed–the number, ages and gender of those detained, tortured, and murdered, the ways in which they were hunted down and disposed of, the types of barbarity to which they were subjected to, the children that were removed from them, etc. By the late 1970s and early 1980s when we got together over coffee there was enough information leaking out of both countries to suggest that the abuses were both systematic and wide-scale, which suggested that given the military bureaucracies involved, records might be kept.

We asked these questions because our collective reading under our common mentors had shown that Nazis, Stalinists and assorted others before them kept records that incriminated them clearly and recorded for all posterity their culpability in committing crimes against humanity. But why would they do so? Why would they not just erase all evidence of their crimes rather than leave a probatory trail that could be followed? Knowing that what they were doing was extreme and that the shadow of the future would determine how their actions would be read by subsequent generations, and knowing that such record-keeping would deny them any possibility of plausible deniability down the road in the event that they did not prevail for all time and thereby get to write the historical narrative as they pleased, we wondered about the authoritarian mindset, the pathological and sociopath motivations, collective versus individual madness and assorted other possible sources for meticulous record-keeping by murderous authoritarians. We then speculated if the Southern Cone dictatorships shared these traits.

As it turns out, those conversations provided me with the basis for doing my own field research on “desaparecidos” (disappeared) in Argentina during the 1976-83 dictatorship, where I worked as a part of a group of human rights organisations trying to determine the fate of hundreds of men, women and children who went missing during those years. I knew that there must be records on them, and sure enough there mostly was. Later on, the questions from those conversations provided me with the primary tools for engaging in leadership analysis work for the US security community. For Bob, it turned into a large research project on authoritarian legal frameworks that became the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation that eventually became the book on Constitutionalism and Dictatorship.

What he discovered is that, apart from grossly backwards forms of personalist rule, the majority of authoritarians feel the need to provide a legal mantle around their behaviour. This is both a way of justifying their actions as well as setting both precedent and parameters for future regimes in terms of potential judicial action as well as justifying their own rule. Whether they believe that their actions are legitimate or not, authoritarians want to give them the appearance of legality. That way, should they ever be prosecuted for, say, human rights violations, they can argue that what they did was justified by law and constitutional precept.

This may seem retrospectively obvious to the casual observer, but Bob provided meticulously-research details of the thinking that goes into creating such legal and institutional edifices.

I will not try to further summarise Bob’s richly detailed works or the many implications and avenues of future research opened by them. I simply would urge readers with an interest in how authoritarians try to legitimate and institutionalise their rule to have a look at his writing.

Que descanses en paz, querido amigo!

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast, episode 7.

datePosted on 13:19, September 6th, 2020 by Pablo

In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.

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