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Media Link: “A View from Afar” on PRC-Taiwan tensions.

datePosted on 14:50, October 14th, 2021 by Pablo

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the upsurge in tensions between the PRC and Taiwan and what are the backgrounds to and implications of them. You can check the conversation out here.

In the years that followed the post 9/11 US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I wrote several essays about how, wittingly or wittingly, Osama bin Laden had successfully employed the well-known guerrilla tactic known as the “sucker ploy” on a grand scale. The sucker ploy is a tactic by which guerrillas commit an outrage or stage a provocation of some sort that draws a disproportionate response from the military that they are fighting, thereby shifting popular support from the latter to the former. A classic example is for guerrillas to shoot at passing military vehicles or aircraft with small arms fire from a village, then retreat into the surrounding countryside while the military responds by annihilating the village and its occupants. 

When the US stayed in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted from government and al-Qaeda was eliminated from its territory (end of 2002), and then invaded and occupied Iraq under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda and was going to use weapons of mass destruction on the West or allow al-Qaeda to do so, it took the sucker’s bait. It embarked on a global “war on terrorism” that saw the US and others expend much blood and treasure in places like the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Libya, Mesopotamia down to Mali, Kenya and many more places in between and beyond, stretching to Europe and Australasia. The US expended trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on these “forever” or “endless” wars, feeding a relentless military-industrial complex while spinning off the militarisation of US policing and some sectors of civil society that is creating the conditions for civil war, hints of which have already been seen over the last couple of years.

Whatever goodwill existed towards the US in the immediate wake of 9/11, it gradually dissipated as a result of US foreign policy recklessness and arrogance over the next twenty years. Yet partisan logics of saving face by “staying the course” or, if that is not enough, patriotically respecting the sunk costs invested rather than simply “cutting and running” locked the US into continuing the folly of pursuing forever wars in far-off places with little strategic value or which posed no existential risk to the country. Those wars have not resulted in any significant change favorable to the geopolitical position of US but have contributed to the polarisation of its internal politics.

Meanwhile US adversaries like the PRC and Russia built and rebuilt their military forces into peer competitors of the US and expanded their spheres of influence. Mostly as a result of US bungling, Russia is now the most important extra-regional power in the Levant and North Africa and is poised, however ironically, to become a major interlocutor between the Taliban and the global community. Chinese economic and diplomatic influence is world-wide in scope and its aggressive military presence is now a constant in East and Southeast Asia as well as along its land borders. Other actors such as North Korea, Iran and Turkey have been emboldened by perceived US weakness while traditional US allies fret about the stability of the international order without its central presence as a stabilizing force.

The Great Satan has seemingly turned into a Paper Tiger.

It gets worse. Across the world authoritarianism has replaced democracy as the dominant political form. Rather than embrace democracy as an antidote to the hatreds that produced 9/11, autocrats of all types have taken advantage of the post 9/11 moment to impose their rule. In another irony, this includes the US, which nurtured the conditions that led to the election of a bigoted sociopathic narcissist to the presidency and the unleashing of long pent-up hatreds within the body politic. “America First” in reality means “America in Retreat” into neo-isolationism and xenophobic defenses of borders, Anglo-Saxon Christians within those borders, economic nationalism and, when it comes to foreign relations, coddling of foreign dictators who shared the former president’s biases and/or his transactional view of how politics should be conducted. The Obama interregnum notwithstanding (and even he seriously compromised on the original idealism of his foreign policy perspective, which won him a Nobel Prize), the US continued to cast a blind eye on the misdeeds of “friendly” dictatorships like the Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis or Emiratis while barking about those in Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela (and even there, with relatively little bite).

US political/diplomatic leadership is on the wane at home and abroad. The truth is inescapable: since 9/11 the US has been in decline, for the most part due to its own ignorance and excesses.

Needless to say, there were other intervening factors and variables that contributed to the slow-moving, partial success of bin-Laden’s strategy. Sure, he was not around to see it come to fruition. Sure, there has not been a global awakening of Islamicism that threatens the socio-economic and political parameters of most established nation-states. Wahhabism and Salafism are not the dominant sects in the Muslim world. So bin-Laden’s strategy failed in that it did not produce the specific results that he desired. But 9/11 did set into action a chain of events that has left the international community very different that what was before, with the US diminished and divided and no longer the undisputed global “hegemon.” That must be acknowledged.

A key result of this decline is the collapse of the concept of liberal internationalism as a guiding foreign policy principle in the US. This principle, which long enjoyed bipartisan support in US foreign policy circles and which is premised on the notion that the combination of market economies and democratic governance is the best political-economic form (regime), was thought to be imposable by external actors—meaning the US and its democratic capitalist allies—on unstable or failed underdeveloped states where extremism was believed to breed and prosper. From that belief came the pursuit of nation-building and regime change as foreign policy objectives, even if the targets of such ambition had no history with democracy, maintained pre-modern economic, cultural and social structures in which notions of consent and compromise (two hallmarks of all democratic social interaction) were absent, and were ill-disposed to have an occupying force impose anything on them other than temporary physical security and material aid.

The futility of military and civilian “capacity-building” in such contexts is summed up by an essay written by a former US Army Green Beret about his time in Afghanistan titled “Throwing Rocks at a Fire.” The essay recounts the story of a fire in an Afghan commando barracks at an outpost outside the capital. The fire was started by a gas burner used to make morning tea, which was set on the floor of the barracks and surrounded by blankets pulled from beds for the commandos to sit on (the preferred to have their tea on the floor rather than on tables when inside due to the cold weather, much as they did in their home villages). One of them inadvertently knocked the gas burner over, which set fire to a blanket. Rather than smother the fire with dirt or water or toss the burner out a window or door, the commandos–the best of the best Afghan soldiers–threw more loose blankets on the fire, which then rapidly spread to the barracks beds and wooden floor and walls (which unlike village huts, were not made from earthen and clay materials). They then ran out of the building. When the SF trooper arrived, he found the commandos throwing rocks at the fire through the front door of the now fully engaged building. It burnt to the ground.

Rather than chalk it up to the actions of ignorant primitives, my reading is that for the Green Beret the moral of the story was the futility of attempting to impose modernity, to include modern concepts of rationality and logic, on deeply rooted pre-modern cultures and societies that were uninterested in the social aspects of so-called modern democratic living. Learning to fight better with modern weapons was one thing, but re-learning basic forms of social engagement was quite another. Their traditions worked fine for them and imposition of other forms of social organization only complicated things and turned out bad in the end. In hindsight, the Green Beret came to understand their view, but by then he was physically, psychologically, occupationally and temporally far away from that outpost.

As it turns out, for all the lip service paid to promoting democracy, the world is now governed by more authoritarians that democrats, and many of the places in which authoritarianism has flourished are those in which the US intervened the most heavily. As for the promotion of market economics, the major consequence has been greater global income inequality within a context of increased concentration of commodity production, demand and exchange. Contrary to what its adherents and proponents claim, market capitalism does not lead to a “rising tide raising all boats” phenomenon and trickle down (supply side) economics does not lead to a watering of the seeds of a budding middle class emerging out of poverty world-wide. Instead, it has baked in a socio-economic landscape of structural disparity and deprivation juxtaposed against and subordinate to a parallel world of opulence and waste.

In sum, there is very little that is politically or economically “liberal” about the world today.

More can be added to this litany of unhappiness but for the moment the point is this: the era of liberal internationalism has come to an end as both a practical objective and a foreign policy theory. It remains to be seen what will emerge in its stead once the repercussions of the pandemic and US decline fully filter throughout the global community. But therein lies a basis for hope, because in a multipolar world in which no one actor can impose its vision of the “proper” order of things and yet the need for international cooperation is more apparent than ever, perhaps the makings of more equitable and balanced global society can be made organically rather than by imposition even in the face of cultural and social difference.

The price of neo-imperialist hubris.

datePosted on 14:21, August 15th, 2021 by Pablo

One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.

The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.

The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.

That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.

That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.

Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.

The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.

In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.

Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”

In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.

The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”

Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.

The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.

This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.

All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?

As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.

The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.

In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?

This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.

Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.

At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.

This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.

Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.

In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.

In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.

What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).

This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.

Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/

A note on the “jihadi bride.”

datePosted on 14:40, July 28th, 2021 by Pablo

I ruffled a few feathers by referring to Gerry Brownlee as a “buffoon” during a radio interview this week. The subject in question was the involuntary repatriation of Suharya Aden and her children to NZ after Australia cancelled her citizenship. Brownlee was blathering about her being a terrorist security threat, how she jumped the que ahead of deserving Kiwis in the MIQ line and how the government needed to be more transparent about the process under which Ms. Aden was to be returned and administered. He said that NZ should adopt citizenship-stripping laws like those in Australia so as to prevent the likes of MS. Aden returning voluntarily or otherwise.

Truth be told, what I really wanted to say but could not because of time constraints was that Mr. Brownlee was/is a “racist dog-whistling, grasping-at-straws-on-the-security-angle tool.” I say so because Brownlee is the guy who ran the Christchurch earthquake “relief” efforts and sent private investigators to spy on insurance claimants and residents asking for help; who said that there were no white supremacists in Christchurch after the March 15 attacks; who hinted at dark conspiracy theories about Covid during the 2020 election; who railed about refugees during debate about the Control Order Bill last year when the Bill was strictly about returning Kiwis suspected to be involved in foreign conflicts. He was part of a government that regularly hid, misled or deliberately lied to the public on a number of issues, including those involving national security. He was an atrocious Defence Minister, more interested in junkets than full metal jackets, and a piss-poor Foreign Minister (among other failures) who was every diplomatic reception’s worst nightmare. He is long past his expiry date as a politician, so being a public buffoon is a step up. If you wish you can call him a tool, but either way, Pablo don’t suffer the fool.

As part of the debate on the Control Orders Bill (now Act) Brownlee knows that Control Orders come into effect once a person is on NZ soil and that invocation of the Act automatically triggers suppression orders on the name and case details of the person(s) targeted by the Act. His claims for more “transparency” about Ms. Aden’s case in progress are therefore disingenuous at best. Also, as a former Defence Minister, he should know something about operational and information security, so demanding to know how/when she is being returned is also a cynical ploy.

In any event enough about him. For the sake of clarity, let me outline some facts about Ms. Aden’s case, but without breeching any secrecy protocols.

Suhayra Aden was born in Mt. Roskill in 1995 of Somali refugee parents. At age six her family moved to Australia, settling in Melbourne, and took Australian citizenship. Her family is still there. in 2014, at age 19, she travelled to Turkey and from there was smuggled into Syria in order to become a so-called “jihadi bride.” How and why she became radicalised in Australia is not publicly known but likely to be known to Australian authorities. She may have been radicalised on-line. She may have been subjected to family or peer pressure. She may just wanted to see the world or get a taste for adventure. She was young, gullible, perhaps manipulable and clearly made some bad decisions. And yet she is still quite young at 26.

Two aspects of the Turkey/Syrian phase of her life are worth noting: First, according to Australian journalists who interviewed her in 2019, that she had second thoughts about the venture once she got to Turkey and tried to call her mother to seek help in escaping. She was unsuccessful and was taken by her minders/smugglers into Syria instead. This raises the possibility that everything that happened to her afterwards was done under duress, without her informed consent. Second, she was not “married” in the traditional Western sense of the word. In the medieval world view of ISIS, women are domestic servants, sex toys and breeders, that is, reproductive vessels of future fighters. They are assigned “husbands” and required to submit to them in every way. They are therefore not so much “wives” as they are domestic servants, sex slaves or, in historical terms, concubines. Concubines have interpersonal and sexual relationships with (often polygamous) men but do not hold the status of “full” wives whether or not there is a “full” wife in the picture. I have been told that my characterisation of Ms. Aden as a concubine or camp follower has been labeled as sexist by some NZ fourth wave feminists, but I suggest that they read a dictionary and get back to me on that one. Remember–it is ISIS that is medieval when it comes to gender roles, not me.

In Ms. Aden’s case, she had two “husbands,” one or both of them apparently Swedish (I have read conflicting reports on this). Both were killed in Syria, presumably fighting Western or Assad’s forces. She had three children with these men, one of whom died at an infant or toddler age of pneumonia. In 2019 she fled to the Al-Hawl refugee camp in northwestern Syria. That means that during the four years (2015-2019) she was actually in Syria, she was pregnant for 27 months of that time (2 years and 3 months). She presumably nursed her infants concurrently with and after those pregnancies. Along with the gender role assignation described above, that strongly suggests that she was not an ISIS fighter and therefore is unlikely to have been involved in committing atrocities even if her husbands were. And even if she was or knew about such things, the fact that she was likely acting against her will from the onset mitigates against accusations that she was actively engaged in terrorism. Evidence to the contrary, labelling her as a “terrorist” therefore seems to me to be smear of the most vile sort, something that many corporate and social media outlets, Gerry Brownlee and Judith Collins have all done.

In February 2021 Ms. Aden and her surviving children were caught by Turkish border authorities while attempting to cross into that country from Syria. At the time Turkish officials called her a “terrorist” but after questioning about evidence to that effect they dropped the claims. Instead, the narrative changed to her fleeing Al-Hawl in order to escape ISIS. Unlike the Kiwi “bumbling jihadist” Mark Taylor, who is in Kurdish custody, the Turkish authorities are keen to have Ms. Aden and her children deported. Lucky for her and unlucky for him, NZ feels obliged to help with that process. But how did NZ come to be involved?

In the 2019 interview with Australian journalists conducted at Al-Hawl, Ms. Aden expressed a desire to return to Australia. After the interview was made public, in early 2020 the Morrison government stripped her of her Australian citizenship under section 35 or the 2007 Australian Citizenship Act, amended in 2015 (after she had left Australia). The 2015 amendment to the 2007 Act stated that citizenship could be revoked because of “conduct inconsistent with allegiance to Australia,” although what constituted “inconsistent conduct” is not specified. What this means is that when Ms. Aden left for the fighting fields of Syria in 2014 she was doing nothing illegal, and that both the 2015 amendment to the ACT and the 2020 revocation of her citizenship were applied retroactively without due legal process or recourse.

In fact, sometime during the interim between her departure from Australia and arrest in Turkey, Australia requested that INTERPOL, the international police consortium, issue a “Blue Notice” on Ms. Aden. Unlike “Red Notices,” which are arrest warrants based on criminal charges, “Blue Notices ” are requests for information about persons of interest to the requesting party, such as missing persons. Louisa Akavi, the Kiwi nurse kidnapped and held hostage by ISIS, is also the subject of an INTERPOL Blue Notice. She is not only welcome home–she is wanted home by her whanau. Ms. Aden may also have family support in Melbourne but her country of choice has turned its back on her and her children. In NZ she has no such support and yet, as a citizen, her right of return is the same as Ms. Akavi. Therein lies the dilemma.

The Australians not only issued Ms. Aden’s non-criminal request for information to INTERPOL (how could they issue a criminal warrant since she had not committed any crime before and when she left Australia?), but they nevertheless went ahead and stripped her of her adopted citizenship after the fact based on assumptions about her agency and volition when it came to personal associations, travel and residence. Unlike the “bumbling jihadi,” she is not seen on tape calling for jihad and denouncing her home (Crusader) country. But they have called her a terrorist nonetheless.

That left NZ no other option but to return her and her children back to NZ, following international law and practice (which states that citizenship cannot be stripped from natural-born subjects and that States must recognise and assume responsibility for their subjects when asked to do so by foreign powers). Ms. Aden is a native born Kiwi and her children assumed citizenship by birthright. They have no other place to go now that Australia has rejected them. Should NZ adopt an Australian approach, as Brownlee and Collins suggest, then they would be left stateless and bereft. I would argue that whatever the sins of the mother, vesting them upon the children is a grotesquely callous act unbefitting a liberal democracy. As an international good actor and as a civilised society NZ has to make the best of a bad thing by offering them repatriation. Thankfully that is about to happen.

When Ms. Aden and her kids arrive in NZ it is likely that she will be the first person subjected to the Control Orders Act. As mentioned, that involves suppression of her name and details of her case. What is known is that the Act prescribes restrictions on her freedom of movement, communication and association. She will be monitored by security agencies and supervised by social welfare agencies, including psychological counselling services. This management program may even involve electronic bracelet usage (again, details of what is involved will likely be subject to suppression orders). She may be granted permission to engage with local civil society organisations specialised in the treatment of refugees from conflict zones and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. She and the children may receive new identities so that they can better lead “normal” and productive lives.

The need for those sort of extreme privacy measures is due to the dual nature of the security concerns involved. On the one hand, NZ security authorities must be vigilant that she pose no risk to NZ society. Were she in any way to encourage extremism in any forum or venue, she would likely be charged and prosecuted accordingly (perhaps even under proposed hate speech legislation, if not the Terrorism Suppression Act). The good news is that data from Europe suggests that returning “jihadi brides” statistically have a near-zero chance of continuing their support for Islamic extremism. Perhaps it is the traumas that they suffered, the trials that they endured, the tribulations that they encountered or the travails of their existence in war zones, but the likelihood of their returning to jihadism is very remote at best.

On the other hand, Ms. Aden and her family need to be protected from harm themselves. There are many Islamophobes in NZ who wish her (and her children) ill or worse. Some have vented in social media abut their desire to do her harm, so the threats must be taken seriously. That poses problems for the Police if her address, name or locations of schools, mosques and social service organisations that she frequents are made public. Given that there are innocent children involved, the authorities must be proactive on their behalf.

In the end, the NZ government has to make the most of a difficult situation and appears to be doing so, barking from the Opposition notwithstanding. It will be for Ms. Aden to make the most of her second (or third) chance in life, if not for herself then for the future of her children. The Opposition would be wise to cease and desist trying to score political points on the matter, less they find themselves confronted by a similar dilemma in the future when in government.

Most of all, it is time for the buffoonery to stop.

Values, interests and security.

datePosted on 15:19, June 27th, 2021 by Pablo

I recently attended a discussion about NZ national security that revolved around the relationship between core national values, national interests and national security. That was unusual because, while the interests-security nexus is well-established as an axiom of international relations (“nations have interests, not friends;” “States defend the national interest”), the role of values in defining national interests, and hence national security perspectives and priorities, is much less common. For foreign policy analysts values are problematic because they are subjective: one nation may value something as a priority that another nation does not. The anarchic “state of nature” that Hobbes said was the foundation of international relations is grounded in the absence of shared universal values, on the one hand, and the absence of a superordinate imposition and enforcement entity (the Leviathan) on the other. Moreover, adding values to foreign policy and national security policy-making can bring emotion to what otherwise should be an objective, dispassionate and rational process of assessment and implementation. Even basic costs/benefits analysis struggle when burdened by the weight of values, so for most foreign and security policy makers it is best to avoid adding value judgement to strategic outlooks.

It was therefore interesting to consider values, interests and security as component parts of a whole rather than as distinct albeit related issues. It was also interesting to try and address specific questions that flowed from that holistic conceptualisation, which essentially is premised on the belief that national security is in large part defined by national interests, which in turn are at least in part determined by core values.

Values<——->Interests<——->Security

So what are NZ’s core values and interests? Can they be and if so how are they incorporated into the concept of “national security?” Should values even factor into security policy?

More specifically, given the fact that NZ’s threat environment is increasingly “intermestic” or “glocal” in nature (where the line between domestic and international, local and global threats are blurred), should national security be considered in a holistic sense that covers non-traditional (aka human) security concerns (climate change, pandemics) that overlap domestic and foreign boundaries but distinguish between existential and peripheral dangers (as opposed to a stricter foreign versus domestic, physical versus non-physical threat dichotomy)? Should “threats” be classified according to their impact on core values as well as interests (since by definition threats are determined by the danger that they pose to strategic interests)? If so and again, what are NZ’s “core” values and interests? Are they distinguishable from each other? Should we separate values from interests in principle or when assessing and responding to threats (as realist international relations theory would have us do)? Or do we prioritise values when determining interests, and hence threats, in some instances but not others?

As a start, we can divide values and interests into what might be called “generic” and “specific” categories. Generic values and interests are those shared by all political communities regardless of geopolitical orientation, ideological persuasion or regime type. These are social peace and economic stability, physical security and territorial integrity. How these are achieved are defined by specific core values: ethno-religious, cultural-historical, secular humanist or born of other ideological conceptualisations of the proper order of things.

Think of the debate between “Asian” and “Western” values that animated discussions about political development at the turn of the past century and which continue to this day. The argument distills into the relative value placed on order versus voice: Asians are claimed to value social order and stability over representation and equality, which are supposedly the preferred values of the West. Needless to say this vulgarises the perspectives of both sides but the point is that values are different because they are subjective and they are subjective because they are culturally grounded.

This is the heart of the “clash of civilisations” thesis. The clash is one of competing value systems. For some countries, preservation of racial or ethnic heritage is a core value. For others it is maintenance of a particular social hierarchy involving a distinctive social division of labour rooted in an ideologically defined conceptualisation of the “proper” society, say, Christian heteronormative patriarchy. Some countries put a premium on their forms of governance or foundational myths. Some place value on individual and collective liberties while others reify social harmony and consensus. The list of specific values is long and broad, and when they come into contact and are juxtaposed, conflict is possible and then security is threatened.

But if national values are different and in conflict, does that means that core interests are at stake? Realists would say no and separate values from interests in security policy formation. Idealists will say yes and mesh values into the definition of national interests and security. Constructivists advocate for the building of supranational institutions that merge national interests (say, via rules-based trade networks) in ways conducive to value harmonization. Organizations like the WTO and WHO were founded on such assumptions but recent history has shown that they were and are wrong, perhaps because they do not account for different value structures, especially if these involve quests for power in pursuit of geopolitical strategies resultant from desires to maintain or achieve international dominance.

In any event, values must be considered when contemplating what is known as the “Second Image:” the domestic determinants of foreign policy (the First Image is the international system as presented to a State actor). Although obvious for understanding comparative foreign policy and strategic perspectives, the question remains whether core values define interests and therefore determine national security perspectives and requirements. A country with a history of violent secession, social division, civil war or imperial subjugation is likely to have a value structure that sees the world through a different lens than a country with homogenous demographics marked by social, economic and political consensus–if indeed the former can see the world through a unified lens. The larger question is whether the Second Image (domestic) factors influencing foreign and national security policy need to be left “at the door” when stepping through the transom into the First Image environment, or whether they can be successfully carried through the transition from the domestic into international space.

Returning to the discussion that I attended. what might be core values that influence interests and security in a small island liberal democracy like New Zealand? Democracy as a social (as opposed to strictly political) construct? Market Capitalism? Welfare statism? Free Trade? Equal rights for all? Freedom of belief and expression? Toleration of difference? Minority representation and voice? Universal suffrage? Governmental transparency and accountability? Where do Maori values, if distinct from those of Pakeha, come in, and if at least some of these are considered to be “core” values, how do they relate to interests and national security?

Given NZ’s colonial and post-colonial history, the question is not straight-forward. It is even harder to answer in larger democracies. For all its pontificating about democracy and freedom at home and abroad, the US has a historical record when it comes to interests and security that belies the often hypocritical hollowness of those words. For all the talk about égalité and fraternité, France has a less than stellar record when it comes to incorporating such values in its approach to the interest-security nexus. The UK–same. And dare we mention Australia?

Then there are the values of other democracies such as the Nordic tier. Do they incorporate values into their definitions of national interest and security? What about assorted authoritarian controlled countries, many of whom have little or no experience with democratic norms and values at the political much less social or economic levels. What might their core values be and do they factor into the construction of national interest and security?

That is why working values into the interests-security nexus is complicated and often problematic. But it is also important for understanding what goes into different foreign and security policy perspectives.

I would be interested to hear from readers on this matter. My interest is two-fold: 1) whether they can be defined and if so what are core values and interests in NZ? and, if they exist, 2) whether those values should be incorporated into conceptualisations of NZ national interests and national security perspectives?

What is certain is that the values-interests-security cloth is a complex weave.

I have not had much time to blog in recent weeks but continue the weekly series of podcasts with Selwyn Manning. This week we discussed efforts to develop a comprehensive national security strategy for New Zealand that goes beyond Defense White Papers and annual reports from various security agencies, then turned to recent elections in South America as an indicator that neoliberalism is well and truly dead as an economic policy approach and, perhaps more importantly, as a social theory. You can find the episode here.

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I work through some of the under-examined aspects of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stakes involved in Samoa’s disputed political transition. You can find it here.

In Samoa, a fight for democracy.

datePosted on 14:19, May 24th, 2021 by Pablo

New Zealand coverage of the attempt to overturn the results of Samoa’s national elections in April, when the opposition FAST Party won a one seat majority in parliament thanks to support from an independent MP, has largely been mindlessly anodyne. Take for example the unfortunate choice of words in the RNZ report (re-published in the NZ Herald) on the contested election: “the FAST party of Fiame Naomi Mataafa was expected to secure a majority of seats, overthrowing the long-ruling Human Rights Protection Party and making Fiame Samoa’s first female prime minister.”

There is no “overthrowing” going on in Samoa, at least not by FAST. That would be a coup, putsch or “golpe,” and that would involve a violent blocking of the constitutionally legitimate and electorally validated political succession process.

Instead, what has happened so far is a (yet unfinished)) constitutional and therefore legal rotation or succession in elected government between the defeated incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi and the victorious former opposition, a splinter break-off from the long ruling government of Mr. Malielegaoi (the irony of the party name will be ignored here). After dominating Samoan politics since 1982 and with the last 23 years in power in its present form (where it continuously placed legal obstacles to the formation of competing political parties), the HRPP and PM Malielegaoi are a lame duck caretaker administration until the new parliament is convened and the FAST government installed. After a series of legal challenges by HRPP involving a provision that 10 percent of parliament be female (which would mean adding one more appointed female seat to parliament and create a 26-26 MP deadlock that forces a new election), the Supreme Court ruled in favour of opposition that no new seat need be created and validated the results of the April 9 polls, opening the way for the sitting of a new parliament no more than 45 days after the election. That was to happen today.

Instead, the Malielegaoi government has blocked the move to sit a new parliament as per the Court’s order.

This is a troublesome move. Blocking rotation in government after a legitimate election is a very real attempt to overthrow the voter’s mandate. On Saturday Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi, the Head of State appointed by the Malielegaoi government in 2017, declared that parliament would not re-open today. He stated the reasons for his decision would be given “in due course” and left Apia for his home village several hours drive away. On Sunday the Samoan Supreme Court heard an emergency challenge to the Head of State’s proclamation and found it to be unlawful. The Samoan Attorney General, representing the caretaker administration, walked out on the proceedings. Because it was held on a Sunday, PM Malielegaoi claimed that it contravened “God’s will” and was therefore illegal (there is no constitutional provision against holding court hearings on Sundays). The Supreme Court rejected the accusations of irregularity and reiterated that the new parliament should be seated on the basis of the April 9 results. Instead, the Speaker of the House, a member of the HRPP, shuttered the doors of the Maota Fono, claiming that he follows the orders of the Head of State, not the Supreme Court. Coincidentally or not, the website for the Samoan Observer, the country’s main media outlet, has gone off-line. The stage is set for an authoritarian usurpation.

To be clear: political democracy is based on the principle that election losers accept adverse results in exchange for getting to compete again at pre-set intervals under fair conditions. Rotation in government is considered to be an intrinsic part of democratic governance and intrinsically good because it allows opposition parties to learn how to govern and allows former government parties to refresh and gain perspective when in opposition, all while vying for electorate support. That competitive pressure is considered to be what keeps the political process healthy if not entirely honest. 

In other words, either one accepts the principle of the honest loss or one is anti-democratic. The April elections were honest and the HRPP lost–by a very small margin, but it lost nevertheless. Hence, for the HRPP the choice today is to be democratic or dictatorial. Unhappily, what is appears to be going on in Samoa is not an attempted coup by the FAST party after its victories in the April election and in the Supreme Court. Instead, it is a variation on an (attempted) “constitutional” coup carried out by the defeated HRPP.

That brings up the issue of force and outside intervention. The Samoan Police have surrounded the parliament grounds (where FAST are staging a sit-in), but it remains unclear as to who they are are loyal to. Perhaps under the circumstances we should be thankful that Samoa does not have a military. But if the Police are loyal to the Head of State (who is a former police officer as well as an ordained minister) rather than the Samoan Constitution, then the authoritarian “auto-coup” could be successful.

There is more. Under the terms of the 1962 Friendship Treaty signed between Samoa and New Zealand, NZ is duty-bound to come to Samoa’s aid in a time of crisis. As unpalatable that may be given NZ’s history with Samoa and however unforeseen this particular crisis may be, it falls within the scope of the Treaty. But its invocation depends on an official request from Samoa so the issue is who has the legal right to issue that request should they deem it necessary to do so.

Given the circumstances, a legal request can only come from the legitimately elected government that has Samoan Supreme Court sanction. That would be a FAST-led coalition. But it runs the risk of provoking large scale unrest between political factions if the Samoan Police side with HRPP and people decide to take matters into their own hands with street violence. That then raises the question of the nature of any NZ intervention if the Friendship Treaty is invoked. Given NZ-Samoan history, a minimal amount of force should be used, with the NZDF (if need be) only used in a support role for NZ Police intervention units.

Most importantly (and pressingly), diplomacy can avoid invocation of the Treaty and thereby help avert intervention. MFAT needs to be on the case now because it is quite possible that other foreign actors with vested interests in Samoa seize the opportunity to extend their influence in it by favouring one side or another in the impasse. So diplomatic urgency is required for three compelling reasons: 1) to avoid invocation of the Friendship Treaty as a means of resolving a political dispute; 2) to preserve Samoan democracy in the face of authoritarian resistance from within; and 3) to prevent extra-regional (and non-democratic) actors to influence how the political process plays out.

The Samoan diaspora can help in this regard by signalling support for democracy. Although Samoan expats cannot vote in their home elections (thanks to Tess Newton Cain for the head’s up), it would be helpful if expats voiced support for the political system rather than a partisan preference given a contentious outcome. That could assist in easing partisan and social conflict in their homeland.

At the end of today the new FAST majority was sworn into office by the Supreme Court in the Supreme Court building rather than parliament because they were locked out of the Folo by the Clerk and Speaker of the House, both HRPP minions. The farce–some say typical of recent Samoan politics– is now about symbolism rather than the substance of political change, as if the location of the investiture ceremony and who gets to sit where when it comes to exercising governmental authority matters for the exercise of elected sovereign power. To his credit, the sitting Police Commissioner has taken an agnostic stance about the political shenanigans and seems disposed to adhere to constitutional edicts and respect for the rule of law. If that is the case, no foreign intervention is necessary and Samoan bureaucrats do not need to look to a particular building for their instructions when it comes to the continuity of State business. All that is needed now for a peaceful transition that reaffirms Samoans commitment to democracy is for foreign governments to recognize the realty of the situation. Word to the wise: It is all over but the HRPP shouting, and the sooner that they shut up or are ignored, the better for Samoa things will be.

As is often said: time to move on. The next days will tell if Samoa takes a political step forward or backwards. Best then, to illuminate and encourage the path ahead.

Between appeasement and confrontation.

datePosted on 16:00, May 14th, 2021 by Pablo

The worm has turned when it comes to the relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the West. Something has happened to sour the relationship beyond repair, and the strains are not limited to US-PRC, Australian-PRC or UK-PRC bilateral relations. Other countries, notably in the EU and Southeast Asia and including traditional rival India, have replaced two decades of offering warmth and goodwill with increasingly frosty and suspicious attitudes towards the PRC. That seems to be due to a combination of PRC militarism and belligerence in places like the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Line of Control in the Himalayas separating it from India, but also as a result of Chinese sharp power influence operations in liberal democracies, its coercive trade diplomacy, ongoing Chinese cyber espionage, cyber theft and cyber warfare campaigns launched against a swathe of countries (including New Zealand), its dollar and debt diplomacy in Africa and South America where debt for equity swaps are accompanied by the colonisation by Chinese labor of critical infrastructure sites in countries lacking the resources to undertake large scale projects like port modernisation or power generation, and the adoption of “wolf warrior” diplomacy where insults and bullying have become mainstays of PRC diplomatic discourse, particularly but not limited to the issue of human rights and adherence to international norms.

With regards to the latter, in some cases Chinese behaviour is so egregious, such as stationing hundreds of fishing boats outside the marine reserve surrounding the Galapagos Islands or off the southeastern and southwestern coasts of South America and Southern Africa, often using the cover of night to poach in the Exclusive Economic Zones (when not territorial waters) of various countries, that countries otherwise prone to welcome the PRC as an antidote to traditional US or colonial power dominance have started to review their positions with regards to it.

The faith once placed in incorporating the PRC as a good global citizen into the community of advanced nations by admitting it into international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and giving it leadership roles in others like the World Health Organisation and various UN agencies has not yielded the results that were hoped for. Instead, the errors of so-called modernisation theorists of the 1950s were repeated: rather than encouraging Chinese democracy by exposing it to “Western” values and helping expand its middle class on the back of increased international trade opportunities and the corresponding rise in material opportunities associated with it–something that was thought would lead to a better appreciation by and reproduction of democratic values by those emerging middle classes who would grow to see democracy as the political equivalent of the “free” economic market–under Xi Jinping the PRC has become more authoritarian, more state capitalist, more territorially expansionist, more normatively untrustworthy and more militarily bellicose. Instead of a global good citizen, it is now increasingly seen in the West as a very large bully on the world stage.

This does not absolve the US and various colonial powers of their histories. But it points to the fact that the thirty year period of relative inter-state peace after the end of the Cold War is coming to its conclusion. What lies ahead is unknown but it is likely to be marked by conflict of one sort or another or a combination thereof. The strategic postures of the US, UK, France and Australia all now explicitly identify the PRC as the primary military “peer competitor” (i.e. the enemy) that they must prepare to fight. Even NZ’s defense posture has shifted from unconventional warfare scenarios against irregular non-state actors to involvement in interstate conflicts (although the focus on peacekeeping operations remains). Reflected in defense procurement programs over the next ten years, the shift in war planning is answered by Chinese redoubling of its efforts to expand its fleet and improve the sophistication and size of its land and air-based forces. It also has renewed its bilateral military ties with Russia and courted the alliance of a variety of strategically important authoritarians regimes such as Iran and Turkey. It seems that it is only a matter of time before either by miscalculation, misperception or misadventure it will be involved in an armed engagement with a Western or Western-backed adversary, at which point the escalatory and expansionist potential of such conflict is limited only by the threat of nuclear war.

This puts small states like NZ between a rock and hard place. The diplomatic pressure is being felt in Wellington and Nanaia Mahuta’s speech to the China and New Zealand Business Council reflected the attempts to massage the stresses now apparent in its relationship with the PRC. The question is whether NZ can continue to employ its “softly-softly” approach in the face of the Western turn against the PRC and the latter’s increasingly acerbic responses to criticism of its actions at home and abroad. There can be little doubt that at this juncture if push comes to shove NZ will side with the West as a matter of values and principle. It has signalled as much and, with its commitment to diversifying its trade relations outside of the bilateral ties with the PRC, is setting the pragmatic grounds for doing so even if the short term costs of any deterioration in the relationship with the PRC proves onerous and wide-spread throughout the economy. But so long as the quarrel between Great Powers is limited to podiums and pens, then NZ can hope to finesse the contradictions in its strategic posture.

The answer on how to do so may lay in thinking of NZ’s position in the face of the US/West-PRC rivalry as a strategic balancing act in which the fixed points are appeasement versus confrontation and the slackline between the two is cooperation. The key is to find an equilibrium point along that line given specific issues and changing circumstances. There is plenty of common ground for NZ to serve as a honest broker and fair interlocutor when it comes to PRC-West relations even as it reaffirms its commitment to Western liberal values. Pragmatism and principle will undoubtably factor into the centre of gravity upon which to balance NZ foreign policy in that regard. The goal is to be nimble when demonstrating a desire to cooperate on selected issues given the competing demands by trade and security partners to appease or confront each other. Sometimes the equilibrium point may be closer to the PRC position, sometimes it will tilt in favour of the Western stance. They key to success lies in refraining from entering into broadly binding agreements or commitments and to adopt an issue-by-issue, case by case approach that serves to insulate any particular bilateral decision from the larger geopolitical struggles surrounding it.

That may turn out to not be feasible if the contending Great states do not accept NZ’s “siloed” approach and will not be a permanent foreign policy solution given the apparent inevitability of a Great Power stand-off in the medium term future. But it provides a means of finding the optimal equilibrium point on the diplomatic slackline that is NZs transitional position vis a vis China and the West until the new multipolar world system is firmly established.

Principled, pragmatic or expedient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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