Archive for ‘foreign policy’ Category

Blog Link: National Cuts and Runs.

datePosted on 13:23, July 24th, 2010 by Pablo

Recent events strongly suggest that in spite of its supportive rhetoric, National is planning to withdraw the NZDF commitment to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan as early as next year. Rather than just state why it has decided that the fight is no longer worth fighting, National is attempting to mask the decision by saying that it would “consider” continue the NZSAS deployment past March 2011 and that it might slow the NZDF withdrawal from the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team as part of the larger timetable for ISAF troop drawdowns that extends to 2014. But actions speak louder than words and National’s decision to not honour Australia’s request for 50 NZDF personnel to serve as police trainers in Oruzgan Province as replacements for departing Dutch troops is a clear indication that it believes the mission is a failure. So the writing is on the wall.

Whatever the merits of the Western involvement in Afghanistan, this decision sends some interesting signals to allies and disinterested parties alike. I explain my view of the subject in the July 24, 2010 issue of The Listener.

A Diplomatic Dilemma: Kowtow or Confront?

datePosted on 17:53, June 18th, 2010 by Pablo

The manhandling of Green Party leader Russell Norman by Chinese security guards as they escorted a high-level delegation into Parliament raises some thorny questions for the government. Norman was protesting in favour of a free Tibet when his flag was taken from him and he was shoved to the ground. Technically speaking, he was exercising his democratic right to free speech and protest on parliament grounds, so the minute the guards laid hands on him they were guilty of assault. Of course, it remains to be seen if Norman did anything to provoke the guards reaction, such as by rushing at the visiting officials or uttering threats (neither of which appears at this juncture to have happened). Some commentators believe that he deserved what he got because he was being provocative merely by protesting , or because the whole episode was a PR stunt anyway. Even so, if the assault on him was provoked by his holding the flag or shouting “free Tibet”  rather than him posing an immediate physical threat to the delegation, then the guards were in fact violating his rights as well as NZ criminal law and parliamentary protocol. So what is the government to do?

China is now the second largest trading partner of NZ, which has secured the first bilateral free trade agreement between China and a Western country. The National government has worked hard to deepen ties with the PRC, to the point that it is working on the details of a military exchange program with the Asian giant and has not opposed the sale of strategic assets to Chinese consortia. In the past the 5th Labour government has coordinated with visiting Chinese delegations to prevent protesters from getting close to the visitors. There is, in other words, a history of NZ officials working to appease Chinese sensitivities about protest and dissent within a larger context of improving relations between the two countries.

But there has never been a direct confrontation between members of a Chinese entourage and NZ citizens, much less a shoving match between Chinese nationals and an MP inside of parliament itself (as far as I know previous protests by Ron Donald never escalated this far). So a precedent is about to be set. If the NZ Police charge the security guards with assault, or if the government declares them personae non grata and expels them, then NZ runs the risk of having these strengthening ties disrupted by a Chinese diplomatic backlash. Even of short lived or partial, any retaliatory curtailment of trade and investment could end up costing NZ millions of dollars in lost revenue (and the jobs that go with it). But if the Police or government do nothing, then they send the signal that NZ’s commitment to civil rights is secondary to its commitment to trade. Some might see that as kowtowing to an authoritarian one party state in the pursuit of profit. So far the Police have said that they will investigate Norman’s complaint about the incident, but  that does not mean it will result in charges being laid.

One line of argument could be that NZ has to look at the broader and longer-term picture and not jeopardise a relationship that is crucial to NZ’s future prosperity over a trivial incident. A counter-argument is that NZ has more to lose if it abandons its democratic principles in favour of the ethereal promise of cash down the road. One rationale privileges principle over practicality; the other privileges the reverse.

So, what is to be done? What should be Labour and ACT’s responses be (as the majority opposition party and supposed champion of individual rights, respectively)? Should pragmatism triumph over principle, or should principle outweigh economic and diplomatic considerations? Is there a compromise solution in which face is saved all around? Will the Police go through the motions of an investigation but do nothing, and if so, what will National do by way of official follow up?

Less one think that this conundrum could only occur because of the nature of the Chinese, consider this scenario:

A protester attempts to approach US Vice President Biden and/or Secretary of State Clinton at the Beehive entrance in order to deliver a petition demanding closure of Camp X Ray at Guantanamo, or better yet, a summons to the International Court of Justice for complicity in US “war crimes” in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you think the Secret Service response would be, and if the Secret Service agents surrounding the US dignitaries were to react in a physical manner, would the NZ Police or government press charges against them?

Such are the quandaries of being an elf amongst giants.

Hedging uncertainty in times of international flux.

datePosted on 21:32, June 7th, 2010 by Pablo

(Note to readers: this post has been updated as it reflects my deeper engagement with the subject within the confines of a short blog post. It may seem academic but I post it here as a first swipe at an extremely policy-relevant subject).

We are living in an international transitional moment. Transitional moments are the periods of time that occur during the change from one status quo to another. Transitional moments are, by definition, one of flux where outcomes are uncertain. Even if attempts are made to “manage” the transition, the outcome is more likely than not to be different than what was envisioned by the “managers” when the process began. This is as true for national regime change as it is for international regime change. Consider the leadership succession process in North Korea that I mentioned in a previous post–whatever the desires of the contending elites, it is likely that none of them will get exactly what they want. Or consider the post 1990 US attempts to remake the global community in its preferred image. Moreover, most transitional moments are not managed. Instead they happen, punctuated by critical choices (including paths and actions not taken), tipping points and precipitating events, all of which steer an uncertain course to an unknown outcome that cannot be determined apriori. It is only after the fact that the fluid dynamics of the shift from one status quo to another can be discerned.

As such transitional moments are inherently uncertain. What is the best defense against uncertainty? Hedging. Hedging is the practice of keeping one’s options open and balancing strategic choices until such a time as the new status quo is apparent. Hedging is more than fence-straddling, although that is one strategic option. The point is that hedging plays a vital role in transitional moments and has several modalities.

The transitional international system that began its life in 1990 is characterised by three dimensions of change. On an economic level it has seen the shift from state-centred economics to market-driven economics to, most recently as a result of the failure of largely unregulated financial systems,  a move towards increased state oversight of national macroeconomic management within a larger system of international exchange and trade. On the security dimension it has seen a shift from notions of conventional collective security amongst states to multinational cooperative security back to a asymmetric and unconventional collective security between states and non-state actors. On a systemic level it has moved from a bipolar balance of power to a unipolar world to an emerging multipolar balance of power led by the so-called “BRIC” nations and in which US preeminence is being challenged on a number of fronts.

The response to these multidimensional changes has come in the form of broad acceptance of hedging strategies as a nation’s best option. It is largely true of small and medium strength states given the power asymmetries between them and the bigger global players. But large powers also hedge, albeit in different ways than their weaker counterparts. Thus, while the preeminent strategic role of hedging is universal in the transitional international system, its specific modalities differ amongst states depending on the specific attributes, location and power capabilities. What works as a hedging strategy for Peru or South Africa may not be appropriate for Viet Nam or New Zealand. Let me give some examples of the variance using the concept of a “horizontal” Asia as a case sample (“horizontal Asia” refers to a geopolitical view of Asia as extending from the Western Pacific to Western India, south to Australia and New Zealand and North to Siberia).

One hedging strategy is power maximisation and internal (regional) balancing. States seek to maximise their power projection capabilities in order to ward off hostile intent. However, the quest for power maximisation leads to a security dilemma whereby one state’s move to acquire more power (usually by improving its military capabilities) leads neighbouring states to fear its intentions and arm themselves in response. That leads to arms races and the possibility of unanticipated conflicts due to misperception or inadvertent offense, particularly in regions with simmering border disputes and lacking in collective security institutions focused on conflict resolution. That is exactly the case with Southeast Asia at the moment, where most states are spending more than 3 percent of GDP on weapons upgrading amid ongoing territorial conflicts (including in the South China Sea) that have not been mitigated by the presence of multinational forums like ASEAN. In this instance what is individually rational as a hedging response to an uncertain and insecure security environment is collective suboptimal because it increases rather than lessens the possibility of regional conflict.

Another hedging strategy is to engage in hard (re)alingment or bandwagoning with a more powerful state or states (alignment is with one state, bandwagoning is with a number of states on specific issues). The (re) alignment strategy sees weaker states align themselves more firmly with a new or traditional stronger partner, under the assumption that an alliance with a stronger actor will dissuade potential aggressors from pressing the advantage in a regional context. This strategy has been used by Bangladesh, the Phillippines and Indonesia among others. The bandwagoning strategy is designed to combine forces with other like-minded states on given issues such as trade or diplomatic approach as a type of “force multiplier” or megaphone for a specific national interest. Brunei’s approach to trade is an example of the latter.

Then there are hybrid hedging strategies. Countries may develop economic linkages to one state or group of states while pursuing military alignments with others. New Zealand is a case in point in that it has shifted its trading focus to non-Western regions while maintaining (and under National, strengthening) defense and security ties to its traditional patrons in the West (although the priority has shifted from reliance on the UK to reliance on Australia and the US in the first instance). Another hybrid strategy is to go for power maximisation and hard (re) alignment. This is arguably what has happened with Australia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Viet Nam (in the case of alignment with the US) and Burma, Laos and North Korea (in the case of alignment with the PRC).

Another hedging option is to play non-aligned or to engage in issue-balancing (where a nation’s stance on any given issue is driven by immediate strategic priorities rather than broader commitments). This strategy usually can only be played by countries with significant resource bases such as India and Russia today (and indeed, both of these nations are playing the issue-balancing strategy).

A less used by nevertheless feasible hedging option is to place priority on international or regional institution-building in the area of conflict resolution and defense and security relations. By being vehicles of first recourse when it comes to resolving potentially armed disputes, such institutions act as collectively self-limiting agencies. Although much has been said about moving forward on institutionalising regional security-building projects (such as at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue attended by Defense Ministers from the Asia-Pacific region), little concrete work has been done in Asia to date in translating the high-minded words into action.

Great powers such as the PRC and the US also hedge, but on a grander scale. The PRC has expanded its diplomatic and economic reach into Sub-Saharan Africa and the South Pacific as a means of filling the power vacuum left by US disinterest. It has begun to assert a stronger military presence in the Western Pacific region while at the same time trying to gain diplomatic leverage via multilateral fora, particularly in South Asia. Seeing that its hard power has limited utility and generates so-called “blowback,” the US is attempting to use trade negotiations as a strategic wedge against Chinese expansion (primarily via investment) in the Pacific Rim. Current negotiations over expanding the Transpacific Partnership (TPP, which includes Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore) to include Australia, Viet Nam Peru and the US are being used by the US as a strategic hedge rather than out of an interest in trade per se.

Needless to say there are more types of strategic hedging. The larger point is that in times of international transition and uncertainty, hedging becomes the most dominant geo-strategic approach adopted by nation-states as well as many non-state actors. If successful, a hedging strategy may turn into a longer term foreign policy stance, depending on the nature of the emerging international status quo. But successful or not, hedging is an immediate solution to a temporary problem born of the uncertainty of transitional moment.  It is not a long-term strategy of itself.

Like longer term perspectives, hedging strategies may be based on principle, realpolitik or some combination thereof.  However, they may not always result in a more secure geopolitical environment, especially when allies and adversaries see them for what they are and respond in non-cooperative or incongruous ways. Counterpoised hedging strategies can lead to increased rather than diminished conflict, and this is exactly the conundrum of “horizontal” Asia at the  moment. Which is precisely why the role and modalities of hedging during times of international flux need to be understood by policy-makers and the informed public alike.

Does New Zealand have a Strategic Culture?

datePosted on 16:28, May 27th, 2010 by Pablo

Given the pacifist tendencies of many KP readers, the question in the title of this post may seem unusual and of little importance. Little attention has been paid by most public media, much less the Left-leaning ones, to the issue of strategic culture both in general and with specific reference to Aotearoa. My interest in the subject has been sparked by my current book project, where I try to analyse the post Cold War security politics of three “peripheral” democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal. Among other things that I have discovered as part of the project, it appears that there be no, or at least different conceptualisations of, a unique kiwi strategic culture. Let me elaborate on both the subject and the specifics of this.

Strategic culture refers to the security perspectives, traditions, institutions and behaviour of a country. Although it has often been confused with it, strategic culture is more than just a military war-fighting tradition. It is more than a diplomatic posture. It encompasses the full array of security concerns, from intelligence-gathering techniques and priorities to trade orientation and diplomatic alliances, that make up the larger framework with which policy-making elites perceive the strategic environment in which they operate.

As an example of one dimension of strategic culture, let us look at the core feature with which it is most often confused: war-fighting tradition. Much has been written about different cultural and national “styles” of warfare, be it, among others, Arab, American, Australian, British, Chinese, German, French, Israeli or Russian.  Some emphasise mass over maneuver, others prefer tactical flexibility to centralisation of command, and still others prefer deception and stealth across ill-defined fronts rather fixed lines of combat in well-demarcated battle spaces. The array of war-fighting styles also extends to unconventional or guerrilla war-fighting—urban guerrilla warfare is not the same as rural insurgency, nor is the ratio of ideological-psychological work to kinetic operations the same in all contexts. Although there is plenty of overlap in all war-fighting styles, each is a unique adaptation, based on terrain, culture, technology, organisational capacity, leadership characteristics and the ethno-religious and national make-up of the fighting forces involved, as well as the ideologies that justify what they are fighting for.

The question thus begs: does NZ have a distinct war-fighting tradition? If so, what are its characteristics? Whatever the answer, that is only part of the picture.

That is because strategic culture involves geopolitical perspectives and geostrategic orientation, institutional morphology and historical practice. Countries with large land masses and multiple borders see things differently than do island states.  Countries with ample resources and robust economies of scale in value-added manufacturing conform their approaches to trade and security differently than resource poor agro-export platforms. Countries with on-going territorial, cultural or political disputes tend to “see” threats differently than those that are not encumbered by such conflicts. Countries governed by authoritarians often perceive things differently than well-established democracies. So do countries with long histories of warfare (internal as well as external) when contrasted against countries with peaceful internal histories and little involvement in foreign wars.

Domestic political dynamics over time, as well as specific histories of military and diplomatic alliances, also impact on the specifics of strategic culture.  The number of variables is larger and more varied than this, but the point should  be clear: strategic culture is a product of national character molded by historical practice, current political dynamics, institutional framework and geopolitical context.

In highly simplified fashion the equation looks like this: strategic culture—> geopolitical orientation—> geostrategic perspective—> threat environment assessment and contingency planning—> security force orientation—> force composition—> force staffing, training and equipment—> force deployment and operations. This includes intelligence and police services as well as the military, because it includes internal and external security roles. The most important thing to note is that strategic culture is the point of departure for all that follows; absent a strategic culture there is little basis for a coherent strategic vision over time , which in turn impacts negatively on all of the other variables arrayed along this particular chain of causality.

Which brings up the point of this post: does NZ have a distinct strategic culture? One of the things that emerged during my discussions with numerous observers during my visit to NZ in February and March was an unspoken consensus that NZ does not have a strategic culture to call its own. This is in part a product of the apparent ad-hoc approach to policy-making I mentioned in a previous post. But it also appears to be rooted in organisational dysfunction and incompetence as well as a dependence on foreign patrons for strategic guidance. Many of the most informed people I spoke with were openly derisive of the competence and vision of the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS leadership, particularly the civilians that ostensibly provide the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS with policy guidance (the name Mark Burton was mentioned more than once as absolute proof  of how ineptitude can still find its way into the upper echelons of security policy-making). Plus, advancement within the security bureaucracies is seen as being tied to toeing both the (incumbent) party line as well as the extant corporate culture, however misinformed or dysfunctional they may be. Thus, even though there are futures forecasting shops in various security agencies, very little is actually forecast that the bosses do not want to hear or read, and most of what is forecast is make-work destined for annual reports rather than designed to serve as a basis for strategic planning over the medium term.

The same accusation has been made of the plethora of security agencies that have emerged since 9/11, which may be in part why the National government has made the decision to convert the External Assessments Bureau into a National Assessments Bureau with oversight authority over the whole lot. But the latter does not indicate a move to develop a defined strategic culture. It is just an attempt to impose some form of managerial rationality on the intelligence-security combine in order to overcome areas of duplication, overlap and turf battles.

There was also the view expressed that when it comes to security, NZ has traditionally looked to Australia, the US and the UK (in the current order) for strategic guidance rather than develop a distinctive strategic culture of its own. This is believed to be a result of NZ dependence on these countries (and others, such as France) for military equipment and training and intelligence flows. But NZ has a distinctive approach to things like nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peace-keeping, so surely that is reflected in a unique perspective on the external security environment and the role that NZ should play in it. Here again, my supposition that NZ has a distinct way of viewing things from a security perspective was contradicted or dismissed by the knowledgeable interlocutors with whom I spoke. Yet I remain unconvinced that their skepticism is fully warranted. Surely there is an appreciation of the need for a uniquely Kiwi approach to strategic affairs?

Which leaves me with my opening question. I know that Chile and Portugal have distinct strategic cultures that informs the way in which they engage the post-Cold War world on security matters. These distinctive strategic cultures give them coherency and predictability when construing threats, organising their security forces and engaging in security planning. Can we say the same thing for NZ?

Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

datePosted on 01:38, May 6th, 2010 by Pablo

I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan.  I must say that it is one of the more amateurish, cringe worthy attempts at symbolic politics I have seen in a long time–not quite as bad as George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier charade, but of the same ilk. Let me explain why.

First, the good part. I think it was entirely sensible for the National spin-meisters and military brass to tie the Afghan detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attend  the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added to his  message of military support and remembrance. As for the greedy economic opportunists who have criticised him for abandoning the arse kissing trade mission to the Arab Gulf Coast, they need to realise that given the circumstances in which the tragedy occurred, Mr. Key had no political option but to return for the funerals. How would it have looked if he choose to continue to brown nose the Arabs while some of the nation’s service people were laid to rest?  The likes of one Mr. Langely may put personal self-interest before recognition of service, but most Kiwis understand that not only was it politically necessary for Mr. Key to return, it was the right thing to do.

But that is about as good as it gets. Contrary to the fawning editorial opinion of the NZ Herald, Key’s tiki tour of Afghanistan showed how out of his league he is on international security affairs.

He started out by mentioning that he was flown by helicopter from his arrival point (presumably Bagram Air Force Base, the site of a notorious US “black” detention centre) to the SAS location. In doing so he managed to convey the message that the most heavily defended areas of Kabul are still too dangerous for Western VIPs to drive through, and that the SAS is not located in Kabul as he claims but is actually based elsewhere. He then pointed out that he used heavily armed motorcades to travel in Bayiman and elsewhere because he and his entourage were “juicy fish” for insurgent targeters.

Well, not quite. In a country that is awash in visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more like  an anchovy.  Moreover, heavily weighted  Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immune to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle). In fact, given that they have to travel on main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so, convoys such as Mr. Key’s actually make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded in a resentful local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). If leaving a light footprint is what hearts and minds are partially about, then his mode of land transport was a tactical failure.

Mr. Key prattled on about how he wanted to experience the conditions in which the NZDF operate in that theater. But he choose to spend his evenings at the British embassy. That is a double insult: first to the UN and ISAF patrons of the NZDF mission, which have their own housing compounds or use heavily guarded hotels for visiting VIPs; and secondly to the NZDF itself. Mr. Key could have stayed in officer quarters in any number of bases including at the PRT in Bayiman or the SAS operations centre (which is likely to be on the Afghan military base where its anti-terrorism Crisis Response Unit is headquartered). But instead he choose to take the poncy route and accept accommodation from the colonial master. How quaint of him, and how much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZ troops face.

Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region. So much for MFAT and NZDF giving him a head’s up about local customs, to say nothing of his lack on intuition about the context in which he was operating. For him, ignorance on that occasion turned out not to be bliss. For the NZDF PRT team, this could have been ther moment where 6+ years of good civil-military relations became unstuck. The question begs: would Helen Clark have been so, uh, uninformed? >>Note to Red Alert and The Standard–while I appreciate your views you must not use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan  issues such as this>>

In defending their role, Mr. Key  said that the SAS had not fired their weapons. This is laughable to the point of tears. The very nature of their “training” mission, as well as the fact that they have participated in at least two well publicised firefights (even if we accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SAS  employ their weapons, even if merely as covering or suppressing fire for their Afghan comrades.

And yet, the supplicant NZ press uncritically lapped up his patent lie while he hid under the doctrine of  plausible deniability (that is, because Mr. Key may have believed the lie to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take their word at face value and he had no reason to doubt them because he simply does not know better). Here, Mr. Key’s ignorance truly is a measure of political insulation, if not bliss.

Mr. Key told this same press that he was “considering” extending the deployments of the Bayiman PRT and SAS past their respective termination dates in September 2010 and March 2011 respectively. This was a forgone conclusion given that the NZDF wanted to do so and given the government’s obsession with tying a bilateral US-NZ free trade agreement to its military commitment in Afghanistan as well as the recent military-to-military reapprochment between the two countries. Heck, the foreign press was told before the trip that the extension had already been authorised but Mr. Key played cagey with the NZ press. Could that be because he wants to appear to be considerate of opposition voices in parliament when in fact he is not?

Mr. Key did his usual name-dropping act. He met with Karzai and General McCrystal. He met with local leaders. Although he waxed lyrical about what they had to say, he made no mention of what he had to say to them. Did he tell Karzai that his corruption and the drug-running antics of his cronies would not be tolerated? Did he press Karzai on not back-sliding on human rights, especially for wimin and ethnic minorities? Did he query McCrystal on continued civilian casualties at the hands of ISAF forces, and did he make clear to the General what the NZDF understanding of the rules of engagement are?  Nothing of the sort has been mentioned, so for all the NZ public knows he could have been exchanging cricket scores and family photographs with the Big Boys.

And then there was the piece d’resistance: John Key fitted out in a journalist flak jacket and helmet, his blood type outlined like a bulls-eye on his chest, grinning like a kid in a GI Joe costume. Then there were the photos of him acting friendly with the pilots on the RNZAF C-130 and acting pensive on the US Blackhawk ‘copter that did the bulk of his tour transfers. Dang. I have no doubt that he needed the body armour when he was not sipping tea with the Poms, but did his minders really think that a photo op in that outfit would come across as warrior-like and decisive? If so, they are clueless because he just looked goofy, somewhat akin to the infamous photo of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank turret wearing a helmet in the 1988 US presidential campaign. In both cases the image spells out L-O-O-O-O-O-S-E-R.  As for the aircraft photos: staged and contrived from the get-go. He looked like he was on one of those Air NZ tourist charters to the Antartic summer solstice. Another photo op FAIL.

Mind you, the NZDF brass as well as the troops on the ground would have appreciated the gesture, albeit for different reasons. So there was symbolic worth in the venture. It was in its execution where the enterprise failed.

Because they are clueless National PR flacks will congratulate themselves on a job well done in getting their message about the PM out to the masses, and the supplicant invited press will play the role of willful lapdogs by writing positive stories based on National PR releases (in part, because they share the government’s contempt for the intelligence of the general population, and in part because they would like to be invited along on other future junkets of this sort). But the cruel truth is that the exercise showed yet again how far out his depth the PM is when confronting the intricacies of even the most rudimentary aspects of foreign affairs. For those with a better sense of judgement, the exercise was embarrassing, not encouraging. Or as Pauly Fuemana would have said, “how bizzare.”

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