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It’s over.

datePosted on 14:01, December 27th, 2018 by Pablo

Media coverage of the Trump administration is like a group of people standing around the bedside of a terminally ill person. Instead of dealing with the fact that the person is soon to depart this earthly coil, they linger on the details of her illness, the early symptoms that remained undiagnosed, the downhill course of her trajectory, the therapies used to prolong her life, the deterioration of her body and the awfulness of it all. That is all well and true but the bottom line is that for the person in the bed, life will soon be over and no amount of picking through her medical history will change that.

Whether it be out of morbid curiosity or driven by ratings boosts linked to the politically macabre, the US media fixates on Trump’s every action. He fuels their addiction to administrative chaos with his inane tweets and moronic statements. Truth be told, the press cannot get enough of it and many a pundit has made his name off of analysing the Trump train wreck. But all this ignores the larger picture, which is that, whether it happen in days, weeks, months or a year, the Trump presidency is finished. Done. Dusted, Kaput. Finis.

The disaster that is his presidency is too obvious to recount in sordid detail here. Suffice it to say that people are being fired or leaving the administration in droves, and many jobs remained unfilled or have been taken by intellectual lightweights. Trump lashes out and reacts impulsively across a range of issues, with suspicions emerging in print that he is addicted to the prescription stimulant Adderol (which is a 25th amendment grounds for removal). He is besieged on several legal fronts, both at the federal as well as state level. Congress is soon to see Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives (which means his legislative agenda is all but finished), and his own Party is not wiling to blindly follow his policy leads. His foreign policy is in tatters, his border wall will not be built and the Mexicans certainly will not pay for it, North Korea still has nukes, his trade war is hurting the states where is electoral base is strongest, the Russians and others laugh at him to his face, his children are in legal jeopardy, and his cabinet has an increasingly feral character to it. Daily scandals, lies and inanities are a constant soundtrack of his presidency. Absorbing all of that, Wall Street, which had been so opportunistically bullish when he entered office (and for which he claims credit), is now moving beyond skittish into full bear territory (for which he blames the Federal Reserve). As New York state prosecutors pointed out with regard to the Trump Foundation, his administration is basically an on-going criminal enterprise rooted in fraud and corruption posing as a government. His lying acolytes are no longer able to keep straight faces when spinning the White House narrative and many of his supporters in high places have simply gone to ground. Even Fox News and rabid rightwing radio personalities are breaking ranks with him. The exact precipitant and method of exit remain unknown, but one thing is clear: He is isolated, incoherent and irrational. He will soon be irrelevant.

That is why the media would be better off ignoring him and focusing on the line of succession and other aspects of institutional continuity. The era of president Mike Pence is at hand, and if it turns out that he played loose with the Russians during the campaign (as is claimed), then he too may be shown the door. That brings the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, into the Oval Office, and if he is unfit to serve, then Nancy Pelosi as the incoming Speaker of the House follows in the line of succession. If Pence is not indicted or otherwise tainted by his association with Russians during the campaign, he is free to choose his own Vice President (subject to Senate confirmation).

It behooves the US political elite to be working with Pence on transition scenarios. Pence is a religious freak and troglodyte on gender and sexual issues, but as a former congressman and governor he knows what it takes to get things done in DC and he is rational in a hyper-conservative way. Although he will likely return to the neoconservative approach to foreign policy and continue to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to guns, reproductive choice and race relations, he will be, after the lunatic steps down, positively easy to deal with. The same goes for Pompeo, who served in Congress before being named CIA director and then Secretary of State.

The institutions themselves need to develop transition plans. Already defence strategists openly worry about Trump going rogue and trying to launch a nuclear strike somewhere as a diversion or as a act of petty revenge on his successors. They point out that he can do so on his own and that there are no formal institutional checks on him (he is only supposed to consult with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defence and National Security Council as well as other cabinet officials, but he is not obliged to do so or to heed their counsel). Even if senior officers refuse his orders to launch a nuclear strike, he can work his way down the nuclear chain of command until he finds a compliant one. There is consequently a move to get Congress to re-write the law governing nuclear weapons use, but in the meantime DoD and the service commands need to consider the very real possibility of having to refuse a presidential order to use the arsenal. There is precedent for this under Nixon (during Watergate) and Reagan (after his Alzheimer’s became apparent), so it is not an unimaginable task.

The same can be said across the federal bureaucracy. Although Pence will not roll back all or most of Trump’s policies (say, on the environment), he will want his own team at the helm of federal agencies and will want to impose his own stamp on the policy-making process. In order for that to happen in an orderly fashion, planning must be done in anticipation of the change-over. It would be best for career public service managers to prepare contingency plans with an eye towards moving out from under Trump’s political appointees, particularly in contentious portfolios like Education and Homeland Security.

The bottom line is that the obsessive focus on Trump obscures the inevitability of his demise and the need to prepare for a change of administration. Because his downfall of itself will not right the ship of state. For that to happen a plan of action must be in place, something that requires congressional and executive branch coordination even if done without the knowledge of the political moribund in the White House.

Cyber-hacking comes to Aotearoa.*

datePosted on 19:04, December 21st, 2018 by Pablo

The Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB) has announced that Chinese hackers were responsible for cyber intrusions against New Zealand managed service providers (MSPs), the telecommunications firms responsible for providing phone, email and internet services and data banking to individual, public agency and corporate consumers. This is surprising only because it confirms what private security analysts and partner intelligence services have been claiming for some time: that the Chinese are engaged in a global campaign of cyber theft of commercial secrets and intellectual property. They do so as part of a strategy to become the world’s dominant information and telecommunications player within 50 years, and they do so by using ostensibly private firms as cover for hacking activities directed by the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS).

The GCSB announcement coincided with indictment by the US Justice Department of two Chinese nationals who have been identified as belonging to the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)-10 Group of MSS hackers operating under the cover of a Chinese-registered firm, Tianjing Huaying Haitai Science and Technology Development Company Ltd. (Huaying Haitai). Huaying Haitai claims to provide network security construction and product development services but has only two registered shareholders, one manager and no web presence (the domain name huayinghaitai.com is registered to the firm but cannot be found on-line, which is particularly odd for an internet security provider). The US has publicly identified Huaying Haitai as the corporate front for ATP-10, and the GCSB has confirmed that ATP-10 was responsible for the New Zealand-targeted cyber intrusions it has detected since early 2017.

The UK simultaneously announced that Chinese hackers had conducted a decade long-campaign of cyber-theft against British commercial entities, while the US identified 75 US-based targets as well as others in 12 other countries (excluding New Zealand). The GCSB announcement is therefore part of a coordinated effort by Western governments to identify Chinese-based cyber-theft campaigns, and follows on similar Australian revelations announced during the 2018 APEC summit a month ago.

The ATP-10 cyber-hacking campaign violates the terms of a 2016 APEC agreement signed by China (and New Zealand) committing member states to not use cyber hacking in order to engage in commercial espionage or intellectual property theft. It violates similar pacts signed with the US and UK in 2015. This means that China is deliberately violating international agreements for commercial gain. It also makes all Chinese-based telecommunications suspect, both in terms of their purported use of so-called digital backdoors built into their products that can be used by Chinese intelligence as well as their duplicitous corporate behaviour when it comes to proprietary information. In effect, Chinese telecommunications are seen as bad corporate actors as well as intelligence fronts by Western countries. This has caused firms such as ZTE and Huawei being excluded from critical infrastructure projects and 5G network upgrades in a number of countries, including, most recently, New Zealand.

The GCSB announcement refers to Chinese hacking in pursuit of cyber theft of sensitive commercial and intellectual property. It does not mention specific targets or refer to cyber-espionage per se.Yet the two are overlapped because of the nature of the targets and means by which they attacked. ATP-10 hacking attacks are aimed at Managed Services Providers (MSPs) who store data for individuals, public agencies and firms. These include large multinational email, internet and phone service providers as well as smaller cloud-based data storage firms.

If ATP-10 and other hackers can penetrate the security defenses of MSPs they can potentially bulk collect, then data mine whatever is digitally stored in the targeted archives. Although the primary interest is commercial in nature, the overlapping nature of data networks, especially in a small country like New Zealand, potentially gives ATP-10 and similar hacking groups access to non-commercial political, diplomatic and military networks.

For example, a home computer or private phone that has been compromised by a cyber hack on a internet service provider (ISP) can become, via the exchange of information between personal and work devices, an unwitting entry point to work networks in the private and public sectors that are not connected to the individual’s ISP. This raises the possibility of incidental or secondary data collection by hackers, which in the case of state organized outfits like ATP-10 may be of as much utility as are the commercial data being targeted in the first instance.

The dilemma posed by the GCSBs announcement is two-fold. First, will the government follow the GCSB lead and denounce the behaviour or will it downplay the severity of the international norms violations and intrusion on sovereignty that the ATP-10 hacking campaign represents? If it does, it sets up a possible diplomatic confrontation with the PRC. If it does not, it exposes a rift between the GCSB and the government when it comes to Chinese misbehaviour.

Neither scenario is welcome but one thing is certain: no response will stop Chinese cyber hacking because it is part of a long-term strategy aimed at achieving global information and telecommunications dominance within fifty years. But one response will certainly encourage it.

  • An earlier version of this essay appears on the Radio New Zealand website, December 21, 2018 (https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/on-the-inside/378835/cyber-hacking-comes-to-aotearoa).

Tacitly encouraging local conspiracy theories.

datePosted on 13:41, December 5th, 2018 by Pablo

I do not mean to bang on about the Anne Marie Brady case but since it is coming up on one year since the campaign of criminal harassment began against her, I feel compelled to mention how the Labour-led government’s silence has been used as a window of opportunity by pro-China conspiracy theorists to question her credibility and defame her. Until I blocked the troll I shall call “skidmark,” this was even seen here on KP where he launched numerous attacks on professor Brady as well as question the very notion that the burglaries and vandalism that she has been subjected to were somehow related to her work on PRC influence operations in NZ.

What we know so far is this: the Police/SIS investigation has been passed on to INTERPOL and therefore is not yet complete. Professor Brady said that she was told by the Police that the investigation was complete, but perhaps that was just on the domestic side of the case. The fact that it has been handed over to INTERPOL suggests that the culprits are not common domestic criminals and that they have left the country. Otherwise, why involve INTERPOL? To be sure, it could mean that some local common criminals left the country once the heat was on, but given that what was taken in the burglaries were not items of common value but were related to her research, and given that the tampering with her vehicle occurred a few months ago, long after the burglaries, that suggests that it was not an ordinary crime done by locals. Repeated targeting of one individual spanning ten months using different criminal methods also suggests that there is more to the story than theft. The word “intimidation” comes to mind.

Because the government and its security agencies refuse to offer status reports or provide a fuller brief on what they know, the field has been left open for the pro-Chinese conspiracy trolls to jump in. They have three main angles of attack.

The first is to question Ms. Brady’s credibility because she receives external funding and spends time in US think tanks. They apparently believe that such funding and hosting is contingent on her spinning a particular anti-Chinese line. This betrays ignorance of how US think tanks and funding work, where scholarly independence is respected. Her critics also point to Taiwanese sources of funding, but there the link between money and research product is assumed rather than firmly established. I do think that it was unwise for professor Brady to be seen as closely associated with the US Embassy in Wellington and some China-focused US think tanks given the current state of PRC-US relations, but no one has credibly argued that her findings about PRC influence operations are wrong. In fact, they have clearly sparked calls for review and reform of NZ political contribution regulations, so her concerns are not imaginary.

The irony is that Brady pointed out that PRC-backed academic institutions like Confucius Institutes and various PRC funded scholarship programs do come with ideological strings attached. Perhaps the trolls simply believe that the same is the case for non-Chinese academic exchanges.

The second and third attacks centre on the criminal harassment against her. The first posits that it is a hoax perpetrated by Ms. Brady to increase public wariness of the Chinese and promote herself. I have already mentioned that she would be taking a great risk to her reputation and have to be pretty cunning to pull that off to the point that the cops and spies have not yet figured it out. Claiming that she perpetrated this hoax questions her mental stability and veracity on other matters (which has never been questioned before), and if untrue is defamatory. The latter has not stopped “skidmark” and others from propagating the claim.

The second line of attack is that the burglaries and vandalism are the work of the NZSIS and/or the CIA with or without professor Brady’s complicity in order to poison public sentiment against the Chinese. Again, as I said before, this would entail a degree of risk and expenditure of resources disproportionate to any potential gains. And if this was indeed the case, would not the Police and SIS have come out with a stronger move against the Chinese by now? After all, if you want to falsely frame a specific party as responsible for a crime you drop evidence pointing in its direction. Delaying offering proof of the accusation only casts doubt as to its veracity in part because it leaves things open to the type of bad-minded diversionary conjecture and speculation that I am discussing here.

It is very likely that the government’s reticence to talk about the case is due to diplomatic concerns, and that political pressure has been put on the Police and SIS to delay offering any more information about the status of the investigation until ITERPOL has come up with some answers. My feeling is that the culprits will  not be found and certainly not extradited if they are identified (for example, by checking the movements of Canterbury-based Chinese student visa holders in NZ in the days after the burglaries were first reported).

The problem is that the longer the government delays providing anything more than it has so far, the more oxygen it gives to the pro-Chinese trolls, which when added to the other doubters and conspiracy types I mentioned in my previous post serves to confuse the picture even if the circumstantial evidence pointing towards (even if indirect) PRC involvement is strong. That helps sustain the slander campaign against Ms. Brady and/or the view that it was all the work of the NZ and US Deep States working in concert.

Gathering from the tone of her recent remarks it appears that Ms. Brady is frustrated and increasingly frightened by the government’s inaction. I sympathise with her predicament: she is just one person tilting against much larger forces with relatively little institutional backing. I also am annoyed because this is a NZ citizen being stalked and serially harassed on sovereign NZ soil, most probably because of things that she has written, and yet the authorities have done pretty much nothing other than take statements and dust for fingerprints.

If this was a domestic dispute in which someone was burglarising and vandalising a neighbour’s or ex-partner’s property, I imagine that the cops would be quick to establish the facts and intervene to prevent escalation.  If that is the case then the same applies here. Because to allow these crimes to go unpunished without offering a word as to why not only demonstrates a lack of competence or will. It also encourages more of the same, and not just against Ms. Brady.

If one of the foundational duties of the democratic state is to protect the freedom and security of its citizens, it appears that in in this instance NZ has so far failed miserably. The government needs to step up and provide assurances that the investigation will proceed honestly to a verifiable conclusion and that it will work to ensure the safety of Anne Marie Brady against those who would wish to do her harm.

To not do so is to abdicate a basic responsibility of democratic governance.

Left compass lost.

datePosted on 14:35, November 29th, 2018 by Pablo

One of the disappointing aspects of the Anne-Marie Brady affair has been the reluctance and sometimes outright refusal of people on the New Zealand Left to condemn the criminal harassment directed at her as a result of her research into Chinese influence operations in Aotearoa. I shall enumerate the general reasons justifying their stance but want to note first that it is not similar to the very real fears of the independent minded expat Chinese community in NZ, who remain silent in the face of threats against them here as well as against their families and associates back on the mainland. It behooves readers to read, watch and listen to the Mandarin-language media here in NZ (even if needing translators) because the rhetoric employed by these outlets–which Brady has pointed out are with the exception of the Falun Gong mouthpiece Epoch Times all controlled by CCP-linked United Front organisations–is hostile to the point of threatening towards all those who do not toe the Party line. To get an idea of the hostility, check out the Facebook page of a fellow by the name of Morgan Xiao, a Labour LEC member in Botany Downs and “journalist” for some local Chinese media outlets. He clearly does not like Anne Marie Brady.

Amongst the NZ Left, there seems to be 3 main reasons why people do not want to support Anne Marie Brady or the general concept of academic freedom in a liberal democracy. The first, prevalent amongst academics, is concern about losing funding or research opportunities for publicly siding with her. The concern is obvious and acute in departments and institutes that receive PRC funding directly or which receive NZ government funding related to Chinese-focused studies. All NZ universities have such connections as well as being reliant on Chinese students for a large part of their tuition income, so the dampening effect is nation-wide. Academics are also worried that public association with a “controversial” scholar may somehow diminish the research grants and opportunities made available to them even if they do not work on matters related to China. Guilt by association is alive and well in the NZ academe.

Overlapping this is concern about Professor Brady’s sources of funding and ties to US think tanks. Some believe that this skews her research in a Sinophobic direction and that she in fact parrots the opinions of her US sponsors. I can only say that, even though it might have been prudent for her to not be closely identified with the US Embassy and conservative US organisations focused on China (although she also maintains ties to reputable institutions like the Woodrow Wilson Center), she was a well known China watcher long before she published the Magic Weapons paper and NZ-based sources of funding for overseas research are few and far between. Beggars cannot be choosey and under circumstances of limited research funding in NZ in general and at her home university in particular, it is not surprising nor compromising for her to accept funding from abroad so long as she is transparent about it and conducts her studies independent of any external political agenda. From all that I have read, that is what she has done. So even if her views dovetail with those of foreign entities in places like Australia and the US,  it does not mean that she is their puppet. Plus, no one has decisively refuted what she wrote in a paper that was always intended to be applied research product rather than a theoretical or conceptual scholarly breakthrough. In a word: her research is sound regardless of how it was funded.

Other academics refuse to support Brady because they personally do not like her. I do not know the woman but if irascible personalities were a disqualifying trait in higher education then there would be no universities to speak of here or elsewhere. Egos, intellectual insecurity and professional jealousy are constants of academic life, and it seems that they have percolated into the discussion about her work and its ramifications for her personal life. One can only be dismayed that some people cannot separate personal animus from defence of the principle of academic freedom (and freedom of expression in general), in this case the right of an academic to not be criminally harassed for her work.

Outside of academia the refusal of some Leftists to support Ms. Brady appears to be rooted in a form of “whataboutism” connected to strong anti-US sentiment. Although some old-school Marxists are equitable in their dislike for all imperialists, new and old, most of the “what about” relativists believe that the US and/or UK are worst imperialists than the PRC and in fact (in the eyes of some) that the PRC is a benevolent giant seeking to better international relations through its goodwill and developmental assistance. For them the whole story, from the content of Ms. Brady’s Magic Weapons paper to the subsequent burglary of her office and home and tampering with her car, are just concoctions designed to stain the image of China in NZ and elsewhere.

A sub theme of this strand is the argument that if NZ is going to have to choose a master, better that it side with trade over security. That follows the logic that we are utterly dependent on trade for our survival but we are utterly insignificant as a security target. NZ involvement in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network and Anglophone military partners is of minor concern, both in terms of the guarantees they give to NZ security as well as the difficulties posed by trying to abandon them.

Then there is the tin foil hat crowd. Leftist conspiracy theorists share views with Rightwing nutters about the “Deep State,” chemtrails, 9/11 holograms and assorted false flag operations, including the harassment of Ms. Brady. If you believe them the same people who target anti-1080, anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination and anti-TPP activists are behind the staged assaults on the Canterbury academic. I am not sure who these puppet masters are but I somewhat doubt that Ms. Brady is wrapped up in a chemtrail conspiracy.

If we gather up all of the arguments against supporting Ms. Brady, they boil down to two main lines of thought. First, that Anne Marie Brady has staged the break-ins and vandalism in order to promote herself via sympathetic PR. Second, that the attacks on her property were done by the NZSIS with or without US connivance in order to smear the PRC.

My answer to the first is that Ms. Brady was sufficiently well known at home and abroad before the attacks, so she did not have to stage anything in order to garner attention. If she did so in order to widen public attention on Chinese wrongdoings outside of academic and policy-oriented circles, then she would have to be very crafty indeed. Although that is possible, I tend to think it not probable.

As for the false flag suspicions. Why would the SIS and/or US expend resources and run the risk of detection in such a low level operation? What would be achieved that was already not in the public domain already? Even if the spy agencies thought about doing so, would not the costs of being discovered outweigh any benefits accrued from falsely framing the PRC? So on this one, too, I say “possible but unlikely.”

Of course, there is the third explanation, which is that people acting on behalf or under the instructions of the Chinese state did the deeds. These would not have to be intelligence operatives tasked by the PRC embassy or Beijing. They could be patriotic expats, perhaps living in NZ on student visas, who took umbrage at professor Brady’s claims and the publicity surrounding them. With or without the connivance of Chinese authorities they may have wanted to make an intimidatory point much along the lines outlined in the opening paragraph of this post.

What is clear, because the NZ Police have said that the investigation has passed on to Interpol, is that the perpetrators are likely overseas and will not likely be caught and extradited. Since the investigation into the burglaries is now 10 months old, it is equally unlikely that local common criminals are suspects (especially given that nothing of value was taken in the burglaries other than phones, lap tops and flash drives). So whether the government equivocates or not the finger of suspicion rests most heavily on the criminal harassment being the work of people unhappy with Ms. Brady’s work on China, and in particular her Magic Weapons paper.

What is ironic is that the United Front-Organised “influence operations” that she expounds upon at length are not illegal. Their genius lies in that they exploit the system as given, in NZ’s case being the looseness of campaign finance and political contribution regulations. They also exploit a lack of enforcement capability in the financial and other business sectors in order to overlap legitimate and ethically questionable behaviours. But all of this is, while ethically dubious, perfectly legal.

Engaging in criminal acts against a NZ citizen on sovereign NZ soil is another thing entirely. This moves from peddling influence to, indeed, engaging in intimidation as a “hard” form of interference. It is an intrusion on academic freedom but also a breach of professor Brady’s freedom of expression. it reinforces the view that no one is untouchable should they dare to criticise the Chinese state, and that NZ is powerless to stop more of the same.

That is why the government response has been weak and the Left reluctance to fully support Anne Marie Brady so disappointing. Because the issue is as much about sovereignty, democratic civility and human rights as it is about anything she wrote or her personal and professional attributes or flaws. One may understand why the Right wants to cast a blind eye on such mischief because capitalists put profits before people’s rights, and trade with the PRC definitely brings profit to a select few. But for a Left Centre government and many Left activists to not strongly repudiate criminal harassment of a local academic for any reason, especially economic reasons, is a betrayal of the basic principles upon which the democratic Left is founded upon.

Shame, then, on those who proclaim to be of the Left but on this matter clearly are on the Right side of the Chinese.

A bridge too far.

datePosted on 07:28, November 21st, 2018 by Pablo

The Labour-led government in New Zealand has settled on a new mantra when it comes to addressing the US-China rivalry. It claims that New Zealand is ideally situated to become a bridge between the two great powers and an honest broker when it comes to their interaction with the Southwest Pacific. This follows the long-held multi-party consensus that New Zealand’s foreign policy is independent and autonomous, and based on respect for international norms and multinational institutions.

The problem is that the new foreign policy line is a misleading illusion. It ignores historical precedent, the transitional nature of the current international context, the character and strategic objectives of the US and the PRC and the fact that New Zealand is neither independent or autonomous in its foreign affairs.

The historical precedent is that in times of conflict between great powers, small states find it hard to remain neutral and certainly do not serve as bridges between them. The dilemma is exemplified by the island of Melos during the Peloponnesian Wars, when Melos expressed neutrality between warring Athens and Sparta. Although Sparta accepted its position Athens did not and Melos was subjugated by the Athenians.

In stable world times small states may exercise disproportionate influence in global affairs because the geopolitical status quo is set and systemic changes are incremental and occur within the normative framework and around the margins of the system as given. When international systems are unstable and in transition, small states are relegated to the sidelines while great powers hash out the contours of the emerging world order—often via conflict. Such is the case now, which has seen the unipolar system dominated by the US that followed the bi-polar Cold War now being replaced by an emerging multi-polar system aggregating new and resurgent powers, some of which are hostile to the West.

In this transitional moment the US is in relative decline and has turned inward under a Trump administration that is polarizing at home and abroad. It is still a formidable economic and military power but it is showing signs of internal weakness and external exhaustion that have made it more reactive and defensive in its approach to global affairs. China is a rising great power with global ambition and long-term strategic plans, particularly when it comes to power projection in the Western Pacific Rim. It sees itself as the new regional power in Asia, replacing the US, and has extended its influence world-wide.That includes involvement in the domestic politics and economic matters of Pacific Island states, including Australia and New Zealand.

China’s rise and the US decline are most likely to first meet in the Western Pacific. When they do, the consequences will be far reaching. Already the US has started a trade war with the Chinese while reinforcing its armed presence in the region at a time when China cannot (as of yet) militarily challenge it. China has responded by deepening its dollar and debt diplomacy in Polynesia and Melanesia as part of the Belt and Road initiative, now paralleled by an increased naval and air presence extending from the South and East China Seas into the blue water shipping lanes of the Pacific.

There lies the rub. New Zealand is neither independent or autonomous when it confronts this emerging strategic landscape. Instead, it has dichotomized its foreign policy. On the security front, it is militarily tied to the US via the Wellington and Washington Declarations of 2010 and 2012. It is a founding member and integral component of the Anglophone 5 Eyes signal intelligence gathering network led by the US. It is deeply embedded in broader Western security networks, whose primary focus of concern, beyond terrorism, is the hostile activities of China and Russia against liberal democracies and their interests.

On trade, New Zealand has an addict-like dependency on agricultural commodity and primary good exports, particularly milk solids. Its largest trading partner and importer of those goods is China. Unlike Australia, which can leverage its export of strategic minerals that China needs for its continued economic growth and industrial ambitions under the China 2025 program, New Zealand’s exports are elastic, substitutable by those of competitors and inconsequential to China’s broader strategic planning. This makes New Zealand extremely vulnerable to Chinese economic retaliation for any perceived slight, something that the Chinese have been clear to point out when it comes to subjects such as the South China island-building dispute or Western concerns about the true nature of Chinese developmental aid to Pacific Island Forum countries.

As a general rule issue linkage is the best approach to trade and security: trading partners make for good security partners because their interests are complementary (security protects trade and trade brings with it the material prosperity upon which security is built). Absent that, separating and running trade and security relations in parallel is practicable because the former do not interfere with the latter and vice versa. But when trade and security relations are counterpoised, that is, when a country trades preferentially with one antagonist while maintaining security ties with another, then the makings of a foreign policy conundrum are made. This is exactly the situation New Zealand finds itself in, or what can be called a self-made “Melian dilemma.”

Under such circumstances it is delusional to think that New Zealand can serve as a bridge between the US and China, or as an honest broker when it comes to great power projection in the Southwest Pacific. Instead, it is diplomatically caught between a rock and a hard place even though in practice it leans more West than East.

The latter is an important point. Although a Pacific island nation, New Zealand is, by virtue of its colonial and post-colonial history, a citizen of the West. The blending of Maori and Pasifika culture gave special flavor to the Kiwi cultural mix but it never strayed from its Western orientation during its modern history. That, however, began to change with the separation of trade from security relations as of the 1980s (where New Zealand began to seek out non-Western trade partners after its loss of preferred trade status with UK markets), followed by increasingly large waves of non-European immigration during the next three decades. Kiwi culture has begun to change significantly in recent years and so with it its international orientation. Western perspectives now compete with Asian and Middle Eastern orientations in the cultural milieu, something that has crept into foreign policy debates and planning. The question is whether the new cultural mix will eventuate in a turn away from Western values and towards those of Eurasia.

The government’s spin may just be short term diplomatic nicety posing as a cover for its dichotomous foreign policy strategy. Given its soft-peddling of the extent of Chinese influence operations in the country, it appears reluctant to confront the PRC on any contentious issue because it wants to keep trade and diplomatic lines open. Likewise, its silence on Trump’s regressions on climate change, Trans-Pacific trade and support for international institutions may signal that the New Zealand government is waiting for his departure before publicly engaging the US on matters of difference. Both approaches may be prudent but are certainly not examples of bridging or brokering.

While New Zealand audiences may like it, China and the US are not fooled by the bridge and broker rhetoric. They know that should push come to shove New Zealand will have to make a choice. One involves losing trade revenues, the other involves losing security guarantees. One involves backing a traditional ally, the other breaking with tradition in order to align with a rising power. Neither choice will be pleasant and it behooves foreign policy planners to be doing cost/benefits analysis on each because the moment of decision may be closer than expected.

Political Market Clearing.

datePosted on 15:27, November 17th, 2018 by Pablo

As I watched the results come in on US midterm election night, it struck me that the tally was a microcosmic distillation of what democracy is in terms of preferred outcomes: no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something of what they want. With the Democrats regaining the lower House in Congress and the GOP increasing its Senate majority, and governorships distributed more evenly with a few Democratic wins, it struck me that this was the “mutual second best” that democratic theorists argue is the core of the democratic bargain.

Over the ensuing days it became clear that the Democratic wins were larger than anticipated on election night and that even if the GOP holds on to disputed seats in places like Florida (where I voted in infamous Palm Beach County), the erosion of Republican electoral support was significant. Conventional wisdom has it that Trump was a decisive factor in both victory and defeat for the GOP, as he galvanised his Red state base but alienated the suburban female demographic nation-wide. Women candidates, including women of colour and non-Christian cultural backgrounds, were the major winners in the congressional contests, although most of that came on the Democratic side (but even Republican women did well in places). What the results mean in practice, beyond all of the talk about investigations and impeachment (which are real possibilities now that the House is under Democratic control), is that Trump’s legislative agenda has had the brakes put on it. Unless he moderates his behaviour and reaches across the partisan aisle to secure bipartisan support for landmark legislation on health care, immigration reform, infrastructure spending, etc., then nothing will get done. And if the Democrats try to unilaterally push through their own pet projects, they may find resistance in the Senate and a veto waiting in the Oval Office.

Given that many in the GOP blame Trump for their losses and most of the new Democratic legislators are ideologically to the Left of their House and Senate leaders, the president and leaders of his congressional opposition have reason to seek each other out in an accord. That could cement their legacies and ward off insurrection within their party ranks in the build up to the 2020 elections.

Of course, Trump can just continue to behave like the unhinged bullying a-hole that he is, the GOP can continue to fracture along pro- and anti-Trump lines while Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer stifle calls for change from the Left of their party. That will lead to government dysfunction and potential gridlock, which opens the door to unforeseen and unexpected developments on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there is the Mueller investigation…

All of that aside, what interests me the most at this juncture is the notion that the 2018 midterms represent a type of political market clearing in the US. As with the notion of “mutual second best” the term “political market clearing” is a conceptual transfer from economics. It refers to the moment when after a period of stress and tension in the political system there is a breakthrough that leads to the re-establishment of the system along new equilibrium points. This can entail a clearing out of old structures and individuals and their replacement with newer political agents and/or can come via a re-balancing of the political party system at the federal, state and local levels. The idea is that a watershed moment leads to a catharsis  of the political system, which then seeks a new equilibrium of power relations that is more efficient than the previous aggregation.

This is not just another way of saying political “pendulum swing.” Pendulum swings are metronomic, which makes them regular and predictable. There is nothing regular or predictable about a political market clearing, as it is born of the crisis of the previous system and may undergo several iterations before settling into a newly equilibrated status quo.

In the political market policy ideas and initiatives are the stock in trade. Some rise as others fall. For example, a decade or so ago the idea of universal single user pays health care with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions was considered ridiculous and politically impossible to achieve in the US. Today, it is at the centre of the health care debates, with the non-exclusion of pre-existing conditions being a successful Democratic talking point in the midterms. Likewise, for years the notion of limiting the type of firearms made available for public purchase was considered as ludicrous as was the notion that the National Rifle Association could be confronted directly in any election. Now both of those notions are being actively disputed, including by a few Purple state Republicans. Even the intractable issue of campaign finance reform has, thanks to Bernie Sanders and his influence on the incoming class of congressional Democrats, now been pushed onto the policy trading floor.

If policy platforms are the stocks traded in the political market, then votes are its currency.  With the shift to Democratic governors in several important states two years before the national census and subsequent congressional re-districting process (which are controlled by State governments), gerrymandered  districts that favor Republicans by atomizing non-White voting populations will cease to exist and will be replaced by those that more accurately reflect the demographic and socio-economic shifts of the last decades. That will translate into continued and perhaps more elected Democrats in state and federal legislatures and/or a move to moderation among Republicans at both levels. Voting occurs in committees as well as in upper and lower chambers as a whole, and with the shift in power last week the relative value of selected policy stocks have undergone reappraisal. This will inform any approach to bipartisan consensus on federal legislation so, for example, the sell-off of plummeting stock in the border wall policy proposal will be balanced by increased buying of the rising stocks of comprehensive immigration and health care reform.

It seems to me that the US midterms mark the deepening of a political market clearing. Although the Obama administration will be treated kindly by history, it represented the end of a political generation marked by a quarter century of increasingly polarised and partisan politics reproduced and magnified by media outlets masquerading opinion and advocacy as journalism. It culminated the end of a bipartisan consensus and its replacement with a fiercely disloyal Republican opposition in Congress that stymied any administration initiatives simply because it could. And it was under those conditions that the Trump candidacy emerged and won the presidency with its calls to drain the swamp and make America great again. Although Trump’s rhetoric is more demagogic rather than informed by the realities of the day, it marked the beginning of the US political market undergoing value reappraisal.

The midterms have shown the direction of the reappraisal and the emerging equilibrium points around which policy efficiencies will cluster. Yet the process is ongoing. The political market clearing will not fully re-equilibrate until after the 2020 elections (if then), even as the foundations for new policy efficiencies have been and will continue to be laid.

If I am correct, then we will be able to look back at the Trump era as the last gasp of a political system drowning in its lack of popular representation and elitist excess. Think about it: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and general celebration of bigoted ignorance unleashed by the Trump effect on US politics–Trump being both a symptom and aggravator of already latent trends–is the inevitably futile last stand of a cultural, racial and socio-economic demographic in inexorable decline. The venality of its political defenders is proof of that, and  the ideological vitality of its supplanters is evidence of the sea change coming ahead. Political clinging to a mythical past that never was will continue for a while more but the trend is clear and that is where the political market re-equilibration gains strength. It is not a matter of if but when the new policy efficiencies are  balanced and a new stable political equilibrium is established.

The questions for the next few months are whether Trump has the ability to build a bridge to the congressional Democrats after demonizing them as a means of whipping his retrograde base, and whether the Democratic congressional leadership will take the bait of bipartisanship on the terms that he may offer. If this happens then the political market clearing will be stymied (which is beneficial mostly to the current political status quo). On the other hand, if the congressional Democrats impose on Trump and the congressional GOP a new legislative agenda that recognises the changing electoral demographic that brought them victory last week, then the process of policy re-equilibration in a political market clearing could well begin to take hold.

One can only hope.

Confronting Despotic Interference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respect, fear and laughter.

datePosted on 12:48, September 28th, 2018 by Pablo

This week Donald Trump chose the wrong place and the wrong time to brag about MAGA. For its myriad faults, the UN General Assembly is probably the most objective place with which to evaluate the US’s position in the international community and the impact of the Trump presidency on it.

When Trump thumped his chest about the greatness that is his administration during his speech to it, the UNGA laughed in his face. He later said that they were laughing with him, not at him. He would be wrong on that.

According to US foreign policy lore, “it is better to be respected than feared, but it is enough to be feared.” It is now clear from the UNGA response to Trump’s chauvinistic utterances that the US, or at least the US under Trump, is neither feared or respected. Instead, it is seen as the large oaf best avoided, toyed with from afar or irritated at a distance. It is dangerous, to be sure, but it is in many ways a paper tiger much in the way that Trump is. This was best illustrated at the UN Security Council meeting that Trump chaired two days after his UNGA speech. While most attention focused on his claims that China was interfering in the upcoming US midterm election on behalf of the Democrats and his threats against Iran, lost in the coverage was the fact that Bolivian President Evo Morales, sitting in his country’s temporary Security Council seat less then 2 meters from Trump, ridiculed him to is face after Trump started going about restoring democracy to Venezuela after airing his complaints about China.  Morales reminded Trump of the US’s sorry history of interventionism in Latin America and denounced his hypocrisy in a way that few would ever had done in years gone by. But that was then and Drumpf is now.

The UN’s laughter is also rooted in the knowledge that the shift to populist governance in the US could well be the last gasp of a dying empire. The move to economic nationalism under personalist leadership and the reassertion of mono-cultural ethno-religious dominance in the face of multicultural demographic shifts and the globalisation of economic relations represents a call to a past that even if it existed (it never fully did), is no longer possible in an age of emerging great power multipolarity in which US decline as a superpower is matched by the rise of new and resurgent powers. The turn to myopic vanity (MAGA) under Trump’s brand of populism spells the end of imperial hubris, if not of imperial ambition itself. That is because in mature liberal democracies the rise of nationalist populism is a response to crisis of the political status quo but is not the answer to it. Instead it represents the last gasp of a dying empire, one last grasp at “greatness” before the cold reality of potentially terminal decline begins to set in.

World leaders also know that even if it is a temporary paralysis under Trump rather than a terminal illness, the current “America First” US foreign policy needs to be waited out or side-stepped rather than confronted. It is increasingly clear that Trump may not survive his term in office because of the Mueller investigation and the distinct possibility that the Democrats regain at least one chamber of Congress in the November 2018 midterm elections. Even if he does complete his current term it is unlikely that he will get re-elected in 2020 given the support levels he receives. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives it is probable that they will commence impeachment proceedings against him, something that will make much harder his ability to press forward with his policy agenda. If his popularity continues to slump due to the negative impact of retaliatory tariffs on exports from so-called Red States that backed him in 2016 (which is what the Chinese have done in a targeted way and which is why Trump is claiming that they are trying to interfere in the 2018 midterms), then his chances for re-election in 2020 are virtually nil as are those of any GOP candidates still trying to ride his coattails.

Unlike the Chinese Communist Party that can demand and enforce public austerity in the face of US tariffs on its exports, US politicians face electoral scrutiny on a regular basis. And when a trade war begins to bite on the US side, be it in loss of jobs or rises in mass consumer non-durable retail prices, then something will give, and what gives is electoral support for those who support the trade war. Call it the “Walmart Effect:” when cheap goods can no longer be bought cheaply at retail outlets like Walmart, then not only are consumers denied their consumption preferences but the profit margins of the retail corporations take a hit as well. And when the corporate elite see their bottom lines negatively impacted by trade wars, then they will work hard to ensure that those responsible for the loss of profit are punished accordingly. Trump and his economic nationalist supporters are therefore on a political hiding to nothing if they continue down the current path when it comes to trade relations.

Then there is what Mueller’s investigation may have in store.

So the best thing for most foreign governments to do is to laugh at or play along with but not diplomatically confront the MAGA madness. The exception to this is Iran, which has responded relatively calmly but firmly to Trump’s provocations, and North Korea, which has decided that the best way to manipulate Trump is to stroke his ego via slavish praise and flattery (while doing very little in the way of making substantive concessions to the US regarding its nuclear weapons development program). In between lies a continuum of response from making nice with him while keeping channels open with the US foreign policy bureaucracy (India) to ignoring him while concentrating on other diplomatic initiatives not involving the US (the EU). For rival powers like China and Russia, the response is to proceed with their strategic plans without concern for the US response–what can be called pulling the tail of that paper tiger. They key point is that the global community increasingly sees Trump as a temporary aberration rather than an indicator of a hegemonic long-term project.

Whatever the response, it is pretty clear that the US is coming to the end of a long political cycle. Trump is the product and symbol of it as well as its last response and manifestation. What emerges from the ashes of his administration has yet to be determined and it is possible that, having not seen what is obvious from the outside, the US political elite will continue with their partisan squabbles and corporate bankrolling while the country continues its socio-economic descent into division and strife. But it is also possible, like the drunk who wakes up in a gutter and decides to go sober (insert reference to Brett Kavanaugh here), the US political establishment will realise that they have hit rock bottom and need to change their approach to political life.

Then again, it does not appear that the GOP and some of the Democratic establishment have even woken up yet.

Venezuela Agonistes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unearthing the mole.

datePosted on 14:12, September 7th, 2018 by Pablo

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.

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