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This week I attended a talk by Kiwi journalist Yasmine Ryan, currently based in Tunis. Yasmine previously worked for al-Jazeera and now freelances from her Tunisian base. Her talk was about the state of affairs in the Arab world, and more specifically, North Africa.

She had many interesting things to say but I garnered three main points from her talk. First, the the so-called Arab Spring has failed to open Arab politics in any meaningful way. Second, levels of corruption in the Arab world are so high and so pervasive that reform is virtually impossible, especially when foreign interests back the entrenched power elites. Third, state capacity (measured by public infrastructural development, enforcement of norms beyond simple repression and provision of goods and services) is woefully lacking throughout the region, something that contributes to pervasive discontent amongst disempowered groups.

Her bottom line was that although Tunisia is touted as an Arab Spring success story, it is in fact not and yet is the best of a sorry lot of post-dictatorial regimes now governing in North Africa.

As Yasmine spoke, I found myself pondering her use of words. She referred to the Tunisian “revolution” and to the “democratisation” of Arab politics. Her use of these terms reflects standard journalistic practice although she knows well that nothing of the sort has happened in North Africa. Let me explain why.

“Revolutions” properly conceived are popular uprisings that lead to the armed overthrow of the state and the imposition of a paradigmatic change on society under a new political regime in the wake of the overthrow. The first key to revolutionary success is victory over the repressive apparatus, either as a result of combat or because the repressive apparatus switches its allegiances to the new sovereign contenders. The second key to revolutionary success is the scope of paradigmatic change covering political society, civil society and the economic structure of the nation-state. Needless to say, none of this happened as a result of the so-called Arab Spring.

So what did happen? Well, if revolution does not eventuate and democracy does not obtain, then other outcomes are possible. The regime being challenged can use its repressive superiority to reassert its authority and crack down on dissent, thereby quashing the seeds of popular uprising. This occurred in Bahrain, although it took Saudi Arabian troops to help repress the mostly Shiia uprising against the Sunni elite in that country. To a lesser extent it occurred in the 2009-10 election protests and the 2011-12 Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in Iran.

Another alternative outcome is a civil war where the challenged regime is forced into an armed struggle with rebel groups or in which the old regime is overthrown but new power contenders fight each other in order to establish their claim to being the new sovereign. The former is happening in Syria and the latter is happening in Libya.  Iraq is a variation on this, with foreign intervention rather than popular unrest being the gateway (if not cause) for post-authoritarian internecine violence marshalled along sectarian lines.

A third option is for the authoritarian regime being challenged to engage in what is known as a “passive revolution.” “Passive revolution” is where the regime elite adopts cosmetic changes and engages in reform-mongering to appease popular discontent but does not fundamentally alter the power elite or the institutional bases of their power.  One of the cosmetic changes is electioneering rather than democratisation (which involves more than elections and encompasses institutional, social and economic life). This, sadly, is what has happened in Tunisia after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and in Egypt after the respective ousters of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. In both cases the power elite underpinning the ousted authoritarian leaders regrouped under an electoral facade that allowed them to cloak their rule in a mantle of “democratic” legitimacy. In Egypt’s case the scenario had a twist in that Morsi was allowed to become the first freely elected president in Egyptian history, but when his Muslim Brotherhood government pushed its Islamicist-backed constitutional project and Morsi granted himself unlimited executive powers not subject to judicial or parliamentary review, they were deposed in a military coup. The leader of the coup and then head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president of Egypt.

However, for a passive revolution to work it must, along with continuing to selectively repress dissent, deliver goods otherwise not obtained by the discontented masses. Be it as a short term or longer term strategy, the passive revolutionary approach is more than political window dressing because it hinges on giving the appearance of progressive change by providing public goods and services, and material benefits, that previously were unavailable. Yet, in Egypt as well as Tunisia, none of that has occurred because of rampant corruption, lack of state capacity, and an absence of economic opportunity under the power elites that ruled before the regime changes and who continue to rule today. What has occurred is the resumption of repression of those who wish to push for a further and more substantive political opening.

This means that the root causes of popular discontent remain unaddressed, which makes the passive revolutionary approach inherently weak. It is akin to putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed–it may staunch some short term dissent but it cannot contain the surge of discontent over the long term.

But there is a twist to the story. It turns out that Tunisia has supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Egypt also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists, and Libya is overrun with them fighting to overthrow the central government in Tripoli. Why would alienated individuals in Tunisia and Egypt opt to join a foreign war rather than continue to fight for progressive political change at home?

I believe the answer is that those who choose to leave to fight for IS or al-Qaeda see the results of the Arab Spring for what they really are: a reassertion of the traditional status quo under different guise. Understanding the impossibility of affecting significant political, social and economic change at home, these disaffected fighters migrate to foreign conflicts in which the enemy is clear (be it the West, Israel, Iran or Shiia Islam in general) and in which their skills in the management of organised violence can be honed for future use at home should they survive combat. Should they not, they will have died for what they believe to be a good cause.

That is the crux of the “returning jihadi” problem. They pose no existential threat to the West or even stable authoritarian regimes (barring an overreaction by the state and society that makes it appear as if there is in fact a “war” between Islam as a whole and the non-Islamic world). They do not pose an existential threat to stable Muslim dominant societies such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But they do pose a potential existential threat to the passive revolutionary regimes in North Africa as well as in failing or failed states such as Yemen, Somalia and/or those in which civil war is occurring (to include Nigeria even if Boko Harum is comprised of indigenous fighters who for the most part have not traveled abroad).

That is why I see al-Qaeda  and the Islamic State as regional rather than global problems–they may have a world wide impact given the decentralised nature of terrorist tactics outside of the Middle East, but their real strategic impact stems from the existential threat they pose to the Middle East itself. After all, even if they use the US, the West, Israel and/or Iran as foils for their violent ambitions, al-Qaeda and IS have their eyes focused squarely on the Gulf petrolarchies as much if not more than they do on any other territorial and political objective.

In the end, it has been the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its theoretical promise and popular expectations for real change that has led to the rise of IS and the spreading wave of violent unrest throughout the Arab world. After a moment that promised a thawing of old political structures and the germination of new ideas about the relationship between state and society, the region has proven yet again to be barren ground for peaceful, progressive and lasting social change.

PS: Here is something I wrote in 2011 about Tunisia and other Middle Eastern transitions. Although I do not claim any particular expertise on the Middle East or Arab world, I think that by and large my observations of four years ago have stood the test of time.

Perhaps not yet a Cuba Libre, but an opening nevertheless.

datePosted on 14:55, December 19th, 2014 by Pablo

In a previous life one of the US government roles I played was as co-team leader of the OSD/JCS Cuba Task Force. That was a combined team of officials and officers from the US Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) tasked with exploring contingency scenarios for Cuba, including refugee flows (then ongoing) as well as possible civil unrest and regime transition scenarios in the wake of the withdrawal of Soviet aid to the island nation and the increasingly geriatric nature of its original leadership. My co-team leader was a Cuban American political appointee, with the idea being that my academic experience studying authoritarian regime transitions and knowledge of the Cuban approach to irregular conflict would be balanced by his sensitivity to the domestic political implications of  any moves we proposed to undertake.

Although I cannot reveal much of what we did, I can say a few things about the process that has now led to a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.

First, almost everyone in the US government realised that the embargo was a failure. However, the Cuban lobby is on a par with the gun and Israel lobbies when it comes to single issue fixation and willingness to spend money for the cause. This made Cuba a thorny political problem for any US government trying to improve relations with it, as the usual suspects would (and still do) immediately hurl the “soft on communism” and “appeasing dictators” invective as part of their negative electoral campaigning. This placed the issue in the “too hard” basket as far as most politicians were concerned, especially given the myriad of other issues at play and the trade-offs they involved. As a foreign diplomat said in my presence when asked about the US approach to Cuba: “That is a domestic matter, not a diplomatic one.”

Secondly, from the 1980s to the present day, every former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly called for an end to the embargo and resumption of full diplomatic relations. One would have thought that the weight of conservative military leaders and the leading business organisation in the US would hold some sway, but in fact their views were trumped by the lobbying efforts described above. Episodic attempts have been made to launch US business initiatives in Cuba (for example, in agricultural machinery), but the legal and monetary costs of circumventing the embargo by using off-shore subsidiaries, etc. simply proved too much given the limited nature of the potential returns.

Third, as of the early 1990s the Castro brothers increasingly delegated authority to second generation leaders, who now have been replaced in large measure by third generation revolutionary cadres (people in their 40s and 50s). In fact, both the Cuban exile community as well as the revolutionary leadership have seen the physical decline of the so-called “dinosaurios” (dinosaurs) and their replacement with younger, often more moderate leaders who were not present during the revolution and who therefore do not all have personal scores to settle stemming from it. My co-team leader was second generation and not fuelled by the rabid thirst for revenge exhibited by many of his parent’s generation (some of whom I got the dubious pleasure of meeting). Now that second generation’s children are coming to the fore. This has opened the door for initiatives focused on normalising relations.

But the issue remains complex. The end of the Cold War and fall of the USSR actually reinforced the view in some US policy circles that an embargo could, given the withdrawal of Soviet aid to Cuba, bring the Castro regime to its knees.  On the other hand, the increase in non-US foreign investment in Cuba after the Cold War (mostly but not exclusively in tourism) was seen by some in the US as making the embargo counter-productive when it came to promoting US business interests in its near abroad. Overlying these views was a persistent belief that Cuba continued to logistically and intellectually support Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups in Latin America (including those that drug trafficked) as well as rogue regimes such as North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran (to say nothing of Nicaragua and Venezuela). As a result, foreign policy opinion in the US after the Cold War remained very divided on the question of what to do with Cuba given the embargo and rudimentary diplomatic relations.

Yet given the demographic changes mentioned earlier, the question about Cuba the last twenty years has mostly been one of political timing: when is the opportune moment to make the move towards restoring normality to the bilateral relationship? Conventional wisdom on US presidential politics states that only during second terms can presidents get away with bold foreign policy initiatives, and even then they have to be popular and presiding over a strong economy in order to do so (since voters tend to ignore foreign policy issues when their pockets and bellies are full). However, owing to the perverse ideological evolution of the Republican Party, only Democrats would even contemplate doing so after 1990, which meant that it was left to Clinton or Obama to be bold (recall that Nixon opened the relationship with China and Reagan encouraged glasnost and perestroika, even if both Republican presidents did so for self-interested reasons).

I have little doubt that Clinton would have normalised relations with Cuba in his second term if he had not been hamstrung by the Lewinsky scandal, which helped turn the Elian Gonzalez saga into a Republican battle cry (Elian Gonzalez was a little Cuban boy who washed up on US shores in a raft in which his mother died. After weeks of to- and fro-ing between the US government and exiled members of the boy’s family, he was forcibly repatriated to Cuba to live with his divorced father. Sensing that Clinton was wounded by the Starr investigation into Cigargate, the GOP turned the boy’s ordeal into an anti-communist political circus, which effectively ended the quiet efforts Clinton’s administration had initiated with an eye towards opening up the Cuban relationship).

Now it appears that Obama has seized the moment to undertake a little glasnost of his own, perhaps because he senses that he has little to lose given the disloyal nature of the opposition (which will rant and rail at anything he does), perhaps because the US economy is doing well enough for him to feel immune on some aspects of foreign policy even after the adverse results of the midterm elections, and perhaps because, like gay marriage and medical marijuana, the US public has simply changed its views on Cuba over the years.  In fact, it is likely a little bit of each, as the GOP and Fake News blowhards may not want to waste political capital on a dead issue that will gain the GOP no electoral traction. As it turns out, with the exception of some posturing clowns like Marco Rubio and the braying jackasses on conservative media outlets, the reaction from the political Right has been fairly muted.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. Back when I was dealing with Cuba, the word from their side was that everything was negotiable except for two pillars of the revolution: health and education. That is to say, the vaunted Cuban health and educational systems were sacrosanct and could not be touched in any post-Castro environment. Beyond that, market forces could dictate how Cuba would re-insert itself in the global economy. With an extremely literate, healthy and underemployed work force, it would seem that Cuba would be ideal for any number of value-added export commodity production ventures (textiles and pharmaceuticals have already become targets of foreign investor interest).

The other issue, left unresolved during my time working that beat, was the role of the Communist Party. It is clear that the Cuban political elite have been watching the transitions in the former socialist world, be it the USSR, China, Vietnam or Eastern Europe. They have also watched the experiments in indigenous socialism in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. It is pretty clear that they would prefer to do a China-style transition to state capitalism under one party rule.

The trouble with that preferred picture is that it is only a partial transition, with the political regime remaining largely the same while the economy changes. That may be possible in a huge country like China but is problematic in a small country like Cuba, especially when it is so proximate to a formerly adversarial super power and has a number of expatriates with ideas about Cuba’s future that do not include a dominant role for the Communist Party, much less its continued sole rule.

Thus the conundrum for the second and third generation Cuban Communist Party leadership is whether to embark on a sequential transition (first changing the economy then the political system, or, less likely, vice versa), or  to go all in and mount a simultaneous transition of the economic and political systems. From the standpoint of keeping things peaceful and orderly, the best hope scenario is a sequential transition in which economic change precedes political change. Opening Cuba for business will present a formidable challenge for the Communist Patry, and the social and cultural influences that will come with diplomatic normalisation and economic opening will be hard to contain, much less stop. So whether by design or by the forced pace of change, it is likely that the Cuban political system will open up as a result of the economic transition and its superstructural ramifications.

The key is for the Cuban political elite to realise that the Chinese transition model is not possible for them given the circumstances, and that the days of one party rule will either come to a natural end or be overturned by force. In that light the best thing to do is to prepare a timetable leading up to multiparty competitive elections somewhere down the road, with appropriate guarantees put in place to preserve key revolutionary gains and to safeguard the institutional position of entities like the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).  That will take some doing, and could well take a fair bit of time given the current makeup of the Communist Party leadership (in which Fidelistas still hold significant influence along with Raulistas).

The question remains as to what will happen with the two pillars of the revolution in a market-driven economy. It also remains to be seen as to how Cuban society will respond to the introduction of full market logics on the island. Things like the elimination of food subsidies and introduction of merit-based employment criteria in and outside the public serve could prove painful for Cuban society. It could also lead to  criminal opportunism in what some observers have already characterized as an increasingly amoral and feral civil society no longer wedded to the revolutionary ethos of the original 26th of July movement. If one thinks of where Cuba is spatially located in relation to drug trafficking corridors, the downside possibilities should be obvious.

Even so, the resumption of full diplomatic relations is a welcome development and hopefully followed by a formal end to the US embargo (not a certain thing, given opposition by GOP majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives). There still will be many hard days ahead as Cuba comes to grip with its post-revolutionary future, but at least the range of potential outcomes will be expanded relative to those extant up until a few days ago. As for the US, it demonstrates that sometimes diplomatic face-saving on foreign policy is a waste of energy and the better self-interested choice is to admit mistakes and move on. As the old Korean saying goes: a rich uncle can afford to be generous.

Whatever its motivations, Uncle Sam just was.

 

Media Links: The Sydney Hostage Crisis.

datePosted on 17:09, December 16th, 2014 by Pablo

Amid the flurry of media interviews I did as a result of the Sydney hostage crisis, this one may not have received the attention other outlets have received.

The RNZ interview is here. The TVNZ interview is here.

Blog Link: Could Fiji Emulate Singapore?

datePosted on 16:20, September 26th, 2014 by Pablo

Although we in NZ have been preoccupied with our own national election,  Fiji had one a few days earlier that arguably is far more important when it comes to that country’s long-term prospects. Much has been written about this foundational election and the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but in this 36th Parallel analysis I consider the possibility that Fiji may see Singapore as a developmental model worth emulating.

It is not as crazy an idea as you might think at first glance.

Left in tatters.

datePosted on 12:14, September 21st, 2014 by Pablo

A while back I wrote a post arguing that the NZ Left was in serious disarray. Various Left pontificators fulminated from the depths of their revolutionary armchairs against my views, denouncing me for being defeatist. I responded as politely as I could.

Last night conservative, ring wing parties won nearly 64 percent of the popular vote. Left wing parties–such as they are given Labour’s pro-capitalist bent, the Green’s turn to the middle and Internet/Mana’s schizophrenic leanings–mustered 36 percent of the vote. The message is clear: New Zealand is a right-leaning country. Nearly 30 years of pro-market policy (an entire generation’s worth) has resulted in a country that no longer considers egalitarian and redistributive principles as hallmarks of the national identity. Instead, the turn to self-interest has seeped deeply into the social fabric.

That is the context in which the NZ Left must operate. That is the context that I was writing about in my earlier postings. And that is the context that we will have for the foreseeable future unless the Left learns to shift the terms of the political debate off of tax cuts, deficits, public spending, workforce flexibility and other pro-market arguments. So far it has not done so and in fact has often tried to operate within the context and political debate as given. Perhaps last night’s drubbing will make the Left realise that this is a mistake.

After all, those who define the terms of the debate are those who win.

In order for the Left to re-define the terms of political debate in NZ there has to be a plausible counter-argument that can compete with the language of austerity, limited government, non-interference and self-interested maximising of opportunities. This election campaign demonstrated that concerns about civil liberties, privacy, child poverty, environmental degradation, corporate welfare, predatory trade and other progressive cornerstones took a back seat to economic stability as defined by market ideologues.

Given that fact, the process of re-definition has to start there: basic definition of economic stability. One way to do so if to move off of the usual market analytics favoured by bankers and corporates and onto the social costs of an increasingly unequal division of labour. Because the price for market stability is seen in a host of variables that are not amenable to standard market analysis, yet which are as real as the glue sniffing starved kid living rough and begging for change on the increasingly mean streets of Godzone.

Double Trouble.

datePosted on 13:03, September 15th, 2014 by Pablo

Glenn Greenwald’s arrival in NZ has reignited controversy over who, exactly, the GCSB spies on, how it does so, and for whom it does so. Tonight he will outline what he has gleaned from the Snowden leaks, and I have no doubts that what is revealed will be of serious consequence. The impact will be twofold.

So far, most attention has focused on the domestic side of the equation, in the form of claims that the GCSB, in concert with its 5 Eyes partners, conducts mass surveillance of New Zealand citizens and residents. The way it does so is to tap into the broadband infrastructure in order to extract so-called “metadata,” that is, the key identifiers of cyber messages such as time, sender, internet addresses and geographic locations of those communicating, etc. This information is stored and later subject to data mining from technologies like X Keyscore, which searches for keywords and phrases that can justify opening the metadata in order to reveal the contents of the messages identified by the data-mining technologies.

In simple terms, it is like going to people’s postboxes and recording all of the identifying features of their mail without opening the mail itself unless key identifiers allow the government to do so.

The government maintains that a) it does not collect metadata on New Zealanders and NZ permanent residents; and b) that collecting metadata is not equivalent to mass surveillance in any event since the contents of the messages from which metadata is extracted are not accessed unless there are reasons of national security to do so, and this occurs only in a handful of instances.

The reality is that because of a gentleman’s agreement between the 5 Eyes partners, metadata of the citizens of one partner state is accessed and collected by one or more of the other partners and only sent to the originating state if data-mining indicates that there is reason to open the contents of specific metadata “packages” concerning citizens or residents of that state. In this way the originating state government can claim that it is not engaged in mass surveillance of its own citizens or residents.

That may be parsing the meaning of “mass surveillance” beyond useful construction, but it does allow the government to deny that it conducts such mass surveillance on technical grounds–i.e., metadata is not the same as a private communication because it has no content.

The problem with such specious reasoning is that it violates two foundational tenets of liberal democracy: the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence. If it is considered an untoward invasion of privacy for the government or others to systematically rifle through and record the identifying features of correspondence in people’s mail boxes, then it is equally a violation of  citizen’s rights to privacy for the government to electronically collect and store their cyber metadata.

Moreover, the mass collection and sharing of metadata by 5 Eyes intelligence agencies violates the presumption of innocence that citizens of democracies are supposedly entitled to. That is because the metadata is collected without cause. The government does not have a specific reason, suspicion or motive for collecting metadata, it just does so because it can under the aegis of “national security.” It then subjects this metadata to data-mining in order to find cause to conduct more intrusive searches of the contents.  It is, in effect, trawling through everyone’s cyber communications in order identify and presumably counter the nefarious behaviour or plans of some individuals, groups or agencies.

This strikes at the heart of democracy. Yet the remedy is fairly simple. Under legal challenge the government can be forced to show cause for the collection of metadata of its citizens and residents. If it cannot, then the courts can deem such collection to be illegal in all but the most exceptional circumstances. With that judgement–and I very much doubt that any High Court would find it reasonable or permissible to engage in mass metadata collection without cause–intelligence agencies are put on notice and henceforth proceed with metadata collection and sharing at their peril.

In contrast to the attention directed at the issue of mass surveillance, there is a far more damaging side to Greenwald’s revelations. That is the issue of the GCSB and 5 Eyes espionage on other countries and international agencies such as the UN or non-governmental organisations as well as foreign corporations, financial institutions, regulatory bodies and the like. Such external espionage is part of traditional inter-state intelligence gathering, which includes economic, military and political-diplomatic information about targeted entities.

Judging from what has already been revealed by the Snowden leaks with regard to the external espionage activities of the other 5 Eyes partners, it is very likely that Greenwald will reveal that NZ, through the GCSB in concert with 5 Eyes, spies on friendly or allied states as well as hostile state and non-state actors such as North Korea and al-Qaeda. This may include trade or diplomatic partners. It could well include economic or commercial espionage.

The impact of such revelations will outweigh the repercussions of the domestic surveillance aspects of the Snowden leaks. With the nature and extent of NZ’s espionage made public, its reputation as an independent and autonomous “honest  broker” in international affairs will be shattered. Its pursuit of a UN Security Council seat could well go up in smoke. But above all, the response of the states that have been and are targeted by the GCSB will be negative and perhaps injurious to NZ’s national interests. The response can come in a variety of ways, and can be very damaging. It can be economic, diplomatic or military in nature. It could involve targeting of Kiwis living in in the states being spied on, or it could involve bans or boycotts of NZ exports. The range of retaliatory measures is broad.

Unlike the other 5 Eyes partners, NZ has no strategic leverage on the states that it spies on. It is not big, powerful or endowed with strategic export commodities that are essential for other countries’ growth. Yet it is utterly trade dependent. Because of that, it is far more vulnerable to retaliation than its larger counterparts, especially if it turns out that NZ spies on its trade partners.  Imagine what will happen if it is revealed that NZ and the other 5 Eyes partners spy on TPPA  members in order to secure advantage and coordinate their negotiating strategies (keeping in mind that Australia, Canada and the US are all TPPA parties). What if if NZ spies on China, its biggest trade partner, at the behest of the US, with whom China has an increasingly tense strategic rivalry? What if it spies on Japan, Malaysia, Chile, Iran, India, Russia or the UAE? What if it spies on the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional organisations? What if it spies on Huawei or some other foreign corporations? Again, the possible range of retaliatory options is only surpassed by the probability that they will be applied once NZ’s espionage activities are made public.

In light of this it behooves the government to make contingency plans for the inevitable fallout/backlash that is coming our way. I say “our” rather than “their” because the response of the aggrieved parties will likely have, be it directly or as a trickle-down effect, a negative impact on most all Kiwis rather than just this government.  But so far the government has indicated that it has no contingency plans in place and in fact has adopted a wait and see approach to what Greenwald will reveal.

If so, it will be too late to mitigate the negative external impact of his revelations. And if so, that is a sign of gross incompetence or negligence on the part of the PM and his cabinet because they have known for a long time what Snowden took with him regarding NZ (since the NSA shared the results of its forensic audit of the purloined NSA material once Snowden disappeared). It therefore had plenty of time to develop a plan of action whether or not Greenwald showed up to be part of Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” event.

All of which means that, if Greenwald delivers on his promises, New Zealand is in for a very rough ride over the next few months. That, much more so than Dotcom’s quest for revenge against John Key, is why tonight’s event could well be a signal moment in NZ history.

Accountability versus Acceptable Corruption.

datePosted on 16:08, September 4th, 2014 by Pablo

During the 25 years I was in academia I wrote a fair bit on the subjects of democracy and democratisation, both in theory and in practice. I continued in that vein in some of my blogging on this site, including the 5 part series on  deconstructing democracy in 2009. As part of my ruminations, I have delved from time to time into the subject of democratic accountability, specifically its vertical and horizontal dimensions, both of which are absolute requirements for the health of liberal democracy. Among other things and contrary to what some pundits might say, my understanding of the two dimensions of democratic accountability is what allows me to state categorically that dirty politics such as that practiced by the National Party’s vicious wing is not inherent to democracy

Vertical accountability refers to the accountability of the governors to the governed. The signal feature of this dimension are elections of those who govern, but also include the ability of the electorate to demand review, recall or sanction of non-elected officials such as those in the judiciary and civil service if and when their actions become to egregious or are ignored by the other branches of government. There a variety of methods with which to do so, but that requires a degree of horizontal accountability as well. In any event vertical accountability is aided by a robust, critical and independent media that draws public attention to what otherwise might be quiet indiscretions by those in office.

Here is where horizontal accountability comes in. Each branch of government is formally accountable to the others. In the event of malfeasance in one branch the other branches have a right and indeed duty to independently investigate any potential wrong doing. They must maintain a degree of institutional autonomy in order to do so, because otherwise they cannot exercise the degree of inquisitorial independence that is required for transparency and integrity to obtain.

It is this dimension where New Zealand appears deficient, and the proof of that is the inquiry that the Prime Minister has ordered into Judith Collins use of a public servant’s personal information. In this case the PM gets to frame the terms of reference of the inquiry, and has done so in way that assures that Collins will be exonerated. In political circles this might be called narrowing the focus to what is strictly illegal, but in common parlance it is known as acceptable corruption.

The inquiry conducted by the Inspector-General of the SIS into the hasty OIA release of sensitive SIS documents to a blogger linked to the government is more independent and therefore more transparent and honest, assuming that the IG does her job correctly.

But the problem remains that horizontal accountability in NZ is nowhere what it should be. Parliamentary committees are dominated by the government and often have limited inquisitorial powers. Crown Law has, time and time again, adjusted its prosecution priorities to accord more closely with government interests (recall the time and cost of the Zaoui and Urewera prosecutions, both of which ultimately reduced to far less than the government initially alleged). Some judges are said to lean politically one way or another when it comes to examining government behaviour.

Less we think that this overly friendly relationship between government and prosecutors be exclusive to National, let’s remember that the two prosecutions cited above began (and in Zaoui’s case ended) under the 5th Labour government.

Some say that the lack of a written constitution impedes the full exercise of horizontal accountability in NZ. Perhaps that is so but I also think that it is a product of habitual practice in a small country, where the political elites are for the most part a relatively small club that play by their own informal rules as much as they do by the law. Those in government are given fairly broad license when it comes to how they account for their actions to the other branches. Those in opposition wait for their turn in office to do the same. The judiciary and public bureaucracy publicly maintain their independence but at a senior level they play close attention to the interests of the government of the day.

Voters give a veneer of vertical accountability to the status quo by turning out for elections. Their susceptibility to spin and deflection makes them targets of the dirtier machinations of politicians, and in the absence of genuine horizontal accountability counter-weights that is all that is needed to govern. In such a context governance is all about bread and circus, or in the NZ case, pies and rugby. The fact that National has not suffered much in pre-election polling pretty much confirms this truth.

It can be argued that this is politics as usual, in the form of one hand washing the other in the interest of political stability. Indeed, all of this is perfectly acceptable, except that it is also perfectly, albeit not by legal definition, corrupt. But what is wrong with a little acceptable corruption amongst political friends so long as the public does not care and there are no real institutional checks on what they do so long as they do it quietly?

I could be wrong on this and John Key is just being a jerk when it comes to the terms of the Collins inquiry.  But something tells me that the rot runs much deeper, and it will not stop should he and his nasty pack of party colleagues be voted out of office later this month.

Eye Candy, Window Dressing and Deep Pockets.

datePosted on 15:06, July 29th, 2014 by Pablo

I came back from six weeks abroad to see the beginning of the Internet Party’s “Party party” launches. It leaves me with some questions.

It seems that what the Internet Party has done is this. Using Kim Dotcom’s wallet as a springboard, it has selected a candidate group largely made up of attractive metrosexuals (only a few of whom have political experience), recruited as window dressing a seasoned (and also attractive) leftist female as party leader (even though she has no experience in the IT field), and run a slick PR campaign featuring cats that is long on rhetoric and promises and short on viable policies. The stated aim is to get out the apathetic youth vote and thereby reach the three percent electoral threshold.

The strategic alliance with the Mana Party makes sense, especially for Mana. They get additional resources to more effectively campaign for at least two electorate seats, especially given that it looks like the Maori Party is moribund and the Maori electoral roll will be more contestable even if Labour tries to reclaim its historical support in it. The Internet Party gets to coattail on Mana’s activism and the presence of relatively seasoned cadres on the campaign trail. Between the two, they might well reach the five percent threshold, although current polling suggests something well less than that. The lack of political experience in the Internet Party could be problematic in any event.

But I am still left wondering what the IP stands for and how it proposes to effect change if its candidates are elected. We know that the IP came about mostly due to Dotcom’s hatred of John Key. But Dotcom is ostensibly not part of the IP, which makes his attention-grabbing presence at its public events all the more puzzling. Leaving aside Dotcom’s background and baggage for the moment, imagine if major financial donors stole the stage at Labour, National or Green Party rallies. What would the reaction be? Plus, hating on John Key is not a policy platform, however much the sentiment may be shared by a good portion of the general public (and that is debatable).

Giving free internet access to all seems nice, but how and who is going to pay for that? Wanting to repeal the 2013 GCSB Act and withdraw from the 5 Eyes intelligence network sounds interesting, but how would that happen and has a cost/benefits analysis been run on doing so?  Likewise, opposition to the TPP seems sensible, but what is its position on trade in general? The policies on the environment and education seem laudable (and look to be very close to those of the Greens), and it is good to make a stand on privacy issues and NZ independence, but is that enough to present to voters?

More broadly, where does IP stand on early childhood education, pensions, occupational health and safety, immigration, transportation infrastructure, diplomatic alignment, defense spending or a myriad of other policy issues? Is it anything more than a protest party? Nothing I have seen in its policy platform indicates a comprehensive, well thought roadmap to a better future. In fact, some of the policy statements are surprisingly shallow and in some cases backed with citations from blogs and newspapers rather than legitimate research outlets.

Is having attractive candidates, catchy slogans and a narrow policy focus enough for IP to be a legitimate political contender?

I have read what its champions claim it to be, and have read what its detractors say it is. I am personally familiar with two IP candidates and have found them to be earnest people of integrity and conviction who want more than a narrow vendetta-driven agenda opportunistically married to an indigenous socialist movement. I would, in fact, love to see it succeed because I think that the political Left in NZ needs more varied forms of representation in parliament than currently available.

So my question to readers is simple: is the IP a viable and durable option in the NZ political landscape, or is it doomed to fail?

One thing is certain. If dark rumours are correct, the government has some unpleasant surprises for the IP in the weeks leading to the election. If that happens, it may take more than Glenn Greenwald and his revelations about John Key and the GCSB to redeem the IP in the eyes of the voting public. I would hope that both Dotcom and his IP candidates are acutely aware of what could be in store for them should the rumours prove true, and plan accordingly.

Systemic Realignment.

datePosted on 13:42, July 23rd, 2014 by Pablo

The chaotic state of contemporary international affairs demonstrates the serious limitations of constructivism and idealism as theoretical frameworks for the analysis of global macro-dynamics. The former claims that the construction of international institutions helps universalise common values and mores, thereby leading to improved interstate relations under supranational (international organisation) guidance and enforcement. The latter posits that the perfectability of humankind makes for a common search for cooperation in the conduct of foreign affairs. This leads to the pursuit of constructivism in international relations as common effort is made to overcome self-interest as the bottom line of nation-states. Both schools of thought believe that economic and non-state actors will eventually adopt similar approaches to their behaviour with foreign entities, as the universalisation of norms serves as a hedge against the uncertainties that ultimately lie at the heart of foreign relations based upon self-interested maximisation of opportunities by international actors acting rationally in environments of scarcity and limited information. This line of thought follows a rich utopian tradition that extends back to Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” through Woodrow Wilson to Alexander Wendt.

There have been undoubtable advances in international cooperation and the embrace of universal norms and supranational institutions over the last century. But recent events suggest that two “old school” theoretical approaches remain the best guides to international dynamics and the behaviour of international actors, both state and non-state in nature: realism and systems theory.

The reasons are simple. Realism is funded on the belief that absent universal norms accepted and enforced universally, self-interest is the ultimate determinant of actor’s behaviour in the international arena. This tendency is accentuated in environments of scarcity or of competition over strategic resources. Both situations–the lack of universally shared norms and competition over strategic resources–are hallmark characteristics of the present era.

International systems theory is both descriptive and prescriptive. The former describes the nature of interstate power relations at any given point in time: unipolar, bipolar, multipolar or anarchic. The analysis of said relations occurs globally, regionally and sub-regionally, as the international system is seen as being comprised of sub-systems acting at the micro (sub-regional) meso (regional) and macro (international) levels.  The latter is a product of both the first two as well as dynamics of its own.

Realism is focused on the exercise of power and its distribution in the international arena. It has intellectual origins in the thought of Metternich and Machiavelli, upgraded in modern times by Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz (who advanced a school of thought known as structural realism or neorealism that emphasised economic power as opposed to military-diplomatic power).  Today the concepts of “hard”,” “soft,” and “smart” power all follow in this tradition.

International systems theory was first advanced by Morton Kaplan, who adapted David Easton’s work on domestic political systems to the international stage. It sees systems as involving input, output and feedback loops that push the evolution of a particular system in a given direction. As with realists, the focus of international systems theory is on distributions or balances of power.

For international systems theorists the state of world affairs is never static. Instead, it is fluid and constantly in a process of change. There may be periods, often long in nature, of relative stability of a given system, but these are not permanent due to the inherent characteristics of the actors involved. For example, the Cold War was a period of what came to be known as tight bipolar stability, with alliance systems constructed around two opposing superpowers bound by the logic of nuclear deterrence. 45 years in duration, that system is considered to be relatively long-lived by systemic standards.

The post Cold War system was seen as unipolar in nature, as the US was considered to be the sole superpower after the collapse of the USSR. But in the eyes of systems theorists unipolar systems are inherently unstable, as pretenders to the throne will work incessantly, even if indirectly, to advance their positions vis a vis the so-called “hegemon.” In fact, unipolar systems are considered to be only marginally more stable than large-N multipolar systems in which power is widely distributed and strategic resources are regularly contested.

In contrast, small-N multipolar systems revolving around 3-5 states and their respective alliances or spheres of influence are considered to be the most stable types of international system, since the different poles can balance and counterbalance their relations with each other based upon mutual necessity. Balances of power are inherent in all international systems other than unipolar ones, and shifting allegiances on particular military, diplomatic and economic issues allow for equilibrium to be maintained amongst the competing powers.

Under the logic of international systems theory unipolar systems cannot hold and will eventually lead to systemic realignment that results in the emergence of a bi- or multipolar world. But the transition has a systems regulator, and its name is conflict.

International systems re-equilibrate through conflict. Here the quest for balancing becomes something akin to jostling for position in the making of a future world. Conflict runs a gamut from diplomatic tensions to war, and includes economic disputes and sanctions, unilateral and multinational foreign interventions, increased espionage between and within alliances and among individual nation states, and breakdown of international norms and consensus. The transitional period can see temporary alignments and bouts of various types of polarity, but is essentially a fluid moment that can last decades until systems equilibrium is restored. During that time different types of conflicts ebb and flow, to include major conflagrations.

Much like the invisible hand of capitalist economics, systemic realignment occurs in the aggregate rather than as the purposeful outcome of individual preferences or collective decision-making. State and non-state actors may attempt to steer the course of systems transition, but eventual stability depends on the establishment of a status quo that supersedes their particular desires.

What all of this suggests is that the current state of international affairs is one of systemic realignment. The transitional moment began with the end of the Cold War and accelerated after 9/11. The ensuing decade of armed conflicts, new and resurrected tensions in Central and SE Asia and the Middle East and rise of new power contenders such as the BRICs has produced a context of competition and conflict in which national self-interest prevails and international norms and institutions are ignored in favour of piecemeal solutions. The situation is set to last for some time, so we should be under no illusion that a new stable international system will be established soon.

Instead, a prudent course of action for a small country would be to understand that during a period of systemic realignment, strategic hedging in the form of holding all diplomatic options open, diversifying the range of economic partners and placing strict limits on the conditions in which military force is deployed is the best means of navigating the transitional moment.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be what New Zealand is doing, which begs the questions as to whether its foreign policy elite truly understand the nature of contemporary international relations and what conceptual frameworks they employ to chart a course within it.

Should NZ renounce lethal drones?

datePosted on 17:32, May 25th, 2014 by Pablo

The Diplosphere event on lethal drones held in Wellington last week was a good opportunity to hear different views on the subject. The majority consensus was that legal, moral and practical questions delegitimate their use, although one defended them and I noted, among other things, that they are just one aspect of the increased robotization of modern battlefields, are only efficient against soft targets and are seen as cost effective when compared to manned aircraft.

At the end of my remarks I proposed that we debate the idea that New Zealand unilaterally renounce the use of lethal drones in any circumstance, foreign and domestic. I noted that the NZDF and other security agencies would oppose such a move, as would our security allies. I posited that if implemented, such a stance would be akin to the non-nuclear declaration of 1985 and would reaffirm New Zealand’s independent and autonomous foreign policy.

Alternatively, New Zealand could propose to make the South Pacific a lethal drone-free zone, similar to the regional nuclear free zone declared by the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga. I noted again that countries like Australia and Chile would oppose the move (both have drone fleets and do not discount using them in anger), but that many of the Pacific Island states would likely welcome the idea.

Either declaration would in no way impact negatively on the use of non-lethal drones, whose utility is obvious. It would also leave open to interpretation whether NZ based intelligence could be used in drawing up targeting lists for foreign lethal drone strikes, a subject currently in the public eye as a result of claims that the GCSB does exactly that in places like Yemen. The PM says he is comfortable with the intelligence-sharing arrangement as well as the legitimacy of drone strikes, and added that similar intelligence was provided for ISAF drone strikes in Afghanistan (where the US and the UK deploy lethal drones on behalf of ISAF).

His confidence notwithstanding, many Kiwis are opposed to any cooperation with lethal drone programs, so the debate could be expanded to include indirect NZ involvement with them.

I think this is a debate well worth having. I realize that the security community will want to keep all options open and be very opposed to ceding any tactical advantage in future conflicts, and that extending the ban to indirect cooperation would have a negative influence on NZ’s diplomatic and military-intelligence relations with its security partners.

I am cognizant that it may be a hard thing to actually do given the balance of political power currently extant in NZ and the hurdles needed to implement it should the proposition be accepted. One of the other panelists dismissed the idea of unilateral renunciation as simply impractical and said that the proper forum in which to advance it was the UN (cue Tui ad here).

Some may say that is silly to debate something that does not exist. New Zealand does not deploy lethal drones. However, UAVs are already present in NZ skies, both in civilian and military applications. This includes geological surveys and volcanic research, on the civilian side, and battlefield (tactical) surveillance in the guise of the NZDF Kahui Hawk now deployed by the army. The military continues its research and development of UAV prototypes (early R&D worked off of Israeli models), and agencies as varied as the Police, Customs and the Navy have expressed interest in their possibilities. Since non-lethal UAV platforms can be modified into lethal platforms at relatively low cost, it seems prudent to have the debate before rather than after their entry into service.

I am aware that the revulsion voiced by many against the lethal use of unmanned aerial vehicles might as well be shared with all manned combat aircraft since the effects of their deployment ultimately are the same–they deal in death from the sky. Given that commonality, the preferential concern with one and not the other appears more emotional than rational, perhaps responding to idealized notions of chivalry in war. That is another reason why the subject should be debated at length.

Such a debate, say, in the build up to a referendum on the matter, would allow proponents and opponents to lay out their best arguments for and against, and permit the public to judge the merits of each via the ballot box. That will remove any ambiguity about how Kiwis feel about this particular mode of killing.

UPDATE: Idiot Savant at No Right Turn has kindly supported the proposition. Lets hope that others will join the campaign.

 

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