Archive for ‘History’ Category

New Zealand goes it alone.

datePosted on 18:47, March 28th, 2018 by Pablo

The New Zealand Labour government’s refusal to join international collective action against Russia over the nerve agent attack in the UK on former spy Sergei Skripal is perplexing. The 27-nation solidarity coalition expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from their soil includes all of New Zealand’s major security partners as well as important trade counterparts. New Zealand is a member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, so it has better knowledge than most as to what evidence the UK has to indicate that Vladimir Putin’s regime ordered the hit on Skripal. New Zealand is an extra-regional NATO and EU associate, and like the majority of the members of the coalition, it is a democracy. New Zealand fashions itself as a good international citizen and honest broker in international affairs, so it seems odd that it would not join its closest diplomatic interlocutors in what is largely a symbolic gesture of repudiation of Russian misbehavior abroad.

The decision was made all the more quixotic by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s claim that there are “no undeclared Russian intelligence operatives” in New Zealand and hence there was no need to expel anyone. She claimed to have assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) that was the case, even though MFAT has no counter-intelligence function nor the ability to ascertain who is and who is not a Russian intelligence officer, declared or undeclared (that is the job of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS)). She later changed her story to saying that her advice did in fact come from the SIS, but without acknowledging her original misstatement (which happened during a RNZ interview so is recorded for posterity). Her repeated comments that if there were such spies in New Zealand they would be expelled produced derisive headlines around the globe but more importantly, raised questions about her competence when handling security matters.

Discussion in New Zealand about the issue has been muddled by the PM’s remarks. The minor aspect of the story is about whether there are Russian intelligence operatives in NZ and whether they should be expelled. The answers to that are “yes” and “possibly.” “Possibly” depends on the answer to the major aspect of the story: the reasons why NZ decided not to join the so-called “expulsion coalition.” I shall focus on the latter but suffice it to say that all of the 150 Russian personnel expelled by the coalition hold diplomatic passports so by definition are not working undercover as spies without diplomatic immunity. Nor were all of those expelled intelligence officers working under official cover (i.e. with diplomatic immunity).

The detour into what constitutes an “undeclared intelligence agent” was unnecessary and unhelpful in clarifying the reasons behind NZ’s decision to reject the UK request to join it in repudiating the Russian assassination attempt. That reasoning continues to remain unclear at present. Claiming that the decision to not adhere to the collective expulsion action is because there was no one who met the definition of “undeclared intelligence agents” operating in New Zealand is a diversion from the underlying rationale because it puts the focus on the instrumentalities of response rather than the reasons for it.

So why has New Zealand chosen to isolate, or perhaps better said, alienate itself from its traditional allies and major security partners? To be sure, members of the coalition have their own histories of foreign skullduggery and intrigue, to include extrajudicial killings abroad. Moreover, diplomacy is often no more than hypocrisy masquerading as self-righteousness standing in defense of principle. Perhaps the Labour government wants to give the lie to the posturing of its most important allies.

Even so, pragmatic assessments usually inform foreign policy decisions, particularly those involving choosing sides in international disputes. That is particularly true for small states when confronted with the demands of quarreling powers to take a position in favour of one side or the other. This “Melian Dilemma” is an unavoidable part of being small in a world dominated by competing great powers, so Lilliputians such as New Zealand usually think long and hard before taking an unpopular stand—particularly amongst its friends.

New Zealand’s decision not to participate in the solidarity coalition was made in the face of a direct request from the May government and in spite of the fact that the collective action is largely symbolic. Although Russian intelligence operations will be adversely affected in places like the UK, US and Germany, many of those being expelled are “normal” diplomats who can be recalled at some future date. So the downside to joining the coalition would seem relatively small even with Russian threats of retaliation, and the upside in terms of being seen to be a good diplomatic partner that supports international norms could well outweigh whatever the Russians can respond with.

Perhaps there lies the explanation. New Zealand’s foreign policy in recent years has been trade obsessed and speculation has it that members of the foreign policy establishment see the possibility of advancing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Russia in the vacuum left by the trade sanctions levied on it in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and annexation of Crimea. New Zealand and Russia opened talks on trade before the sanctions were imposed, then suspended them afterwards. Official advice from the foreign ministry is that violating the sanctions regime to try to exploit a possible window of opportunity vis a vis Russia is counterproductive at best.

But talk in Wellington is that some in the Labour-led government are keen to resume negotiations, so taking a contrary stance on response to the nerve agent assassination attempt is a means of currying favour with Putin at a time when other competitors are not. Given that Foreign Minister Winston Peters has questioned claims that Russia was involved in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, or that it interfered in US and European elections, and has refused to name Russia as the perpetrator of the attempted Skripal hit, what once seemed to be an unhinged rationale for resuming bilateral trade negotiations is now being given credence.

It is also possible that Labour is attempting to stake out its “independent and autonomous” foreign policy credentials after nine years of the previous government’s rapprochement with the US and the other Five Eyes partners. Given the animosity felt towards Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Teresa May) amongst Labour supporters as well as those of its coalition partners (New Zealand First and the Green Party), this is a way of playing David versus Goliath(s) for domestic audiences.

New Zealand could also be signalling the international community. After all, over 140 nations did not sign up to the collective action, including major trading partners in Asia and the Middle East. No Pacific Island nation (other than those represented by France, the UK and US) signed on to the deal. So in terms of demonstrating its sovereign resolve to remain out of great power conflicts when and where possible, this Labour government may be channeling the spirit of independence championed by David Lange during the 1985 nuclear showdown.

And yet, pragmatic assessment of the situation would advise the Labour-led government to address the short and long term costs and benefits of alienating its most important foreign partners by refusing to join in the symbolic repudiation of Russia. By any objective measure, to include the possibility of securing bilateral trade with Putin’s regime, the costs of doing so will clearly outweigh the benefits even if it does not interfere with the daily business of intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the Five Eyes and other security partners.

On the other hand, virtue signalling its independence may garner New Zealand some favor with those outside of the “exclusion coalition” as well as domestic audiences. The play is both short and long-term in nature, with the question being will a short term move of this sort translate into longer term benefits or losses.

In the diplomatic world the shadow of the future hangs heavily over present decision-making. Sequels are uncertain and memories are elephantine in nature. The consequences of being shortsightedly contrarian are determined not by the contrarian but by those refused support on a matter of international consequence and foreign policy alignment. On the other hand, standing up to great power partners may risk the wrath of those slighted but win broader appeal among those in the global community who are averse to the machinations of the mighty.

With that in mind the question remains: what exactly were the reasons for this move and what does the New Zealand Labour government expect to gain from its contrarian (even if principled)  stance?

A shorter version of this post appears in The Guardian on line, March 28, 2018.

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today

In the US, what is needed is a Broad Front.

datePosted on 11:03, February 20th, 2018 by Pablo

The mass murder of 17 high school students and teachers in Florida at the hands of a deranged gunman has once again prompted public outcry about the need for better gun control in a country where gun-related violence is at epidemic levels. Foremost amongst those leading the charge for legislative reform in and around the 2nd amendment are teenagers, led by classmates of those killed and supported by a legion of kids nation-wide who have decided that they will do what their parents could or would not do: confront the National Rifle Association and the politicians in its pocket on the issue of who should have access to firearms, and which firearms should be made legally available to the citizenry.

Sadly, noble intentions notwithstanding, I fear that their efforts may be in vain and the movement will whither and die before any significant change can be made. Think of it this way. In this instance we have a mentally ill teenager kill other teenagers and staff at his former school. Teenagers are largely good if difficult to deal with, but there are enough of them (such as the killer) who push the boundaries of acceptable social convention for nothing more than self absorbed thrills. So one could say that not all of them are the precious flowers they are now being made out to be and that the loss of some teenagers (even if not these), while tragic, does not actually represent a complete waste of untapped human potential. I do not mean to be insensitive or cruel, but instead am trying to put things into context.

Because there are those other incidents to consider. For example, what about Sandy Hook? There 20 primary school kids were murdered along with six staff. These were little kids, still innocent, still wondrous, still untouched and untainted by the distractions of teenage life and attractions of the adult world. And yet, even as then president Obama tried to get the Republican controlled Congress to do something when it came to mentally ill people having legal access to semi-automatic weapons, nothing–as in zero–got done. A movement in their memory was started and yet it failed to gain wide-spread traction across the country. Little kids–precious, innocent kids– were murdered and nothing was done. So why do we think that the deaths of some teenagers will suddenly change the terms of any national discussion about guns?

I suggest that it will not change unless the teenage #NeverAgain movement joins forces with other social movements in what can be called a Broad Front (or, as the Maoists used to say in its original incarnation, “United Front”). The objective is to join together otherwise seemingly disparate groups in common cause. That is because if the #NeverAgain crowd go it alone they can be isolated and divided from, if not against, other mass based collective actors seeking systemic and institutional reform. This type of stove-piping or siloing makes divide and conquer tactics on the part of the status quo easier to accomplish, especially when the teenagers in question are not monolithic on the subject of gun control and may not have the type of national reach that they aspire to (say, for example, amongst adolescents in North Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia or Wyoming, where the gun and hunting culture is ideologically hegemonic).

Instead, what the kids in the #NeverAgain movement need to do is establish links with groups such as Black Lives Matter, the #TakeaKnee anthem protesters, the Women’s March on Washington, LGBT groups, unions and professional associations (including those that represent professional athletes, musicians and other artists), student governments, Hispanic, Arab, African-American, Asian and other identity organisations, religious entities, political organisations, pacifists and peace advocates, medical and psychiatric associations and lobbying groups, chambers of commerce, even local governments. The common cause is rejection of the existing gun culture and the agents of death that represent it in politics, to include the NRA and the media types and politicians who parrot its lines. The Broad Front can then rally around a few simple, good sense-based propositions regarding the who/how/what and whens of gun ownership in a diverse and democratic (as of yet) society. The unifying thread in both facets is the belief that the mental, physical and social costs of the current gun ownership regime far outweigh whatever benefit it may have in terms of personal and collective safety, and that since most of the costs are paid by taxpayers while the benefits are accrued by weapons manufacturers and dealers, the interest groups that represent them and some individuals rather than society as a whole, the current gun culture is reactive rather than proactive in its approach to commonweal costs and biased in favour of death merchants rather than children.

Interestingly, there is a parallel and example provided by the Argentine “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) movement that emerged from the ashes of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s and which grouped a wide swathe of organisations in the effort to find justice for those victimised by the junta and to put an end to the culture of impunity that led to the so-called “dirty war” in which so many innocent lives were lost. In name and in broader intent, this is exactly what the English hashtag eponym movement is all about.

Organizing a Broad Front around the #NeverAgain movement will be hard to do but that is what collective action is all about–organizing people by making them think outside of their own personal circumstances and in terms of the collective good. For the #NeverAgain movement there has to be a conscious, deliberate and systematic effort to reach out and establish horizontal solidarity ties with other mass-based organisations and collective agents with agendas for change. There are few subjects that can unite a wide array of ideologically diverse and often narrowly-defined interest and activist groups in a heterogeneous society such as that of the US, but if there is one that can do so, it is the issue of gun control.

And a Broad Front can be made from that.

In Iraq, the NZDF is there but not “there.”

datePosted on 11:22, February 12th, 2018 by Pablo

Recently I was approached by reporters to comment on a report by Harmeet Sooden that reveals that NZDF activities in Iraq extend well beyond what has publicly been acknowledged.  You can read his report here. My back and forth with the reporters eventuated in an op ed (ironic, given the content of my previous post), the gist of which is below.  As readers will see, my concerns are not so much about the mission as they are about the lack of transparency on the part of the NZDF and the previous government as to what the deployment really involves.

Ethically and practically speaking, there is no real problem with what the NZDF is doing in Iraq, including the undisclosed or downplayed aspects. It is a way for the NZDF to hone its skills (to include combat skills), increase its capabilities, enhance its professional reputation and more seamlessly integrate and operate with allied forces and equipment, as well as demonstrate that NZ is willing to do its part as a good international citizen. The cause (fighting Daesh) is just, even if the context and conditions in which the war is prosecuted are prone to unintended consequences and sequels that blur the distinction between a good fight and a debacle. The issue is whether the benefits of participating in the anti-Daesh coalition outweigh the costs of being associated with foreign military intervention in a region in which NZ has traditionally been perceived as neutral and as a trustworthy independent diplomatic and trading partner. The statements of coalition partners (especially the ADF) demonstrate that they believe that the mission has been worthwhile for the reasons I noted.

Some will say that the disclosure of the NZDF “advise and assist” role in Iraq is evidence of “mission creep.’ In reality this was envisioned from the very beginning of the NZDF involvement in the anti-Daesh coalition. The training mission at Camp Taji, although a core of the NZDF participation in the coalition, also provided a convenient cover for other activities. These were generally disclosed in the months following the first deployment (TGT-1) in theatre, and it was only during TGT-5 and TGT-6 in 2016-17 that the advise and assist role was openly acknowledged. In practice, military training such as that conducted by the NZDF in Iraq does not stop after six weeks behind the barbed wire at Taji, so some advise and assist operations in live fire conditions were likely conducted before what has been publicly acknowledged (perhaps during the battles of Tikrit and Falluja or other “clearing” missions in Anbar Province).

The extended advisory role “outside the wire” is particularly true for small unit counter-insurgency operations. That was known from the start.  So it is not so much a case of NZDF mission creep as it is planned mission expansion.

NZDF collection of biometric data is only troublesome because of who it is shared with. The Iraqi authorities are unreliable when it comes to using it neutrally and professionally, so sharing with them or the ISF is problematic. Biometric information shared with NZ intelligence agencies can be very useful in vetting foreign travellers to NZ, including migrants and refugees. But again, whereas the use of such data can be expected to be professional in nature when it comes to NZ and its military allies, the whole issue of biometric data sharing with any Middle Eastern regime is fraught, to say the least.

The reasons for the National government’s reluctance to be fully transparent about the true nature of the NZDF commitment in Iraq are both practical and political.

Practically speaking, denying or minimizing of NZDF involvement in combat activities, to include intelligence and other support functions, is done to keep NZ’s military operations off the jihadist radarscope and thereby diminish the chances that New Zealand interests abroad or at home are attacked in retaliation. This goes beyond operational and personal security for the units and soldiers involved as well as the “mosaic theory” justification that small disclosures can be linked by enemies into a larger picture detrimental to NZ interests. All of the other Anglophone members of the coalition (the US, UK, Australia and Canada, as well as others such as France and Spain) have suffered attacks in their homelands as a direct result of their public disclosures. NZ authorities undoubtedly see this as a reason to keep quiet about what the NZDF was actually doing in theatre, and they are prudent in doing so.

However, foreign reporting, to include reporting on military media in allied countries, has already identified NZDF participation in combat-related activities, so the desire to keep things quiet in order to avoid retaliation is undermined by these revelations. Likewise, Daesh and al-Qaeda have both denounced New Zealand as a member of the “Crusader” coalition, so NZ is not as invisible to jihadists as it may like to be. Even so, to err on the side of prudence is understandable in light of the attacks on allies who publicly disclosed the full extent of their roles in Iraq.

The other reason why the National government did not want to reveal the full extent of the NZDF role in Iraq is political. Being opaque about what the NZDF is doing allows the government (and NZDF) to avoid scrutiny of and deny participation in potential war crimes (say, a white phosphorous air strike on civilian targets in Mosul), complicity in atrocities committed by allied forces or even mistakes leading to civilian casualties in the “fog of war.” If there is no public acknowledgement and independent reporting of where the NZDF is deployed and what they are doing, then the government can assume that non-disclosure of their activities gives NZDF personnel cover in the event that they get caught up in unpleasantness that might expose them to legal jeopardy.

It is all about “plausible deniability:” if the NZDF and government say that NZ soldiers are not “there” and there is no one else to independently confirm that they are in fact “there,” then there is no case to be made against them for their behaviour while “there.”

In addition, non-disclosure or misleading official information about the NZDF mission in Iraq, particularly that which downplays the advise and assist functions and other activities (such as intelligence gathering) that bring the NZDF into direct combat-related roles, allows the government some measure of insulation from political and public questioning of the mission. NZ politicians are wary of public backlash against combat roles in far off places (excepting the SAS), particularly at the behest of the US. Although most political parties other than the Greens are prone to “going along” with whatever the NZDF says that it is doing during a foreign deployment, there is enough anti-war and pacifist public sentiment, marshaled through a network of activist groups, to pose some uncomfortable questions should the government and NZDF opt for honesty and transparency when discussing what the NZDF does abroad.

However, in liberal democracies it is expected that the public will be informed by decision-makers as to the who, how, what and why of foreign military deployments that bring soldiers into harm’s way. After all, both politicians and the military are servants of the citizenry, so we should expect that transparency would be the default setting even if it does lead to hard questioning and public debate about what is a “proper” foreign military deployment.

The bottom line as to why the NZDF and political leaders obfuscate when it comes to foreign military operations is due to what can be called a “culture of impunity.” This extends to the intelligence community as well. They engage in stonewalling practices because traditionally they have been able to get away with them. Besides public ignorance or disinterest in such matters, these affairs of state have traditionally been the province of a small circle of decision-makers who consider that they “know best” when it coms to matters of economic, security and international affairs. Their attitude is “why complicate things by involving others and engaging in public debate?” That tradition is alive and well within the current NZDF leadership and was accepted by the National government led by John Key.

It remains unclear if there will be a change in the institutional culture when it comes to disclosing military operations abroad as a result of the change in government, with most indications being that continuity rather than reform is likely to be Labour/NZ First’s preferred approach.

 

An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Dominion Post on February 12, 2018. (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/101327837/advise-and-assist-in-iraq-was-always-part-of-the-plan-for-nz-defence-force).

Do the Greens have a candidate vetting problem?

datePosted on 12:00, January 19th, 2018 by Pablo

12 weeks after the election the Green Party’s 14th ranked candidate in 2017 opts out of politics and joins a morning television program. Shortly after the election it is discovered that one of their new MPs fudged her credentials as a human rights lawyer. Another successful newcomer has a more established social media presence than the business experience she claims to have. The former co-leader was ousted after volunteering (at whose behest is still a mystery) that she committed benefit and electoral fraud when younger.

The first three people replaced seasoned politicians such as Kennedy Graham, who capably handled his MP responsibilities (Mojo Mathers, an eloquent champion of the disabled, just missed out entering parliament at number 9 on the list, having been leapfrogged by neophytes at numbers 7 and 8). Two of the three new candidates mentioned above come from well-to-do Auckland backgrounds (which is a stretch from the traditional Greens grassroots) and share with the third (another Aucklander) a complete lack of political experience other than undergraduate degrees and campaigning for office. The unsuccessful list candidate-turned-TV-bubblehead recently is quoted as saying that her single greatest moment was to be invited onto a TV dancing show rather that being selected as a candidate for a party that she once said she felt “passionate” about.

Let me clear that I am sure that the ACT Party attracts weirdos and self-aggrandized liars in droves, and that even the two major parties and NZ First could well have people with inflated resumes and/or dubious backgrounds on their MP rosters. But I expect more from the Greens because they are supposed to be the truth that speaks to power in parliament and the idealists who hold parliamentary cynics in check as well as keep Labour honest from the Left side of the table. So I am a bit disappointed by how things played out in the run up and aftermath of the election.

Beyond the fact that all the list shake ups in 2017 managed to do is lose the Greens votes when compared to the previous elections (11 percent and 14 seats in 2011, 10.70 percent and 14 seats in 2014 to 6.3 percent and 8 seats in 2017), they also resulted in the Greens being the third-party step-child in the Labour-NZ First led government coalition. The distribution of cabinet seats is evidence of that (no Green minsters in a 20 member Cabinet). The Greens may claim that the 2017 list was the “strongest ever” but if so the strength being measured did not translate into votes or political power. In fact, one can argue that their strength, such at it is, lies in the first six names on the list, with what followed being a mix of opportunistic shoulder tapping for newcomers and insult to steadfast old-timers.

Renovation and rejuvenation are always part of any Party’s reproductive process, but in this instance what resulted was a political still birth.

Given what I outlined in the first paragraph, I think that to some degree this is due to poor candidate vetting and selection processes within the Greens. In 2017 the operative campaign logic appeared to be about style over substance and the seemingly naive belief that everything a candidate claimed to be true about themselves was in fact true. This is dangerous because not only do political opponents have the means to verify candidate claims in a hostile manner (as was seen in the case of the human rights lawyer), but it leaves the Party exposed to ridicule and marginalisation should candidates with doctored or inflated resumes be shown to be inept or incompetent in fulfilling roles assigned to them because of their supposed expertise.

Again, this is of no consequence when we talk about blowhard parties like ACT. Nor do I wish to be mean to the people in question (I simply think they needed to spend more time honing their political skills by working for the party and/or in public policy-related fields). But the Greens worked hard for two decades to be taken seriously on the national stage and it would be a pity if they squander the gains made by allowing unqualified candidates/MPs to champion their cause without proper due diligence having been done on their backgrounds. Because at the rate they are going (losing more than four percentage points compared to the previous two elections), the Greens risk following the path of the Maori Party into political oblivion.

Plus ca change, or, does Labour have a foreign policy?

datePosted on 07:34, January 5th, 2018 by Pablo

Among the things mentioned during the 2017 election campaign, foreign policy was not one of them. This is not surprising, as domestic policy issues tend to dominate election year politics in times of peace in virtually all democracies. The syndrome is compounded in New Zealand, where matters of diplomacy, international security and trade are notable for their absence in both parliamentary debates as well as public concern, only surfacing during moments of controversy surrounding specific issues such as foreign troop deployments, NZ involvement in Anglophone spy networks or negotiating trade deals that appear lopsided in favour of other states and economic interests.

Even if foreign policy is not a central election issue, it nevertheless is an important area of governance that should in principle reflect a Party’s philosophy with regard to its thrust and substance. Given that the Labour-led coalition that formed a government in 2017 represents a departure from nine years of center-right rule, it is worth pondering what approach it has, if any, to reshaping foreign policy in the wake of its election.

It should be noted that NZ foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the last 20 years regardless of which party coalition was in government. Dating to the break up of the ANZUS defense alliance on the heels of its non-nuclear declaration in 1985,  NZ has championed an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line that, if not completely integrating it into the non-aligned movement that rose during the Cold War, granted it some latitude in how it approached its diplomatic relations and international commitments. Foremost amongst these was support for multilateral approaches to international conflict resolution, concern with ethics, rules and norms governing international behaviour, advocacy of small state interests and a self-assigned reputation as an “honest broker” in international affairs. Issues of trade, diplomacy and security were uncoupled once the Cold War ended, something that allowed NZ to navigate the diplomatic seas without the constraints imposed by binding alliance ties to larger partners.

From the mid-90s there has been a trade-centric core to NZ foreign policy, to the point that promoting “free” trade and negotiating trade deals, be they bi- or multilateral in nature, is seen to have overshadowed traditional diplomatic and security concerns such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection and human rights promotion. This “trade-for-trade’s sake” approach was initiated by the Shipley government but deepened under both the 5th Labour government as well as the National-led governments headed by John Key. After 9/11 it was paralleled by a reinforcement of security ties with traditional allies such as Australia, the US and the UK, in spite of the fact that the move towards expanding trade relationships in Asia and the Middle East ran against New Zealand’s traditional advocacy of a principled foreign policy that defended human rights as well as the thrust of the geopolitics perspectives of security allies (which view NZ trade partners such as China and Iran as adversaries rather than partners).

Although both Labour and National continued to voice the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line during the 2000s, what actually took place was the development of two separate tracks where NZ pushed trade relations without regard to security commitments and human rights, on the one hand, and on the other hand deepened its involvement in US-led security networks without regard to broader diplomatic concerns. This was formalised with the signing of the bi-lateral Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012. For NZ diplomats, the parallel track approach was a matter of keeping eggs in different baskets even if it violated the long-standing principle of security partners trading preferentially with each other. That is not a problem so long as NZ trading partners are not seen as hostile to or competitors of the US and its main allies. Yet NZ chose to expand its trade ties with China with the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2008, something that has not only increased its trade dependency on China in the years that followed (China is now NZ’s second largest export market and third largest import market), but also put it in the unenviable position of trying to remain balanced in the face of increased US-China competition in the Western Pacific Rim. Similarly, NZ-Iranian trade ties, and the nascent talks about NZ-Russian bilateral trade, both run the risk of negatively counterpoising NZ’s economic and security interests in each case.

Following Labour’s lead, the National government doubled its efforts to reinforce its ties to the US-led security network while pushing for trade agreements regardless of domestic opposition to both. It committed troops to the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and continued to maintain presence in Afghanistan after its formal commitment to the ISAF mission ended in 2013. It revamped and upgraded its commitment to the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection partnership that includes the US, UK  Australia and Canada. It loudly advocated for the TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) even though the 12 country pact was largely seen as favouring US economic interests and serving as the economic component of a US containment strategy towards China in the Western Pacific.

Now it is the Labour-led coalition headed by Jacinda Ardern that holds the reins. What can we expect from it when it comes to foreign policy? Continuity when it comes to the “two-track” approach? A deepening of one track and softening of the other? An attempt to bring a third track–what might be called a humanitarian line that re-emphasises human rights, environmental protection and non-proliferation, among other rules-based policy areas–into the mix?

From what is seen in its foreign policy manifesto, Labour appears to want to have things a bit of both ways: overall continuity and commitment to an “independent” foreign policy but one in which ethical concerns are layered into trade policy and in which international security engagement is framed by UN mandates and multilateral resolutions (as well as a turn away from military combat roles and a re-emphasis on peace-keeping operations). A commitment to renewed diplomatic endeavour, particularly in international fora and within the South Pacific region, is also pledged, but the overall thrust of its foreign policy objectives remain generalised and rhetorical rather than dialed in on specifics.

A few months into its tenure, the new government has done nothing significant with regards to foreign policy. Jacinda Arden made some noises about resettling the the Manus detainees in NZ during her first official trip abroad, only to be rebuked  by Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and her own Opposition. She also made  ill-advised comments about who Donald Trump may or may not thought she was, leading to skepticism as to the veracity of her story. NZ First leader Winston Peters was named foreign minister more as a matter of style (and reward) rather than in recognition of his substance when it comes to foreign affairs. Likewise, Ron Mark got the nod to be Defense Minister in what appears to be a sop thrown to an old soldier who enjoys military ceremonies but cannot get his medals rack sorted correctly. Andrew Little was apparently made Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security because he is a lawyer and a reputed tough guy who as Opposition Leader once sat on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security, rather than because he has any particular experience in that field, especially with regard to its international aspects. The Greens, in the past so vociferous in their defense of human rights, pacifism, non-interventionism and anti-imperialism, have gone silent.

As for the Labour Party foreign policy experts, whoever and how many there may be (if any), the question is how do they see the world. Do they use (neo) realist, idealist, constructivist or some hybrid framework with which to frame their perspective and that of their government? Do they use international systems theory to address issue linkage in foreign policy and to join the dots amongst broader economic, social, military and political trends in world affairs as well the nature of the global community itself?  Are they aware of the Melian Dilemma (in which small states are often forced to choose alliance between competing Great Powers)? iven the predominance of trade in NZ foreign policy, how do they balance notions of comparative and competitive advantage when envisioning NZ’s preferred negotiating stance? If not those mentioned, what conceptual and theoretical apparatuses do they employ? On a practical level, how do their views match up with those of the foreign affairs bureaucracy and career diplomatic corps, and what is their relationship with the latter?

Issues such as the ongoing NZDF deployments in Iraq (and likely Syria, if the NZSAS are involved) have not (yet) been reviewed in spite of early campaign promises to do so. Nor, for that matter, has Labour taken a detailed critical eye to the stalled TPPA negotiations now that the US has abandoned them, or re-examined its diplomatic approaches towards the Syrian, Ukrainian and Yemeni civil wars, South China Sea conflicts, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, post-Brexit economic relations, maritime conservation regimes and a host of other important and oft-contentious topics.

Judging from the manifesto it is hard to discern a coherent intellectual underpinning to how Labour policy makers approach international relations. It is also difficult to know how the new government’s foreign policy elite relate to the careerists charged with maintaining NZ’s international relations. So far, there is no identifiably Labour approach to foreign affairs and policy carry-over from previous governments is the norm.

That may not hold for long. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has changed the global environment in which NZ foreign policy is formulated and practiced because if anything, he has rejected some of the foundational principles of the NZ approach (support for the UN and multilateralism) with his “America First” philosophy and has increased global tensions with his belligerent posturing vis a vis adversaries and his bullying of allies. That combination of provocation, brinkmanship and alienation of allies brings with it high risks but also a diplomatic conundrum for NZ. Given that NZ maintains good relations with some of US adversaries as well as allies, yet is intimately tied to the US in uniquely significant ways, its ability to maintain the dichotomous  approach to an independent foreign policy may now be in jeopardy.

After all, the US now demands open expressions of “loyalty” from its allies, for example, in the form of demands that security partners spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense (NZ spends 1.1 percent), and that trade partners give acknowledged preference to US economic interests when signing “deals” with it. In that light, and with Trump increasingly looking like he wants open conflict with one or more perceived rivals (and is on a clear collision course with China with regards to strategic preeminence in the Western Pacific), the “two-track” NZ foreign policy may now be more akin to trying to straddle a barbed wire fence while balancing on ice blocks rather than a matter of saving diplomatic eggs.

In light of this, it is time for the Labour government to stand up and be heard about where they propose to steer NZ in the international arena during what are clearly very fluid and uncertain times.

In my final interview in the “Letters from America” series with Mitch Harris at RadioLive, I reflect on the Alabama senatorial election, the plight of Rex Tillerson, the attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and a few more things. After five months, it is time to go home.

The beginning of the end of an error

datePosted on 12:26, December 2nd, 2017 by Lew

There were no winners in Kim Hill’s interview with Don Brash this morning. Not Kim, and not Don, not Guyon Espiner’s unflinching use of te reo on Morning Report, and certainly not the people of Aotearoa. Pākehā liberals wanted the bloodsport spectacle of their champion vanquishing the doddering spectre of our reactionary past, and Pākehā right-wingers craved the sweet outrage of Hill’s rudeness and dismissive scorn towards people like them. Māori people mostly were just dismayed at Brash getting a platform to debate the value of their existence, again. Everyone except for Māori got what they wanted, but nobody got anything more.

In a way, this morning was a last gasp of credence for the notion that debate is possible with people who are oblivious to evidence. Kim got in her zingers, ably skewering Brash’s incoherence and inconsistency, but there’s nothing new there. All the evidence was as incidental as it was anecdotal. We were treated to discourses on the population density of Māori in proximity to kindergartens, based on nothing at all. Concerns about the use of te reo on RNZ cannibalising the audience of Māori language radio and TV stations, without any reference to what those flaxroots practitioners of te reo want. And discourses about actual cannibalism and the stone-age pre-settlement society, where listeners were asked to accept the claim that the deliverance of the Māori from their horrid existence was worth any price, up to and including their cultural erasure. Nobody who has given even modest consideration to these topics could have learned anything or changed their views this morning.

The discussion mocked the very rationality it sought to demonstrate, because it was all about feelings: Brash’s feelings of alienation from his country and his time, and Hill’s need to defend her employer and her worldview. Centred around Pākehā feelings, with no regard given to what Māori felt, or for their agency, it was merely the latest in two hundred years of discussions about Māori, without Māori.

It was a question of evidence that brought the interview to an end, though. Brash finally went one small step too far, with the claim that the Māori are not the indigenous people of Aotearoa, but merely its second-most-recent invaders. This notion has been debunked for almost a hundred years, since Skinner’s work on the Moriori in the 1920s, and there was enough scholarship done on it through the 20th Century that reliance on these claims in the 21st is a straightforward flag that whatever is going on here, it’s not an evidence-based discussion. There was nowhere left for Kim Hill to go. Nobody can debunk arguments advanced with such disregard for reality.

So she shut it down. But better than shutting it down would have been not entertaining it in the first place — which is, by and large, what Māori seem to have wanted. The error of this interview was not merely giving Brash a platform, but its objectification of Māori, the idea that their right to existence on their own terms was a matter for debate. It was an exercise in discursive theatre, a ritual sacrifice performed to appease the savage gods of fair-minded middlebrow liberalism, in the hope that rational discourse will deliver us into salvation. The sacrificers — yes, Kim Hill was one of them — were Pākehā, and inevitably, the sacrificees were Māori.

I was in the crowd for this sacrifice. Loath as I am to continue focusing on Pākehā feelings, I have to say: my only remaining feeling is the horror of being responsible for all this. Not only for today’s sacrifice, but the small sliver of the past that is my contribution to what got us here. We Pākehā need to take care of our own embarrassments, it should not fall to Māori to do that. So we need to stop treating the right to Māori existence on their own terms as conditional on our goodwill, and start treating it as a fact of life. Which, in the letter and spirit of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is what it is. It’s not hard to do. When people want to debate the legitimacy of te reo Māori in public, here’s a simple response: “Like the right of Māori people’s physical existence, the right of Māori people to cultural existence is not a matter for debate.” We have, in polite society at least, stopped talking about “maoris”. We have stopped mocking haka, waiata, and karakia, and even people like Brash have stopped mocking te reo, making honest attempts at decent pronunciation and using what kupu they know in ordinary speech. We can stop treating the existence of Māori as debatable, too, and it’s about time we did.

L

Thanksgiving Weekend is ending here in Boston. For the first time in 15 years I spent it in the US with family and friends. It struck me that Thanksgiving is one of the few remaining symbols of common values left in the US. Independence Day, Christmas, New Years and Super Bowl Sunday all have broad appeal, but only Thanksgiving has the single unifying thread of family to keep it above partisan, religious, ethnic, racial and assorted other divisive tendencies within US society.

Buchanan family Thanksgiving table in The Barn, Holliston, MA.. Photo courtesy Kathy LaCroix Buchanan

Not that all believe Thanksgiving to be controversy-free. Plenty of indigenous people believe that the Pilgrims were complicit in the subjugation and expulsion of eastern tribes from their ancestral lands. The Pilgrims, we may recall, were 40 religious refugees (“Separatists” or “Saints”) who were among the 102 passengers from England who landed first at what became known as Provincetown (on Cape Cod), then Plymouth, Massachusetts (on the mainland) on November 11, 1620 after crossing the Atlantic from the southern English port of Plymouth on the Dutch-made merchant (“fluyt’) ship Mayflower. Originally intending to settle on the Hudson River where an earlier European settlement was already in place, the Pilgrims were thwarted by bad weather and sailing conditions and decided to seek shelter further East. Armed with a grant from the London Company and Crown for the exchange of goods for religious autonomy and self-governance, the Saints/Pilgrims and their fellow travelers were decimated by illness and harsh winter conditions, with only half surviving until the next winter.

Conventional history has it that the Pilgrims arrived in peace and interacted amicably with the native Wampanoag and their sub-tribes (mostly grouped as Alonquian peoples). They also established the Mayflower Compact as the governing framework for the new colony, something that guaranteed all male colonialist participation in collective decision-making and which is considered to be one of the foundations of US democracy. It was in this context that the first shared meal with the local Pokanoket tribe was held in 1621, something that has passed into folklore as Thanksgiving. That meal followed on the heels of the Wampanoag-Pilgrim Peace treaty of April 1, 1621, which bound the settlers and all Wampanoag tribes together against other tribes (such as the Mohawk and Mohegan).

Critical interpretations paint a less rosy picture, noting prior conflict between earlier European settlers and Eastern tribes, with the first shared meal being less an act of cross-cultural friendship than a forced terms of settlement ceremony by which the Pilgrims began a divide-and-conquer process against the indigenous people. Whatever the intent of that breaking of bread, and admitting that colonization did result in the loss of land and displacement of the indigenous majority over the next centuries, “Thanksgiving Day” entered into US mythology as a moment to pause in order to give thanks for the blessings received and ties that bind.

Fast forward to today and one can see that the divide and conquer process is now being used on the settler colonizers in an extremely effective way, yet one that is different to that used on the original indigenous inhabitants. The instrument of division is called “commercialization” and it employs retail therapy as a form of community dismemberment.

For the last decade consumer non-durable retailers have pushed the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” not so much because it is a deadly day to be avoided but because it is a day for so-called “black” sales of retail goods: everyone gets a heavy discount on whiteware, electronics, toys,clothes and other merchandise so long as they are able to get their hands on the discounted goods. This causes thousands of commodity fetishistic numbskulls to line up 24 hours in advance of opening at assorted malls and other shopping venues in the hope of snagging a 20 dollar 60 inch TV and whatever else is within grasp amongst the grappling hordes. This has caused crushes, riots and a few deaths over the years, but the urge to shop on Black Friday is now reified in the media and popular culture to the extent that the original point of Thanksgiving–to give thanks for family and the benefits at hand–has been replaced by the urge to engage in competitive shopping. This no joke: on Black Friday the retail zombies literally fight each other over bins of discounted goods less than a day after the day of thanks. The media cover the crowded malls and traffic chaos as if they were national celebrations (or disasters, depending on your point of view), with person-in-the-street interviews suggesting that for many the importance of the weekend is the sales, not in spending time with family.

Although the day after Thanksgiving Thursday is not a statutory holiday, it has traditionally been treated as the middle of a long family weekend. Football has been added to the mix, with a range of college “rivalry” games and professional football contests serving as backdrops to the reunions. In recent years it has morphed into Black Friday, which in turn has also become a weekend affair culminating in Cyber Monday: the day in which telecommunications devices are fire-sold, especially via on-line retailers. In fact, on-line sales are rapidly approaching in-store sales, which has prompted shopping outlets such as malls to turn the Thanksgiving weekend into a sales event masquerading as a cultural moment, but without the historical linkage back to 1620. Today it is all about pumpkins, autumn colors, pilgrims and turkeys as caricatures rather than historical legacies, and the vibe is about using Thanksgiving as an icon in order to sell an infinite array of product. Fathers and sons can bond over ride-on lawn mowers and ratchet sets as they undertake autumn outdoor chores; moms and daughters can get their pumpkin baking mojo going together with the latest Martha Stewart oven accessory line. Granddads and grandmas can hug the little ones as they fiddle the consoles of their Pilgrim-themed electronic games.

The commercialization frenzy brought on by Black Friday has not only eclipsed the meaning of Thanksgiving but is in fact just the start of a month-long sales push leading towards Christmas, which in turn is followed by its own returns-and-exchanges day (Boxing Day). The entire month between the two holidays is an orgy of conspicuous consumption and brand tie-ins (to the military, football, Santa Claus and whatever else can entice a purchase). Whatever the spirit of togetherness fostered by the communal offering of thanks in late November, the ensuing four weeks is an exercise is materialist self-gratification.

This extends to petty thieves. The advent of on-line shopping has led to a proliferation of so-called package thefts, whereby thieves follow delivery vehicles around and steal packages from front doorsteps. The distinctive packaging used by Amazon is particularly irresistible to the low-lifes, but the general trend is to let others do the shopping and treat doorsteps deliveries as an invitation to help oneself to the surprises that they contain. Let here be no doubt about it: there is a country-wide epidemic of this type of theft, something that is a microcosmic distillation of how the spirit of Thanksgiving is well and truly gone.

Therein lies the tale. What wars and internal political divisions could not do (even Trump was silent on Thanksgiving Day!), the consumerist mentality and grotesque commercialization of everything has done. It has further broken many of the horizontal solidarity ties that once held communities together and promoted a form of nihilist alienation that is abetted and deepened by the advent of social media and individual telecommunication devices. The result is a society of self-gratifying materialists unconcerned with and unencumbered by the responsibilities of civic engagement.

There are just 2700 Wampanoag left today and they are dependent, as is the case with so many tribes, on gambling for economic sustenance. Things might have been different had they discovered that the best way to undermine the Mayflower Compact and its historical sequels was to push commodities on the white man rather than share a meal and foster community with him.

PS: Here is the RadioLive interview counterpart to this post. It begins with Thanksgiving, then wanders into a range of other subjects: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/home/audio/2017/11/-thanksgiving-is-being-degraded-in-the-states—-paul-buchanan.html

The deaths of four US servicemen in Niger has brought attention the fact that the US military operates in far more places and in far more numbers than the public, and apparently senior members of the US Congress (which supposedly has oversight responsibility for US foreign military deployments) are aware of. Estimates of US bases abroad range from 800 bases in 70 countries to 900 bases in 130 countries, with anywhere from 250 thousand to over 750 thousand troops deployed overseas a given time (the total of bases on foreign soil operated by other countries is around 30, mostly by former colonial powers). The reason that the figure varies is that the Pentagon refuses to reveal the precise number of clandestine or “lilly pad” bases (less than 200 troops on station), so the numbers publicly acknowledged are grounded in the permanent installations the US maintains in places such as Okinawa, Spain, Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.  This does not include CIA paramilitary forces operating abroad, which are roughly thought to be in the hundreds.

The ambush that killed the four US Army Special Forces (SF) sergeants was staged during a routine “train, advise and assist” (TAA)/reconnaissance mission in the Southwestern border with Mali. They were part of a 12 man Green Beret team accompanying a 30 man Nigerien partner unit during a routine meeting with local leaders in the village of Tongo Tongo, part of an area in which Daesh is known to operate on both sides of the border (but which until this particular attack had not been sighted near Tongo Tongo during 29 previous patrols). The SF team was part of an 800 strong US military presence in Niger under the jurisdiction of the US African Command (AFCOM) deployed there to help the Nigerien and French militaries fight Daesh as it seeks safe havens in relatively lawless or stateless parts of Subsaharan and West Africa. The SF team/partner  platoon were attacked after they left the village on their way back to tactical HQ.

Leading figures in US Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claim that they were not briefed on the mission and have not been given answers as to what went wrong. Press attention has focused on the insensitive treatment of one widow by the President once her husband’s body was returned to the mainland, why one of the soldiers was left behind during the evacuation (he was later found dead a mile from the ambush site) and the fact that “no one knew” about the US military presence in Niger. In fact, most Americans and the President himself were unaware of what Niger was until the ambush. Now, partisan rebukes are being thrown and answers are being demanded. Yet, with only one percent of the US population directly connected to the US military as serving personnel or immediate relatives of those doing so, it is not entirely surprising that the public and corporate media are unaware of the full extent of US military activities outside of the open conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

A bit more surprising is the apparent Congessional ignorance of what is happening in AFCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) or the rules of engagement (ROEs) under which that SF team and other troops operate (that is relevant because it turns out that the ill-fated patrol had no US close air support and required French air assets to come to its assistance more than an hour after the ambush began). Since it is routine for the Pentagon to provide off-record briefs to the Armed Services Committees of both deliberative chambers on military operational matters abroad, this seems unusual unless there was a highly classified scenario being developed in that part of the world.

The surprise and arguments about the ambush in Niger–“Trump’s Benghazi,” as some are calling it–obscures an underlining fact: US imperialism is in crisis. It may or may not be terminal and it may or may not be positive for world peace, but the reasons for the crisis are worth exploring.

The crisis of US imperialism (or neo-imperialism, should one want to be pedantic) is rooted in both domestic as well as international factors. Domestically, the long era of “liberal internationalism” is over, and so far nothing as emerged by way of a coherent foreign policy and military strategic doctrine to replace it. Liberal internationalism, which emerged during the Cold War and remained as the guiding principle of the US approach to international relations until Donald Trump entered presidential office, is premised on the belief that the US has a special responsibility to engage in the international system in order to safeguard and expand a liberal democratic order based upon market capitalist principles. This was evident in the US role in creating international institutions such as the UN, WTO and IMF but also in its role as the ‘world’s policeman.” The idea was that the US, as the world’s superpower, had the responsibility to promote and maintain a system that, if not made in its image, was supportive of the liberal mores that it espoused, especially when these were challenged by actors with less noble motives. Many might disagree with both the premise and practice of liberal internationalism, but that is what guided US foreign policy and military diplomacy for almost a half century.

The liberal internationalist (some call it interventionist) consensus spanned both major parties and the foreign policy elite in Washington and in academia. But with the emergence of an economically nationalist and neo-isolationist “America First” Alt-Right led by the likes of Steve Bannon and endorsed by Trump, the consensus has broken down. Where American neo-conservatives and neo-Wilsonians, neo-realists, idealists and constuctivists could all paper over their differences under the umbrella of liberal internationalism in pursuit of US global hegemony, they are repudiated in their entirety by the America Firsters. However, other than the appeal to economic nationalism, xenophobia and a “strong military,” the latter are themselves unsure how to approach world affairs. This is seen in the Trump administration’s ad hoc approach to assorted foreign policy issues as well as in the lack of high and upper management level appointments in the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies (over 250 such positions remain unfilled ten months after Trump’s inauguration).

By way of default, the US imperial reach is increasingly maintained by the military rather than the diplomatic corps. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decimated the upper ranks of the foreign service in favor of relying on a small cadre of trusted advisors, only a few of whom have the type of diplomatic experience that a career foreign service officer would have. In parallel, Trump has staffed the White House and Pentagon with retired and active duty generals, even in positions traditionally filled by civilians. The combination, when added to the lack of strategic vision and baseline foreign policy principles, has resulted in the conduct of US diplomacy led by military threat or fiat, as opposed to military diplomacy being subordinated to and guided by broader strategic and diplomatic objectives.

This is a major sign of weakness because the role of global hegemon requires that the majority of other states and international actors support US leadership and eventually accept and share its values as organizing principles for the international order. That is how the difference between “super” and “great” powers is drawn: “super” powers intervene in the international community in order to maintain and defend systemic interests grounded in the promotion and acceptance of shared perspectives and values, whereas “great” powers intervene in the international community to promote national interests in the absence or rejection of universal standards. Both approaches are grounded in realpolitik, but only the former is hegemonic because it relies more on diplomatic cooperation than military coercion.

Evidence that the US is declining in influence and moving from a “super” to a “great” power is seen externally. The return or rise of old and new powers has shifted the international system towards multipolarity after a decade or so of post-Cold War unipolarity. The US may still be central to the strategic equation inherent in the emerging mulitipolar system but it no longer dominates it. The endless wars since 9/11 have sapped its finances and public morale and demonstrated that its much proclaimed capability to fight and win 2.5 major regional conflicts (MRCs) was baseless in fact (the 2.5 MRC scenario was premised on the US simultaneously fighting and winning two major and one minor conventional regional conflicts alone and against any combination of adversaries. Unfortunately for US military planners and the troops that were deployed under that strategy and unlike Saddam Hussein’s forces, various enemies refused to cooperate by fighting the way they were expected to fight). And while its blood and treasure were and are drawn in dozens of conflicts such as that in Niger, other states push economic development and  military modernization as the path towards great power status.

Although it remains a potent, perhaps unchallenged fighting force under the right conditions, the impotence of the US when it comes to imposing a preferred political solution in the wake of military conflict has been noted by allies and adversaries alike. The latter now challenge the US more and more, in places both far from and near to what should be essential US national interests. They include states as well as non-state actors, and they undertake covert and overt hostilities against the US on several dimensions across multiple fronts, be they cyber, kinetic, economic or diplomatic. The US is increasingly unable to respond symetrically and effectively to these challenges even with a forward military presence spread across the globe.

The problem of US challengers acting with relative impunity in a multipolar world is not its only concern. US allies no longer see its as a reliable partner. This is largely due to the deleterious impact of the Trump presidency on the US reputation, but it is not reducible to it. Allies and adversaries can all see the political polarization within the US, the increase in racial and ethnic tensions, the growing economic inequalities, the culture clashes over traditional values, the overtly tribal nature of interest group intermediation, and the overly violent nature of a popular culture enabled and promoted by weapons manufacturers and the lobbies that use fear-mongering and mythology on their behalf to keep the culture of violence alive and growing. These internal contradictions all spell out the weakness of a society in decline. For many at both home and abroad, the US gives all the appearance of being Rome before the Fall.

It seems that the mainstream media and the public that watches it are slowly cottoning on to this fact even if the political class does not want to admit it. The lack of victories abroad, the lack of information about what the US military does and where it does it (even as the Trump administration authorises expanded CIA paramilitary operations, including drone hunts of suspected extremists), and the notion that the more the US tries to maintain its international position the more it weakens itself on the home front, appear to be gaining traction in the social consciousness. There is more open wondering about “why are we there and what purpose is being served” as opposed to the “if not us, then who” rationales that have dominated public discourse for the past decades. And even though concerns about terrorism remain strong, it is harder for people in the US to rationalize and support policies that claim that tribespeople with pre-modern social organizations in West Africa (or Afghanistan for that matter) are, through a long string of connections, a potential existential threat to the US mainland and its way of life.

Eroded from within and challenged from without, it appears that for this era of US (neo) imperialism, twilight has arrived. The question is what comes next, because if one thing is proven in history is that Empires in decline seldom go quietly into the night. And night is approaching, fast.

Postscript: The radio interview that prompted this reflection (and which covers more than this particular subject) can be found here.

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