Archive for ‘Intelligence and Security’ Category

Blog Link: New Zealand’s Coming Melian Dilemma.

datePosted on 09:54, September 14th, 2010 by Pablo

There appears to be a lack of strategic foresight in the conduct of New Zealand’s foreign policy, which appears to me to be short-term, segmented and opportunistic in approach. I explain one possible consequence in this month’s Word from Afar column in Scoop.

Blog Link: NZ and the R2P applied.

datePosted on 10:08, August 17th, 2010 by Pablo

This is going to be my last comment about the NZDF in Afghanistan for a while. It concerns an overlooked aspect of why it is there. One aspect of this is that the R2P commitment was made by the 5th Labour government and National seems disinclined to continue it. Given that R2P does not have domestic or international legal authority since it is just a public commitment rather than  a convention, law or binding agreement, it will be interesting to see how National deals with this particular aspect of its foreign policy, and how MFAT (which committed NZ to the R2P doctrine), will react to any reneging on that commitment.

Events in Afghanistan this week prompted me to write on them as well as their implications. This is the full version, which did not appear in the mainstream press.

Until this week the 140-troop NZDF mission in support of the Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT) in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province was considered the “softer” of the two NZDF deployments in that country. Given their status as elite combat troops, the 2001-05 and post-2009 NZSAS missions in Afghanistan have received more attention as the presumably “hard” edge of New Zealand’s military contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) charged with bringing peace and stability to that failed state. The death of Lieutenant Timothy O’Donnell has changed that view.

Lieutenant O’Donnell was killed while on routine patrol northeast of the city of Bamiyan. NZDF patrols are undertaken daily as part of the PRT’s responsibilities, which are to provide security and undertake civil reconstruction and nation-building projects such as the construction of schools, roads, medical clinics (including the combat medics to staff them), water treatment facilities and other infrastructure required for local governance to operate efficiently. Although Bamiyan province is largely populated by the non-Pashtun ethnic Hazaras (a Shiia minority elsewhere in Afghanistan) who are generally friendly to ISAF forces because they were discriminated against under Taliban rule, the Taliban presence, although not as dominant as in Helmand or Kandahar provinces, has remained as an ever-present threat that has increased over the last two years. In fact, the ambush in which Lieutenant O’Donnell died was preceded by at least three similar attacks in the last 14 months, all using the same combination of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire.

Despite the previous attacks, the NZDF did not vary its operational routine and continued to use three or four vehicle convoys for its patrols along well-established routes. The vehicles in question were US-provided reinforced Toyota Hiluxes and armed “uparmoured” Humvees in which electronic counter-measures (ECM) were reportedly used to thwart electronic pulse-detonated IEDs (UPDATE: official details are sketchy as to whether the convoy was a mix of vehicles or all of one or the other, but non official reports suggest that Hiluxes have not been used on those patrols for 18 months and the vehicles in question were all “uparmoured” Humvees). Although state of the art, such ECMs cannot prevent a command wire or pressure plate detonated IED (especially at night), one of which was apparently used in this latest attack.

In previous instances the Hiluxes suffered minor damages in IED attacks, but this time the IED was much more powerful. No NZDF Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVIIs), out of an inventory of 106, were provided to the NZDF/Bamiyan PRT because their characteristics were deemed unsuitable for the Bamiyan AOR because most of it is single track dirt paths (even though the NZSAS has two available for operational duty in Kabul and the US has deployed ECM-equipped and reinforced armoured Stryker (the name it gives to the LAVs) units in the Afghan theater of operations). Although very agile in rough terrain (especially in its 6×6 version), the 321-strong NZDF Pinzgauer Military Utility Vehicle (MUV) fleet was not requisitioned in Bamiyan even though it fulfills the NZDF Light Operational Vehicle (LOV) role, most likely because even in its “uparmoured” version it remains vulnerable to combined small arms assaults and is underpowered when traversing steep terrain in its uparmoured version.  Unlike in previous instances, air cover was not able to respond to the latest attack due to bad weather conditions in the area. The official line is that the patrol was able to find cover and establish a defensive position while returning fire, leading to a prolonged firefight before the assailants were repelled. In all likelihood given Taliban  hit and run tactics, the actual firefight was quite short and most of the damage to men and machines was done by the IED rather than the ensuing exchange of small arms fire. Whatever the exact circumstances, this combination of contributing factors proved to be lethal for Lt. O’Donnell and injurious to his comrades.

The ISAF strategy in Afghanistan is a macrocosmic reflection of what the PRT mission is in Bamiyan. It conducts counter-insurgency operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in order to physically secure the country and prevent the re-establishment of both Taliban rule and al-Qaeda safe havens and training camps within it. In parallel, it attempts to train Afghan security forces and provide the infrastructural conditions so as to consolidate the control of the Western-backed Karzai regime centred in Kabul. As with the Bamiyan PRT, success in the first task is deemed necessary for success with the latter two.

In many ways the death of a Kiwi soldier was inevitable given the balance of the conflict. ISAF has not succeeded in routing the Taliban even if it has denied them and their al-Qaeda allies much territory and space for maneuver. Its nation-building efforts have been thwarted by endemic corruption by the Karzai regime and a motley assortment of tribal warlords and drug barons. For all its rhetorical commitment to supporting the ISAF mission from its side of the border, Pakistan remains a suspect ally, if not a covert adversary in the conflict. Given the announced timetable for a US troop drawdown and ISAF withdrawal beginning in July 2011, the Taliban have increased their attacks in order to raise the costs to ISAF, undermine public support for the mission amongst coalition partners (such as the Dutch, who have just exited the theater), and thereby hasten the inevitable. In fact, both ISAF commander General David Petraeus as well as US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Millan have said that ISAF casualties will increase over the next months as coalition forces push into Taliban strongholds in a final effort to degrade its ability to mount effective guerrilla operations against Afghanistan police, Army and ISAF targets.

However, true to form, the Taliban have responded with a classic guerrilla tactic when confronted with superior military forces: they employ a “balloon” strategy whereby they retreat from areas in which they are being squeezed by superior ISAF forces and regroup in areas in which the ISAF presence is relatively thin on the ground. The key to their success is to respond to mass with maneuver, avoiding the friction of large conventional forces via fluidity of movement towards areas in which the odds are in their favour. In other words, the Taliban like to” hit ’em where they ain’t.”

One such area is Bamiyan, which means that there is nothing soft about the NZDF/PRT role there. The hazards are not just military. Given the Taliban resurgence and the inevitable withdrawal of ISAF forces, it is prudent and rational for the Hazaras (as much as all other tribal groups throughout the country) to begin to look the other way when it comes to Taliban movements in Bamiyan, if not cooperate with or simply accommodate the insurgents. After all, the Taliban will be a armed and political presence long after the ISAF forces are scaled back or gone. That makes the NZDF position in the Bamiyan PRT harder to maintain the closer it approaches to the announced ISAF withdrawal date. In plain terms, without reinforcement the NZDF/PRT position becomes more tenuous given the shift in local loyalties as the withdrawal deadline approaches, and tenuous in military terms means a high probability of increased casualties as the adversary grows in confidence and receives more support or acquiescence from the local population.

The National government has reaffirmed its commitment to the Bamiyan PRT mission through September 2011 and is considering extending thr NZSAS deployment past its scheduled March 2011 end date. But the possibility of further fatalities now haunts its commitment. The larger question is whether the New Zealand public has the stomach to support continuing NZDF participation in the Afghan conflict in the face of increased casualties. That will be a critical juncture in New Zealand foreign relations, because public support is essential to maintaining the political will to continue fighting—and dying—in support of broadly defined foreign policy objectives. Since the measure of a military commitment is ultimately taken in blood, it behooves New Zealand’s political leadership to make a strong case as to why Kiwi lives are worth sacrificing in a seemingly futile conflict in far off place that appears, on the face of things, to have little strategic value to core New Zealand interests. It is also incumbent upon the opponents of the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan to make an equally convincing case as to why Kiwi lives should not be risked in Afghanistan in pursuit of vanity, favour, treasure or ephereal benefit.

Out of that debate a true public consensus can be formed that gives clear direction to the government’s approach to the ISAF commitment in the year leading up to general elections.

*A short version of this essay was published in the New Zealand Herald on August 5, 2010 under the title “Death makes it clear Bamiyan not “soft” option.”

The measure of military commitment is taken in blood.

datePosted on 19:05, August 4th, 2010 by Pablo

The death of Lt. Timothy O’Donnell in an ambush while on patrol in Bayiman province is a tragic but inevitable consequence of the NZDF participation in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. His death, the first in ten years since the killing of Private Leonard Manning in an ambush by Indonesian militias in East Timor, is a sad reminder of the bottom line when soldiers are sent into conflict zones. But that is a cost worth paying when the soldiers are volunteers, understand their orders and the risks involved, deploy willingly and enjoy the support of politicians and public back home. The latter depends on how the public perceives the conflict in question, which usually reduces to perceptions of immediate or proximate threat weighed against the costs and benefits presumably involved.

The costs of the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan are now clear and are likely to mount in the months ahead as Taliban sharpen their attacks in the build-up to ISAF withdrawal as of July 2011. The question for NZ is now not so much military as it is diplomatic and political: will the NZ public continue to support the deployment if casualties continue to mount, and will the National government have the political will to continue in the fight in the event of growing public opposition and the intangible diplomatic benefits to be accrued from ongoing participation?

Although it is a bit dated, I have explained why I believe the mission is worth continuing here. I have also explained why I believe that the ISAF mission is bound to change once the July 2011 withdrawal commencement date begins. As a follow up, I have written a short piece that will appear in a mainstream media outlet tomorrow on Lt. O’Donnell’s death in the context of a Taliban resurgence and switch to a “balloon” guerrilla strategy in which the Taliban retreats from large kinetic confrontations in Halmand and Kandahar provinces and regroups in areas such as Bayiman where the ISAF presence on the ground is thinner (i.e. when they get squeezed they pop up elsewhere rather than fight a superior force at the point of massed contact).

All indications are that the security situation in Afghanistan will get worse rather than better, if it ever does. ISAF commander General David Petraeus and US Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Millan have said as much. John Key has committed the NZDF to the Bayiman PRT until September 2011 and is considering extending the NZSAS deployment past its schedule end date of March 2011. But now that the costs of the mission are etched in blood, does he have the nerve, resolve and most importantly public support to keep that promise should things get worse in the months to come? Given that 2011 is an election year, will polls rather than principle drive his decision? One thing I believe will be certain. More Kiwi blood will flow in that forsaken land.

Shameless Self-Promotion Alert.

datePosted on 13:09, August 4th, 2010 by Pablo

For those who may be interested, I am interviewed on the TVNZ news analysis show fronted by Russell Brown, Media 7, tonight on the subject of wikileaks. Although only parts of the interview will be aired, Russell will put the entire conversation up on the Media 7 web site (or perhaps on Public Address). The discussants on tonight’s taping are Selwyn Manning from the independent news aggregator  Scoop and investigative reporter Jon Stephenson (who is the most knowledgeable Kiwi journalist when it comes to Afghanistan).  There is some serious brain power between them. Both are hard news gathers who eschew the official spin, both are very critical thinkers about issues of public policy, both have taken on both the government and mainstream media versions of important news, and both know how to string a few paragraphs together (which is more than can be said for many in the so-called journalism fraternity). In other words, the offer great value in terms of insight and analysis, which is what I believe was Russell’s hope when conceiving the show. Hence, I commend it to you if you are not already familiar with it.

Of Leaks and Conspiracies.

datePosted on 13:50, July 27th, 2010 by Pablo

Wikileaks has scored another major coup with its publication of more than 90,000 official and previously classified documents on the Afghan conflict. I am of two minds on its doing so. On the one hand I see it as a valuable instrument of accountability, both as instrument for holding the people directly responsible to account as well as a future deterrent to others who might engage in unlawful acts or cover-ups during wartime. On the other hand, publication of the document clearly jeopardises the national security of the US as well as the ISAF mission, and does so on several levels. The bottom line is that it gives the Taleban, al-Qaeda, Pakistani intelligence (the ISI) and other rogue states very valuable insight into US military operations and intelligence gathering efforts. Depending on where one stands in the ideological divide, that can be very good or very bad news. I believe that in this regard it is bad news.

In publishing this classified information Wikileaks has made itself an enemy of the state in the US. In the measure that it uncovers other state secrets, it could well become an international pariah, at least among the Western states that is its main focus. This is ironic. Although Wikileaks has complained about harassment from US security agencies, it has not (yet) suffered direct retribution for its actions. But imagine if it published extremely sensitive classified military documents from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or even Israel. We can safely assume, given these country’s past records on breaches of  and threats to national security, that the Wikileaks community would have very good reason to fear for their lives. In fact, there may be two reasons why Wikileaks does not publish on these states: 1) the amount of secrecy in them is far superior to that of the US and other Western countries; 2) Wikileaks is afraid to do so for fear of mortal retaliation. Put another way, Wikileaks targets the US not only because of its concern about US military misdeeds, because it knows that it can get away with it due to the more benign nature of democratic regimes (to include the US) when it comes to confronting non-violent security threats.

That raises an item of note. Wikileaks is successful because it has people within the US and other Western security agencies leaking classified information to it. This is, of course, a crime, since public dissemination of classified information without official authorisation is outlawed in all states. For example, I am bound by an oath I signed in the 1990s to not divulge, release or comment directly on the classified issues that I worked on during my stint in the Pentagon, and after 25 years have passed must request permission from the agencies I worked with before attempting to do so. The penalities for breaching this contract are long federal prison terms. Similar laws bind people working in security agencies throughout the world. Thus any leak of classified material is by definition a crime against the state.

Yet in Western democracies people of conscience or feeling remorse regularly turn to the media as well as public watchdogs and government accountability agencies to reveal classified information that provides evidence of official wrong-doing. In fact, many consider it to be a public duty for them to do so. In addition, the size of security agencies often makes hermetic secrecy impossible. The US has 1.5 million people with top secret clearances. From my experience in the Pentagon and elsewhere, individuals often take home, either deliberately or (more often) inadvertently, classified work papers that are part of their normal desk load and which do not have the strict records controls of documents classified as Secret Compartmentalised Information (SCI) or higher. Between the two types of mishandling–deliberate leaks and misadvertent transfer–the US security apparatus is a huge porous sieve. The fact that a single US Army private provided the documentation (and video) on the Iraq helicopter assault on journalists and the Afghan war dossier proves just how far down the chain of command sensitive information flows. Imagine if it were a colonel or general who decided to pass along his secure file cabinet worth of documents! In fact, I am surprised that it was someone so far down the totem pole who managed to get so much information out of the system and into Wikileaks’ hands.

Which brings up the issue of purported US government conspiracies, those about 9/11 in particular. Unfortunately, due to some writing and public commentary I have made on 9/11, I have had to deal with conspiracy theorists who believe that it was an inside job, Zionist conspiracy, controlled demolition, rockets rather than planes involved, even holograms rather than the real thing. Some of these otherwise apparently sane people truly believe that the US government conspirators orchestrated the whole thing so as to launch the war on terrorism in a quest for complete global domination. Some even see a link between the JFK assassination, the fake moon walk and 9/11.

Well, I have two things to say to these folk. First, if the “9/11 as part of a drive towards global domination” scenario is true that those plans sure as heck are not working out too well. Second, in a context is which no secrets are safe, in which leaking has become an art form, is it really possible that the US government has been able to enforce one hundred percent secrecy at all levels of operation on the planning, execution and cover-up of the supposed inside job? Is it rational to think that not a single person involved in this monumental plot, which would have involved a cast of thousands, would not have come forward by this point with direct evidence of a conspiracy? Would Wikileaks not have received something along those lines by now?

Blog Link: National Cuts and Runs.

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

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

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

Countering threats as a growth industry.

datePosted on 18:15, July 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

News that the US has a network of over one thousand agencies employing more than 800,000 people involved in counter-terrorism efforts comes as no surprise. The post 9/11 reaction to the threat of armed Islamicist extremism by the US government was as visceral as it was knee-jerk, with a blanket call put out to increase every aspect of the country’s counter-terrorism capability. From intelligence gathering to emergency response and everything in between, counter-terrorism agencies proliferated from the local to the state to the federal level, as did the number of private firms engaged in direct counter-terrorism efforts as well as support roles.

But there are problems with this expansion, and it is not just the waste of resources associated with the duplication of functions and overlapping of roles that comes with it. Nor are the problems confined to the US. Let me list a few.

Around the world concerns about terrorism has seen the expansion of government security apparatuses dedicated to fighting it. Intelligence agencies, police forces and the military of virtually all Western states, to say nothing of those in the Sunni Arab world, Africa, Asia and the Antipodes, have increased the amount of resources directed towards countering potential terrorist threats (South America is the exception to the rule because traditional inter-state rivalries and the lack of Islamicist grievances in the region have led authorities to focus attention elsewhere). In New Zealand, for example, both the Combined Threat Assessment Group (an inter-agency combine that analyses intelligence flows and threat assessments from such as the SIS, Police, NZDF, MoD, Immigration, Customs and Foreign Affairs) and the Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG, a combined military and police specialist unit trained to respond to terrorist incidents) were created after 9/11. Similar agencies now litter the state security landscape throughout the world.

Along with the proliferation of agencies comes increases in their funding and personnel, and more perniciously, the scope of their responsibilities. Again, in New Zealand this is evident in the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA), which is modeled on similar legislation in the UK and US and which gives broad powers to the government to infringe on basic civil liberties in its efforts to detect and stop suspected terrorism-related activities on NZ soil. The same goes for the Search and Surveillance bill now before parliament. In the US the so-called Patriot Act, which is still in force, grants US security agencies broad powers of arrest and detention on the mere suspicion of terrorism-linked behaviour. The expansion in both the number and legal authority of counter-terrorism agencies has been facilitated by politicians who, in an effort to not look weak on the issue of terrorism, approve budgetary increases and laws that fuel the growth of the counter-terrorism industry. In the post 9/11 rush to promote security, only a few brave politicians have attempted to resist the trampling of civil rights that the expansion of the security apparatus inevitably entails.

Besides the obvious problems that come with the “squeezing” of civil society by the security state (since the expansion of the state’s counter-terrorism powers come at the direct expense of the right to privacy and presumption of innocence), there is another downside that needs to be considered: the construction of threats in order to justify the existence of counter-terrorism networks. What is more, this phenomena extends beyond government security agencies and into private enterprise and academia.

In order to justify their existence, security agencies have to be able to identify and counter threats. In some countries the threats are real, as is the need to thwart them. But in much of the world the threat of terrorism is no more than it was in the 1990s, 1980s or 1970s. One such place is NZ. In these countries security agencies have a bureaucratic self-interest in identifying “threats,” because if there are no new threats then the rationale for their role and resource expansion goes out the window. Thus in 2005 the NZSIS identified “home grown jihadis” as the gravest security threat to NZ. A year later it dropped all reference to local Islamic extremists and highlighted foreign espionage networks operating on NZ soil. The following years have seen it highlight foreign-based computer hacking and industrial espionage as sources of concern. Each year appears to bring with it a new threat, even as the others are quietly dropped from annual reports.

Along with state security agencies conjuring up or exaggerating threats, so has an army of private security firms, including open source intelligence providers, security guard outfits and private military corporations sprung up to take advantage of the post 9/11 climate of fear. They bandwagon with state security agencies to emphasize the dangers of terrorism and other threats so as to nurture a client base for their services. The infamous Blackwater (now known as XE) private military corporation is an example of a “one-stop” private contractor that has its own intelligence, airborne, naval and ground units ready to serve both public and private clients for handsome fees (one of their latest ventures is in anti-piracy operations).  Thousands of other such firms now dot the global security landscape, all emphasizing the dangers of  the threat environment in the pursuit of profit. Not only does this industry work neatly with state security agencies’ agendas, but it further squeezes civil society in the measure that its surveillance capabilities and quasi-police powers increase as well.

Even academia is not immune from this trend. Over the last decade “counter-terrorism” centres have sprung up in dozens of universities world-wide. They receive their funding from governments, hold conferences, and churn out reports, books, even specialised journals that are dedicated to the subject (including “Perspectives on Terrorism” and “Terrorism and Political Violence,” although my favorite journal along these lines is “Small Wars and Insurgencies”). Here too the push is on to identify threats so as to justify continued funding. Places like Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, home of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, have dozens of highly paid researchers working on counter-terrorism and threat analysis projects (including one analyst at RSIS who declared that NZ faced a domestic Islamicist threat without ever having been to the country). Since funding for its facilities and personnel is directly related to its threat analyses, NTU has a vested interest in helping ensure that the perception of the global and regional threat environments is that they are variegated and “dense.” NTU is certainly not alone in pursuing the counter-terrorism dollar–this is a world-wide trend.

And of course, there are the countless terrorism “experts” that have sprung up as analysts and talking heads in the corporate media. No matter how tenuous their qualifications for discussing issues of threat posed by terrorism and irregular warfare groups, these pundits materially benefit from the exposure afforded to them by the sound-bite crowd.

Which brings up the thought for the day. Threats to international and national security do exist and terrorism is real. But pragmatic threat assessment and better use of extant security agencies and criminal law to counter terrorism have been overwhelmed by the urge to manipulate the impression of threats for individual, corporate, bureaucratic or political gain. That in turn has seen a shrinking of the civic space and private sphere in inverse proportion to the expansion of integrated (private-public) national security networks.

When money combines with a climate of fear, impressions of threat can be manipulated (if  not invented) in order to pursue profit or bureaucratic power. Threat manipulation in pursuit of corporate self-interest and the expansion of state security apparatuses poses a serious risk to democratic society. In another life long before 9/11 I participated in actual threat assessment exercises for the US government. The ethos then was to call things as they were, objectively, so as to not allow political agendas or ideological bias to divert resources away from real dangers. Now that logic has been reversed: threat mitigation is seen as a potential source of income and power, with the more threats identified the more resources will be directed towards them by political elites and a fearful public. By that logic, counter-terrorism is the mother of all cash cows, and as NZ prepares to host the Rugby World Cup, we can assume that there will be plenty of interested parties working hard to milk it regardless of the real threat environment in which the tournament is held.

Blog Link: Two Sides of the Afghan COIN.

datePosted on 12:00, June 29th, 2010 by Pablo

In the most recent “Word from Afar” column at Scoop I examine the broader context in which General Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign from his position as commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Beyond the issue of his insubordination and civilian control of the military in a democracy, the incident has brought to the surface the tensions between two competing views on how the US should prosecute counter-insurgency. One involves hearts and minds and nation-building, the other involves what I describe as a “drones and bones” approach that focuses on discrete operations against high value targets using high technology weapons and special forces. Although both are in place at the moment, there is competition between the two views with regard as to which ultimately will prove more successful at countering Islamicist threats to the West. Whether or not the ISAF mission succeeds may well depend on which perspective gains greater traction in coalition circles during the next twelve months (since the timetable for the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan begins in June-July 2011).

Hedging uncertainty in times of international flux.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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