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I have been thinking about US foreign policy after the upcoming election. My working assumption is that try as he might, Trump will lose the election and be forced from office. There will be much litigating of the results and likely civil unrest, but on Jan 21, 2021 the Orange Merkin will no longer disgrace the office of US president.

The damage to the US reputation and interests done by the Trump administration has been extraordinary and will take much time and effort to reverse, and even then some of the damage may be irreparable. The scope of what has to happen is too broad to discuss in a short KP post, but here is some food for thought: If Biden wins the US election he should name Barack Obama as ambassador extraordinaire/special envoy to lead the repair, restoration and reform of US foreign relations.

That is a very big task, which is why no one can do more to undue the damage wreaked by Trump than POTUS 44. Obama is the most respected politician in the world according to global surveys and his party is (slowly) moving leftwards. The latter is important because it means that some of the old shibboleths of US foreign policy like unconditional support for Israel or Saudi Arabia can be challenged from within the Democratic establishment of which Obama is part. More broadly, he represents both continuity and change in US foreign policy, and has the stature to confront, cajole and convince international interlocutors. Unconstrained by the strictures of the presidency yet deeply aware of US failures and flaws–including his own while POTUS–as well as its strengths and interests, Obama would have relative freedom and autonomy when negotiating on the country’s behalf. That affords him some room for manoeuvre when addressing thorny matters of international import.

All he needs is institutional (presidential, most importantly) support and the awareness that the US cannot return to the status quo ante. Post-Trump and post-pandemic, with new power contenders firmly entrenched in the international scene and with a broad erosion of international norms and mores, the world is a different place than it was during his term in office, and not necessarily one that looks to the US for unchallenged leadership or moral guidance. That is precisely why someone of his stature is needed to help redefine and reconstitute US foreign relations.

Theoretically Obama could take a step down to SecState, but that is awkward given his previous job and prior relationship with Biden. Making him a global Mr. Fix-It answering directly to POTUS 46 gives him institutional weight commensurate with his stature as ex-president. That frees up the eventual SecState to concentrate on rebuilding the foreign service (decimated by Trump’s minions) and conducting the daily business of diplomacy while Obama concentrates on the hard nuts to crack: the suspended START intermediate range missile negotiations with the Russians, the abandoned Iran nuclear limitation deal, the cancelled Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade compact, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the DPRK impasse, etc. He knows the issues, he knows the principles and principals involved and he knows the history behind and between them.

There will be much on Obama’s plate, to be sure, but with enough resources devoted to the task such a division of labor between him and the State Department could more rapidly address the myriad areas of foreign policy that have been left derelict or deliberately damaged by the mediocrities currently running the White House, Foggy Bottom and other agencies of the federal government responsible for foreign policy issues. That makes the selection of SecState especially important, as the person would need to be able to handle Obama’s plenipotentiary status and also the demands of running the foreign policy bureaucracy while supporting the ex-president’s endeavours.

Biden has already singled that he will use some “old hands” (mostly Obama staffers) in his foreign policy team and will re-assert the preference for democracy and human rights in his approach to foreign relations. But his nostalgic perspective will need to be seriously tempered by two incontrovertible facts, one internal and external. Externally, he will take office at a time when the US is a declining power confronted by rising and resurgent powers and an absence of consensus on how nation-states should behave in such transitional times. It no longer has the will or the ability to be the world’s policeman and the US-led global economic model operative during a half century has seen its frailties exposed by Covid-19. The US must adjust accordingly.

Internally, Biden must agree to a significant number of the foreign policy demands of the left-wing of the Democratic Party not only in order to win the election but in order to achieve stability within government after it. He will try to do so incrementally rather than radically but the bottom line is that he has to do so given the changing times in which we live.

Then there is the military aspect of foreign policy. Since Bush 43 the US has been over-reliant on the military as a blunt instrument of foreign policy to the detriment of diplomacy. The traditional dictum that the military should be used only when diplomacy fails has long been discarded, and the Trump administration simply does not comprehend that “military diplomacy” is not always about the deployment, threat and use of force. The relationship between diplomacy and military force is not a zero sum game. The approach to it therefore has to change.

Recently Hillary Clinton has written about the need to reconsider the “Four D’s” of foreign policy: defence, diplomacy, development and the domestic sources of US international relations. Although she (like Biden and Obama) remains wedded to the liberal internationalist school of thought whereby market economies and democratic politics are considered to be the best economic-political combination for both national as well as international politics (something that is under serious challenge on a number of fronts including from within the US), her call for a review and revision of the priority placed on the four pillars of US foreign policy represented by the “D’s” is worth considering.

In fact, although there is a need to bring in fresh and more progressive voices into the US foreign policy establishment, Hillary Clinton might just make an excellent Secretary of Defence should she be willing to take the job. After all, no one is going to say that her relatively hawkish views are ill-suited for the job running the Pentagon, and her vast experience can be used to bring entrenched interests within it into line, assuming that she believes her own words about the need for institutional reform. Like Obama, she can represent continuity and change, this time in US military policy. She knows the issues, she knows the principles and principals involved, and she knows the history behind and between them.

After the disaster that is Trump and company, her perceived flaws pale in comparison–and they will not be up for electoral scrutiny in any event since SecDef is a nominated position confirmable by Congress, not an elected position subject to the popular vote. Should the Democrats cut into the GOP Senate majority or win control of the Senate in November, then she should be given serious consideration for the job.

There will be much work to be done. The US needs experienced hands to undo the damage, but it also needs an ideological rethink given the changed context post-Trump. In an ironic way, Trump has cleaned the slate and therefore cleared the way for a new approach to US foreign policy. That moment is soon to arrive. So long as Biden, Clinton and Obama have learned from the past and are listening to the left side of the Democratic base, it seems sensible to use them in their reconfigured roles.

For more on this check out this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast.

Media Link: Pre-election craziness in the US.

datePosted on 10:06, October 9th, 2020 by Pablo

This week in our “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I reflect on Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour in wake of contracting Covid-19 and the domestic and foreign implications it has in the run-up to the November 3 national elections. You can find it here.

Media Link: Nuclear strategy, then and now.

datePosted on 15:46, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo

Although I had the fortune of being a graduate student of some of the foremost US nuclear strategists of the day (1970s) and later rubbed shoulders with Air Force and Naval officers who were entrusted with parts of the US nuclear arsenal, I seldom get to write or speak about the subject nowadays. However, in this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning, we discuss the evolution of nuclear strategy and the impact of technology on logics of deterrence. It is all-too-brief but I think we got to the gist of the matter.

You can find the podcast here.

The Chinese List.

datePosted on 10:41, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo

News that Zhenhua Data, an arm of China Zhenhua Electronics Group, a subsidiary of the military-connected China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), maintains a list of 800 New Zealanders on a “Overseas Key Information Database” that contains personal information on more than 2.4 million foreign individuals, has caused some consternation in Kiwi political circles. The list of New Zealanders includes diplomats, politicians, community leaders, senior civil servants, defense and military officials, criminals, corporate figures, judges, B-list celebrities and Max Key. Complete with photos, information on these people is gleaned from public sources, particularly social media accounts, in what is one type of open-source intelligence gathering. Involving twenty “collection sites” around the world (including the US, UK and Australia) the larger global canvass is a broad first cut that extends to family members of prominent figures, upon which subsequent analysis can be conducted in order to whittle down to particular persons of interest in search of vulnerabilities, pressure points, sources of leverage, influence or opportunity across a range of endeavour.

However, there is a context to these efforts because Zhenhua Data is not the first company to compile records on “high value” foreign individuals nor is the People’s Republic of China the first or only State to (directly or indirectly) engage in this type of data collection.

Less than a decade ago, Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts shared information stored in a vast digital data bank obtained by bulk collection of personal data from US and foreign individuals and groups. Information for actionable intelligence “nuggets” was extracted via data-mining using computer algorithms and, increasingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Although the bulk collection program was later found to be illegal under US law, the practice of data-mining has continued in private and public sectors around the globe. Anyone who uses social media has their personal information stored and analysed by the providers of such platforms, who then sell that data to other firms. For profit-oriented actors, the objective is to tailor product advertising based on consumer preferences and characteristics. For governments the objectives can be security-related or oriented towards more effective public good provision, such as for public health campaigns. The overall intent is to get an actionable read on the subjects of scrutiny.

Added to this is the fact that intelligence agencies have long used network analysis as an intelligence tool, most recently in the fight against violent extremism. The larger purpose of network analysis is to connect dots on a large scale by establishing overt and covert linkages between disparate entities, both individual and collective. There are variations to network analyses, including what are known as “mosaic” and “spiderweb” tracing processes. Uncovering linkages helps futures forecasting because it can identify patterns of connection and behaviour, including funding sources, favours owed, personal ties, foibles and affectations. More recently, bulk collection, data-mining and network analysis have been wedded to facial recognition technologies that provide real-time physical imagery to records compilation efforts. This includes images of people in groups or in public spaces, which can be frame-by-frame analysed in order to help discern hidden or covert interactions between members of suspected networks as well as specific individuals.

None of this is particularly new or particular to the PRC. In fact, it is a routine task for intelligence agencies that is used as a first cut for more targeted scrutiny. Along with the Five Eyes partners, Israel and Russia have been pioneers in this field.

When taken together, open source data-mining coupled with social network analysis using a combination of advanced computer technologies creates a chaff/wheat separation process that allows further specific targeting of individuals for purposes important to the State doing the undertaking. In the case of Zhenhua Data, the list of targets includes those designated as “politically exposed persons” and “special interest persons.” Beyond general knowledge of “high value” individuals, the presumable objective of the exercise is to identify and locate hidden connections and personal/group vulnerabilities that can be leveraged for the benefit of the Chinese State. The application of specific designators provides an early filter in the process, from which more focused signals and human intelligence efforts can be subsequently directed.

Zhenhua Data is not alone in using its private business status as a front for or complement to State intelligence-gathering operations. The US firm Palantir, co-founded by New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel with seed money provided by the CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, specialises in big data analysis, including software-based analytic synergies involving data mining, AI and facial recognition technologies. Palantir has an office near Pipitea House, Headquarters of the GCSB and SIS, and its local clients exclusively reside within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC).

The question, therefore, is whether Zhenhua Data is doing anything different or more insidious than what Palantir does on a regular basis? The answer lies in ideology, geopolitics, values and alliances. In New Zealand Palantir works for the Five Eyes network and local intelligence and security agencies. Its relationship with the spies is hand-in-glove, so it has a Western code of business conduct when dealing with confidential and private information and operates within the legal frameworks governing intelligence-gathering activities in Western democracies. Its orientation is Western-centric, meaning that its geopolitical outlook is driven by the strategic concerns and threat assessments of Western government clients. Although it may have a relationship with the New Zealand Police, it presumably is not involved in bulk-scale intelligence-gathering in New Zealand and what foreign data-mining and network analysis it does should serve the purposes of the New Zealand government. But the fact that Palantir and Five Eyes as a whole engage in mass data-mining and social network analysis is incontrovertible.

Zhenhua Data, in contrast, is believed to be a military-directed technology front. It is seen by Western intelligence agencies as an integral component of Chinese “sharp power” projection whereby so-called “influence operations” are directed at the elites and broader society in targeted countries with the purpose of bending their political, economic and social systems in ways favorable to Chinese interests. For the New Zealand security community, which as part of Western-oriented security networks has identified the PRC as a non-friendly actor in Defense White Papers and Intelligence Annual Reports, Zhenhua Data is not a benign entity and its intent is not good. Numerous academic and political commentators concur with this assessment.

The issue seems to boil down to whether data-collection activities are seen as good or bad depending on who does it, under what circumstances, and where one’s loyalties lie.

In other words, how one sees Zhenhua Data’s data-gathering efforts depends on how one feels about the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), authoritarian rule and China’s move towards achieving Great Power status in world affairs. If one views authoritarians, the PRC, CCP or Chinese foreign policy with suspicion, then the view will be negative. If one perceives them with favour, then the perspective will be positive. Conversely, if one views the activities of the Five Eyes network and partners like Palantir with suspicion, then Zhenhua Data’s list is of little consequence other than as a non-Western equivalent to Palantir and an indicator of possible things to come.

Ultimately that is a matter of values projected onto real world practices. Stripped of the value assessment, Zhenhua Data is doing what it has to do in order for the PRC to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 

Sort of like Palantir, Chinese style.

This essay was originally published in The Spinoff, September 17, 2020.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast, episode 7.

datePosted on 13:19, September 6th, 2020 by Pablo

In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive regular reports from the 42 Group, a defence and security-focused collection of youngish people whose purpose is to provide independent strategic analysis to policy makers and the NZ public. Their work is very good.

I asked the person who sends me their reports if it was Ok to republish the latest report here. He agreed, so here it is.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” episode five.

datePosted on 16:25, August 20th, 2020 by Pablo

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the geopolitical backdrop to the Israel/UAE peace treaty, developments in Belarus, the Democratic Convention in the US and “Trumpianism” as a global political phenomenon. The link is here.

An indictment by another name.

datePosted on 16:11, August 5th, 2020 by Pablo

After I noticed that my name had been taken yet again in vain by my friendly antagonist Tom Hunter over at No Minister, I went over to see what the fuss was about. Nothing much, but then I discovered a post about the Operation Burnham Inquiry by Psycho Milt. I made a comment (now several comments) in response, then decided to edit the original comment, add a few things and make it a short post here that outlines what to me is the bottom line of that report. Here it is:

As the old saying goes, “the original sin was bad, but the cover up was worse.” Had the NZDF simply come out after the 2010 engagement and said that there were civilian casualties resultant from the “fog of war” in a nighttime SAS operation designed to kill or capture people responsible for attacks on NZDF patrols in Bamiyan that resulted in several NZDF deaths, I bet that the majority of the NZ public would have accepted that war sucks and bad things inadvertently happen. Then, when Jon Stephenson’s first story on Operation Burnham came out it would not have caused such a stir because there would not have been a glaring gap between his account and that of the NZDF (Nicky Hagar got involved later and took primary credit for the book “Hit and Run” although most of it was researched and written by Stephenson–-Hagar never set foot in Afghanistan).

Although the Royal Commission (RC) sugar-coated it, the report is absolutely damning of the SAS and Army leaders of the time (and not the troops on the ground that night, although issues regarding the TAC (Tactical Air Controller) and SAS mission commander’s understanding of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) were not addressed in the public version of the report). The testimony of several officers taken under oath was labeled as not credible by the Commissioners. The RC Report states that no institutional cover-up was at play, but that is laughable in light of what it says about the testimony of most of the senior officials involved. In other words, this was an institutional cover-up by another name, and the name given to the process instead of coverup or whitewash was shoddy records-keeping and miscommunication on top of bad memories. This pushes the onus of responsibility onto individuals rather than the military as an institution. And for those individuals, I guess “incompetent” is a better mark on one’s service record than “liar.”

How those records were lost or mislaid, and whether those bad memories were a product of in-group cohesion or contempt for the process is a matter of conjecture. What is not is that civilians were killed and at least one suspect handed over to Afghan forces to be tortured, both breaches that under international law must be investigated. What is now known is that the possibility of casualties and the transfer of a Taliban suspect to ADF units known for torture was known immediately by the NZDF chain of command and NZ intelligence services attached to them, yet until late in the Inquiry, the NZDF admitted to neither. There is much more by way of deceitful and devious NZDF behaviour, but let’s just come out and say that uniformed officers lied to their civilian superiors for years after the operation and then some lied under oath at the Inquiry. The National government at the time Operation Burnham took place and in the years immediately afterwards may not have wanted to hear the truth in any event and so accepted what they were (not) told by the NZDF brass at face value, but the RC was keen to hear the unvarnished details.

It took them several years and $NZ 7 million of taxpayer money to find out. It remains to be seen what the Labour government will do with the RC Report’s findings and recommendations, but one thing is certain: it going to wait until well after the election to do anything. And there is one other irony in all of this. At the same time that the NZDF was engaged in its campaign of obfuscation and deflection regarding the events of 2010, Transparency International gave it very hight marks for command integrity, transparency and accountability. These marks were the average of scores provided by a select group of specifically chosen “experts” on defense and security. I know because I was one of them and I pointedly gave low marks when it came to exactly these three criteria, so can only assume that my scores were discounted when calculating the overall average. But who gave them such high across-the-board scores if it mine were not included, and what were they thinking?

In any event I urge readers to read Chapters 2 and 12 of the Report, which address issues of civilian control of the military and ministerial accountability to Parliament in a Westminster-style democracy. The RC found that the actions of the NZDF leadership (specifically, misleading, stonewalling, whitewashing and misrepresenting what happened to the civilian political leadership and ministers of the day) wilfully undermined both fundamental democratic principles.

Everything else is gloss.

I do not expect that much will change given the delicacy of the report’s language and the fact that all of those responsible for the worst offences are retired (one only resigned three months ago when the draft report came out and his statements were found to be particularly unbelievable to the point of possible perjury). But it is now on official record that the NZDF has a culture of playing loose with the truth and disrespect for the constitutional principles underpinning its role in society. If implemented, perhaps the recommendation to create an independent Inspector General of Defense may help refocus NZDF attention on those principles. We shall see.

No matter what one may think of Hagar and Stephenson, in the end, minor errors and some hyperbole aside, they were vindicated. That is evident in the Report, which states that the book “Hit and Run” performed a valuable public service by exposing some ugly truths about how the NZDF operates, not so much in the field (although there were some issues identified there as well), but in its interaction with the political class and the larger society which it ostensibly serves.

That is the bottom line.

While we were locked down…

datePosted on 12:25, May 29th, 2020 by Pablo

…a lot of things unrelated to the pandemic were happening. Relatively little attention was given to some major events on the global stage, so I thought I would do a quick recap of some of the high (or low) -lights, starting with something familiar. The common theme throughout is human error and misadventure.

Last Friday Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet were ousted as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NZ. They were replaced by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye in what was supposed to be a replace-and-refresh exercise. Instead, the National Party coup has the makings of a debacle, with neither Muller or Kaye appearing to have a policy program in place or a fair idea of the optics as well as substance of their cabinet choices. It increasingly looks like they were ill-prepared to assume the Leadership before the coup and now are saddled with a restive caucus confronting the possibility of a dismal election outcome in a few months. In fact, there is a hint that they may have been set up to fail by more adroit political operators within the party looking to a post-election future marshalled along populist rather than liberal lines.

I say party “coup” rather than leadership “spill” or “roll” because the forced ouster of a political incumbent does not always have to be at gunpoint. It can even be constitutional, in the form of impeachment under false pretences. All that is required is a change of the guard under duress, and that is what happened here.

What is noteworthy is that, in its lack of planning and lack of success in getting much support or traction, the National Party coup shares features with a more conventional type of coup attempt in Venezuela. In the latter case, US ex-military veterans joined with Venezuelan ex-military figures in an effort in early May to oust the Bolivarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro. They were bankrolled by Venezuelan exiles in South Florida, where the US mercenaries had ties to a private security firm that has done work for the Trump administration. They were encouraged by Venezuelan opposition forces led by US-backed Juan Guaido, who signed a contract, later reneged on, with the US private security company, which then hired the mercenaries for a total of USD$350 million to conduct the operation (neither that money, or a down payment of a couple of million dollars, was ever paid). The total number of insurgents supposedly numbered around 300, and they trained and staged in Colombia. The total number of insurgents who launched the assault, including two Americans, totalled about 30.

It is not known if US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, was involved but his track record suggests the possibility. The US State department denies any knowledge or complicity in the plot. What is known is that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the operation very early on its planning (mid 2019), and when the two Americans and a couple dozen Venezuelans attempted to launch a landing from two open air wooden fishing vessels on a beach east of Caracas in what was supposed to be part of a two-pronged assault that included an attack on the port city of Maracaibo (the main oil export port), they were intercepted, fired upon and killed or captured. The Americans survived. They are veterans of the US Army’s 10th special forces group, whose theater of operations is Central Europe. Unlike the USASF 7th Group, which is responsible for Latin America, the US mercenaries spoke no Spanish and had no prior first-hand contacts in the region.

The lack of training and equipment displayed by the invaders was apparent, as one of the boats lost power as it attempted to flee Venezuelan gunships and the arsenal they brought to the fight included nothing heavier than light machine guns and some old RPGs (and at least one air soft gun!). The compendium of errors involved in the plot will stand as a monument to human ineptitude and folly.

The failure of the attack, labeled as “Bay of Pigs 2.0” by pundits, was a propaganda coup for the Maduro regime and an embarrassment for the US, which still has not investigated the Venezuelan exile’s role or the US security firm’s involvement in the operation, both of which are in violation of federal law. The larger point is that like the National Party coup, it was ill-conceived, hastily planned and poorly supported, with consequences that will likely be the reverse of what was hoped for.

In another part of the world, again in early May, an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran, accidentally struck the support ship Konarak with a Noor anti-ship cruise missile during an exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The blast killed 19 sailors and injured 15 others, obliterating the superstructure of the ship. The Noor is an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile, flying at subsonic speeds at wave height up to a range fo 74 miles with a 363 point (165 kilos ) warhead. The Iranian Navy reported that the Konarak, which had towed a target barge into place but had not gained sufficient distance from it when the missile was fired, was hit accidentally when the Noor nose cone radar locked onto it rather than the target.

This follows the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport in January. Mistaking it for an incoming US cruise missile in the wake of the drone strike on Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Commander Quasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian attack on a joint Iraq/US bases in Iraq shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian plane was downed by an SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface to air missile from a battery manned by a Revolutionary Guard crew who thought that it was an incoming US cruise missile.

These human error-caused accidents follow a long string of incidents involving US and Iranian forces since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency and withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement signed with UN permanent security council members and Germany (the P5+1 agreement). These include several ship attacks and seizures by the IRGC, the downing of a US surveillance drone over Iranian airspace, as well as missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities launched from Yemen and/or Iraq but which are widely believed to be the work of the Iranians.

The concern is that, having made some very public mistakes that cost lives, the IRGC will seek to recover its reputation with more military successes, especially because the entire regime is under pressure due to its poor handling of the CV-19 crisis. This type of brinkmanship sets the stage for the sort of miscalculation and errors that can lead to war.

Now the Iranians are sending five tanker ships full of fuel to Venezuela. The first of the ships has entered Venezuelan territorial waters escorted by Venezuelan naval ships while being watched by US warships and Coast Guard. The irony of a country with the worlds largest oil reserves having to receive shipments of refined crude due to the collapse of its indigenous refining facilities appears to be lost on the Boliviarians, who have characterised the shipments as an example fo anti-imperialist solidarity. They and Iran have warned that any attempt to stop the convoy in order to enforce US sanctions against both countries would be seen as an act of war.

Not that such a warning will necessarily bother the Trump administration, which has an itchy trigger figure when it comes to this particular anti-imperialist couple. That is particularly so because in late March a Venezuelan littoral patrol boat, the ANBV Naiguata (CG-23) , sunk after it rammed a ice-strengthened expedition vessel, the Portuguese-flagged RCGS Resolute. The captain of the Naiguata, purportedly a reservist whose day the job was as a tug skipper, accused the Resolute of encroaching in Venezuelan territorial waters with bad intent and ordered it to the nearest Venezuelan port. When the Resolute, which was on its way to Curacao and was reportedly idling in international waters while conducting engine repairs, failed to obey his commands, the Naiguata fired warning shots then rammed the Resolute from an angle that suggested the Venezuelan ship was trying to alter the Resolute’s direction towards the Venezuelan port. For its troubles the Naiguata began to take on water and had to be abandoned to the sea a few hours later, while the Resolute suffered minor damages.

Closer to home, the PRC has engaged in a series of provocations and show of force displays in the South China Sea, including seizing Indonesian fishing boats and intimidating Vietnamese survey vessels in Vietnamese waters. In a month it is scheduled to deploy its two aircraft carriers together for the first time, passing the Pratas Islands and Taiwan and their way to exercises in the Philippine Sea. Although the deployment is more symbolic than substrative given that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has limited experience with blue water carrier operations and will take long time before it can sustain combat operational tempos that could challenge the US, it does serve as a reminder of what is to come in a maritime region that is increasingly contested space between the PRC, its southern neighbours bordering on the South China Sea, the US and US allies such as the UK and Australia.

This has not gone unnoticed. After its forced port stay in Guam due to the CV-19 spread within it (eventually more than a 1000 sailors contracted the disease), the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN- 71) aircraft carrier has returned to sea in support of 5th and 7th Fleet operations that include two other carriers and their respective battle groups. At last report it was headed for the Philippines Sea. But the US Navy has its own problems, including the Fat Leonard corruption scandal that engulfed 30 flag ranked officers and two at-sea collisions in 2017 between guided missile destroyers (the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald) with merchant ships that cost US service personnel lives and which were found to be the fault of the US commanders of the ships in question. Added to the debacle surrounding the Roosevelt’s port call in Guam, it is clear that the US Navy has issues that transcend the ability of opponents to challenge it in disputed territories.

What these military moments reminds us is that the possibility of miscalculation and human error leading to lethal conflict is very real.

Then there is political misadventure, of a grander type than the National Party’s circular firing squad. Authoritarian minded leaders around the world have attempted to use the CV-19 pandemic as an excuse to consolidate their powers and extend their rule. Some have done so after initially denying that the pandemic was real, unusual or grave. Others simply sized the opportunity provided to them by the need to enact emergency measures to combat the spread of the disease, particularly those that restrict freedoms of assembly and movement (where they existed). This was a topic of discussion amongst right-wingers in NZ, but in other parts the world the authoritarian temptation, as it is called in the dedicated literature, was real rather than imagined.

But the move to consolidate political power runs the risk of overreach, not just with regard to a pandemic that respects no borders, partisan lines or demographic divisions, but with regard to what is achievable over the long term. Consider the recent draft changes to the Chinese constitution that effectively end the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong by placing the former colony under direct Chinese control when it comes to security powers–which are very broadly defined. If the changes are passed into law in September, it ends Hong Kong’s autonomy 27 years before the expiration of the devolution agreement signed between the PRC and UK in 1997 and pushes the confrontation between pro-democracy supporters and the CCP leadership to a head, marginalising the Hong Kong government in the process.

The trouble is that it is unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will fade away quietly or disappear under duress. Moreover, if the US withdraws Hong Kong’s special trade status and other nations downscale their ties to the special administrative territory, its value as a cash cow for the Chinese economy will be undermined. To be sure, Hong Kong is not as important economically to the PRC as it was at the moment of devolution, but if it loses its status and position as a major financial and trade hub its ill have serious negative ripple effects across the mainland.

The same is possible with Chinese threats against Taiwan. The PRC is still able to continue Taiwanese marginalisation in international fora, including in the World Health Organisation even though Taiwan’s approach to CV-19 is widely considered to be a success whereas the PRC’s approach is increasingly being questioned in terms of its transparency, efficiency and accuracy of reporting. That, along with the move to militarily intimidate Taiwan, has provoked a backlash from the US and other large powers as well as the strengthening of Hong-Kong-Taiwan solidarity ties. In effect, a hard move against either country could prove far more costly than the PRC can currently afford, whether or not it provokes an armed conflict.

The move to assert PRC control over the two states is due more to President Xi’s desire to firm up his control of the CPP than it is to geopolitical necessity. Xi has already orchestrated a constitutional re-engineering that ensures his permanence in power until death, but he clearly has been unnerved by the virus and the CCPs inability to respond quickly and decisively to it. Surrounded by underlings and sycophants, he appears to be resorting to the tried and true authoritarian tactic of staging a foreign diversion in order to whip up nationalist sentiment, something that he can use to portray himself as a national saviour while smoking out any rumblings of discontent within the broader ranks of the CCP.

A twist to the foreign adventurism scenario is Vladimir Putin’s approach to Syria and Libya. Perhaps content with the military successes achieved in Syria and/or unwilling to spend billions of rubles re-building Assad’s failed state, he has now re-positioned disguised Russian fighter aircraft in Libya (at al-Jufra air base south of Sirte) in support of the renegade warlord Kalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces are challenging the UN-backed government (Government of National Accord or GNA) located in Tripoli. Speculation has it that Russia wants to gain a strategic foothold in the Southern Mediterranean that has the potential for both North and South power projection, as well as providing a counter to strong Turkish military support for the GNA. Haftar is a staunch anti-Islamicist whereas the GNA is backed by the Saudis, UAE and other Sunni potentates, so there is some support for the move amongst neighbouring countries and those further afield (such as Iran).

The problem for Putin is that CV-19 is raging in his country and the economic downturn since it began to spread has made the fossils fuel exports upon which Russia’s economy depends dry up to the point of standstill. That makes support for Russian military operations in the Middle East unsustainable under current and near-term conditions. That could pose risks to Putin himself if Russia finds itself bogged down and suffering losses in two separate Arab conflicts (and it should be noted that Russian mercenaries under the banner of the Wagner Group, who have already suffered embarrassing defeats in Syria, have now been forced to retreat from Western Libya after suffering defeats at the hands of the GNA military). That would be a serious blow to Putin’s credibility, which has already suffered because of his lackadaisical response to the pandemic. That in turn could encourage challenges to his authority, to include within a military that may see itself to be over-extended and underfunded in times like these.

The list of opportunistic power grabs and other excesses under the cover of the pandemic is long. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in power since 1994, denies that CV-19 is a problem, refused until very recently to enact any prophylactic measures and has scheduled another rigged election for August even as the death toll mounts. Similarly, president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is trying to push through policies while public attention is diverted towards the growing public health crisis (25,000+ deaths and counting) caused by CV-19 and his denial that it is anything other than a common flu. This was made abundantly clear when a leaked video tape of a Brazilian cabinet meeting in April shows Bolsonaro railing about how he will thwart federal prosecutors investigating his family finances and his Minister of Environment suggesting that the time was ripe to open up the Amazon to mass scale logging and mining while attention was focused on the pandemic.

The issue here is not their pandemic denialism but their opportunistic use of the moment to pursue self-serving objectives while public attention is diverted elsewhere. the trouble for both Lukashenko and Bolsonaro is that their actions have precipitated unprecedented backlashes from a wide spectrum of their respective societies, transcending partisan divides and class loyalties.

There are plenty of other instances of errors of judgement and miscalculation to enumerate, but this will have to suffice for now. The thrust of this ramble is to note a few items that were largely overlooked in NZ media while the pandemic absorbed its attention; and to again point out how human error, miscalculation, misadventure and folly undertaken under the cloak of the pandemic can not only lead to unhappy results, but can produce results that are the opposite of or contrary to the intentions of the principals involved.

Thinking of a post-pandemic future.

datePosted on 15:55, May 2nd, 2020 by Pablo

I was recently invited to participate in an international teleconference on post-pandemic futures. It has a NZ-centric focus but involved distinguished participants from overseas, including former high level government and private sector officials. Discussions were held under Chatham House rules so I cannot get into particulars, but I am writing here as a reflection on what I heard.

Above all, I took away two troubling thoughts. The first is that the discussion was entirely elite-focused, with much talk about trade regimes, supply chain dynamics, attracting foreign direct investment, scientific diplomacy, political leadership characteristics and competition, plus other things of that sort. The second take-away was the nearsightedness of many of the discussants, particularly those representing the private sector. In a nutshell, they just want to get back to business as usual.

I made some remarks that attempted to amplify the context in which we are operating. I will elaborate on them here.

The CV-19 pandemic is an inflection point in a longer trend involving the intertwined crises of national and international governance and models of accumulation. It has exposed the dark contradictions in both. These must be addressed if the world is to emerge a better place. But there is a broader backdrop to this trend that needs to be understood before we get into unpacking its component parts.

The international system is in the midst of a long transition. It has moved from a tight bipolar configuration during the Cold War to a unipolar construct in the 1990s and an emerging multipolar system after 2001. The emerging system is characterised by the interplay between ascendent and descendent great powers, the emergence of non-state actors as key international actors (both irregular and corporate), an erosion of international norms and rules, and the resultant presence of conflict as a systems regulator. The underlying ideological consensus that dominated international relations from the end of World War two until the last decade, that being the notion of a liberal order where the combination of democratic government and market-driven economies was seen as the preferred political-economic construct, has eroded to the point of marginality.

In its wake has re-emerged the concept of realpolitik or power politics, whereby nation-states and other international actors pursue their interests above all things and do so with the resources at their disposal relative to the countervailing powers of others. This does not always mean that might makes right because not all resources are coercive. Some are persuasive, which helps distinguish between so-called “hard” power (coercive, be it economic, military or diplomatic), “soft” power (persuasive), “smart” power (a mixture of both) and “sharp” power (coating coercive intent in a persuasive argument or approach).

Over the last two decades several great powers have emerged or re-emerged, while the lone 1990s superpower, the US, has declined. This is seen in the fact that while superpowers intervene in the international order for systemic reasons, great powers do so for national reasons. One only needs to view the US inability to prevail in regional wars and then turn towards economic nationalism, populist politics and away from support for alliances and international organizations to see its descent. Meanwhile, pretenders to the throne and others have emerged: China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany in the forefront, but other regional contenders also in the mix (Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, France and the UK, perhaps Iran and Turkey as part of lesser constellations).

The issue is not so much who these specific emerging powers are but the fact that they are moving the international system towards multipolarity. Given its relative decline, there is little that the US can do about this even if it attempts to reverse the trend (assuming that it recognises what is happening). And yet, the contours of the future system will not conform to the specific interests or designs of the emergent powers within it. Much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of economics, it is the aggregate of power dynamics during the transitional moment that will give precise shape to the global future. A new balance of power will emerge, but it remains unclear as to its exact configuration or stability.

That is the broader backdrop to the global crises of governance and models of accumulation. As macro and micro-cosmic reflections of this larger reality, national, regional and international governmental organisations have been sidelined and/or undermined by a combination of forces. Some are internal, such as the ossification of agencies due to corruption and self-interest. Others are external, such as rapid and sudden migration trends resulting in ideological and racial backlash in recipient countries. Whatever the combination of factors, the crisis of governance is seen throughout liberal democracies as well as many authoritarian regimes (even Singapore!) and international organisations like the EU, WHO, WTO, SEATO, OAU, OAS and UN. Many of these agencies are seen as toothless at best and bastions of patronage, nepotism and corruption at worst. Above all they are mostly seen as (and many are) ineffectual and inefficient in discharging their mandates.

The decline in quality of political governance is paralleled and matched by the increasingly obvious contradictions of the global model of accumulation. Commodity supply chain concentration, hyper-specialisation, just-in-time production, “race-to-the-bottom” wage competition, and other features of the globalisation of production, consumption, supply and exchange have produced increased inequalities and fractures in the world social division of labour. Hyper-concentration of wealth in the so-called “one percenters” has happened on the backs of the global poor, who now extend well into what used to be the middle classes of advanced liberal democracies. Again, the US provides an example with its charity food lines and millions of unemployed (rising to 20 percent of the work force and over 30 million unemployment claims lodged in just three months) as a result of the pandemic. The US situation is particular dire because most private health insurance is tied to employment, so the loss of jobs is measured in both declines in income as well as health coverage.

This is what the pandemic has done. It has exposed in dark relief the ugly side of the global market. It has also glaringly revealed government incompetence and indifference on a global scale. These two pathologies have now combined, and the results are being felt by common people, not elites. This could well be the moment when the Liberal Order dies, killed by a disease whose spread was, in a bitter ironic twist, facilitated by its success.

That is why getting back to “normal” and business as usual by returning to the status quo ante will not work, and where short-term solutions will not suffice. That only staves off the inevitable, which is that the dual crises will continue to compound and deepen as they head towards a circuit-breaking outcome. Phrased differently, it appears that what students of social revolutions call the tension-release model is now well in play: there is a slow build up of accumulated tensions punctuated by episodic outbreaks of disorder or discontent, culminating in a cathartic moment in which the old system is destroyed and a new one–however unclear in its precise contours–begins.

If the root causes are not addressed, the next explosion of mass discontent will be precipitated by any number of calamities, man-made or natural: resource conflicts caused by draught, flooding, famine or competition over access to increasingly precious natural resources like fresh water; mass migrations tied to the above; great power war; civil war; sectarian and irredentist violence; pollution- or climate-caused environmental catastrophes; wide spread urban destruction caused by earthquakes, eruptions, hurricanes, thrones, cyclones or tornados; energy provision failures; and more pandemics. This list is not exhaustive.

It is not as if there has been no warning that things cannot hold. From the 2000 “Battle of Seattle” to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations later that decade, to the Arab Spring of the early teens to the protests in places like Chile, France and Lebanon last year, there has been a slowly rising tide of resistance to politics and economics as given. The protests are not just about one or the other but are in fact about both: systems of governance and systems of profit and their influence on each other.

The malaise is wide-spread. The US and UK are polarised, India is riven by sectarian tensions, Arab oligarchies remain closed but under increased popular pressure, despotic politics have taken hold in Brazil, Hungary, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Philippines and Turkey under electoral guise, sub-national actors challenge sovereignty in a host of Sub-Saharan states and even the seemingly monolithic regimes in China and Russia are riven by internal tensions and political intrigue. The world stands at the brink of a valley of transition where the costs of change are real but the outcome is uncertain.

Returning to normal, at least if it is defined as the way things were before the pandemic hit, is a guarantee that the socioeconomic and political contradictions now laid bare will fester, accumulate and eventually explode. That is an outcome few would want. This is why the post-pandemic moment must be seen as a window of opportunity for comprehensive change rather than a resumption of what once was.

In order to avoid an explosive break with the past, the key to post-pandemic recovery lies in addressing the dual crises of governance and accumulation as the most important priorities even if short term economic and political remedies are offered (say, by removing Trump from office, turning to regional supply chains and re-committing international agencies to a rules-based international order). I cannot offer any specifics, but it seems to me that a move towards sustainable development based on restrained rates of profit and renewable resource extraction is a beginning. Given the resurgence of wildlife in urban and suburban areas and air and water cleansing during the lockdown, climate change mitigation efforts need to be wrapped into larger projects of environmental restoration in which a return to natural balance is given urgent attention.

These involve political reforms in which those who advocate for a return to the previous economic status quo are blocked from doing so. After all, there are many interests vested in the current global market framework and they will do everything in their power to resist and thwart meaningful change that undermines their positions and diminishes their bottom lines. The key is to find a consensus about reforming, if not an alternative to, the system as given, including the reconfiguration of incentive structures in order to promote broad adherence to the shift in the global model of accumulation.

The future will be multipolar. The question is whether it will be stable or unable, sustainable or exploitative, multilateral or parochial, driven by self-interest or concern for the collective good. The overall process of transition to multipolarity is immutable, but the specific features of the future system will be defined for better or worse by human agency. It remains to be seen if the opportunity to recast the world in a better image will be seized.

Given what I heard at the online meeting, I am not sanguine about the prospects of this happening. It is easier to go back to what is known than venture into the unknown. The forces pushing for a return to the status quo are many and powerful. But the pandemic has pulled away the layers of mystification and false consciousness that heretofore obscured the intense exploitation, class cleavages and unrepresentative politics that lie at the root of the modern global edifice/artifice.

It is time for economic and political architectural re-design on a world scale.

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