Archive for ‘International relations’ Category

That is the title of the talk I will be giving at the AUT Pacific Media Centre in Auckland on Friday February 12 at 5PM. I am starting to formulate the bases of the talk now because I arrive in Auckland just a couple of days before it happens, so I thought that I would kill two birds with one stone by outlining my thoughts on the matter here. Call it a trial run.

For all the comment about growth, Asian Values and a geopolitical shift towards the East, SE Asia (Indochina) and the Western Pacific are a region suffering from poor governance, primordial divisions and simmering conflict. All of this is influenced by the US-China competition for influence in the Western Pacific, and has significant consequences for the long-term future of places like New Zealand.  Let me outline the major reasons why.

1) Democracy. Where and such as it exists, democracy in SE Asia and the Pacific is a joke. Looking from the South China Sea southwards, the “democracies” in question–Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand (if it can be called that),  the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and those grouped under the rubric of the Pacific Island Forum, are hotbeds of populist demagoguery, corruption, criminal influence, ethno- religious division and electoral manipulation. With the exception of Indonesia, which has made good strides towards holding legitimately open and competitive elections and which has seen the “democratization” of civil-military relations for the first time in its history (but which below the procedural level remains profoundly authoritarian), the state of democracy throughout the Western Pacific Rim is pallorous to say the least. Taiwan is essentially rule by organised crime with a semi-civilised electoral facade using Cold War ideological precepts as dividing points (the same corporate/criminal networks fund and provide organisational support to both major parties and economic prosperity buys off any pointed examination of the regime). The Philippines and Malaysia are oligarchic rule with populist veneers in which ethnic and religious appeals contribute to centrifugal, often outright conflictual political competition (Malaysia still has Sultanates who lord over their geographic areas and the Philippines has regional overlords who rule as neo-feudal political bosses). Thailand is a certifiable basket case on too many levels to count (e.g., thieving politicians, sectarian mobs, a comatose monarch that cannot be criticised because of purportedly god-like attributes, a seriously fractured military hierarchy involved in political skullduggery and murder). East Timor is a failed state that has shown little or no signs of development in spite of millions of dollars of UN aid and a contingent of Kiwi, Australian and Portuguese peacekeepers and civilian nation-building advisers. The Cooks, New Caledonia and Tahiti are post-colonial protectorates in which what gets protected is the corporate interests and life-style of the servitor local elite. Or in other words, the Pacific Island democracies are oligarchic or crony rule by another name.

That gives legitimacy to the authoritarians in their midst. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore are all relatively “soft” authoritarian regimes with electoral facades. Myanmar is a hard authoritarian regime whose best trading partners are its authoritarian neighbors (especially Singapore, and to the North, China). Brunei is a semi-medieval oil Sultanate. Fiji is a military-bureaucratic regime, Tonga is a degenerate monarchy that Samoa is working hard to emulate.  All of these dictatorships, be they junta, party, personalist or elected in nature, point to the inefficiencies and disorder of their democratic neighbours as “proof” that Western style (read: liberal) democracy is ill-suited for Asian/Pacific societies. Often couched in “Asian Value” or “Island style” arguments (which is no more than an ideological justification based on revisionist historical interpretations by authoritarian elites that have no basis in current actual fact), the authoritarian claim is that the Asian and Pacific Island psyche and civil society (such as it exists) is simply not amenable to Western-imposed democratic standards. There may be some truth to the Asian civil society argument, because there is a noticeable absence of volunteerism and solidarity with non-ethnic, religious or linguistic kin regardless of common nationality. But that is not the issue. Whatever the root cause, the bottom line is that the quality of democracy in the Pacific Rim is poor at best, miserable at worst, and in all cases a comparative justification for authoritarians throughout the region writ large.

2) Arms races. SE Asia is in the midst of a dramatic arms race. Fueled by strong economic growth and spurred by emerging power rivals China and India’s military modernization programs, every single country in SE Asia is upgrading and expanding its military capabilities. All of the SE Asian countries spend more than 3% of GDP on “defense,” (in line with Chinese and Indian outlays as a percentage of GDP),  with some like Singapore allocating 6% of GDP to  its military. Beyond the controversial US weapons sale to Taiwan that has the Chinese in a snit, Malaysia has ordered new submarines and an entire tactical air wing from European and Russian suppliers. The Singaporeans, Thais, Filipinos and Indonesians are preferred US weapons customers all in the midst of major force upgrades, whereas Myanmar purchases a mix of Chinese, North Korean and Western weaponry (often using Singapore as a conduit and middleman). In the case of the authoritarians, defense expenditures include regime defense as well as external threat deterrence and countervailing. The democracies focus more on a mix of internal security and traditional external concerns. This has led, among other things, to a counter-insurgency focus in the Philippines and Thailand (in which Islamicist insurgencies show no signs of being defeated), with external defense taking a secondary role, whereas in Indonesia and Malaysia the external defense role is now paramount. Among other things, the mix of strategic perspectives and push to rearm has led to armed border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia (over the border placement of a temple), Vietnam and Cambodia, and Myanmar and Cambodia (one might argue from this that the Cambodians have issues). Malaysia has picked arguments with both Indonesia and Singapore about relative weapons capabilities, piracy and border controls. The reason why these fragile democracies act belligerently is that irresponsible politicians pursuing electoral agendas engage in both domestic ethnic/religious/race-baiting as well as jingoistic appeals in order to consolidate popular support. Be it originated in government or opposition, these appeals have a corrosive effect on both domestic democratic tolerance as well as regional peace. Even piracy, a problem that all of the region’s governments agree is a common scourge, is in fact abetted by willful government inaction–for example, Malaysian pirates ply the Eastern Malaysian coast with some impunity (especially east of Tiomen Island and North of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), while Indonesian pirates do the same in the Western reaches of the Malaccan Straits. In each case the pursuit of pirates is seen by rivals as a drain on military resources better spent elsewhere, which makes passive facilitation of pirate activity a neat form of low-level proxy attritional warfare. The same goes for cross-border guerrilla havens (say, in northern Malaysia or Sabah), where insurgents are provided sanctuary by governments with ethno-religious rather than national interests at the heart of their concerns.

3) The China-US strategic competition. Since I have written about this before I shall not repeat myself. The bottom line here is that the competition between the US and China over strategic influence in the Western Pacific Rim has seen both powers increasingly disregard issues of good governance in favor of straight influence-peddling. This adds to the issues mentioned above, as arms and influence buy favors in a measure that principled support for democracy does not. Beyond so-called cash diplomacy, foreign aid and military-to-military relations, this includes ostensibly “free” trade relations with authoritarians or weak democrats whose interests are more self-serving than what the language of trade agreements suggests, and who use the legitimating mantle of trade with liberal democratic states as further proof that their rule is just.

I shall leave aside for the moment the role of organised crime in all of this, particularly with regard to its relationship to trade and elected government. Suffice it to say that the picture is not pretty.

Thus my tentative prognosis is that, rather than moving towards an era of peace, stability and growth in the Western Pacific, we are about to find out what the dark side of globalisation looks like, at least in terms of its manifestation in this part of the world. And that can be summed up in one word: conflict, both of an internal as well as of a cross-border sort.

Lesson for the NZ government (not that it would listen): Know exactly who you are dealing with and the context in which your dealings occur. Be risk adverse, pragmatic and principled in your approach to medium term futures. Hedge against uncertainty  and beware of the temptation of  positive short-term economic horizons that are divorced from the political risk environments in which they occur. Do not allow ideological belief to blind you to the political, social and economic realities on the ground. This is not a Lehman Brothers world–and it ain’t Confucian either.

Blog Link: Why the NZDF is in Afghanistan

datePosted on 13:10, January 26th, 2010 by Pablo

Controversy about the publication of SAS soldiers in action in Kabul last week, and the identification of one of them, has morphed into debate about the reasons why the NZDF is in Afghanistan. I have already outlined my views on the matter in previous posts here at KP, but the furore forced me to reflect again on the issue. That reflection was precipitated by the fact that criticism of the mission comes from both the political Left and the political Right. Some on the Left think that the venture is a US-led occupation driven by neo-imperialist  ambition and corporate greed that violates the Afghans right to self-determination, and that the NZ involvement is a form of sucking up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. Some on the Right believe that NZ has no strategic stake in the conflict and should leave the (enter derogatory term here) alone to sort out their own fate while NZ concentrates on issues closer to home. I believe that both sides have misread the situation. 

To that end I have offered my summary views on the matter as this month’s Word from Afar column over at Scoop.

Crumbling Walls and Simultaneous Transitions.

datePosted on 19:10, November 10th, 2009 by Pablo

Among the celebrations and self-congratulations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps it is worth mentioning the process involved as opposed to the event. Contrary to what some may think, this was not exactly a full triumph of freedom orchestrated by a Ronald Reagan-led US in the space of ten years. Instead, it culminated a long process of decay within the Stalinist camp that was the result of internal contradictions that analysts of regime change have seen in other forms of authoritarianism. Not to belabor the point, but authoritarian regimes tend to fall for the same reasons even if their specific ideologies may differ. Defeat in war is one such reason, but where the regime is long-lived and institutionalised, the source of decay is from within the regime itself. Institutional sclerosis and lack of responsiveness are to key measures of authoritarian regime decline. Short of war, the role of external agents in authoritarian demise is marginal, at best serving as an accelerant for long-standing trends. That was clearly evident in the Soviet bloc, and once the repressive apparatus decided not to increase its support for Stalinist regimes in the face of rising socio-economic unrest, it was only a matter of time before they fell. Yet, interestingly enough, none of the Sovietologists in Western academia or intelligence agencies foresaw the inevitable until events were already unfolding (something that reflects the nature of their training, which is now evident in US approaches to MIddle Eastern and Chinese studies. To put it bluntly: studying countries from an adversarial viewpoint often leaves analysts unawares of both the broad and narrow nuances that make or break a given form of rule).

Be that as it may, it is not the subject I wish to address here. Instead, I simply wish to note that the post-collapse era in the former Eastern bloc has been a mixed blessing rather than an unqualified triumph for democracy or capitalism, and that is largely due to the nature of the regime transitions themselves.

Students of regime change note that the transition to capitalist democracy from socialist authoritarianism occurs in one of two general ways involving three specific processes. The first two processes of change  are called sequential transitions, where either change in the economic structure is followed by change in the political structure or vice versa. For example, China is undergoing a long transition whereby its economic bases have moved from socialist to capitalistic, yet it retains one-party rule while the transition is ongoing. Here structural change precedes political change. With some variances, this is what Cuba and Vietnam are doing today, and was also the case in Chile in the period 1973-1990, where the market-oriented economic base was cemented under dictatorial rule, which was followed by a period of authoritarian regime liberalisation leading to the restoration of democracy.  More broadly, the sequence holds true for a number of countries: e.g. South Korea, South Africa, the Philippines and Taiwan all fostered capitalism before they embraced democracy. It is important to note that political liberalisation leading to democracy is not often the stated intention of the liberalising authoritarian elite, but becomes an increasingly possible outcome once command economies are dismantled simply because of the proliferation of private actors and decentralisation of economic decision-making that ensues. At that point the genie is pretty much out of the bottle–but not always.

Conversely, political change towards democracy can precede economic change towards capitalism, although it is generally believed that such a sequence is more difficult to achieve because democratic politics allows subordinate groups to organise electoral resistance to economic dislocations caused by a shift to market-oriented macro-economic policy. This was seen in Argentina in the 1990s and Mexico in the early  2000’s. Generally speaking, students of regime change agree that economic change ideally should precede political change simply because the latter occur after populations have gotten used to the new economic facts of life. That counsels for so-called “top-down” transitions where authoritarians control the timing and tempo of sequential economic and political changes leading to democracy. Put differently, once the new (diminished) threshold of economic consent has been established, elections can be held. This is in contrast to “bottom-up” regime change whereby the masses rise against the authoritarians before the latter are  able to schedule an orderly transition sequence, often leading to political conflict and economic stagnation. Although there are (semi) peaceful forms of bottom-up change (such as Argentina after the Falklands War or the People’s “revolution” in the Philippines), social revolutions are the most intense form of “bottom-up” change, and it should be noted that in most modern instances they result in the imposition of a new form of authoritarianism rather than democracy.

That brings up the second general transition path: simultaneous transitions. Analysts concur that, due to the myriad complexities involved, simultaneous transitions from socialist authoritarianism to democracy and capitalism are the least likely to succeed. In some sense, they are directly contradictory in that they involve the opening of the political franchise while at the same time narrowing social redistribution networks, pubic goods and other socialist “entitlements” (noting here that the trade off in authoritarian socialism was supposed to be diminished political voice in exchange for increased social egalitarianism and welfare). The general line is that a country can do one sequence or the other with some chance of success, but in trying to do both at the same time it is almost guaranteed to do neither. That, however, was something that Western political elites ignored or did not care about in their headlong push to “open” these former Stalinist societies to Western economic and political influence.

Ergo, the Fall of the Wall. Never mind that  Polish dockworkers began the slow crumbling of European Stalinism with their strikes in 1980, that Glasnost and Perestroika accelerated it, and that the Berlin Wall came at the end rather than the beginning of the process of Stalinist decline. Or that the fall of communism in Romania was violent and resulted in a different Stalinist cadre taking over. Or that the result of the implosion of Yugoslavia was genocide at the hands of Serbians that required repeated NATO military interventions. Instead, let us note that the entire Soviet bloc, from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Caucuses and into Central Asia, endured simultaneous transitions with very mixed results. Some countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary,Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Slovenia, for example–managed to weather the transition process and are now doing remarkably well as market-oriented democracies. Others–Georgia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, and all of the Central Asian “stans,” are governed by mixtures of elected authoritarians and oligarchs, to which can be added the centre piece, Russia. In many of these countries the transition to market capitalism has also been thwarted, and instead has turned into variations of crony-capitalism, mafia-capitalism, oligarchical control and/or state capitalism in strategic industries (especially energy resource extraction). In fact, in most of the former Stalinist world there is neither democracy or markets at play in the lives of the average citizen. In many countries pre-Soviet ethnic-religious divisions have come back to the fore, and in some of these countries conditions are worse than they were before (Chechnya). Ultra-nationalist movements have gained ground in many former Soviet republics, and in response Communists have started to regroup.

The broader reasons for this are multiple and deeply rooted in social, political and economic authoritarian legacies that cannot be changed or dismantled in a generation, much less overnight. But the precipitating reason lies in the simultaneity of the transitions themselves: absent a historically rooted culture of democracy, social tolerance and market exchange, most of the former Soviet bloc became a field of play for economic opportunists and demagogues rather than democrats and entrepreneurs. What is most striking is that, once having realised the difficulties in simultaneously pursuing democracy and market economics in post-Soviet contexts, both Western as well as local elites have apparently made the decision to support markets (even in their quasi-capitalistic versions) rather than democracy in most of that world. Whether by choice or chance, there is no elective affinity between democracy and market economics in these contexts.

Thus, we should view the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a jaundiced eye. On the one hand, it marked the death of European Stalinism and liberated millions of people from that scourge. On the other hand, for many it did not deliver on its promise of freedom and prosperity, and is still far from doing so in many parts of the non-European former Soviet bloc. More generally, authoritarian regime transitions may be a universal good, but only if they lead to something better. That has not always been the case in the Post-Cold War world. Less self-congratulation and more reflection would therefore seem to be in order.

The 2009 Defense Review.

datePosted on 21:04, October 13th, 2009 by Pablo

Public consultation meetings about the 2009 Defense Review, which will result in a White Paper being published in early 2010, have now concluded. Yet, although the formal submission deadline for individuals and groups has passed, the review committee would be ill-advised to ignore short-term late submissions when they have another 4-5 months to go before the final draft of the White Paper is published. Late does not always mean never. You can access the terms of reference and information about submissions here

It is important that those of the Left of the political spectrum and progressives in general get involved in defence and security issues on an on-going basis, and for them to avoid knee-jerk abhorrence or avoidance of national security issues except when it is topical or effects them directly (such as in the Zaoui case or that of the Urewera 17). Ignoring defense and security issues leaves the field of  play open to security conservatives and the Right in general, including pro-nuclear and abjectly pro-US  elements within the political spectrum. Allowing their views and those of the defense and security bureaucracy to go unchallenged is to concede to them the terms of debate and skews the tone of the White Paper in a conservative-Right direction. That is not healthy for a mature democracy.

In order to do so, however, the Left needs to have something smart to say and not simply repeat the usual pacifist/anti-imperialist mantras. Having the Green Party lead the Left on defense is a non-starter (however well-intentioned the Greens may be) because of their adherence to the pacifist/anti-imperialist line, and the Labour Party is equally unrepresentative of the range of Left thought on defense issues. That leaves a void where the informed Left should be: New Zealand may be small and physically isolated, but it has real security needs and obligations to the international community that require its involvement in foreign military adventures, be they multilateral or bilateral in nature. Simple distaste for the military and police does not cut it when addressing the fundamentals of national security in a small state such as this. What is needed is a Left-progressive critique and plan for near-term security requirements, something that can involve a number of alternative prescriptions based upon notions on humanitarian assistance, non-intervention, multilateralism, peace-keeping and nation-building, non-traditional security concerns (such as environmental degradation and pandemics) and/or non-proliferation (nuclear and conventional). The Left can  (indeed, must) offer recommendations about how and when NZDF personnel are deployed abroad, under what chain of command, and for what purposes (something that at the moment is left to the government of the day). All of this requires some degree of understanding of national security and defense requirements, including strategic and technical issues.

For example, I would advise in favour of a restored close air support (CAS) /ground-attack RNZAF capability that would be used to cover NZDF troops involved in UN- or regional organisation-sanctioned peace-keeping and nation-building duties (to include counter-insurgency operations in failed states). That means that Kiwi pilots would protect Kiwi ground troops in the event that they are at imminent peril, thereby diminishing NZDF reliance on foreign air cover in circumstances when time is of the essence (since foreign air wing commanders, faced with a choice of protecting their own or allied troops in a fluid combat environment with amorphous fronts, will inevitably support their own at the expense of their allies). Such scenarios occur more frequently than the public may realise, and in fact has occurred in East Timor in the last decade (which resulted in the death of an NZDF trooper at the hands of Indonesian forces resisting Timorese independence). In any event, such a CAS capability could involve rotary or fixed wing platforms depending on budgetary constraints and operational requirements 

I would love to get involved in this process but I live abroad and have not been asked. Instead, security conservatives in my former department and other NZ universities have a lock on academic submissions to the Review regardless of their actual “expertise” on such matters. Thus as it stands the Review process is stacked to the Right, and the White Paper will reflect that. For no other reason, this is why the Left needs to get involved in the Review process, because it will be too late once the White Paper is published (and it should be noted that the Review Committee is comprised of former military and/or defense officials).

I have very strong views on how the NZDF should look and how it should be deployed abroad given its international role and reputation. This includes views about the defense budget (both as a percentage of GDP as well as in terms of relative outlays to weapons acquisitions and personnel), force configuration and strategic orientation. But since I cannot weigh in on the subject, I hope that others will. I therefore urge you and your like-minded acquaintences to make your informed views known ASAP, as the deadline for submissions has passed but the Review Committees deliberations have not. Should the committee refuse your submission, enlist an MP or publicly agitate for its inclusion and consideration. Being late does not mean you should not be heard.

Obama’s prize: why not refuse it?

datePosted on 14:27, October 12th, 2009 by Lew

I was as surprised as anyone else who’s been paying the smallest bit of attention to geopolitics this past year when Barack Obama was announced as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This is one issue on which many of his supporters and critics are apparently united: what has he done to deserve it?

Obama himself professes to agree that it’s not justified:

“I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize,” he said. “I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

So why accept it (essentially on credit) instead of refusing it, requesting that the Nobel Committee award it to someone else, and accept a future prize at a later date when the award can be made on the basis of merit? This course of action would demonstrate that Obama is more concerned with world peace, with the (admittedly flagging) credibility of the Nobel prizes, and more importantly with action than with pretty rhetoric and his own status as a diplomatic celebrity.

Rejecting this award would have caused a stir and some embarrassment among the international diplomatic community, but it would have been an opportunity to silence critics on both Obama’s flanks, the pacifist left and the right. Certainly, some would have found ways to turn it against him (after all, the sun still rises in the East), but I believe it would have been met with near-universal acclaim. It would have been a clear message: judge me on my achievements, not on my identity.

This was a test, and to my mind Obama has failed. It’s a damned shame.

L

On resuming intelligence sharing with the US.

datePosted on 19:52, October 9th, 2009 by Pablo

I must confess that this one has me stumped. In her joint press conference with Murray McCully today, Hillary Clinton said that the US would resume intelligence-sharing with NZ as a sign of the strengthened security ties between the two countries.  It might have been a slip of the tongue, but McCully seemed unfazed and the comment was made as part of her prepared remarks, so it appears that the mention was deliberate. But what does it really mean? The US and NZ already share signal intelligence streams via the Echelon network, which has two collection stations on NZ soil. The NZSAS has a least one officer seconded to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia (as well as NZSAS liaison officers designated to  MI-6 in the UK, ASIO in Canberra, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the French DGSE).  The CIA more than likely has a station officer in Wellington (most likely a political (affairs) officer). These connections presumably are already involved in intelligence sharing. So what gives?

Since I am not privy to the decision-making involved, let me just speculate on what this announcement may mean. A few weeks back word slipped out that NZ had intelligence operatives in Afghanistan. Then the NZSAS were deployed there (to Kabul, as it turns out, in a counter-terrorism and CT training role rather than their previous long range patrol and reconnaissance role, which is an interesting story in itself). Putting these two lines together, I suspect that what Mrs. Clinton was alluding to was a resumption of tactical intelligence sharing between US and NZ forces in theater (rather than first report back to their respective superiors at home and allow the bosses to determine what gets shared). This would obviously be of priority in Afghanistan, but frees up US and NZ intelligence collectors to share information throughout areas of mutual interest such as the Western Pacific Rim. On the latter, subjects of mutual interest could include Chinese intelligence and military activities in the region (as alluded to in the Scoop series I linked to last month), money laundering and arms trafficking, organised crime activities (which would also be shared with INTERPOL), as well as leadership analysis and political and  economic trend forecasts.

More broadly, what this means is that NZ is returning to the US fold on security matters. If Australia is the US sheriffs deputy in the Southern Hemisphere, NZ under National is positioning to become the deputy’s adjunct. What is different is not just the extent of the bilateral cooperation involved, but the fact that the Ozzies make no bones about their belief that their middle power aspirations are tied to the US mantle, whereas NZ has carefully cultivated an image of being a neutral and honest broker in international affairs. With this revelation, that image is bound to be altered, and it remains to be seen if the benefits of closer security relations with the US (which I do not necessarily object to based on the principle of necessity) may translate into to a loss of mana, reputation and prestige in the eyes of the larger international community. Perhaps the diplomatic community is jaded enough to understand that pragmatism requires that NZ play all sides of the fence, that “it has to do what it has to do,”and that its rhetorical lip service is a mere cover to its real, pro-US orientation (I touched on this in the previous post titled “John Key Rides the Fence”). However, I wonder how the Chinese, Malaysians, Iranians and Arab trading partners will feel about this revelation, to say nothing of European partners who have trusted NZ to speak to truth to power on issues as varied as non-proliferation and environmental sustainability. Although Mrs. Clinton was at pains to laud NZ’s role on the latter two subjects, it remains to be seen what (negative or positive) spill-over effects may occur as a result of this closer bilateral security relationship, or, as National will undoubtably argue, whether the issue of intelligence sharing is safely “compartmentalized” and thereby insulated from the broader foreign policy direction of the National government. In three years we should know, but by then the consequences, good or bad, will be inescapable.

Is Iran a Menace?

datePosted on 19:13, October 6th, 2009 by Pablo

Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.

But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.

First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?

The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semites rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and  the Mahdi Army and other  Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to Shiia irredentism in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.

It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at Riyadh or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”

Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question.  So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just that Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?

Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”

John Rides the Fence

datePosted on 21:55, October 1st, 2009 by Pablo

Besides serving as a prop for some Letterman piss-taking, John Key’s visit to the the UN allows us to finally see the contours of National’s foreign policy. It can be captured in a neat phrase: firmly straddling the fence.

At the UN Mr. Key made all the right noises, speaking about fighting climate change, reducing carbon emissions, supporting multilateral approaches to conflict resolution and nation-building, promoting free trade and economic transparency. But his actions elsewhere speak volumes about what National really intends, at least in core areas of international relations. I shall break them down in order of importance to NZ.

On trade, NZ is gradually but decisively shifting to an Asian/Middle East orientation. National clearly sees that NZ’s competitive advantage lies in its traditional comparative advantage in primary good and derivative exports rather than value added manufacturing (except in niche industries such as weapons componentry). The bulk market for primary goods and their derivatives is in the East not the West, and even if certain NZ niche export industries such as wine prosper in the advanced liberal democracies, National’s future bet is with consumption growth in Asian and Middle Eastern autocracies. The recent championing of the growth in NZ-PRC trade since the 2008 bilateral FTA was signed demonstrates that National cares less about the after-entry effects of the FTAs (to say: labour market conditions, environmental standards, corporate responsibility to share holders and the general political climate in which export/import Kiwis make their money) and more about profit generated from trade volume growth.

On aid, NZ is privatizing the lot. The recent NZ$1 Million disaster relief assistance offered to Samoa and Tonga notwithstanding (already in the NZAID budget formulated by the Fifth Labour government, and directed to an afflicted area where the cost of recovery will run into the US$ 100 millions), the focus of NZ aid assistance under National, as Lew mentioned in a post a while back, is to promote private entrepeneurship and trade rather than poverty alleviation and social welfare. Moreover, the broader philosophical instinct betrayed by this approach is the National disbelief in nation-building efforts. Now it is clear that National believes that nation-building is a self-help issue: no matter if there are intractable pre-modern conflicts at play, or the  prospects for peace and security for millions are at stake, the answer is to promote capitalist entrepeneurship. In other words, the pursuit of profit trumps all humanitarian concerns when it comes to National’s approach to using taxpayer dollars to provide foreign aid. For National market approaches and trickle down effects are all that is needed to make the world right.

(I should note that this market fetish is now reaching deep into university planning schemes and in efforts to attract foreign fees paying students. As I have experienced directly, the impact on quality of instruction is negatively impacted by the rush to profit from ‘bums in seats.’)

Then, of course, there is national security. Here market logics may or may not apply. National has ramped up its commitment to play the role of Australia junior, which is to say a role in which it actively participates in the foreign military missions of its traditional partners. Afghanistan is the testing point for this re-orientation, because National has re-committed the NZSAS to front line combat duties while at the same time signaling its intention to withdraw the NZDF nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) contingent in Bayiman province. Something tells me that the costs of the NZSAS re-deployment will largely be borne by others (which makes it affordable),  whereas the PRT came mostly at NZ expense (whcih makes it unaffordable in spite of its excellent work). It appears that cost-cutting without principle abounds in these NACTIONAL daze. Given National’s downplaying of nation-building efforts in favour of market-driven logics, the Bayiman PRT is gone-burger (incidentally, the majority of the people who inhabit Bayiman are traditionally the slaves/servants of Pushtuns, so they are natural allies of UN/NATO reconstruction efforts).

So, on security issues National wants to curry favour with Australia, the US and the UK. On trade grounds it wants to curry favour with China, the UAE, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–to mention just a few favoured trade partners. At the same time it appeases the UN with platitudes about environmental protection, non-proliferation and disarmament.

This is a three-sided foreign policy that is designed to be all things to all people divided into selected audiences. Although professional diplomats will work admirably to overcome the difficulties in reconciling these positions under the “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy stance that has obtained since 1990, one has to wonder–beyond the ridicule incurred by not even getting an invite to sit down and talk with the host on the American TV show but instead agreed to lip-read a bunch on American written deprecatory one-liners– if John Key’s loins not were chaffing under the strain of keeping a straight face while enunciating what is basically a  (N.8) wire-top foreign policy for the next three years.

PS–the NZ bid for a rotating Security Council seat is another case of splitting the difference. NZ will clearly be western on security matters but as a small state with an Asian trade orientation, will toe the multilateralist, non-interventionist “open border for trade” policy line, all the while getting to have a temporary say in how threats to the international community are perceived. Given its non-nuclear commitment, that means that NZ  will be duty-bound, among other things, to condemn the Iranian nuclear (weapons) programme and vote in favour of the sanctions/military resolutions occurring thereof. That places its trade orientation at odds with its security stance (since Iran has become a major export destination). Presumably MFAT has thought this one through and contingency planned accordingly.

Blog Link: The Giant’s Rival Part Two: The US responds.

datePosted on 12:21, September 21st, 2009 by Pablo

The second part of the series on China’s growing presence in the South Pacific is now on Scoop. It explores the US response.

Blog Link: China on the Horizon, Part One.

datePosted on 12:07, September 14th, 2009 by Pablo

I have been working on a project focused on the growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific. It will eventually materialise as a magazine or journal article, but as I worked on the draft I decided it would make for a decent “Word from Afar” column at Scoop. Because of its length I have cut it into two parts as well as expanded or modified some aspects of the original text. This first part explores China’s growing influence in the Southwestern Pacific Rim.

Next week I shall cover the US response.

123... 15161718PreviousNext