Archive for ‘International relations’ Category

Bipolarity, unipolarity and the coming USBRIC world.

datePosted on 20:05, August 25th, 2009 by Pablo

The lack of informed public debate on New Zealand foreign policy, to include its international security policy, is equaled only by its seemingly directionless drift under National. On the one hand National has embraced the idea of shifting its trade focus–which as Lew mentioned in an earlier post has once again become the basis for all foreign policy–towards Asia (and increasingly the Middle East). On the other hand, National is attempting to reforge its security ties with the US and Australia as well as regional partners like Singapore. It continues to pay lip service to the UN multilateral ethos, but in practice appears less committed than the Bolger, Shipley and Clark governments to supporting the multinational cause in places that are not of immediate import to economic prosperity. This has even been reflected in its approach to regional issues in the southwest Pacific, where the expansion of Chinese economic and military influence has been met with diffidence rather than focused attention. All of this suggests that even if the foreign policy bureaucracy understands the complexities of international relations in the present moment, its current political masters do not.

I shall elaborate on the implications of a growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific in a future post. For the moment what I propose here is to outline, in a highly simplified fashion, the broader contours of the changes undergone and ongoing in the international political system, with an eye towards situating New Zealand in that fluid context. In so doing, perhaps a clearer picture of the need for foreign policy direction will emerge.

The Cold War was characterised by a tight bipolar balance of power, in which nuclear-armed superpowers and their allies aligned themselves along a communist/anti-communist axis that divided the world into peripheral and shatter zones depending on the probability of direct confrontation. Collective security via superior counter-force was the basis for mutual deterrence under the so-called “balance of terror” principle, which was premised on the shared belief that conflict in shatter zones had a high possibility of escalation into nuclear war. Central Europe was the most vital shatter zone, so conflict avoidance was the overriding principle in that theater. Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America were peripheral to the core interests of the superpowers, so they became the sites for proxy wars and unilateral interventions in which weapons were trialed and tactics refined, but in which no immediate possibility of superpower confrontation existed. Some places were so remote, they only served as monitoring stations or way fares for the big players. Depending on the technologies available and their spatial location , a few peripheral countries could be accorded special interest by the superpowers. On that score, New Zealand and Cuba were exemplars of each side of the continuum, respectively.

As oil increased in importance as a strategic commodity, the Middle East was increasingly defined by the US and its allies as a shatter zone, which helps explain the reduction in direct inter-state conflict between Israel and its Soviet-backed neighbours (Egypt, Syria and Jordan especially) after 1973. It was not until the demise of the USSR that the so-called “secular nationalists” in the Middle East adopted a more pro-Western stance, but the dye had been cast on their position more than a decade before.

The fall of the Soviet bloc ended the bipolar balance of power and began a decade of unipolar domination by the US. No country or combination of countries had the military or economic power to confront the US on either or both grounds. Russia descended into post-Stalinist chaos; China was still in the early stages of embracing capitalism. East and Western Europe integrated, but the process was fractious and economic, demographic and social differences precluded the emergence of a truly “unified” Europe as a political and military actor. Post-colonial despotism abounded in Africa, and if Latin America democratised, it did so largely amid conditions of economic stagnation. East Asia prospered by remained politically divided amongst itself. Under such conditions, and coupled with major advances in telecommunications and the global opening of markets, the US imposed a form of pax americana in which the only types of conflicts feasible were of the low-intensity variety in failed or peripheral states. Inter-state conflict was replaced by pre-modern ethnic and religious conflict, and nation-building and peace-keeping in failed states became the raison d’etre of military forces in the loosened post-Cold War alliance structures as well as for a host of other middle and small powers. New Zealand was one of them.

As it turns out, market globalisation and technological change were the source of both US strength and weakness. While the US focused resources on the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” and fourth generation warfare in which the element of human will is supposedly trumped by technological capability, market forces pushed both technological advancement and consumption in a host of previously underdeveloped states. In the measure that these states welcomed foreign capital and investment, both the input and output sides of the supply chains flourished within them, and they developed increasingly advanced economies of scale. Foremost of these are what are now known as the “BRIC” countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Through an astute mix of good government policy, size and resource base, national ambition and foreign investment, these countries have emerged (or re-emerged in the Russian case) as nascent great powers. The US, for its part, overextended itself militarily in response to 9/11, where it is confronted by irregular, decentralised non-state actors fighting asymmetrically so as to negate US technological superiority and reduce both the tactical and strategic confrontation to that basic element of will. Although US technology still affords it clear battlefield advantages, it cannot on its own prevail decisively or quickly against well-prepared and ideologically committed irregulars fighting on their home soils. Under such circumstances, in which a long-term war of attrition is fought on mostly unconventional grounds, irregular actors can force strategic stalemates that for all intents and purposes are political defeats for the militarily superior adversary. That is because the logistical and human costs of engaging in such long term military adventures without resolution erode the will not so much of the troops engaged in them, but of the civilian support base at home that votes on matters of policy. Such is now the situation in Afghanistan, as it was previously in Iraq.

Since 2003 the US has entered into a slow economic decline, fueled in equal parts by the W. Bush administrations fiscal policies, the costs of its wars and the failure of a large swathe of the US business community to recognize and adapt to the changes in the global system of production and exchange post 1990. Conversely, not saddled with military burdens comparable to that of the US, the BRICs have directed their national energy and resources into economic development. The results are impressive. In the last decade the individual BRICs have increased their yearly GDP by an average of nearly ten percent and collectively have advanced their growth rates by more than 50 percent when compared to 1990. They have all survived the recession of 2007-09 and currently display growth rates in excess of 4%/yearly on average (the US is predicted to have an average growth rate of less than a 3 percent for the next five years). Barring some human-made disaster, the upward economic trend for the BRICs shows no sign of abating for another  decade. The same cannot be said for the US, regardless of its recent rebounds. In an economic as well as military sense, the tide seems to have turned against US unipolar dominance.

All four BRIC nations are major sources of consumption. Russia remains the most vulnerable economy because of its dependence on fossil fuel exports and criminal influence in policy making, but even so has reconstituted a significant measure of its military capability and battle tested it in Chechnya and Georgia. China and India have become technological incubators, value added export platforms and, most recently, purchasers of advanced weapons systems under slowly opening forms of elite rule. Militarily, China is constructing nuclear submarines as well as an indigenous aircraft carrier amid a major expansion of its entire range of force; India is modernizing and expanding both its sub and carrier fleets as well as it land and air wings. Both countries have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them at considerable range from a number of platforms, and both have been aggressive in asserting their military presence abroad (as has Russia). Of the four countries, Brazil is the least focused on military expansion, although it too has upgraded both its offensive as well as defensive capabilities. In no case can the US stop this progress by the use or threat of force or economic sanction. The result is that the world is now evolving into a multipolar system in which US power is balanced, in the first instance, by the BRICs, and in the second instance by the interplay between the BRICs themselves and with other middle powers such as France, Germany, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, Malaysia and the UK.

Emergence of the BRICs and the move towards multipolarity has further accelerated the loosening of Cold War alliance structures and increased the profile of smaller or emerging national actors such as South Africa and Singapore, which in turn has pushed a general reconfiguration of diplomatic, economic and military relations within the multi-tiered international community. Needless to say, the US will not disappear from the scene or be conquered anytime soon. What the emergence of new powers and changing international dynamics does mean is that it will have to share space with the new great powers: enter the world of USBRIC multipolarity.

Such change should be welcomed. The situation remains fluid but from a historical standpoint the move towards multipolarity is encouraging because it promises an era of greater peace once the multinational-balances and attendant blocs have been sorted out. Unipolar systems have historically been the most unstable type of international order because absent universality of values one-sided domination breeds resentment and challenge. Bipolar systems are stable (as the Cold War demonstrates), but  stability rests on a the precarious assumption that both rivals share the same form of rationality when it comes to strategic perspective, and that cannot be guaranteed over time. In a situation in which 3 or more powers contend for power, balancing becomes the pivot of the system because it serves as a hedge against single actor dominance. Here the actions of national elites matter less than the systemic response, which pushes the determinant logic out from the national (unit) level to the international (systemic) level. Hence small number multipolar systems are considered to be the most stable type of international political community.

Closer to home, the questions that arise are as follows: is NZ cognizant of these shifts and does it have a coherent foreign policy and international security strategy to ensure that it can take advantage, or at least not be disadvantaged by them? Is the current approach to trade, security and diplomatic affairs conducive to advancing the national interest over the long term, or is it more of an opportunistic hodgepodge of traditional and new perspectives and relations that do not account for the fundamental nature of the afore-mentioned shift towards USBRIC multipolarity? That, dear readers, I shall leave for you to ponder.

A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

datePosted on 19:26, July 29th, 2009 by Pablo

News of the NZSAS’s imminent departure to Afghanistan, on its fourth deployment since 2001 but first since 2005, has occasioned a fair bit of commentary in the media. A Herald poll shows public opinion evenly divided on the issue. A broad swathe of Right and Left wing isolationists and pacifists oppose the move. Many believe it is just a sop thrown to US imperialism in order to curry favour. Others think it is about gas pipelines and Halliburton profits. The rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan has become muddled by American pronouncements that NZ should do so as a type of insurance in the event it is attacked, or as a down payment on an eventual bilateral FTA. John Key has not helped matters by stating that he does not want the SAS to undertake so-called “mentoring” roles for the Afghan Army because it is too dangerous (as if what they otherwise would be doing is not), and that he would like to withdraw the NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan province because it costs too much to maintain (this in spite of its widely recognised success as a “hearts and minds” operation that is the essence of international peace-keeping and nation-building missions such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan).  He further clouds the issue by invoking the Jakarta and Mumbai bombings as reasons for the NZSAS deployment, even if the bombings had zero connection to events on the ground in Afghanistan (although I admit the possibility that some of those involved in the bombings may have attended Taleban protected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal regions in the last decade or so). In making these utterances Mr. Key displays an apparent lack of understanding of what is really at stake in this dangerous game.

I have already posted here on the subject (see the Archive, especially here and here), and in recent days have tried to explicate further in the dedicated comments threads in places like Tumeke and Kiwiblog. Yet the rationale for why I believe that sending the NZSAS to and keeping the PRT in Afghanistan is justified appears to be lost in the general discussion. So let me phrase things in a different way, for purposes of clarification: what is going on in Afghanistan is a two-level game.

One one level there is the original ISAF mission. That mission was and is to deny al-Qaeda cadres and militant Taleban safe havens inside Afghanistan so that they do not pose a threat to the local population and cannot use Afghan territory to stage cross-border assaults on Pakistan and other neighbouring Central Asian republics. The concern with the militant Taleban, as opposed to their more “moderate” counterparts (read: nationalist or tribal), is that they have greater ambitions than re-gaining political control of Afghanistan. Instead, the militant Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies seeks to establish a Caliphate throughout Central Asia and beyond. They particularly want to gain control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, but even that is just a short-to-medium term goal. They have, in other words, imperialist ambitions of their own. These ambitions are not only opposed by the US, UN, and NATO. They are opposed by China, Russia, India and all Asian states that see the ripple effect extending towards them. In fact, they are opposed by virtually all of the international community with the exception of failed states such as Somailia and the Sudan (which have now become the new locus of al-Qaeda activity).

Worried about the repercussive effects that a Taleban victory in Afghanistan would have throughout Central Asia, the NATO-led, UN sanctioned ISAF mission has been successful at eliminating al-Qaeda as a military threat in the country, and is essentially now engaged in a grand scale pincer movement along with the Pakistani military that is designed to push Taleban on both sides of the common border into geographically defined kill zones from which they cannot escape. In parallel, ISAF and UN-led civilian assistance groups are attempting to engage moderate Taleban elements in order to establish a durable cease-fire that will permit the second level of the game to be played.

The second level game is oriented towards establishing a moderate Islamic regime with centralised authority over Afghanistan, one that will balance secular rights with religious freedoms and traditional privileges in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This a minimalist construction of the game; that is, it pretends to go no further than what is stated. It does not imply that the objective is to establish a secular democracy in the country. It does not pretend that centralised authority will mean central government monopoly of organised violence in the tribal hinterlands. It does not propose the blanket elimination of traditional forms of authority or social mores. Instead, it merely seeks to create the structural and political conditions for the establishment of peace, a peace that in turn will deny Islamic extremists the fertile territory for recruitment and sanctuary. It involves promoting electoral forms of political contestation, but more importantly, it pursues infrastructural development, to include educational, health and nutritional programs as well as the civil-military engineering projects required for their implementation and expansion.

To be sure, endemic corruption, the Karzai regime’s limited legitimacy outside of Kabul, the persistence of the opium trade, the ongoing presence of warlord-dominated fiefdoms, and the abject primitivism of many parts of the country make the second game seemingly impossible to achieve, and greatly complicate the achievement of the first game. Yet just because other foreign incursions have been defeated does not necessarily mean that this one is inevitably doomed to fail. For one thing, this is an international effort, not the expansionist project of a single imperial state. For another, because of its developmental and humanitarian focus, it does have a fair bit of internal support as well as that of neighbouring countries, factors that did not obtain in previous instances of occupation.

These two games are now being played out simultaneously, in overlapped fashion. The first is needed for the second to be successful (i.e., the combat work of such as the NZSAS is needed for PRTs to be successful). Yet the second is needed for the first to advance sufficiently so that an “exit strategy” is feasible. That will take a long time, at a minimum at least another five years and probably more. Any upgrade or renewal of the NZDF commitment to Afghanistan must take account of this fact.

Thus, when considering the “why” of NZ’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan, the debate should focus on the two levels of the ISAF “game,” and whether NZ has a stake in either. I have already stated that I believe that there are moral and practical reasons why NZ should, as an international citizen, contribute to the ISAF mission on both levels. Others disagree on either or both counts.  The main point, however, is that Mr. Key and his advisors in the MoD and MFAT develop a clear and comprehensible rationale for why NZ should put its soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, which in turn is as much a function of informed public interest as it is of diplomatic necessity.

What is (or should be) NZ’s international role?

datePosted on 22:32, July 20th, 2009 by Pablo

News that the National government has in principle accepted the US request to deploy the NZSAS in Afghanistan once again raises questions as to whether NZ has a dog in that fight, and if so, why it got there. I am already on record in this forum and elsewhere as believing that the NZDF presence in Afghanistan is just on both moral and practical grounds. But many others disagree. That brings up the larger point, which is what, exactly, is (or should be) NZ’s international role? The paradigm shifts and dislocations that followed the Cold War stripped NZ of many of its traditional foreign policy referents, some of which were already being eroded prior to 1990 by the nuclear-free declaration and embrace of market-driven macroeconomic principles. As Lew mentioned in a previous post, trade now appears to be the basis for most contemporary NZ foreign policy, particularly under National governments. I have argued at various times that NZ foreign policy is a mixture of principle and pragmatism, but as of late I am not so sure that the former obtains in any significant measure.

Thus the questions begs: in a fluid international environment such as that which exists today, in which traditional alliance structures and security partnerships have been replaced or overlapped by new trade networks and the emergence of a raft of non-traditional security concerns and policy issues, what role does NZ play? Does it remain a committed multilateral institutionalist? Or is more of a junior partner to a variety of larger countries on a range of selected issues? Should it take the lead in pursuing matters of international principle like the pursuit of non-intervention, disarmanent, non-proliferation, climate change and human rights, or should it wise up and curry favour by getting with the bigger player’s projects, be they Chinese, American or Australian? Does realism or idealism drive NZ foreign policy, and if it is a mixture of the two perspectives, which should dominate given current and near future conditions?

There is a strong isolationist streak in NZ that spans the spectrum from Left to Right, one that sees nonintervention in foreign affairs to be the preferred standard when approaching the international community. In contrast, the trade liberalizers in both major parties and the foreign party bureaucracy speak of trade openings as the end-all, be-all of NZ growth and thus a reason for ongoing and deeper engagement with a multitude of partners. But what happened to principle in all of this, particularly the notion that as a good international citizen NZ has a duty and obligation to support with its active involvement actions that are sanctioned by the UN and other international agencies (the principle that I just happen to believe in when it comes to the foreign policy behaviour of small democratic states)? The ISAF mission in Afghanistan is just one such action, but there are a multitude of others that are seldom mentioned, much less discussed by the NZ political elite or public.

Given the hard economic times of the moment and the folly of recent great power interventions in international affairs, what exactly is or should be NZ’s response to recent international trends, and thus its role in the international environment? Should it lead, follow, be neutral, selective or withdraw when considering its potential range of international commitments?  What should be the criteria for foreign engagement, and to what extent or degree? Should certain existing international commitments be dropped and new ones adopted? Should the traditional pro-Western foreign policy perspective shift to a more Eastern view?

I post this simply as a general reminder that the role of NZ as an international actor gets far too little play in the public discourse, yet is one that it absolutely crucial not only to its international reputation and stature, but also to its continued well-being as a small, vulnerable and dependent nation-state. The question must therefore be repeated: what role should that preferably be?

Following on the theme of my posts on the Honduran coup, but from a different angle, this month’s “Word from Afar” column at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0907/S00170.htm

The thread on the post about the Honduran coup made me realise that there is much misapprehension about coups and military regimes. I shall attempt to clarify the key terms and concepts involved.

Coups are the forcible resolution of a conflict between elites. They stem from the failure to resolve said conflicts within civilian institutional boundaries. They are not revolutions.

Revolutions are mass-based armed collective action leading to parametric change in society. Parametric change involves fundamental economic, social and political change beyond the change of regime. Revolutions are mass mobilisational; coups are demobilisational. In the 20th and early 21st century the only regimes overthrown by armed revolutions have been oligarchic authoritarian, with the collapse of the Eastern bloc being a mix of mass based collective resistance (not always armed) mixed with elite fracture in favour of reform. Hence they have been called by some scholars “peaceful revolutions,” although there is considerable debate about the authenticity of their revolutionary character. No democracy has been overthrown by a revolution (although some have been created by them), but many a democracy has  fallen to a coups.

Coups can be hard or soft depending on the amount of mass mobilization preceding the coup and the degree of repression involved in the military intervention. The equation is simple: The more there is mass based collective action, particularly armed collective violence, the harsher the coup. The harsher coup, the more militarised the state will become after the coup, and the higher the degree of repression of regime opponents. Thus student riots, middle class demonstrations and wildcat strikes will invite a modicum of repression, whereas guerrilla attacks or civil war will invite a far more deadly form of military intervention.

Military rule has two variants: ruler and arbitrator (or mediator) military regimes. Ruler military regimes are rule by the military as an institution, with a defined ideological project and no time limit on their tenure in power. The ideological project has specified economic, social and political objectives, which means that ruler militaries often have a specific class coalition underpinning them. The Latin American military-bureaucratic authoritarians of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were allied with the export bourgeoisie, finance capital and foreign MNCs (as examples think of the Pinochet regime in Chile or the Argentine, Guatemalan or El Salvadorean  juntas of the 1960s and 1970s), whereas the Arab military developmentalist regimes of the 1950s through the 1990s were allied with the secular domestic bourgeoisie and urban working classes (think Nassar in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and post-Kemalist Turkey prior to 1980). The Burmese junta is a contemporary example. Note that although civilians may be present in ruler military regimes, and they may even have parties, parliaments and civilian courts as legitimating facades, it is the military as an institution that ultimately governs.

Ruler military regimes often come to power after their prior failures as arbitrator military regimes. Arbitrator military regimes only intervene in politics in order to restore a broken institutional order after a period of conflict. The military approach to intervention is much like a “time out” given by parents to bickering children, although in this case the bickering is between civilian elites and their political representatives. The arbitrator military sets a time table for withdrawal from power and demands that the civilian elites put their political house in order less there be a more severe intervention down the road. The military has no ideological project of its own and prefers to return to its security functions sooner rather than later, understanding that the major internal problem of being in government is erosion of its combat skills (which is the Achilles Heel of ruler militaries that stay in power for extended periods of time, since rather than training for combat, officers become military bureaucrats whose major activity is issuing edicts, writing memos and answering the phone. That invites attack by adversaries).

For much of its recent modern history Honduras has been governed by ruler military regimes (following on oligarchic rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries). After the installation of democracy it has attempted to professionalise in order to better serve the national defense (and recalling that it lost the soccer war with El Salvador). In the 1980s the US cast a blind eye on the counter-insurgency campaign conducted against local Marxist and Maoist guerrillas in exchange for allowing the stationing of counter-revolutionary forces and US advisors on the border with Nicaragua. The US currently maintains a military force of 600 troops (mostly special operations and counter-narcotics detachments) at a Honduran military air base in Soto Cano. In the 1990s the US pushed hard on the Honduran military to remove itself from politics altogether, making a variety of military assistance programs contingent upon it doing so. Until a week ago the Honduran high command upheld its end of the bargain.

It should be noted that in a small country like Honduras the elite is very interbred. Military commanders are related by blood to political leaders, high ranking clergy, large landowning families and the rising urban noveau riche. The officer corps cannot escape, even at dinner conversations, the bickering of politicians and other influential civilians. Thus the pull on them to intervene emanating from these civilians is unusually strong, and almost always in favour of protecting elite interests against “socialist” threats.

The current coup is, therefore, a variant or sub-type of the arbitrator military regime. The military removed President Zelaya and his government and allowed the installation of his designated civilian successor (and opponent), Roberto Micheletti, after Congressional and Supreme Court requests to do so. It maintains a strong presence on the streets of Tegucigalpa and the border regions, but has not resorted to blanket repression, arrest, detention and murder of Zelaya supporters (although some deaths in clashes have been reported), nor has it imposed a state of siege (although a state of emergency is in force). It has not militarised the state apparatus, has not assumed a larger governmental role,  and other than on specifically security-related matters, prefers to have the new civilian government do the talking. The speed in which it intervened and withdrew is a novel twist on the arbitrator military story. By all measures this has been a relatively benign coup.

But a coup is a coup, and by the standards of the OAS and international community in general, an illegal usurpation of the popular will as expressed through regular elections and civilian political institutions. Therefore, the military command should have resisted the move (and civilian entreties), as military upholding of the constitution means simply to abide by it, not necessarilly act as the guarantor of its enforcement. It will now be interesting to see how the political negotiations over Zelaya’s fate work out, but whatever the outcome and whether Zelaya is allowed to return to Honduras or not, he is finished as president. The one good thing to take from this political farce is that the Honduran military command apparently underestands, even if only out of self-interest, that its days as a ruler military are as over as are Zelaya’s dreams of re-election.

The class element in recent Middle Eastern elections.

datePosted on 10:17, June 30th, 2009 by Pablo

Lost in the chorus of outrage over the Iranian election results and subsequent repression of protest is the socio-economic cleavages evident in the polls. The same is true of the coverage of the Lebanese parliamentary elections held two weeks earlier.  It is therefore worthwhile to examine this dimension.

President Amadinijhad represents not only the militant Islamicist ideological wing embodied in the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij, who are now purportedly in a power struggle with the clerics in the Guardian Council over the direction of the post-revolutionary leadership movement. Amadinijhad also represents, both in tone and demeanour, the urban working and rural classes. Against him are poised the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousani, a former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs who his supporters and Western analysts see as a reformist. He is also a millionaire who receives his support from the urban bourgeousie, secularists, the better educated and university students. In most aspects he is not discernably different from Amadinijhad with regard to major policy issues (such as the civilian nuclear energy program), but he does represent a modernizing element within the revolution, one that is more secular, more technologically savvy and more attuned to Western mores than the mullahs and Revolutionary Guards (at the elite level) and the working classes (at the base) that see Amadinijhad as a bastion against corrosive secularisation of the revolutionary ethos.

The election was a referendum not on Iran’s foreign policy (which the West is obsessed about), but on Amadinijhad’s economic management, which by any measure is poor and which, like in any other country, occupies the attention of the mass electorate. Iran is a net oil importer that cannot feed itself in spite of its large land mass and variegated geography, access to the sea and ample fresh water. It was also a contest between the cell phone and twitter generation and the rest, since only 30 percent of Iranians have access to computer facilities and less than half have access to cell phones. Clearly, Amadinijhad and the mullahs underestimated the power of cellphone and computer access, particiularly when the regime itself is now dependent on computer services and cell phones in order to conduct its daily business (which practically speaking means that universal shut downs or denials of service are nigh impossible). 

My belief is that Amadinijhad won the election, but by a narrow margin that spooked him and his supporters who felt that a close vote would undermine the face of strength and unity they wish to present to the West with regards to the nuclear progam, support for Hamas and Hezbollah and foreign relations in general, to say nothing of their relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Unfamiliar with the subtleties of vote fraud so well refined in advanced democracies, the Amadinijhad government–which controlled the balloting–padded their lead too much and hand counted votes too quickly to be credible. Hence the uproar.

But the genie is out of the bottle no matter what happens. Amadinijhad is dead in the water as far as having influence and leverage at home and abroad. In terms of foreign policy, he cannot purport to be the representative of any consensus vis a vis relations with the West, which undermines any bargaining position he hopes to maintain on key foreign policy issues (simply due to the lack of acknowledged majority support for his views). Domestically, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij has been sent a clear message that their ideological project is not shared by a wide swathe of Iranians. Moreover, the class divisions that precipitated the election crisis will not go away just because the government quells the protests. Thus, whether or not the West would like to intervene in the post-election process (a move that has never been proven to be successful over the long-term), the class conflict underpinning the electoral dispute will continue so long as both sides play the dispute in zero-sum terms. In the measure they do, they risk the possibility of civil war, since significant elements in the conventional military (particularly in the more technologically or professionally oriented branches of the Air Force and Navy) will not follow Revolutionary Guard orders to kill their own people  (if nothing else because the officer corps and non-commisioned officers are part of the middle classes), and because the “real” military will be needed to quell any mass revolt. In the measure that the Amadinijhad and Mousavi factions cut a deal and marginalise the Revolutionary Guard and Basij pustchists, the clerics and conventional officer corps will back them. The question is, can they reconcile the class conflicts in a political compromise that is mutually binding, universally acceptable and stable over time?

In Lebanon, Saad el-Hariri assumed the mantle of his assassinated father Rafic and gained a majority in the June 7 parliamentary elections, winning 71 of 128 seats . Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, won 57 seats and accepted the outcome. Hezbollah represents the working class and Shiia vote in Lebanon; Hariri represents the Sunni, Christian, Druze, secularist and bourgeoise vote. The West applauded the result and urged Hariri to proceed with his father’s anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian project, which includes marginalising (and criminalising) Hezbollah. Understanding the realities on the ground, Saad el-Hariri has opted instead to form a  national unity government that includes Hezbollah because he apparently understands that class, not religious conflict, is what drives many to support the Shiia extremists (who deliver on their promises of social services far better than any of their pro-Western counterparts).

 What is remarkable is the unmentioned premise for Western political support in a Middle Eastern (or any other)  election: defense of upper class (read capitalist) interests at the expense of all others. To be sure, religious, ethnic and cultural conflicts are bound up in these electoral contests, but one thing remains clear: even in societies rendered by such superstructural forms of primary identification, it is class that drives the major political divisions, and it is class interest, capitalist class interests specifically, to which the West responds most favorably when it comes to electoral outcomes. All of this is obvious: for the West it seems electoral democracy is not so much about the freedom to choose but about the “freedom” to choose bourgeoise leaders who uphold the national capitalist class interest as well as an affinity for Western economic orientation and macroeconomic logics (in spite of the obvious debacles such orientation has produced in both the developed and developing world). The response to Hamas’s electoral victory is an indication of that view, above and beyond its problematic approach to violence, Iranian connections and  non-recognition of Israel. 

I should note that the current trend in both elections indicates a move away from religious militancy and towards moderate-secularism, which to my mind is a good thing. It also represents a specific repudiation of Shiia militancy, either in the form of the Revolutionary Guard ideology or the perspective of its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies in Lebanon and Palestine ( fully understanding the local conditions underpinning their respective support), something that will undoubtably comfort elites in the Sunni Arab world.

For the social democratic Left the elections pose a conundrum: who to support? The “bad guys” (at least in Western eyes) are supported by the working masses and rural poor; the “good guys” are supported by elites and other propertied groups as well as well-meaning sorts such as intellectuals and artists. The class line does not suffice to chart a course of response to such situations. For social democratic governments, this poses a major problem; for right wing governments such as that temporarily governing NZ, it does not. Thus the question begs: when confronted by this type of class conflict viewed through the prism of contested elections, does the democratic Left (in government or in opposition) choose democracy over class interest or vice versa? If so why, exactly? If not, why not?

Chosŏn Realism

datePosted on 12:37, May 28th, 2009 by Lew

(This and the last are posts I’ve been meaning to put up all week, having been prevented by a migraine and a deadline.)

This week seems an opportune time to link to a small but superb collection of North Korean propaganda posters reproduced (with two brief and fascinating contextual notes) from David Heather and Koen de Ceuster’s book North Korean Posters.

ess_north_korean_39
(“Let’s extensively raise goats in all families!”)

Discussion of the second test in the media has cast a great deal of heat and not very much light on the issues at stake, including one alarming statement in the NZ media by Tim Beal of Victoria University that the USA could defeat the DPRK militarily “without losing a single soldier” (audio), which runs contra to the understanding of the situation I had when I lived there. My understanding, admittedly mostly from pub discussions with officers in the South Korean and US defence establishment, was that the reason there’s a stalemate is a sort of mutually assured destruction, because while the forces in the South clearly have the strategic advantage, the DPRK has an unknown but very large number of well-protected and hidden artillery pieces and conventional rockets in the mountains just north of the border, within easy range of Seoul, and the few dozen hours it might take to destroy them all could result in catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure in that very densely-populated city.

Tough call.

L

Blog Link: Reorganizing (the) Defense

datePosted on 16:15, May 15th, 2009 by Pablo

The recent announcement that a Defense Review Board has been convened with the charge of issuing a Defense White Paper in 2010 (13 years after the last one) is the subject of this month’s “A Word from Afar” column over at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0905/S00152.htm . Lets just say that there are some troublesome aspects to the issue.

Explaining the Opening of Diplomatic Dialogue

datePosted on 00:47, April 22nd, 2009 by Pablo

There has been much blather about Obama kow-towing to Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega at the recent Summit of the Americas conference, as well as his overtures to Cuba and Iran. At a minimum, his opponents accuse him of sending the wrong message (apparently it involves “legitimizing” governments that have already been majority elected by their own constituents), and at the worst he is labeled a “socialist” and a “traitor” to the US ideals. The drumbeat of hatred in disloyal opposition is stoked by conservative media outlets, who openly incite the ideologically inclined to physically act upon their irrational fears.

Notwithstanding that type of beat-up, and partisan idiocy aside, there is no reason to be alarmed. US broaching of diplomatic dialogue with various adversaries is a tried and true aspect of conventional diplomacy. Henry Kissinger was a major exponent of the approach, so it is no less useful for US President Obama and Secretary  Clinton to do so. 

As a proven diplomatic tactic, one that the Clinton re-treads who run Obama’s foreign policy apparatus clearly subscribe to, the offer to thaw relations between the US and Cuba, Iran and Venezuela is a “tit-for-tat” strategy designed to gauge the intentions of the opponent. Derived from game theory, it simply states that you open with a cooperative move, then replicate the opponent’s response. If the opponent responds with a cooperative gesture, then continue the iteration. If they opponent responds in an uncooperative fashion, then respond in kind, and only change when the opponent changes the tone of its response. In other words, always replicate the opponent’s move.

As the stronger actor, the US is advantaged by such a strategy, as it puts the other side in a quandary vis a vis domestic constituencies and its own rhetoric (Iran is the current case in point). If there are internal contradictions within the political structure of the opponent, such a strategy is designed to expose them.   For example, the US (under Reagan of all people!) told General Pinochet that they would prefer that he not stand for the presidency of Chile under his rigged constitutional referendum in 1988, and offered several inducements (personal as well as political) for his cooperation. He refused, so the US responded by publicly announcing that, in the interest of US-Chile relations, it would prefer that he did not assume the presidency even if he won.  The conservative coalition that backed him splintered over the offer. He consequently lost the referendum and his hand-picked successor lost the 1989 election that restored democracy to Chile. The point is that Reagan and company wanted a conservative post-authoritarian elected government untainted by the name “Pinochet.” When he showed his megalomaniac tendencies and his support base fractured, Chileans got a left-center, pro-market government instead. Win-win on all counts from a post-Reagan US perspective.

I use the Chilean example only because I am personally familiar with it, but the general point is this: a willingness to talk after periods of estrangement is a diplomatic tit-for-tat opening. It puts the ball in the opponent’s court and gives (US) politicians room to delineate their subsequent moves. Exploiting media opportunities to show “friendliness” is symbolic sop thrown out to soften the opponent’s constituency, and can only be undermined by resistance from one’s own constituency (which is why Fox News and its Republican lapdogs are barking so ferociously about it).  Watching local and international media spinmeisters weave their interpretations (however governments may succeed in controlling interpretations), both sides can measure the external and internal consequences of their respective responses, and carry on accordingly. That gives them a degree of separation from political responsibility in the event of failure.

Closer to home, the question arises: does New Zealand understand the utility of a tit-for-tat strategy when dealing with places like, say, Fiji? If not, MFAT should read the above, and the vast literature that underpins it.

Blog Link: On Denuclearization.

datePosted on 13:24, April 16th, 2009 by Pablo

In the comments thread on my earlier post about whether the US was in decline, as well as in the comments thread on Obama’s Prague speech over at kiwiblog, and during an interview on Jim Mora’s show, I found myself correcting people with regard to US strategic doctrine. That got me to thinking about Obama’s promise to pursue global denuclearization. I decided to write up my thoughts as this month’s Word from Afar column at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0904/S00148.htm. The bottom line is that there are many reasons to believe that the promise, while apparently sincere, has many obstacles to overcome, and not all of them are located in Iran or North Korea.

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