Archive for ‘NZ foreign policy’ Category

Bullying Fiji, Part 2: The Inside Game

datePosted on 14:13, January 29th, 2009 by Pablo

Pursuant to the post of a few days ago, I thought it best to follow up with some facts in order to illuminate some of the complexity of the Fijian situation. In doing so I hope to clarify why NZ’s approach may be counter-productive.

The Fijian armed forces total 3,500 troops. Of those, 3,200 are in the Army and 300 in the Navy (there is no air force). Upwards of 97 percent of these troops are indigenous Fijians, with less than 50 military personnel (mostly Indo-Fijians) coming from other ethnic groups. Most of the non-ethnic Fijians are officers, and most are in the Navy (which nominally has nine patrol boats, only of which 2-3 are operational at any given moment). Twenty percent of the Fijian Army are continually deployed on UN  or other international missions (such as Iraq), with the superior UN pay levels being a prize for both officers and enlisted personnel that is transferred in the form of remittance payments to their families back home. If military veterans and private security contractors are included in the total of men under arms, the numbers of ethnic Fijians well versed in combat swells to over 10,000 (Fiji has a thriving market for private security contractors due to its operational experience in foreign conflict zones). The Fijian Navy has limited combat experience, whereas its Army has seen action in a variety of theaters as well as at home.

What this means is that Commodore Bainimarama, as a member of the smaller service (one that has little ground security responsibilities and no ground warfare experience), serves at the behest of the Army commanders. This is important because, as mentioned in the last post, the Fijian armed forces are a classic praetorian military: they internally reflect the political conflicts surrounding them. Since the Army leadership are ethnic Fijians, the Commodore’s proposals to dismantle the disproportionate representation system that favours ethnic Fijians will have a direct impact on the political fortunes of their indigenous kin. Thus Bainimarama must first negotiate the terms of any such constitutional revision with his own High Command, which in turn will have to accept it before popular resistance within the ethnic Fijian community can be lowered. Moreover, the real power to fight in any Army comes from its Non-Comissioned Officers (NCOs, most often of the sergeant rank), which means that there is at least two tiers of command that have to be convinced that such a move is worth backing in the face of family and tribal opposition. Just having the High Command leadership agree will not necessarily be enough to satisfy the NCOs, and recent Fijian history has shown that it is the lower command ranks that ultimately call the shots (literally) when political factors do not swing their way. Perhaps that is why the process of constitutional reform is so slow.

The South Pacific Forum decision to issue an ultimatum calling on Fiji to announce a date for elections is thus problematic. Perhaps NZ and the other sponsors of the resolution believe that in doing so they are giving the Commodore some leverage with which to push his proposals past the Army High Command while at the same time allowing him the cover of publicly voicing nationalist resentment against the intrusion on Fijian sovereignty. But equally plausible is that the ultimatum serves to undermine Bainimarama’s efforts to convince his flag-ranked colleagues and NCOs of the need to accept the “one-person, one vote” system. Should he be seen as weak in the face of this foreign pressure, it is quite possible that a counter-coup will be staged by the Army that will restore disproportionate ethnic Fijian voting privileges in a future constitutional reform. Having a reserve pool of armed veterans amongst the male ethnic Fijian population makes the prospects  for success of such a counter-coup more likely.

Bainimarama’s regime has relatively few uniforms in civilian ministerial positions and in fact has a  majority of civilian administrators and bureaucrats undertaking the daily operations of the Fijian state. Although the Commodore has a petulant streak and his police are selectively heavy handed with regards to dissidents and foreign diplomats who support them, the regime is not universally repressive of the population (perhaps with good reason given the balance of power within the armed forces). But that could change as pressure mounts from both sides–internally as well as externally. Thus increasing foreign pressure on Bainimarama is slowly backing him into a corner–but perhaps not the one that NZ and its allies want him to be in.

This is just one aspect of the equation. One assumes that MFAT has specialists who are aware of this internal game and are advising the government accordingly. It would be advantageous if there were military to military contacts between the NZDF and Fijian military commanders that might serve as a quiet parallel track to the public diplomacy now ongoing. But as things stand the NZ posture seems to be all rhetoric and little if any influence on this (or any other) internal game. If the Commodore does not meet the SPF deadline and economic and diplomatic sanctions are imposed, what is to say that the situation will not get worse rather than better, at least in terms of a peaceful resolution that leads to the restoration of democracy in Fiji?  At that point it will be the Fijian Army that will decide the outcome, and it may not be the outcome NZ favours.

Bullying Fiji

datePosted on 18:02, January 25th, 2009 by Pablo

The ongoing diplomatic fracas between New Zealand and Fiji stemming from the peaceful coup staged by Vice Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his military allies two years ago has taken on the aspect of farce. Although the Commodore is the personification of a petty despot, in equal measure vainglorious and arrogant, in this stoush he may actually be right. The reason is that New Zealand’s approach to his rule is hypocritical, neo-imperialist , short-sighted and and heavy handed in application.

The 2006 coup was precipitated by the multiple failures of Fijian “democracy,” specifically pervasive corruption rooted in a system of ethnic preferences and disproportionate representation. The Fijian military is a classic example of an “arbitrator” or “mediator” military in a mass praetorian society, so it is always the default option when political conflicts come to a head and threaten social stability. Such was the case in 2006, and the justification for the coup was to eliminate corruption and revamp the political system in order to eliminate the sources of patronage and preference that are the root causes of its endemic malaise. As it turns out, although the military intervention has been condemned by New Zealand and Australia, many Fijians and other island states see it in  a more favourable light. Even those who view the military intervention as a political setback recognize that it is not just a military matter but in fact an internal political conundrum that is for Fijians to resolve.

Condemnation from Anglophone outsiders is seen as a colonial vestige that is counter-productive and a violation of Fijian sovereignty. It is seen as hypocritical because New Zealand enjoys trade and diplomatic relations with countries such as The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran, countries with less than stellar human rights records (and in the case of the two Arab states, oligarchical rule), and yet says nothing negative about them. Since the Fijian human rights record is demonstrably better than that of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern partners, it appears that New Zealand is being both precious and selective when it accuses the Commodore of  trampling on Fijian civil  liberties, or when it refuses visas to relatives of the military leadership while at the same time welcoming with open arms and blind eyes diplomatic representatives of authoritarian regimes far more repressive than Bainimarama and company (remember, for example, the warm receptions given to Pakistani president General Musharraf  and various Chinese delegations in the past few years).

From a practical standpoint, the public posturing between Fiji and New Zealand amounts to a diplomatic failure for the latter. For whatever reasons, quiet diplomacy has been abandoned in favour of pubic sniping between the two governments. Being the larger opponent, New Zealand comes across as a bully, one that kowtows to larger authoritarians but then vents its spleen on a smaller state just because it can do so without adverse economic consequences. Hints at Australian-New Zealand military contingency planning should things in Fiji take a turn for the worse only serve to fuel Fijian military paranoia and local resentment at what is seen as post-colonial neo-imperialism on the part of the Antipodean Anglophones.

As things stand, the diplomatic row amounts to an impasse. Given the stalemate, perhaps it is time for New Zealand diplomats to look more closely at the reasons for the coup, the nature of Fijian political debate in its aftermath, the utility of other interlocutors in the region and at opportunities for dialogue in pursuit of common ground rather than engaging in a negative-sum bilateral tit for tat that ultimately proves fruitless in terms of  facilitating the restoration of Fijian democracy . It may be unpleasant to have to deal with the Commodore on his terms, but then again, that does seem to have impeded New Zealand’s relationship with other authoritarians on a host of issues far less important than democracy promotion.

The case for increasing NZDF presence in Afghanistan

datePosted on 16:22, January 13th, 2009 by Pablo

If not already, within the next few weeks NZ will be asked by the US and NATO to increase its NZDF contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. NZDF are currently serving in their 13th rotation as a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan Province in Central Afghanistan (under US regional command). They also have officers deployed as liaison elements at Bagram Air Force Base, bringing the total to approximately 150. In its contribution to the ISAF mission NZ is comparable with other small states such as Estonia (130), Latvia (70), Albania (120) and Slovakia (130) and Macedonia (140), but falls short of most of the other members of the 41 nation ISAF coalition (Australia, for example, has. 1100 soldiers deployed in that theater). The questions are whether NZ should contribute more troops, in what role, and can it afford to do so both politically and economically? Most progressives would say no to all three. I beg to differ.

The answers should be yes, combat and combat support as well as PRT and yes. The reason is that rather than a (neo) imperialist intervention, the mission in Afghanistan is a multinational nation-building effort in the wake of state failure. That state failure was brought about by the medieval theocratic Taliban regime, whose record on human rights and support for external terrorism made it arguably the most oppressive regime of the late 20th century.  Under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine elaborated by the UN in the wake of Rwandan and Serbian ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, the international community has a duty to protect populations from the depredations of their rulers as well as from others. As a supporter of the UN mandate, NZ subscribes to this philosophy. It is thus obligated to be involved in Afghanistan and the NZ progressive community should welcome its involvement. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the striking aspects of the last election was the virtual absence of discussion about National’s approach to defense and security. Now that it is in office, it might be time to ask some questions of National about what it proposes for the defense and security of NZ over the next three years.

The backdrop to any such inquiry must begin with the fact that National by and large accepted Labour’s strategic and policy perspective on the subject. But it is also worth noting, as I mentioned in an earlier post, that National’s foreign policy leadership team have expressed views at odds with their own Party’s stance. This was particularly true for their initial support for the invasion of Iraq and silence on the use of extra-judicial tactics in the prosecution of the war on terrorism. So the questions must begin with the following general inquiry: what will be different about National’s approach to national security and defense when compared with its predecessor?

More specific questions can centre on its approach to domestic security versus external defense policy. For example, National supported passage of the Terrorism Suppression Act, a truly horrendous piece of Labour-promoted legislation that even the Solicitor-General said was a legal dog’s breakfast that was virtually impossible to apply. Given that the TSA dramatically infringes on the right to dissent and allows for the expansion of the State’s powers of covert surveillance and detention of “terrorist” suspects, why did National feel the need to support it? Will it attempt to modify the TSA while in office, or will it let things stand? How, exactly, does National propose to deal with the subject of domestic “terrorist” threats, especially if the present thrust of the TSA is challenged in court or criticised by the Law Commission? Read the rest of this entry »

Ceasefire politics

datePosted on 15:24, January 7th, 2009 by Pablo

The Minister of Foreign Affairs has finally come around and called for a ceasefire in Gaza. One wonders why he did not do so at the outbreak of hostilities three weeks ago. After all, a principled position against armed conflict would have advised for an early rather than late demand for a cessation of both the Hamas rocket attacks and the Israeli air campaign in response. Be that as it may, the belated call for a ceasefire puts NZ in line with the UN position as well as that of the Labour Party (which called for a ceasefire over a week ago), and was driven by the targeting by IDF armour of UN facilities where Hamas fighters sought shelter. Since the NZ is a vocal supporter of UN humanitarian missions, such attacks were bound to cause alarm within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially since the IDF has a track record of targeting UN sites when they are occupied by enemy combatants (remember the IDF bombing of the UN observer post in Southern Lebanon in 2006, which resulted in the deaths of foreign peacekeepers). In addition, local opposition to the incursion into Gaza made the issue politically problematic for National so long as it held to its neutral stance (and silence) on the conflict. Since most of the fire is directed by the IDF against Hamas, a call for a ceasefire on both sides is effectively a call for Israel to halt (at least) its ground operations. That brings National belatedly in line with Labour on the issue.

All of this indicates that there might have been a struggle between the career foreign affairs bureaucracy and their new political masters on how to respond, something only resolved when UN facilities came under fire (which made it diplomatically untenable for National to continue with its “neutral” stance). Sometimes fence-sitting on sharp matters of diplomatic policy can turn into a painful political lesson at home and abroad, so the call for a ceasefire by Minister McCully is as much about the National government saving face in both arenas as it is about its real view of the conflict. Looks like the learning curve is going to be steep…

If the NZ government wanted to do something about Israel’s actions what could we, a tin pot little country on the other side of the world, do?

It’s hard to know what we could do, it’s easy to understand why the government’s response is vague wafflings (although a statement that we think its wrong wouldn’t go amiss), and I’ve struggled to come up with any options, but here are my thoughts

  1. A public statement that Israel’s action is disproportionate, unacceptable and should stop. That seems like the easy one, but I’m sure someone with a foreign affairs background might explain it’s not without cost.
  2. We could go to the UNHCR and offer to take Palestinian refugees in addition to our existing quota. It’s not a public high profile measure, but it would make a real difference to some real lives. 
  3. Working for a UN statement. We might never get one, but it would keep up the international pressure
  4. A travel ban on government and military officials and families? I was scraping the barrel to come up with this one, it seems like something we could actually do and, again, it’s a sign to the international community.

Anything else?

What we can do as individuals is slightly easier; as usual Indymedia is providing a space for people to advertise events. There’s a protest in Wellington today, and one in Auckland on Saturday.

Out of Their Depth

datePosted on 13:18, January 3rd, 2009 by Pablo

John Key’s awe–or was it dumb–struck performance at the 2008 APEC meetings in Lima and recent comments made by his Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence (Murray McCully and Wayne Mapp, respectively) do not portend well for the conduct of New Zealand’s foreign affairs. Key quivered about meeting that lame duck named George W. Bush. He gushed about having the opportunity to meet people “he had read about.” He then turned preacher. In his public presentation Key lectured his larger partners about the financial crisis, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his currency speculator past made him especially unsuitable to lecture anyone on the virtues of finance capital–particularly when several APEC partners have already moved away from the neoliberal prescriptions he so fervently embraces. His call for resumption of the Doha round of WTO talks was little more than showboating given that major actors such as Brazil, India and China have made clear that there are limits to openness when it comes to their strategic industries, and the US and other advanced economies continue to subsidise a number of agricultural sectors for political rather than economic purposes. Given that state intervention, in the form of financial bailouts, has become the primary rescue vehicle used by advanced democracies to prevent the utter collapse of their economies, Mr. Key’s pro-market rhetoric rang both hollow and hypocritical–or profoundly naive.

New Zealand media made much of Key’s APEC trip, but no one else did. No deals were struck or progress made on issues of significance to the country. To the contrary. Mr. Key and his “posse” did not even receive audiences with many of the leaders attending the summit. Judging from foreign reports none of Key and co.’s performances with foreign leaders made New Zealand look particularly impressive. From abroad, Key’s APEC sojourn appeared to be a a matter of personal hubris rather than political necessity, or more charitably, a convenient debutant stopover on Key’s trip to meet the Queen. Read the rest of this entry »

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