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Plus ca change, or, does Labour have a foreign policy?

datePosted on 07:34, January 5th, 2018 by Pablo

Among the things mentioned during the 2017 election campaign, foreign policy was not one of them. This is not surprising, as domestic policy issues tend to dominate election year politics in times of peace in virtually all democracies. The syndrome is compounded in New Zealand, where matters of diplomacy, international security and trade are notable for their absence in both parliamentary debates as well as public concern, only surfacing during moments of controversy surrounding specific issues such as foreign troop deployments, NZ involvement in Anglophone spy networks or negotiating trade deals that appear lopsided in favour of other states and economic interests.

Even if foreign policy is not a central election issue, it nevertheless is an important area of governance that should in principle reflect a Party’s philosophy with regard to its thrust and substance. Given that the Labour-led coalition that formed a government in 2017 represents a departure from nine years of center-right rule, it is worth pondering what approach it has, if any, to reshaping foreign policy in the wake of its election.

It should be noted that NZ foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the last 20 years regardless of which party coalition was in government. Dating to the break up of the ANZUS defense alliance on the heels of its non-nuclear declaration in 1985,  NZ has championed an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line that, if not completely integrating it into the non-aligned movement that rose during the Cold War, granted it some latitude in how it approached its diplomatic relations and international commitments. Foremost amongst these was support for multilateral approaches to international conflict resolution, concern with ethics, rules and norms governing international behaviour, advocacy of small state interests and a self-assigned reputation as an “honest broker” in international affairs. Issues of trade, diplomacy and security were uncoupled once the Cold War ended, something that allowed NZ to navigate the diplomatic seas without the constraints imposed by binding alliance ties to larger partners.

From the mid-90s there has been a trade-centric core to NZ foreign policy, to the point that promoting “free” trade and negotiating trade deals, be they bi- or multilateral in nature, is seen to have overshadowed traditional diplomatic and security concerns such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection and human rights promotion. This “trade-for-trade’s sake” approach was initiated by the Shipley government but deepened under both the 5th Labour government as well as the National-led governments headed by John Key. After 9/11 it was paralleled by a reinforcement of security ties with traditional allies such as Australia, the US and the UK, in spite of the fact that the move towards expanding trade relationships in Asia and the Middle East ran against New Zealand’s traditional advocacy of a principled foreign policy that defended human rights as well as the thrust of the geopolitics perspectives of security allies (which view NZ trade partners such as China and Iran as adversaries rather than partners).

Although both Labour and National continued to voice the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line during the 2000s, what actually took place was the development of two separate tracks where NZ pushed trade relations without regard to security commitments and human rights, on the one hand, and on the other hand deepened its involvement in US-led security networks without regard to broader diplomatic concerns. This was formalised with the signing of the bi-lateral Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012. For NZ diplomats, the parallel track approach was a matter of keeping eggs in different baskets even if it violated the long-standing principle of security partners trading preferentially with each other. That is not a problem so long as NZ trading partners are not seen as hostile to or competitors of the US and its main allies. Yet NZ chose to expand its trade ties with China with the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2008, something that has not only increased its trade dependency on China in the years that followed (China is now NZ’s second largest export market and third largest import market), but also put it in the unenviable position of trying to remain balanced in the face of increased US-China competition in the Western Pacific Rim. Similarly, NZ-Iranian trade ties, and the nascent talks about NZ-Russian bilateral trade, both run the risk of negatively counterpoising NZ’s economic and security interests in each case.

Following Labour’s lead, the National government doubled its efforts to reinforce its ties to the US-led security network while pushing for trade agreements regardless of domestic opposition to both. It committed troops to the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and continued to maintain presence in Afghanistan after its formal commitment to the ISAF mission ended in 2013. It revamped and upgraded its commitment to the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection partnership that includes the US, UK  Australia and Canada. It loudly advocated for the TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) even though the 12 country pact was largely seen as favouring US economic interests and serving as the economic component of a US containment strategy towards China in the Western Pacific.

Now it is the Labour-led coalition headed by Jacinda Ardern that holds the reins. What can we expect from it when it comes to foreign policy? Continuity when it comes to the “two-track” approach? A deepening of one track and softening of the other? An attempt to bring a third track–what might be called a humanitarian line that re-emphasises human rights, environmental protection and non-proliferation, among other rules-based policy areas–into the mix?

From what is seen in its foreign policy manifesto, Labour appears to want to have things a bit of both ways: overall continuity and commitment to an “independent” foreign policy but one in which ethical concerns are layered into trade policy and in which international security engagement is framed by UN mandates and multilateral resolutions (as well as a turn away from military combat roles and a re-emphasis on peace-keeping operations). A commitment to renewed diplomatic endeavour, particularly in international fora and within the South Pacific region, is also pledged, but the overall thrust of its foreign policy objectives remain generalised and rhetorical rather than dialed in on specifics.

A few months into its tenure, the new government has done nothing significant with regards to foreign policy. Jacinda Arden made some noises about resettling the the Manus detainees in NZ during her first official trip abroad, only to be rebuked  by Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and her own Opposition. She also made  ill-advised comments about who Donald Trump may or may not thought she was, leading to skepticism as to the veracity of her story. NZ First leader Winston Peters was named foreign minister more as a matter of style (and reward) rather than in recognition of his substance when it comes to foreign affairs. Likewise, Ron Mark got the nod to be Defense Minister in what appears to be a sop thrown to an old soldier who enjoys military ceremonies but cannot get his medals rack sorted correctly. Andrew Little was apparently made Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security because he is a lawyer and a reputed tough guy who as Opposition Leader once sat on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security, rather than because he has any particular experience in that field, especially with regard to its international aspects. The Greens, in the past so vociferous in their defense of human rights, pacifism, non-interventionism and anti-imperialism, have gone silent.

As for the Labour Party foreign policy experts, whoever and how many there may be (if any), the question is how do they see the world. Do they use (neo) realist, idealist, constructivist or some hybrid framework with which to frame their perspective and that of their government? Do they use international systems theory to address issue linkage in foreign policy and to join the dots amongst broader economic, social, military and political trends in world affairs as well the nature of the global community itself?  Are they aware of the Melian Dilemma (in which small states are often forced to choose alliance between competing Great Powers)? iven the predominance of trade in NZ foreign policy, how do they balance notions of comparative and competitive advantage when envisioning NZ’s preferred negotiating stance? If not those mentioned, what conceptual and theoretical apparatuses do they employ? On a practical level, how do their views match up with those of the foreign affairs bureaucracy and career diplomatic corps, and what is their relationship with the latter?

Issues such as the ongoing NZDF deployments in Iraq (and likely Syria, if the NZSAS are involved) have not (yet) been reviewed in spite of early campaign promises to do so. Nor, for that matter, has Labour taken a detailed critical eye to the stalled TPPA negotiations now that the US has abandoned them, or re-examined its diplomatic approaches towards the Syrian, Ukrainian and Yemeni civil wars, South China Sea conflicts, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, post-Brexit economic relations, maritime conservation regimes and a host of other important and oft-contentious topics.

Judging from the manifesto it is hard to discern a coherent intellectual underpinning to how Labour policy makers approach international relations. It is also difficult to know how the new government’s foreign policy elite relate to the careerists charged with maintaining NZ’s international relations. So far, there is no identifiably Labour approach to foreign affairs and policy carry-over from previous governments is the norm.

That may not hold for long. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has changed the global environment in which NZ foreign policy is formulated and practiced because if anything, he has rejected some of the foundational principles of the NZ approach (support for the UN and multilateralism) with his “America First” philosophy and has increased global tensions with his belligerent posturing vis a vis adversaries and his bullying of allies. That combination of provocation, brinkmanship and alienation of allies brings with it high risks but also a diplomatic conundrum for NZ. Given that NZ maintains good relations with some of US adversaries as well as allies, yet is intimately tied to the US in uniquely significant ways, its ability to maintain the dichotomous  approach to an independent foreign policy may now be in jeopardy.

After all, the US now demands open expressions of “loyalty” from its allies, for example, in the form of demands that security partners spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense (NZ spends 1.1 percent), and that trade partners give acknowledged preference to US economic interests when signing “deals” with it. In that light, and with Trump increasingly looking like he wants open conflict with one or more perceived rivals (and is on a clear collision course with China with regards to strategic preeminence in the Western Pacific), the “two-track” NZ foreign policy may now be more akin to trying to straddle a barbed wire fence while balancing on ice blocks rather than a matter of saving diplomatic eggs.

In light of this, it is time for the Labour government to stand up and be heard about where they propose to steer NZ in the international arena during what are clearly very fluid and uncertain times.

A matter of insubordination and contempt.

datePosted on 14:00, December 22nd, 2017 by Pablo

In her latest annual report, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) Cheryl Gwyn detailed that the NZSIS unlawfully collected Customs data on thousands of travellers from 1997-2016. This bulk collection was not done under warrant and was instead done on industrial scale: anyone who passed through New Zealand ports of entry during this time period can assume that their personal data was “harvested” by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) for its own purposes. Current NZSIS Director Rebecca Kitteridge defended the practice as a necessary part of fighting terrorism (which presumes that SIS concern with terrorism started in 1997 if her claim is correct) and maintains that legal advice at the time made the SIS believe that the practice of bulk collection was lawful. Think about that–warrantless indiscriminate collection of the personal information about thousands of people was deemed, if we are to believe the Director, lawful by the best in-house legal minds within the NZSIS. This happened even though the NZSIS Act was revised several times during the time in which the unlawful bulk collection occurred, so it is clear that when it came to warrantless access of traveler’s personal information, be they citizens, visitors, immigrants or officials, the senior staff in the agency thought that it was fair game–or at least thought that they could get away with it. One gets the impression that this is the same legal team that thought it was lawful for the GCSB to spy on Kim Dotcom after he gained permanent residency–a practice clearly prohibited in the GCSB Act in force at the time of the illegal wire-tapping. Perhaps it is time for these legal geniuses to step down.

IGIS Gwyn also noted that the NZSIS refused to cooperate, impeded and/or raised obstacles to her search for primary documents related to the unlawful monitoring of travellers as well as on other issues. Let’s be clear on this: New Zealand’s primary human intelligence agency deliberately impeded the work of the main oversight officer to which it is responsible. This, in spite of legal requirements to do so. The answer to this contempt for their statutory obligations may rest in the fact that under the current SIS Act the maximum penalty levied on the NZSIS for unlawful acts (of which obstruction is one) is NZ$5000–payable by the agency, not the individuals who authorised the unlawful acts or who refused to cooperate with the IG’s requests.

Although I find it very hard to believe, let us assume that SIS managers who authorised the mass tapping of Customs data were doing so in good faith while under the impression that the practice was lawful. If that is the case, they should be reprimanded and counselled on their statutory obligations. But those who obstructed or impeded the IGIS’s work need to be fired. In fact, if they are not, then Director Kitteridge needs to either resign or herself be dismissed. That task falls to Andrew Little, the Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security. Yet, although he has made some noises to the effect that he expects the agency to comply with IGIS requests, he has made no moves to punish those responsible for this blatant disregard for and defiance of the intelligence oversight process.

It is now abundantly clear that even though the IGIS is better funded and staffed and has better powers of proactive as well as post facto investigative authority (ostensibly including the powers of legal compulsion) than her predecessors, her office remains effectively marginal, if not subordinate to the bureaucratic logics internal to the agencies she oversees. These logics are founded on a deliberate opaqueness when it comes to transparency and statutory compliance and a deeply ingrained disregard for external advice, scrutiny or oversight. The old boys club will do as it sees fit to do regardless of the arrows slung by nosy outsiders. They are the gatekeepers and guardians of the secrets, and it is they who decide what is proper and what is not when it comes to legality and oversight adherence. Perhaps in this particular case the SIS managers do not like Ms. Gwyn or her somewhat unconventional career path on the way to becoming IGIS, but even if that is true their personal feelings have no place impeding the effective discharge of her duties.

The problem of ineffectual oversight of the NZ intelligence community (NZIC) highlighted by the IGIS’s frustrations with SIS obstructionism is rooted in a bureaucratic culture of impunity within the SIS and GCSB and in the lack of strong parliamentary oversight. The Select Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) remains a highly partisan paper tiger devoid of real compulsion or enforcement authority. For their part ministers responsible for intelligence and security such as Andrew Little are all to often reluctant to confront spies about their excesses, when not prone to “bureaucratic capture” by them (a situation where an ostensible overseer becomes captivated by the logics and rationales of  subordinates with specialised expertise in a given policy field, leading to a lack of critical appraisal and independent review of actions taken in that field). Some of this may be due to the history of politicization that surrounds the SIS, which often appears to serve the government of the day rather than the common interest (in which case Mr. Little’s soft response has a politically opportunistic basis). But most of the oversight failures when it comes to the NZIC is grounded in the lack of effective and enforceable legal authority granted to the IGIS and the SCIS.

The only answer to this culture of insubordination and contempt within the NZIC, in this case specifically the SIS, is to hold individuals legally accountable for their actions. For example, rather than levy paltry fines on the SIS for its unlawful activities, the fines should be increased 20 fold and levied against the individuals who either knowingly ordered the illegal project(s) and/or who deliberately obstructed, concealed, tampered with or otherwise impeded the IGIS investigation into their activities. Likewise, the SCIS needs to become a dedicated organ of Parliament with its own professional staff and dedicated funding so that it can be come an independent research and investigatory arm answerable but not subordinate to the government of the day. The political appointments at the top could remain as stands (five members, the PM and two members nominated by him/her plus the Leader of the Opposition and his/her one nominee). Or it could be revised to include leaders of parties who reach a significant electoral threshold (say, ten percent of the popular vote). Either way, the SCIS should be provided powers of compulsion under oath, arrest and other means of legal enforcement of its oversight mandate so that the NZIC understands that it answers to the people of Aotearoa via elected officials as well as the IGIS, not the other way around.

The new Labour government has a golden opportunity to promote effective reform of the NZIC armed with the justification provided by Gwyn’s report on the SIS. Much like rot, there is a culture of contempt as well as impunity amongst at least some senior staffers in the NZIC that needs to be extirpated and replaced by those who understand that in a democracy it is not the spies who determine what is lawful and what is not (or for that matter, what is secret and what is not), but instead it is the specialized oversight agencies entrusted by the people and grounded in law (such as when it comes to definitions of national security threats) who do so. But for that to be the case, the oversight agencies and mechanisms need teeth, and it is exactly that which continues to be missing from the current oversight scheme.

Goodbye to a good soul.

datePosted on 04:44, December 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

Yasmine Ryan died this past week in Istanbul. She was only 34. She was an intrepid, dedicated, courageous and honest journalist, someone who unlike so many others vying for attention in the New Zealand media landscape, went out and did the type of serious investigative reporting that is now all but absent in her country of birth. Her death is not only a loss to her family and friends. It is a loss to the journalistic profession as well as New Zealand’s reputation for providing impartial perspectives on matters of political and social import world-wide.

Yasmine was a student of mine when we were at the University of Auckland. She went on to work at Scoop here in NZ, then Al-Jazeera and other outlets in the Middle East. Before her death she was working for TRT World, the Turkish international television news service. Her articles appeared in many important publications, including the Guardian, Independent, Sunday Star Times, Washington Post, LA Times, New York Times, Middle East Eye and Foreign Policy, and she was a contributor to outlets such as CNN, CBC, NZ National Radio and NZ TV One News. She co-authored a book about the Ahmed Zaoui case in New Zealand, helped produce three documentaries on contemporary Arabic politics and society and was a 2016 World Press Institute Fellow in the US who most recently had been elected to the board of the International Association of Women in Television and Radio. Fluent in French and English and well versed in Arabic and Spanish, she lived in France, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia before her move to Turkey a little over a year ago.  She traveled exhaustively and had a global network of friends and professional contacts who are now left to mourn her loss and the void that she left behind.

Yasmine was and is a special inspiration to women entering the journalistic profession. Her desire was not to work her way up to talking head status on the local news by reporting on cats in trees and celebrity sightings. She was not interested in cozying up to politicians, yukking it up on breakfast shows and posing on red carpets at awards shows.  Instead, her focus was on providing an outlet for forgotten voices and views seldom aired in mainstream Western outlets, and to offer in-depth analysis of events and trends that often received no more than cursory coverage outside of the places in which they occurred. Endowed with great personal courage, she left the comfort of her homeland to become an freelancer in a region not known for its encouragement of independent women in that profession. Her writing about what became known as the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath cemented her reputation as a first-rate reporter in North Africa and the Middle East, and her subsequent work confirmed that she was an extraordinary talent even at such a young age. That makes her departure all the more difficult to understand.

A GiveaLittle page has been set up in her memory in order to help her family cover the expenses of returning her home. It can be found here. Please consider donating.

May your eternal rest be a peaceful one my friend. You made a difference.

Thanksgiving Weekend is ending here in Boston. For the first time in 15 years I spent it in the US with family and friends. It struck me that Thanksgiving is one of the few remaining symbols of common values left in the US. Independence Day, Christmas, New Years and Super Bowl Sunday all have broad appeal, but only Thanksgiving has the single unifying thread of family to keep it above partisan, religious, ethnic, racial and assorted other divisive tendencies within US society.

Buchanan family Thanksgiving table in The Barn, Holliston, MA.. Photo courtesy Kathy LaCroix Buchanan

Not that all believe Thanksgiving to be controversy-free. Plenty of indigenous people believe that the Pilgrims were complicit in the subjugation and expulsion of eastern tribes from their ancestral lands. The Pilgrims, we may recall, were 40 religious refugees (“Separatists” or “Saints”) who were among the 102 passengers from England who landed first at what became known as Provincetown (on Cape Cod), then Plymouth, Massachusetts (on the mainland) on November 11, 1620 after crossing the Atlantic from the southern English port of Plymouth on the Dutch-made merchant (“fluyt’) ship Mayflower. Originally intending to settle on the Hudson River where an earlier European settlement was already in place, the Pilgrims were thwarted by bad weather and sailing conditions and decided to seek shelter further East. Armed with a grant from the London Company and Crown for the exchange of goods for religious autonomy and self-governance, the Saints/Pilgrims and their fellow travelers were decimated by illness and harsh winter conditions, with only half surviving until the next winter.

Conventional history has it that the Pilgrims arrived in peace and interacted amicably with the native Wampanoag and their sub-tribes (mostly grouped as Alonquian peoples). They also established the Mayflower Compact as the governing framework for the new colony, something that guaranteed all male colonialist participation in collective decision-making and which is considered to be one of the foundations of US democracy. It was in this context that the first shared meal with the local Pokanoket tribe was held in 1621, something that has passed into folklore as Thanksgiving. That meal followed on the heels of the Wampanoag-Pilgrim Peace treaty of April 1, 1621, which bound the settlers and all Wampanoag tribes together against other tribes (such as the Mohawk and Mohegan).

Critical interpretations paint a less rosy picture, noting prior conflict between earlier European settlers and Eastern tribes, with the first shared meal being less an act of cross-cultural friendship than a forced terms of settlement ceremony by which the Pilgrims began a divide-and-conquer process against the indigenous people. Whatever the intent of that breaking of bread, and admitting that colonization did result in the loss of land and displacement of the indigenous majority over the next centuries, “Thanksgiving Day” entered into US mythology as a moment to pause in order to give thanks for the blessings received and ties that bind.

Fast forward to today and one can see that the divide and conquer process is now being used on the settler colonizers in an extremely effective way, yet one that is different to that used on the original indigenous inhabitants. The instrument of division is called “commercialization” and it employs retail therapy as a form of community dismemberment.

For the last decade consumer non-durable retailers have pushed the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” not so much because it is a deadly day to be avoided but because it is a day for so-called “black” sales of retail goods: everyone gets a heavy discount on whiteware, electronics, toys,clothes and other merchandise so long as they are able to get their hands on the discounted goods. This causes thousands of commodity fetishistic numbskulls to line up 24 hours in advance of opening at assorted malls and other shopping venues in the hope of snagging a 20 dollar 60 inch TV and whatever else is within grasp amongst the grappling hordes. This has caused crushes, riots and a few deaths over the years, but the urge to shop on Black Friday is now reified in the media and popular culture to the extent that the original point of Thanksgiving–to give thanks for family and the benefits at hand–has been replaced by the urge to engage in competitive shopping. This no joke: on Black Friday the retail zombies literally fight each other over bins of discounted goods less than a day after the day of thanks. The media cover the crowded malls and traffic chaos as if they were national celebrations (or disasters, depending on your point of view), with person-in-the-street interviews suggesting that for many the importance of the weekend is the sales, not in spending time with family.

Although the day after Thanksgiving Thursday is not a statutory holiday, it has traditionally been treated as the middle of a long family weekend. Football has been added to the mix, with a range of college “rivalry” games and professional football contests serving as backdrops to the reunions. In recent years it has morphed into Black Friday, which in turn has also become a weekend affair culminating in Cyber Monday: the day in which telecommunications devices are fire-sold, especially via on-line retailers. In fact, on-line sales are rapidly approaching in-store sales, which has prompted shopping outlets such as malls to turn the Thanksgiving weekend into a sales event masquerading as a cultural moment, but without the historical linkage back to 1620. Today it is all about pumpkins, autumn colors, pilgrims and turkeys as caricatures rather than historical legacies, and the vibe is about using Thanksgiving as an icon in order to sell an infinite array of product. Fathers and sons can bond over ride-on lawn mowers and ratchet sets as they undertake autumn outdoor chores; moms and daughters can get their pumpkin baking mojo going together with the latest Martha Stewart oven accessory line. Granddads and grandmas can hug the little ones as they fiddle the consoles of their Pilgrim-themed electronic games.

The commercialization frenzy brought on by Black Friday has not only eclipsed the meaning of Thanksgiving but is in fact just the start of a month-long sales push leading towards Christmas, which in turn is followed by its own returns-and-exchanges day (Boxing Day). The entire month between the two holidays is an orgy of conspicuous consumption and brand tie-ins (to the military, football, Santa Claus and whatever else can entice a purchase). Whatever the spirit of togetherness fostered by the communal offering of thanks in late November, the ensuing four weeks is an exercise is materialist self-gratification.

This extends to petty thieves. The advent of on-line shopping has led to a proliferation of so-called package thefts, whereby thieves follow delivery vehicles around and steal packages from front doorsteps. The distinctive packaging used by Amazon is particularly irresistible to the low-lifes, but the general trend is to let others do the shopping and treat doorsteps deliveries as an invitation to help oneself to the surprises that they contain. Let here be no doubt about it: there is a country-wide epidemic of this type of theft, something that is a microcosmic distillation of how the spirit of Thanksgiving is well and truly gone.

Therein lies the tale. What wars and internal political divisions could not do (even Trump was silent on Thanksgiving Day!), the consumerist mentality and grotesque commercialization of everything has done. It has further broken many of the horizontal solidarity ties that once held communities together and promoted a form of nihilist alienation that is abetted and deepened by the advent of social media and individual telecommunication devices. The result is a society of self-gratifying materialists unconcerned with and unencumbered by the responsibilities of civic engagement.

There are just 2700 Wampanoag left today and they are dependent, as is the case with so many tribes, on gambling for economic sustenance. Things might have been different had they discovered that the best way to undermine the Mayflower Compact and its historical sequels was to push commodities on the white man rather than share a meal and foster community with him.

PS: Here is the RadioLive interview counterpart to this post. It begins with Thanksgiving, then wanders into a range of other subjects: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/home/audio/2017/11/-thanksgiving-is-being-degraded-in-the-states—-paul-buchanan.html

Letters from America, take ten: Land of the camo people.

datePosted on 07:42, November 10th, 2017 by Pablo

I spent most of last week in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma. I have a friend from the 1970s who lives in that neck of the woods with his extended family. Since it has been 20 years since I last visited them–in fact, on the even of my departure for NZ–I decided to make the trip and introduce them to my Kiwi family. It was a great personal reunion and an eye-opening experience in general.

The region between Dallas and the Oklahoma border town of Durant is dotted with small towns separated by low rolling hills dedicated to small-scale ranching. Old oil derricks litter the landscape, and many are still in service. Much of the industry in the region is dedicated to ranching and drilling services, although larger towns like Sherman, TX  (pop 38,500) serve as commercial and entertainment hubs for the surrounding communities on both sides of the border.

The region as a whole is known as Texoma, but the contrast between the two states is significant. The Texas side is relatively prosperous in a low-key, country sort of way: people are unfailingly polite, cowboy culture is enshrined, the pickup trucks and ten gallon hats American-made and expensive, and the music runs the gamut of country and western sub-genres (I had never heard of the phrase “country pop” until I heard it on the radio while driving from the Forth Worth suburbs to Durant). Although I did see a dead deer with an arrow sticking out of it along state route 51, there was otherwise a peaceful air about the countryside. There is no personal income tax in Texas so state revenues depend on assorted value-added taxation schemes, where ranchers with oil on their land receive a percentage of (and pay taxes on) the revenues accrued from their wells. Property taxes are relatively high even if working land is taxed lower than residential or commercial lots. This helps explain why education in Texas is pretty well-funded and scholastic achievement statistics are generally good. Not suprisingly unemployment in NE Texas is low and other social stats are on the positive side.

Crossing the Red River into Oklahoma things change. The landscape remains rolling but gets more barren. Dwellings are more run-down, trailer homes more prevalent, commercial buildings are often shuttered and the people appear more hard scrabble. In the US Oklahoma has the fourth highest percentage of indigenous people living in it, and the part of SE Oklahoma where I visited is the home of the Choctaw Nation. Along with sister tribes like the Chichasaw and Cherokee, the Choctaw were removed from their ancestral lands further East in Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Removal to what were then known as the “Indian Lands” was contentious and often bloody, but in then end the Choctaw and other tribes were settled on land that was largely infertile or otherwise not suited for agriculture.  This led to a steady slide into poverty on the reservations, something that was paralleled in the non-Indian communities adjacent to them. That situation has been slightly ameliorated by the promotion of gambling industries on Indian land, something permitted by federal law. Not surprisingly, the largest commercial enterprise in Durant (pop 16,600) is a casino resort operated by the Choctaw Nation, although the sum effect of its operations is as much making money off of misery as it is adding opportunity to the Choctaws. I do not gamble but stayed one night at the casino resort as part of a larger gathering. Suffice it to say that the demographic cross-section in the gaming rooms was, to my untrained eyes, a sample of despair, desperation and delusion under bright, blinking lights.

Beyond that, economy of the region is driven by small-scale manufacturing and services related to ranching and mining, public sector agencies and public goods provision and small-scale professional services such as lawyers, doctors etc.

Interestingly, unlike Texas, in Oklahoma ranchers do not control the mineral rights to the land underneath the topsoil that they own. State regulations allow commercial drilling underneath private land and what revenues are extracted from that drilling goes to the commercial outfit and the state by way of taxation on corporate profits. This includes the practice of side-drilling from one property into another and fracking, which is the mechanical introduction of highly pressurized water mixed with leaching chemicals into defunct, low yield or potentially productive shale deposits in order to force out oil and/or natural gas. Since fracking is very destructive to aquifers due to its contamination effects, the introduction of fracking spells the end of ranching on the land above it (since trucking in water is not economic for any commercially viable herd). This could well explain in part why ranching in SE Oklahoma is not as healthy as it is across the southern border.

Oklahoma also spends the least amount on education of the 50 US states. It shows. From what I gathered people’s social horizons are very limited, their knowledge (and interest in) of public affairs outside of their immediate communities is negligible, their access to a cross-section of media and opinion non-existent, and their prospects for the future mixed at best. Some people are doing pretty well, such as the remaining local ranchers in and around Durant and Ardmore, OK (pop. 32,300). Many others seem to be living a sort of Oliver Twist existence, scrambling to get by on odd jobs or menial, manual or semi-skilled labor. A large share of people are on some sort of benefit, although preference is given to those with indigenous blood lines or lacking any source of income. Unemployment in Durant is listed at 4.2 percent, higher than the surrounding Bryan County average of 3.8 percent. Yet those living in poverty in Durant amount to 25.3 percent of the population (18.3 percent in Bryan County). The dependency rate in Bryan County (those people on some sort of benefit) is at 56.6 percent, well above the national average of 49.7 percent, as is that of Durant (52.7 percent). Along with the data on poverty, that suggests that under-employment is a problem in that corner of Oklahoma, and that the official statistics hide a grimmer reality between the lines.

One such reality is an epidemic of opioid addiction. For a variety of reasons intrinsic and extrinsic to the people involved, the supply and consumption of prescription painkillers is rampant. Most of the pill trade is legal, as pharmaceutical companies have discounted the price of prescription painkillers, doctors are inclined to prescribe them even for minor ailments and pharmacies all too happy to supply them to otherwise able-bodied people. The result is a vicious circle of addiction in which the main impediment to sobriety is the incentive structure built into the supply chain. Short of a doctor refusing to prescribe more pills, patients are shuttled conveyor belt style through the assembly line of pain clinics and pharmacies catering to their vice. Even when doctors refuse to continue to write scripts for patients clearly suffering from addiction symptoms, other less scrupulous physicians will step into their place. And then there is the black market trade in opioids, which overlaps with the illicit drug trade in cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine and which intersects with the legal trade in alcohol outside of the reservations (but available inside of the casinos, as it turns out).

I was astounded at the amount and variety of drugs prescribed, some of which I have never heard of before but which are apparently many more times stronger than morphine or heroin. Within the extended family that I visited there were two people suffering from addiction to opioids, one ostensibly for pain and the other for anxiety. Both were well down the path of chemical dependency and both had dysfunctional lives as a result of that.

The other grim reality, at least in my view, was the presence and amount of guns in that society. Every adult that we came into contact with had guns, in most cases multiple guns. They had guns for hunting and self-protection. They had guns in their homes, sheds, boats and cars. They had pistols, revolvers, bolt-action single shot rifles, multiple shot carbines, shotguns and semi-automatic military-style long arms. Some liked to collect guns, some like to target practice and some liked to hunt. At least two had shot at another person in anger(although my friend, a Vietnam War vet, had done so while in combat). These were responsible people, so the guns that they were not carrying on them were presumably locked away. But I had an uneasy feeling when interacting with strangers at places like gas stations or bottle shops that I was one misunderstanding away from getting a hot lead injection.

Although the region is also heavily religious, especially of the Protestant-Baptist variety, guns are the secular equivalent of a religion in Texoma. People worship, in fact deify guns. Some of that worship is fetishistic, but most of it is cultural. The love of guns is not driven by National Rifle Association Second Amendment lobbying or public advertising. It is driven by something much deeper, much more visceral than rights-based. That deeper root is fear.

I was struck by how much fear is layered into the lives of Texoma residents even though the threats that they face are comparatively few and relatively minor. Some of that fear is of the unknown–of Muslim extremists (none of whom live anywhere near the region), of hordes of undocumented Latinos (although the region has a long and amicable history of Mexican migration and settlement, to include generations of intermarriage with Indians as well as Anglos), of unseen liberals and “others” who want to destroy their way of life under the guise of PC mandates and forced toleration of non-Christian customs and behavior.

They also fear a known threat: the federal government. Yet, although the threat is identifiable and in the case of the Indian Nations historically grounded in fact, the degree of threat posed by the federal government to the people of SE Oklahoma seems exaggerated. Sure, there are taxation issues, but no more than any other semi-rural jurisdiction. Sure, there are complaints about federal regulations interfering with the right to make a living, but these are far fewer than those that are imposed by the state legislature and are more focused on things like environmental security than the pursuit of profit per se. Sure, there are central versus local government disputes involving decision-making about public funding priorities and levels, which are compounded by the sovereign status of Indian nations and the autonomy of reservation governance. But these are no more or less than in other states with significant Indian populations. Likewise, there are fears over federal seizure of lands, yet the possibility of this in SE Oklahoma (and the extent of federal land ownership itself) is less than in other Western states where arguments about grazing rights on federal land have descended into violence. And then there is the conspiracy side of the equation (although it is not so crazy to think if one happens to be Indian): fear of the Feds coming to take their guns and/or sending troops to impose central rule over them. Since I try to deal in practical realities of the current and immediate future, there is not much I can say to counter those concerns.

The contradictions inherent in hatred for the federal government are mulitlayered. Much of the welfare dependency of Bryan Country is tied to federal benefit programs such as social security and Medicaid (in fact, the majority of people in Durant stand to lose medical benefits should Obamacare be repealed). The fear of “the Feds” is contradicted by the dependency on them on the part of a significant portion of the local population, on the one hand, and their relative absence from daily life, on the other. Added to this is the worship of the US military by non-Indian Oklahomans, something that is attached to the gun culture and which serves as an avenue of recruitment for the military and upward mobility and mind-broadening for many local youth (recalling the adverts about “joining the military and seeing the world,” which were quickly subverted into “join the military, see the world, meet new people, and then kill them” piss takes).

In sum, fear of “the Feds” is seemingly out of proportion to the threats to local harmony, identity and prosperity emanating from Washington, DC. In other words, there is a fair bit of paranoia imbedded in what is an overall sense of false consciousness on the part of many living in that part of the country. Yet that is the reality that they perceive and live.

The combination of cultural, economic and sociological traits embedded in the Texoma demographic gives rise to what one of the family members that I visited called the “camo people”: beer and bourbon drinking, tobacco chewing, gun-toting, lower-income working and middle class, God-fearing patriotic folk who love the flag while wearing camouflage during their daily trips to the Wal-Mart down the road and to their cousin’s weddings. That is their culture and they want it to stay that way.

All of this makes for an obvious thing: Texoma is a hard red political district and it lies at the core of Donald Trump’s support. No amount of disdain or argumentation by “flyover” effete liberal coastal elites is going to change their minds or shake that support. Nor will the glaring contradictions between Trump’s words and deeds or his background and theirs. Many of them may be close to down and out or one beef jerky pack away from starvation, but they know what they fear and don’t like even if they do not personally have contact with or understand what they fear, and they know what they do like when it comes to guns, God and the pursuit of happiness unencumbered by the conventions of propriety prescribed by others.

All talk of the “land of the free” aside, it may not be an exercise in freedom as might be understood by the likes of me, but then again, what understanding of freedom they have is circumscribed by the opportunity structures to which they are exposed given the cultural, socioeconomic and political contex in which they live. If freedom is defined, as Janis Joplin once sang, as “having nothing left to lose” rather than having range of choice and control over the circumstances of their lives, then indeed many of the people of SE Oklahoma are free. If they are happy for it thanks to the power of God, guns, flag and drugs, then more power to them.

In the upper reaches of Texoma, serfs rejoice that Trump is King.

The deaths of four US servicemen in Niger has brought attention the fact that the US military operates in far more places and in far more numbers than the public, and apparently senior members of the US Congress (which supposedly has oversight responsibility for US foreign military deployments) are aware of. Estimates of US bases abroad range from 800 bases in 70 countries to 900 bases in 130 countries, with anywhere from 250 thousand to over 750 thousand troops deployed overseas a given time (the total of bases on foreign soil operated by other countries is around 30, mostly by former colonial powers). The reason that the figure varies is that the Pentagon refuses to reveal the precise number of clandestine or “lilly pad” bases (less than 200 troops on station), so the numbers publicly acknowledged are grounded in the permanent installations the US maintains in places such as Okinawa, Spain, Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.  This does not include CIA paramilitary forces operating abroad, which are roughly thought to be in the hundreds.

The ambush that killed the four US Army Special Forces (SF) sergeants was staged during a routine “train, advise and assist” (TAA)/reconnaissance mission in the Southwestern border with Mali. They were part of a 12 man Green Beret team accompanying a 30 man Nigerien partner unit during a routine meeting with local leaders in the village of Tongo Tongo, part of an area in which Daesh is known to operate on both sides of the border (but which until this particular attack had not been sighted near Tongo Tongo during 29 previous patrols). The SF team was part of an 800 strong US military presence in Niger under the jurisdiction of the US African Command (AFCOM) deployed there to help the Nigerien and French militaries fight Daesh as it seeks safe havens in relatively lawless or stateless parts of Subsaharan and West Africa. The SF team/partner  platoon were attacked after they left the village on their way back to tactical HQ.

Leading figures in US Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claim that they were not briefed on the mission and have not been given answers as to what went wrong. Press attention has focused on the insensitive treatment of one widow by the President once her husband’s body was returned to the mainland, why one of the soldiers was left behind during the evacuation (he was later found dead a mile from the ambush site) and the fact that “no one knew” about the US military presence in Niger. In fact, most Americans and the President himself were unaware of what Niger was until the ambush. Now, partisan rebukes are being thrown and answers are being demanded. Yet, with only one percent of the US population directly connected to the US military as serving personnel or immediate relatives of those doing so, it is not entirely surprising that the public and corporate media are unaware of the full extent of US military activities outside of the open conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

A bit more surprising is the apparent Congessional ignorance of what is happening in AFCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) or the rules of engagement (ROEs) under which that SF team and other troops operate (that is relevant because it turns out that the ill-fated patrol had no US close air support and required French air assets to come to its assistance more than an hour after the ambush began). Since it is routine for the Pentagon to provide off-record briefs to the Armed Services Committees of both deliberative chambers on military operational matters abroad, this seems unusual unless there was a highly classified scenario being developed in that part of the world.

The surprise and arguments about the ambush in Niger–“Trump’s Benghazi,” as some are calling it–obscures an underlining fact: US imperialism is in crisis. It may or may not be terminal and it may or may not be positive for world peace, but the reasons for the crisis are worth exploring.

The crisis of US imperialism (or neo-imperialism, should one want to be pedantic) is rooted in both domestic as well as international factors. Domestically, the long era of “liberal internationalism” is over, and so far nothing as emerged by way of a coherent foreign policy and military strategic doctrine to replace it. Liberal internationalism, which emerged during the Cold War and remained as the guiding principle of the US approach to international relations until Donald Trump entered presidential office, is premised on the belief that the US has a special responsibility to engage in the international system in order to safeguard and expand a liberal democratic order based upon market capitalist principles. This was evident in the US role in creating international institutions such as the UN, WTO and IMF but also in its role as the ‘world’s policeman.” The idea was that the US, as the world’s superpower, had the responsibility to promote and maintain a system that, if not made in its image, was supportive of the liberal mores that it espoused, especially when these were challenged by actors with less noble motives. Many might disagree with both the premise and practice of liberal internationalism, but that is what guided US foreign policy and military diplomacy for almost a half century.

The liberal internationalist (some call it interventionist) consensus spanned both major parties and the foreign policy elite in Washington and in academia. But with the emergence of an economically nationalist and neo-isolationist “America First” Alt-Right led by the likes of Steve Bannon and endorsed by Trump, the consensus has broken down. Where American neo-conservatives and neo-Wilsonians, neo-realists, idealists and constuctivists could all paper over their differences under the umbrella of liberal internationalism in pursuit of US global hegemony, they are repudiated in their entirety by the America Firsters. However, other than the appeal to economic nationalism, xenophobia and a “strong military,” the latter are themselves unsure how to approach world affairs. This is seen in the Trump administration’s ad hoc approach to assorted foreign policy issues as well as in the lack of high and upper management level appointments in the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies (over 250 such positions remain unfilled ten months after Trump’s inauguration).

By way of default, the US imperial reach is increasingly maintained by the military rather than the diplomatic corps. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decimated the upper ranks of the foreign service in favor of relying on a small cadre of trusted advisors, only a few of whom have the type of diplomatic experience that a career foreign service officer would have. In parallel, Trump has staffed the White House and Pentagon with retired and active duty generals, even in positions traditionally filled by civilians. The combination, when added to the lack of strategic vision and baseline foreign policy principles, has resulted in the conduct of US diplomacy led by military threat or fiat, as opposed to military diplomacy being subordinated to and guided by broader strategic and diplomatic objectives.

This is a major sign of weakness because the role of global hegemon requires that the majority of other states and international actors support US leadership and eventually accept and share its values as organizing principles for the international order. That is how the difference between “super” and “great” powers is drawn: “super” powers intervene in the international community in order to maintain and defend systemic interests grounded in the promotion and acceptance of shared perspectives and values, whereas “great” powers intervene in the international community to promote national interests in the absence or rejection of universal standards. Both approaches are grounded in realpolitik, but only the former is hegemonic because it relies more on diplomatic cooperation than military coercion.

Evidence that the US is declining in influence and moving from a “super” to a “great” power is seen externally. The return or rise of old and new powers has shifted the international system towards multipolarity after a decade or so of post-Cold War unipolarity. The US may still be central to the strategic equation inherent in the emerging mulitipolar system but it no longer dominates it. The endless wars since 9/11 have sapped its finances and public morale and demonstrated that its much proclaimed capability to fight and win 2.5 major regional conflicts (MRCs) was baseless in fact (the 2.5 MRC scenario was premised on the US simultaneously fighting and winning two major and one minor conventional regional conflicts alone and against any combination of adversaries. Unfortunately for US military planners and the troops that were deployed under that strategy and unlike Saddam Hussein’s forces, various enemies refused to cooperate by fighting the way they were expected to fight). And while its blood and treasure were and are drawn in dozens of conflicts such as that in Niger, other states push economic development and  military modernization as the path towards great power status.

Although it remains a potent, perhaps unchallenged fighting force under the right conditions, the impotence of the US when it comes to imposing a preferred political solution in the wake of military conflict has been noted by allies and adversaries alike. The latter now challenge the US more and more, in places both far from and near to what should be essential US national interests. They include states as well as non-state actors, and they undertake covert and overt hostilities against the US on several dimensions across multiple fronts, be they cyber, kinetic, economic or diplomatic. The US is increasingly unable to respond symetrically and effectively to these challenges even with a forward military presence spread across the globe.

The problem of US challengers acting with relative impunity in a multipolar world is not its only concern. US allies no longer see its as a reliable partner. This is largely due to the deleterious impact of the Trump presidency on the US reputation, but it is not reducible to it. Allies and adversaries can all see the political polarization within the US, the increase in racial and ethnic tensions, the growing economic inequalities, the culture clashes over traditional values, the overtly tribal nature of interest group intermediation, and the overly violent nature of a popular culture enabled and promoted by weapons manufacturers and the lobbies that use fear-mongering and mythology on their behalf to keep the culture of violence alive and growing. These internal contradictions all spell out the weakness of a society in decline. For many at both home and abroad, the US gives all the appearance of being Rome before the Fall.

It seems that the mainstream media and the public that watches it are slowly cottoning on to this fact even if the political class does not want to admit it. The lack of victories abroad, the lack of information about what the US military does and where it does it (even as the Trump administration authorises expanded CIA paramilitary operations, including drone hunts of suspected extremists), and the notion that the more the US tries to maintain its international position the more it weakens itself on the home front, appear to be gaining traction in the social consciousness. There is more open wondering about “why are we there and what purpose is being served” as opposed to the “if not us, then who” rationales that have dominated public discourse for the past decades. And even though concerns about terrorism remain strong, it is harder for people in the US to rationalize and support policies that claim that tribespeople with pre-modern social organizations in West Africa (or Afghanistan for that matter) are, through a long string of connections, a potential existential threat to the US mainland and its way of life.

Eroded from within and challenged from without, it appears that for this era of US (neo) imperialism, twilight has arrived. The question is what comes next, because if one thing is proven in history is that Empires in decline seldom go quietly into the night. And night is approaching, fast.

Postscript: The radio interview that prompted this reflection (and which covers more than this particular subject) can be found here.

One notable aspect of contemporary US politics is the re-emergence of so-called culture wars. Orchestrated by Steve Bannon, assorted alt-Right platforms and Murdoch media outlets in response to what could be called the de-WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant)-ification of US society, the conflict is centered on symbols and messaging. The regression into appeals to tradition, “culture” and “values” (read: white privilege) is a modern version backlash against what author and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) called “good Negro government” after the Reconstruction Era in US history (1863-1877). The theme that today’s culture wars hark to the backlash against “good Negro government”  has been picked up by the writer Ta Nehisi Coates in his latest book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” where he argues that Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 was in large part due to white voters fears that Barack Obama had conclusively proved that people of color could run the federal government competently and that whites could no longer claim that colored people were ill-suited, emotionally, tempermentally, intellectually and culturally, to govern. It is one thing to have “good” Negros portrayed as equals on TV shows. It is quite another for them to actually wield power over whites.

Du Bois outlined his thoughts on “good Negro government” by watching the sequels to post Civil War reconstruction in the South, in South Carolina in particular. After the civil war US authorities mandated a period of social reconstruction in the defeated Confederacy in which free slaves were, by federal mandate, integrated into municipal and state governments and other social institutions. This forced intervention was designed to lay the foundations of a more egalitarian Southern society, and in many instances free Negros took up managerial positions in a variety of public and private agencies. However, after Reconstruction and federal government intervention ended (along with the withdrawal of federal troops), Southern states set about undoing the social changes that it had wrought. In 1895 South Carolina held a state constitutional convention in which most of the gains made by blacks were reversed and they were legally reduced to second class citizens prohibited from holding political offices and purged from public and private bureaucracies. This was also the time when the Klu Klux Klan was founded (as an extrajudicial enforcement arm of the socially revanchist South), the period of building monuments to heroes of the Confederacy was begun and the foundations of Jim Crow were laid.

For Du Bois, this backlash demonstrated that what White Southerners feared most was not a “bad Negro government” rife with incompetence and corruption, something that was already evident in pre-war Southern white governments. Instead, the greatest fear of Southern whites was of “good Negro government” that did the things that only whites were purportedly capable of doing due to their supposedly superior attributes. To that was added the battlefield record of black Union troops, who Southerners thought would be cowards and run from battle but who instead proved to be very competent soldiers, and the fact that instead of rioting, raping and pillaging once they were freed, former slaves went about peacefully rebuilding the South without major problems of their own (in fact, the majority of violence during the Reconstruction was white-on-black as white Southerners resisted treating recently freed slaves as equals).

This combination of factors destroyed the myth of white supremacy that Southerners clung to, so legislative reforms such as the 1895 South Carolina constitution were enacted in order to restore and enshrine the “proper” racial hierarchy under slave-free conditions. In effect, although unable to return to slavery, post-reconstruction legal reforms that restricted the citizenship and human rights of free slaves amounted to an early American version of apartheid, the origins of which were rooted in the fear of usurpation of white privilege.

Coates sees the Trump phenomenon as a repetition of the fear of “good Negro government.” The election of Barack Obama and the success of his administration in the face of disloyal opposition by Congressional Republicans and the Right-wing media was a nightmare for white (mostly working-class male) social revanchists who had been forced to suppress their racism and bigotry since the 1960s, when the Civil Right Act (1964), opposition to the Vietnam War and the adoption of anti-status quo and “countercultural” lifestyles upended traditional hierarchies. In the ensuing 40 years the white wage labouring classes have seen their social status eroded along with their jobs vis a vis competitors, most of them people of colour, emanating from home as well as abroad.

Objective explanations for white working class decline offer no relief to those suffering within it. It is bad enough for them to have to compete on US wages with undocumented immigrants and foreign wage slaves. It is particularly bad for them to have to compete with robotics and other aspects of computer generated productive automation. They have to find explanation for their plight in something other than the inevitable progression of US capitalism in a globalised system of production, communication and exchange. For the white demographic in decline, the answer to their plight lies in no fault of their own under conditions of capitalist competition, but in the social changes occuring corollary to it. That is, the explanation for white decline has to be socio-cultural rather than structurally capitalist in nature, specifically seen in the decline of WASP “values” and emergence of non-WASP perspectives as dominant influences in contemporary US society.

In that light the election of Barack  Obama to the presidency and his subsequent success at mastering the art of governance compounded white social revanchist fears by promoting and celebrating Hispanics, Asians, gays and other minorities in leadership roles in government, business, academia and communities, and by openly embracing minority cultures as part of the mainstream of US society.

Steve Bannon has seized on this to lead the cultural charge in support of “tradition” and against “unAmerican” values, which are now open code words for a return to white supremacy. He and his political acolytes have been successful in orchestrating a pushback that has prompted a regression in US social development, with a white backlash against the gains made by minorities of all persuasions now growing stronger than in the previous three decades. The cultural wars are between an ascendant multicultural, multi-ethnic, poly-religious yet increasingly secular, pro-choice, pro-gun control, pacifist, sexually diverse and egalitarian-minded, “keep your hands off unless invited,” post-modern demographic with a rationalist and normatively relative global perspective, on the one hand, and a monocultural, white dominant, Judeo (but mostly) Christian, heterosexist, patriarchical, sexually aggressive hands -on, pro-gun, militarist, anti-choice, anti-science, industrial, xenophobic, normatively absolutist and economically insular demographic on the other. For the moment, the struggle is even but the numbers do not lie: given current and projected birth rates, the Bannon target demographic is in decline.

The last time there was a cultural clash in the US anywhere similar in scope was in the mid-60s. Until the early 60s the US was run in the image that Bannon and Trump supporters now hark back to: Dad at a good paying manufacturing job that allowed him to own his own home, Mom happily tending to the domestic front, both regularly attending a Christian church with 2.2 kids and a car in every garage (or, for those who may remember such things, basically operating as Ozzie and Harriet of 1950s TV fame).

But the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opposition to the Vietnam war and counter-cultural lifestyles pushed by rock music broke the consensus on the national myth and prompted a major ideological struggle. In that instance, progressive forces won over the rednecks and defenders of tradition. Now the struggle is being repeated but is sparked, as it were, from the other side–conservative whites are pushing back against the progressive secularization and egalitarianism of US society, as exemplified by Barack Obama and his good Negro government. The champion of these social revanchists is Trump, but it is Bannon who is the puppeteer.

There is a popular saying in the US these days: “Stay in your lane.” It is taken from car culture and references highway traffic dynamics. But it has a subtext of implicit or threatened road rage and it is in fact a substitute for “know your place.”  “Stay in your lane” is now used widely to address stroppy females, uppity Negros, recalcitrant children, surly teens, overly camp gays or butchy lesbians–basically any minority individual or community that dares to challenge WASP conventional wisdom about social hierarchy. For Steve Bannon, who has been doing the rounds of talk shows and conservative conventions this past week, it is all about getting the usurpers of white privilege to either get back into their traditionally prescribed roles or return to hiding.

Bannon believes that his 20-25 percent of the electoral base is homogenous, scared and united through social and corporate media. It is a short term vision, but given the uncertain shadow of the future it is possible that short term political gains based on a socially revanchist ideology could seep into the broader electoral fabric. Whatever their antipathy towards Trump aand the GOP, his opponents are heterogeneous, hopeful and yet fractious and divided. The erosion of horizontal solidarities in an age of ideological individualism is abetted and pushed by adavances in telecommunications technology–the same technology that social revanchists use so effectively.  Bannon has already invited Democrats to continue to play the identity politics game (and there is a lesson for New Zealand here), because that allows him to successfully impose the weight of his demographic against those aligned against it. The Bernie Sanders/versus Hillary Clinton campaigns show one end of the “liberal” internecine division in the US; the feminist arguments about the #metoo hashtag show another. There are many more sources of liberal/progressive cleavage, and in Bannon’s eyes they spell “Achilles Heel.”

The success of the cultural wars pushback is concerning. The Right-wing (including alt-Right) media, both corporate and social, have very much influenced the discourse with their attacks on the Obama legacy (him being “weak” in foreign affairs etc.) and in their support for Trump’s demeanour and his dismantling of that legacy via Executive Orders. The impact is real. Things that one would have thought were done and dusted years ago–arguments about gender differences as they apply to employment and wages, racial differences as they apply to law and order, whether being native born as opposed to foreign born should be a criterion for security clearances, are homosexuals trustworthy with kids, what constitutes patriotism, etc.–are now back in the public domain in a measure not seen in decades.

All of which is to say that things in the US are pretty tetchy at the moment, and the possibility of physical conflict between those who embrace “good Negro government” and those who fear it are quite real.

Let us not think that this is exclusively a US problem. Be it in the “I told you so” comments of white South Africans or Zimbabweans about the bad Negro governments that followed the abolition of white supremacy in those countries, or in the similar comments about poor governance of black-ruled cities like Detroit or the District of Columbia in the US, or those who point to problems with aboriginal self-governance in the Northern Territory, there are many who find comfort in black failure and find threats in black success. That is true for some quarters in Aotearoa, where the possibility of “good Maori government” or “good Pasifika government” is dismissed out of hand not so much because of their outright impossibility due to some instrinsic traits of those involved, but because of Pakeha fear that they could do no worse, and perhaps even better than Pakeha dominated government.

Let’s remember this if there is pushback against the notion of “good Negro government” in New Zealand.

Brinkmanship and the security dilemma

datePosted on 01:53, September 24th, 2017 by Pablo
There is a concept in international relations known as the “security dilemma.” Uncertain about each other’s capabilities and intent, adversaries ramp up their military preparations for war as a hedge against a preemptive strike against them. Seeing rivals ready themselves for war and still unsure of their intent, states escalate their own preparations so as to show resolve and the ability to win the fight. This leads to arms races and, in the event of a miscalculation or mistake on either side, war that otherwise should have been avoided had uncertainties about capabilities and intent been addressed via peaceful means (read: dialogue and negotiations).
 
Add to this another IR concept: brinkmanship. Brinkmanship is a form of calculated risk-taking by which an actor engages in provocative, even recklessly dangerous behavior in order to intimidate an opponent into desisting or retreating from a given course of action.This is done by words and/or deeds depending on what an opponent’s perceived weaknesses may be (to include leadership ego, vanity and fear of losing face). When actors resort to brinkmanship in order to impose their will on others, the possibility of misperception leading to miscalculation increases dramatically.
 
Can anyone think of a situation today where these two concepts might be in play?
 
This is yet another reason why the absence of foreign policy intellectuals and international relations theorists from discussions about the DPRK-US standoff is troubling. It is as if those running the show in DC (if not Pyongyang) are unaware of these concepts and the consequences of their application in real life. To this can be added a myriad of media pundits, including former military officials, who speak more about the possibilities and types of military exchange rather than the larger dilemma and the alternative means to resolve it (in NZ a historian was used by a media outlet to explain why a DPRK nuclear test in the Pacific was a threat to Aotearoa in spite of the fact that he did not appear to know much about nuclear yields, the logistics and physics of missile targeting or the geopolitical implications of the threatened test).
 
What is really insane is that the Drumpf administration now seems intent on picking a simultaneous fight with Iran over the nuclear delimitation agreement signed with Iran by its predecessor and several other powers. That opens the possibility of aggravating another security dilemma punctuated by brinkmanship games in the Persian Gulf. Perhaps some among the president’s security advisors still cling to the belief that the US can prevail in a 2.5 Major Regional War (MRW) scenario, where it can on its own simultaneously fight and defeat adversaries in two major wars and one minor conflict. But if so, they have ignored the painful fact that the US has proven unable to decisively prevail in even one regional or minor conflict, including against adversaries that have limited to no air and sea power and even with the help of allied coalition forces. Regardless of the harping by some practicioners and commentators about restrictive rules of engagement and the lack of political will on the part of civilian politicians hampering the US military ability to sucessfully prosecute the 2.5 MRW scenario (or any war, for that matter), the notion that the US can militarily engage the DPRK and Iran simultaneously and win is a pipe dream even if it does not escalate to nuclear exchanges.
Yet barking continues from the dogs of war in the US, DPRK and Iran. What that means is that the US is the meat in that conflict sandwich, or, to put it less colloquially, the brinkmanship hub of the most dangerous security dilemmas now in play. 
 
Is there anyone in DC who does not see this? Surely there must be, but are they being ignored? Because even if one wants to believe that the leadership in Pyongyang and Tehran are irrational lunatics, then it is even more important for the US government to display nuance and calibration in its approach towards them rather than act as a mirror image of what it (or at least the White House) perceives to be lined up against it.

Letters from America, take six: Flirting with disaster.

datePosted on 12:46, September 7th, 2017 by Pablo

The theme of the week in the US is “flirting with disaster.” Trump did well on his return to Texas for a second time after Hurricane Harvey–he looked a bit more presidential and at least went to the affected areas to hand out relief packages and hug displaced babies (of color, to boot!). Upon his return to DC his decision to repeal DACA, the so-called “Dreamers Act” (which gave limited legal protection to foreign born children without criminal recrods who were brought to the US by their parents) has enough support in Congress to see it upheld and replaced within the six month time frame Trump has specified for its implementation (although like everything else Trump does, the court challenges are already being filed). So for first time in months Trump had a week devoid of major scandal, crisis or controversy.

But now Hurricane Irma is headed to South Florida after hitting the Leeward Islands, including the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (a US territory with a population of 3.4 million). The Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba are in its path before it is predicted to make a direct hit on the larger Miami area (with a population of 6.7 million). It remains to be seen what Trump’s response to this storm will be given the heavily Hispanic demographic in the impact areas and the fact that he did not carry South Florida in last year’s elections (unlike SE Texas where Harvey hit). He might order full scale federal help given that even Mar el Lago will be affected, but so far he has done nothing and left it to the territories and states to deal with emergency prep.

Irma is stronger than Harvey, being a full fledged category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and gusts to 225 mph (nearly 300 kilometers per hour) and a storm surge of up to 30 feet. Harvey was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall and turned into a rainbomb, but neither in terms of winds or surge is it comparable to the punch that Irma is packing. Like SE Texas, South Florida is low lying (and even below sea level in some places), so the catastrophic potential is huge. The number of people who could be affected in the Florida, Puerto Rico and the island territories is more than double that of those impacted by Harvey, and the demands for recovery assistance both in US territories as well as foreign neighbors will be astronomical.

So Hurricane Irma will be a big test for Trump. He ordered US$ 7.5 billion in federal disaster relief to Texas for Harvey recovery efforts (a drop in the bucket of what is estimated to be a 150 billion dollar recovery cost), but that will now need to be increased exponentially for Irma recovery efforts even in the face of GOP misgivings about disaster relief spending. Recall that the Texas congressional delegation opposed federal relief for the Mid Atlantic areas affected by Hurricane Sandy a few years ago, but are now clamoring for federal help (Ted Cruz and John Conrnyn come to mind). More generally, many Republican congresspeople are loathe to increase the US debt ceiling in order to fund recovery efforts outside their own districts, something that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin claims is an abosolute necessity (and a direct betrayal of Trump’s campaign promise to reduce the US debt ceiling). Faced with GOP opposition, Trump has sided with congressional Democrats in calling for a temporary elevation of the debt ceiling in order to finance disaster relief (a Faustian bargain if there ever was one,), much to the annoyance of GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. In view of these differences it will be interesting to see how the Republican majority in Congress reacts to pleas from Florida and US territories for federal receover aid, but what is certain is that the debate over it will be contentious at best.

Almost unnoticed in Washington amid all the hurricane news is the fact that another major disaster is unfolding in the US west. Nearly 60 large scale wildfires  covering hundreds of thousands of acres are burning in seven Western states, and both property and lives have been lost in them. Although the region is drought- and hence fire-prone and therefore has signficant deployable fire-fighting resources at the state and federal level (e.g. via the US Park Service and other branches of the Departments of Interior and Homeland Security), budget cuts have reduced the federal ability to contribute to fighting simultaneous large fires, some of which have reached the outskirts of major cities such as Los Angeles. With no end to the fire season in sight and seevral of these conflagrations still out of control, the possibility exists that a fire disaster can be declared this year. If that happens the arguments about natural disaster recovery funding will only get more intense and partisan.

And then there is North Korea. The test of what the DPRK claims is a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb is a significant step forward in its nuclear testing program. Unlike more primitive fission or “atomic” bombs, these type of munitions are used by all of the major nuclear weapons states save India. The shape of the warhead that Kim Jung-un is seen posing with in photos appears to be similar to a US mid 60s-mid 70s Teller-Ulam  “peanut” design. Hydrogen bombs are two-phased fission-fusion devices that do not need advanced triggers because of their plutonium (or sometimes U-235) primary fission cores, which are more easily “ignited” by conventional high explosives (Pu-239 is used in both the primary and secondary sequences, although the bulk of the thermonuclear explosion comes from ignition of the U-238 “tamper” surrounding the Pu-239 “sparkplug” in the secondary sequence). The size of the prototype shown in DPRK propaganda photos demonstrates that it can fit into the nose cone of their recently tested ICBM (which seems to be a Chinese knock-off similar to Pakistani designs). So they have made a quantum leap towards having a lauchable weapon.

The issue remains as to whether they have the re-entry trajectories down so as to not burn up the nosecone and/or booster at too steep an angle, and whether the US and allied missile defense are up to the task of intercepting the booster before re-entry or upon re-entry on a flatter trajectory slope. Since the DPRK will have only one warhead on the booster (as opposed to the multi-warheaded nature of MARV’d and MIRV’d strategic strike missles deployed by the US, UK and Russia), a successful intercept can push the DPRK back both operationally as well as politically (since it will take some time to mount and fire another warhead, and that will likely not be allowed to happen because a launch in anger makes the DPRK vulnerable to a retaliatory response, be it conventional or not).

The more important question is whether, upon intelligence showing preparations of a live nuclear missile launch, the US will trigger (most likely conventional) pre-emptive strikes against DPRK missile launch facilities, or whether it will wait until a “live” launch is confirmed (which reduces the time avaliable for a response but which can allow more accurate tracking and intercept by ABM defenses such as the recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, and which provides data for early detection of the trajectory of future launches, should they occur). Either way, the result will be war between, at a minimum, the DPRK, ROK and the US, with more states such as Japan likely to get drawn in because of direct engagement or alliance commitments. And then of course, there is China.

It is an open question as to where the DPRK got its warhead design. But Pakistan comes to mind simply because it already has nuclear weapons and has a history of clandestine nuclear weapons design and parts proliferation. That poses some thorny diplomatic and security questions for those who have tried to engage Pakistan in the effort to have it moderate its behaviour on a number of fronts.

In the face of a DPRK willingness to launch, the US has very few options left short of pre-emption and or interception upon launch. Trump as usual has backed himself into a corner by tweeting that “the time for talking is over,” and the response from China and Russia to his demands for stronger sanctions has been equivocal at best. Trump’s barking at South Korea for its alleged policies of “appeasement” vis a vis the  DPRK are not only factually incorrect but alarming to regional allies, since the ROK has been anything but appeasing even while urging bi- and multi-lateral talks with the DPRK on a regular basis. Secretary of Defense Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have emphasised that the US is not interested in annihilating the DPRK, but they and the rest of the foreign policy establishment have not dropped the long-standing demand for regime change and reunification under ROK rule, which is simply a non starter from the DPRK point of view. So the walls are closing in on non-military options.

The threat to stop all trade with countries that trade with the DPRK is an idle one given the negative impact on the US economy that such an action would entail (particularly in the case of China), but smaller DPRK trading partners (perhaps including NZ, which purportedly has small backdoor dealings with it), could suffer as a result. The big issue is whether China will put the squeeze on the DPRK in light of recent developments. So far, other than rhetorical condemning of the test and the clear embarrassment it feels at having been ignored by its client when it came to not going forward with the nuclear test, it has shown a relcutance to do so. The Russians flat out refuse to cooperate in any increased sanctions regime. So the US is left with few cards to play short of the military ace in the hole.

In sum, the US is flirtng with disaster on several fronts, three natural and one man made. How Trump handles them is going to impact his standing before Congress and of course have an impact on domestic support as well as international relations. Options on all fronts seem limited and the consequences dire, both for him politically as well as those affected by his decisions. The moment is one where, as Machiavelli noted,successful handling of  the viccisitudes of fortuna (fate) requires the commitment of leadership virtu (virtue).

When it comes to leadership virtue, Trump has so far displayed none. It remains to be seen if the tests now before him will uncover what has never been seen before.

Addendum: Here is an interview that I did with Selwyn Manning of eveningreport.co.nz as part of a video series that parallels/complements the written series here.

From watermelons to algae.

datePosted on 07:26, September 6th, 2017 by Pablo

For the first time since 2002 I will not be giving my party vote to the Green Party. Nor will I give my electorate vote (in Helensville) to its candidate. The rush to privilege personality over substance, to put pretty young (mostly female) faces high on the party list in spite of remarkable lack of qualifications by most of those so anointed (the exception amongst the high placed newcomers being Golriz Ghahraman, who I have respect for even though she also has little practical political experience), coupled with the abandonment of any class oriented (particularly brown working class) policy focus in favor of winning over the millennial metrosexual hipster vote, has diminished the Greens in my eyes. They all seem nice enough as individuals, but being congenial does not suffice to staff an effective political vehicle.

My disenchantment with the Greens occurred before Metiria Turei pulled the short-sighted stunt about her past record of welfare (and voting) fraud, which if clever as a politically opportunistic tactic, was incredibly foolish in light of the inevitable reaction from her opponents and the corporate media. In doing so she may have raised awareness of the plight of those needing public benefit support, but she also set back the cause of welfare reform by opening herself and every other struggling parent to charges of being prone to fraud and abuse of taxpayer-funded benefits. As an experienced politician she should have known better.

With the current line up the Greens have finished the move from Red to Blue at their core and in so doing have diminished their electoral appeal in my estimation. I recognize that I am not part of their targeted demographic and am in fact more of the demographic from which the expelled Kennedy Graham and David Clendon come from, but if the Greens wanted to expand their voter base one would have thought that they would maintain their appeal to traditional “watermelon” voters while actively recruiting the blue-green millennial vote. Instead, they appear to have decided to abandon a traditionally loyal (but shrinking due to age) group of voters in pursuit of another potentially larger but less committed one. In fact, it as if the party list selection is aimed at young urbanites under the age of 35 who prefer image and style over experience and substance. Besides being an insult to the intellect of younger voters, the stratagem also appears to have backfired, at least if recent polls are to be believed.

So goodbye to Greens it is for me. But what to do next? The Right side of the electoral ledger (including Winston First) is a non-starter, the Opportunities Party is a vanity project (albeit with the random ponderable idea), the Maori Party is, well, narrowly focused, and entities like the Internet and Mana parties are full of unsavory critters or marginal types that are best shunned rather than encouraged (I say this in spite of my affection for the likes of John Minto and Sue Bradford, but they cannot carry the can of representation all by themselves). So the options for a disgruntled Green voter are limited…

….To not voting or voting for Labour. I have thought about not voting but that would be the first time I did so in my entire adult life. Plus, the political scientist that I live with takes a very dim view of people shirking their civic responsibilities in a democracy, so I have maintaining domestic harmony to consider. Given the damage another National government can do, it therefore would be irresponsible for me to not contribute to their ouster.

Hence I am left with Labour. But therein lies the rub: Labour has stolen a page out of the Greens book and gone with a so-called youth movement in its candidate selection, including of its leadership. It too is all about a campaign based on sunshine, smiley faces and chocolates in every box. In terms of practicable politics, both Labour and the Greens campaign like debutantes at their first school ball–all hope and illusion, seemingly unaware of the practical (and often dark) realities of what happens when they come to that sort of party.

The good news is that electoral campaigns are nothing more than political icing. The cake in politics is found in the policy platform that a party has underlying it. It is where new ideas find their way into policy proposals and moves to change laws, statutes and regulations. And that is where I feel comfortable voting for Labour this year. Because, beyond the long-overdue commitment to fully legalise abortion, Labour’s policy playbook has many good ideas well worth considering. Most importantly, unlike the Greens their core policy proposals are both doable and targeted at more than their electoral base. Unlike the diminished appeal of the political equivalent of blue algae surface blooming in a stagnating electoral pond of its own making, Labour appears, for the first time in years and in spite of its campaign strategy plagiarism of the Greens, to actually have commonweal alternatives to offer that are more than the usual “National lite” policies of the last decade.

So my party vote this year goes to Labour. Perhaps I will return to the Green fold in years to come, but not now. I am undecided about the electorate vote other than to state that I would rather run rusty metal slivers under my fingernails than vote for the Green or National candidates. Perhaps the Legalize Cannabis Aotearoa crowd will run a candidate in Helensville, in which case I can vote for someone who at least admits to being high rather than someone who is riding on a cloud of flattery and sycophancy that is more divorced from the realities of practicing politics than anyone in the thrall of reefer madness.

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