Archive for ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Chickens, scooters and dogs.

datePosted on 13:02, September 8th, 2009 by Pablo

I have done a fair bit of traveling, including to some underdeveloped parts of the world. I recently took a short trip to such a place from my SE Asia redoubt, and while enjoying the respite from phones, TV, radio,  newspapers etc., I got to thinking about human development indexes and how to score an area or community on a scale of economic, social and political development. I am not an anthropologist, so am not equipped to propose a real index, and for the purposes of this note will eschew social and political factors. What I am simply offering is my short-hand guide to underdevelopment, or for lack of a better phrase, the Pablometer of relative economic development.

You know that you are in an underdeveloped part of the world when there are scrawny chickens and skinny stray dogs wandering about, and where scooters or bikes outnumber cars by a factor of at least 10 to 1. In some parts of the world a pig in the yard is an added touch, whereas in others a goat substitutes for its porcine counterpart (since both of these animals are excellent organic rubbish disposal units). In some places, donkeys, burros, mules, cows, horses, yaks, water buffalo or sheep are added to the mix, but this represents a form of upward mobility since all require paddock, pasture or open country to graze (the latter most often pertaining to (semi) nomadic societies). 

As for mechanised transport, the rule of thumb is that the number of scooters on any given road will outnumber cars in excess of 10 to 1, and that adherence to road codes decreases in equal measure to the increase in the scooter-to-car ratio. In parallel, the scooter dominance is buttressed on one side by the use of collective transport vehicles, with the rule being the more open to the elements the rider compartment/platform, the more underdeveloped the place. On the other side of the transport divide, the number of human-power conveyances sharing space with scooters and lorry/bus/truck collective ridership alternatives is a good indicator of the recent arrival of popularly accessible mechanised transport.

There is, of course, the indoor plumbing factor. I shall spare the readers of the indelicacies of my surveys of this particular field, but suffice it to say that, for the Western visitor,  sitting is preferable to squatting, tile or porcelain is preferable to wood, indoors is better than outdoors, flushing is better than gravity and paper or water is better for personal hygiene than dirt or sand. The issue of potable water, of course, is a major determinant of where you are: water tanks with down pipe filtration is a sign of progress; water tanks without filtration is not. Water tanks with critters swimming in them are a sign of gastrointestinal trouble ahead (see above). Being able to use tank water for bathing, as opposed to bathing in rivers or streams, is a step up on the Pablometer scale. Being part of a reticulated water system is, by definition, a step out of underdevelopment and thus does not qualify for the Pablometer rating.

As for energy, it is assumed that being on a power grid disqualifies the locality from consideration by the Pablometer index. Instead, the ranking is determined by whether power is generated by generators (the noisier the better), whether these are communal or household, and whether they run for more than 4 hours daily. Depending on the geography, wind and water-powered generators may prove to be effective substitutes for the fossil fuel-driven alternative. Hand-cranked generators and paraffin lamps, etc., are lower on the scale.

Needless to say, there is more to the (under)developmental scale and I invite readers to add their own thoughts on the matter so that I can develop a more comprehensive Pablometer. I also invite readers to ponder whether (or better said where) in NZ there are places that can be considered for this index, and if so, why is that.

One final point is worth mentioning. If the people you are interacting with under such conditions have no interest or conception of the “tourist trade” or how to make money off of strangers in their midst, you are not only in an underdeveloped part of the world–you just might be in paradise.

Does New Zealand have Public Intellectuals?

datePosted on 15:11, September 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

One thing that is striking about the tone of contemporary public policy debates in NZ is the absence of intellectuals. Although various academics are trotted out by the media to give sound bites and opinion based on their supposed “expertise” in given subject areas, they otherwise do not loom large in the national conversation on issues of policy. Likewise, activists and partisans of various stripes make their views known on a number of fronts, but their contributions are notable more for their zeal than their intellectual weight. So, what happened to NZ’s public intellectuals, or perhaps better said, has there ever been a real tradition of public intellectuals in Aotearoa?

I ask this because as a relative newcomer to the country (arrived in 1997), I may have witnessed the passing from the public eye of the final generation of public intellectuals. People like Andrew Sharp, Bruce Jesson, Barry Gustafson (who is retired by active), Michael King–their likes are no longer seen in policy debates, and there does not appear to be another generation of intellectuals emerging to replace them. Moreover, due to my ignorance of NZ intellectual history, I remain unsure if theirs was the only generation of scholars who had an impact on public life, or if they are the final generation in a tradition that extends back to pre-colonial days.

To be sure, the likes of Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton (who, if from that previous generation is still alive and involved in contemporary debates), Gareth Morgan, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney, Ian Wedde, perhaps Chris Trotter (who is prolific if not consistent in his views) continue to agitate for their causes. Various bloggers have made their mark on public discourse, and Maori luminaries interject their insights into discussions of tangata whenua and tino rangatiratanga. But it appears that there is an anti-intellectual bias deeply ingrained in NZ society, one that has its origins in the much celebrated egalitarian ethos of the country, but which is now reinforced by the corporate media disposition to sell teenage pop fodder, “infotainment,” culturally vacuous “reality” shows and sports instead of providing even a minimum of in-depth news, analysis and debate. Although there are evening and weekend segments dedicated to public affairs on major media outlets and plenty of talkback options in which opinions are voiced, those that feature them are dominated by policy dilettantes or, worse yet, journalists, society celebrities or ex-politicians talking to each other (in a version of the Fox News syndrome of mutual self-promotion via staged interviews on personality-driven shows). There is even an academic version of this, in which individuals who are purported experts in “media studies” are brought out to pontificate on how media covers politics and social issues. No need to consult those that actual work in these subject areas–all that is required for public consumption is someone who looks at how the media covers how sociologists, economists and political scientists track issues of policy.  That is enough to make definitive judgements on the matters of the day. Add to this the fact that many media guest talking heads are paid for their appearances, or if not, wish to keep their mugs on the society pages, and what passes for informed public scrutiny of policy cause and consequence is nothing more than a collection of glib retorts and one-liners. This is the media equivalent of comfort food.

The pandering syndrome has infected the political classes. Personal image and party “brand” is more important than substance. Market research drives approaches to policy. And nowhere is their an intellectual in sight to serve as critic and conscience of society. Instead, “opinionaters” from all parts of the political spectrum pass shallow retrospective judgement on matters of import, and in the measure that they do so they rapidly fade from the front lines of  the degraded public debates. Small wonder that political debates often tend towards the banal and trivial.

I am therefore curious as to whether there has ever been a robust tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, and if so, why has it all but disappeared? The 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) decried the dearth of public intellectuals, and the situation appears to have gotten worse since then (good reviews of the book can be found here:  http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3493/artsbooks/8641/that_thinking_feeling.html; and here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/feature-archive/163908/Smart-thinking-NZs-public-intellectuals).>>Sorry, I am having trouble placing the links in shorter format<<

The word “intellectual” itself has become a focus for ridicule and derision, and professions in which intellectual labour is the norm are denigrated as the province of losers who otherwise could not get a “real” job (hence the tired saw that “those that do, do, and those than don’t, teach”). This is odd because in other societies intellectual labour is valued intrinsically, and in NZ there has been at least rhetorical championing of the move towards a higher level of public discourse. What happened to the “knowledge economy” and the effort to turn NZ into a value-added, innovation-based manufacturing platform? Is there no role for public intellectuals in that project, to say nothing of more lofty efforts to argue and impart a normative as well as positive theoretical framework for the ongoing betterment of Kiwi society? Are intellectuals indeed just pointy-headed bludgers ruminating about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin from the obscurity of their ivory towers and smoke-filled staff rooms? Or is there something amiss in the larger society that denies them a public role?

I shall leave the answers to you.

When you put a price on it, it’s for sale.

datePosted on 22:18, August 31st, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

Claire Browning at Pundit has got a must read piece on the mining-our-national-heritage business.

Firstly, she catches Gerry Brownlee spinning a wee bit when he supports the case for digging by citing a world bank report listing NZ as second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of natural wealth per capita. It turns out that…

…our ranking was overwhelmingly attributable to pasture and crop land (68%) and, ironically, protected areas (19%). The subsoil assets category comprised a tiny proportion (3%).

Hmmm.

Secondly, she points out that National do not appear to be kidding.

Senior ministers don’t come out punching hard, in a fight they’ve voluntarily bought, which they must know is going to be a knock-down drag-out fight, without a degree of commitment to something or other. Tim Groser invoked this image, allegedly dear to the public heart, of a Conservation minister who “goes around with knobbly knees and shorts and releases kiwi into the wild. I am a champion releaser of kiwi into the wild … but I’m sorry, we’ve got to grow up”. Gerry Brownlee liberally salted his soundbites with words like “hysteria” and “paranoia”, and blustered on Morning Report about how what we’d just heard was an “incredibly biased piece of reporting but not anything more or less than I expect from Radio New Zealand”.

She’s right. It’s no coincidence that this was first signaled in a speech to the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. When you then go on to announce a ‘stock-take’, that’s also not an accident. (I’m actually kind of amazed that the Government is using that ‘stock take’ language as something to supposedly calm our nerves and allay our fears.)

I’m a bit disappointed by the pushback I’ve seen so far. It appears to have accepted the framing set up by Brownlee and is responding almost solely with arguments around the 100% Pure branding and the negative effects on the tourism dollar that might be felt through the mining of our National Parks, wetlands, marine reserves and who knows what all else.

The problem with this is that it puts a dollar value on those assets. Put a price on them and they are for sale. These assets are not for sale. That is the point of them. They were not land banked to be used in case of increased demand for lignite. Not all of these lands are pretty little tourist spots either. By making it ‘tourism vs mining’ we allow National to be able to carve off wetlands and other habitats because ‘tourists never go there’. These lands are protected because of their intrinsic value, any money we may earn off them through tourism is nice of course, but that is merely an allowable activity, not their purpose.

Labour’s opposition has got some potential problems. Given their recent history National will have some room for maneuver. I think the mocking ‘absurd’ tone could work. It focusses on the fact that these are schedule four lands, and moves outside of Brownlee’s framing of monetary value only. It is also not anti-mining per se, which is important, (for Labour), given Labour’s historic ties.

On that note, here’s Levon Helm singing a Steve Earle song about mountains, and mining

“One percent”

datePosted on 21:55, August 19th, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

Why the leak?

That’s one of the questions raised by Scott Cambell’s barnburner of a story.

“Clearly we are at a crossroads. The ACT Party has threatened to end its relationship with National if we allow Maori seats on the super city. Despite multiple arguments in support, its mind cannot be changed.”

That’s from an email “sent to National’s 58 MPs by one of its own senior members”, which TV3 has a copy of, but have not put on the interwebs as far as I can tell. (natch)

Hide denies threatening to “end the relationship”, saying “What we have done is state our position very clearly – we would be opposed to any reservation of seats for a particular group.”

Curiouser and curiouser.

Scott Campbell, who is obviously in a far better position to know than I, says that in an ‘all-but-done’ deal there will be no mana whenua seats.

But an all but done deal isn’t done yet, and someone wrote this email and someone, (possibly the same someone), leaked it. We can assume they did so for a reason.

If Hide didn’t make the threat, then why would a senior National Party member tell caucus that he did? If he did make that threat, why is he backing down from it?

Whatever the answers to these delicious questions, this is clearly a tough test for John Key’s big tent coalition strategy, and for two of his coalition partners.

Personally I hope Hide’s bluff gets called. Or maybe that’s already happened.

Update:
The ‘senior’ National Party member is … Tau Henare. Hide confirms that if the seats are in, he’s out as Minister of Local Government:

He told the Herald last night that he had made it clear to Mr Key that he could not remain as minister if the legislation included Maori seats on the council.

“But it wasn’t by way of a threat,” he said.

Mr Hide said he told Mr Key: “Just to be absolutely clear, you have got our support for supply and confidence but as a minister, as the Act leader, I couldn’t be responsible for introducing to the House a bill that would have reserve seats in it.”

…a principled position.

Still leaves Key in the position of having to deal with at least the appearance of an ultimatum.

Contemplating the neofascist revival.

datePosted on 13:16, August 13th, 2009 by Pablo

Courtesy of Rob Taylor back in Karekare, here is a link to an interesting article about the rise of a neo- or proto-fascist movement in the US. Although I have some quibbles with the structural as well as some of the political aspects of the argument (at least in comparison with the original (European) versions of fascism), the article is nevertheless worth a read. To me the trend is not just evident in the US, but in the rise of right-wing movements in Asia, Europe (and to a lesser extent Latin America) as well. For NZ readers interested in the quality of Kiwi democracy, the question is whether the trend is now evident at home, and if so, what are the means of forestalling it from developing further.

Needing it to be true?

datePosted on 21:08, August 11th, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

C S Lewis – Mere Christianity “The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

The political blogosphere is a wondrous beastie for those of us who are interested in rhetoric, argument and the eternal question “Who are these people and why are they saying these things?”

As mentioned elsewhere DPF’s satire on the Green’s climate change policy isn’t all that funny

When Swift made his modest proposal about Irish peasant farmers finding a cure for their problems by eating their children, the target of the satire wasn’t the Irish peasant farmers, but rather the people that were ignoring their plight. That’s pretty much why it was satire and not just an anti-Irish version of the blood libel.

But what interests me is why someone might find DPF’s satire satirical. What’s the point of it?

On one level it could just be what satirist and US Senator Al Franken termed ‘kidding on the square’. This is where you say something outrageous, not minding at all if it gets taken literally, while retaining the defence of ‘just joking’ if challenged. Anne Coulter’s career of accusing liberals of being traitors is built entirely on this tactic.

On this reading DPF’s post is just flat out nasty propaganda, accusing the Greens of having genocidal instincts. Some commenters to the post certainly read it this way, with variants on the “It’s funny/scary because it’s true” routine.

Another reading of the post is that it’s a response to a particular form of psychological dissonance.

As the science around AGW becomes ever harder to dismiss, people who have invested a lot in dismissing it need to find an outlet. It’s not that they were wrong, or blinded by ideology, or that their opponents were smarter than them, or just correct about them in some of the things they said, rather it must be that their opponents are even worse.

Here’s the slacktivist explaining the idea as it relates to certain right wingers in the US at the moment who are convinced, or perhaps just ‘joking’, that ‘health care reform = killing grandma’.

This downward plunge is bound to accelerate. The goal is a feeling of moral superiority, achieved at first by telling oneself little lies about the behavior and motivations of others. But those little lies lead to feelings of guilt. That guilt is legitimate, earned and wholly deserved, but this isn’t about whether one’s feelings are just or appropriate, it’s about whether one’s feelings feel good. So the guilt provokes a feeling of moral inferiority that can, for those addicted, only be countered by telling slightly larger lies about the even-more-inferior morality of others. Those bigger lies carry with them a larger sense of guilt and so the cycle repeats itself again and again with the lies getting larger and larger. And with every downward spiral, the ever-larger lies become ever more implausible, so that it becomes harder and harder to pretend that one actually believes the lies one is telling oneself and the guilt becomes that much more intense and undeniable and can only be staved off, temporarily, through ever more outrageous lies until finally one finds oneself desperately asserting that President Obama’s desire to provide health care for the uninsured is actually a plot to murder your grandmother in cold blood and reinstate the Third Reich here in America.

Consider what the example above means for those embracing it. Even a cursory examination of this claim would reveal it to be false, but they have chosen not to examine it, chosen to swallow it unexamined and to pass it on to others because they need it to be true. They need it to be true because this is what it would take for them to recapture at least the illusion of moral superiority. Let that sink in for a moment.

To be confident of the claim that they are better than some other group, they have chosen to compare themselves to a eugenic Nazi regime that euthanizes senior citizens. That such a regime is wholly a figment of their warped imaginations is less revealing than the fact that they have been forced to imagine such a horrifying scenario in order to find something with which they can believe they compare favorably.

Ouch.

 I read with interest that the SIS keeps a file on Jane Kelsey, apparently dating back almost 20 years. I am not a close friend of Jane but  know both her academic and activist work as well as some of her arguments with the SIS and Privacy Commission about her file (which will not be released to her, even in redacted form). Jane apparently came to the attention of the SIS because she was part of a Filipino solidarity group in the early 1990s and later because of her anti-APEC and anti-neoliberal activities (both of which have subsequently been vindicated in fact). I admire Jane because she is a person of conviction, and because she is staunch in the face of official intimidation. Deborah Manning is another such person. Were that there be many others of such character in New Zealand, but alas, especially amongst the male population, there are comparatively few in my estimation.

Putting aside the gender implications of Kiwi bullying and cowardice, the bottom line is as follows: the SIS is either lying or stonewalling on what Jane Kelsey’s file contains, and the so-called Privacy Commissioner is either an SIS toady or hopelessly ignorant of the issues at stake. Either way, this is another blow against Kiwi democracy. Truth be told,  the demolition of Kiwi civil liberties–particularly the right to privacy–was accentuated rather than diminished under  the Fifth Labour government, something the Key regime has happily continued.

If Jane Kelsey is a national security threat than I am Osama bin Laden, Anita is Ayman al-Zawahiri and Lew is, well…Lew.  We are all accomplices in critiquing the way NZ governments’ operate. If Jane has a file, then anyone who has voiced a public opinion against the government  could have a file. That is because for the last decade or so, dissent has been incrementally criminalised, and the definition of criminality is left to the government of the moment and its sycophants in the security bureaucracy. Hence anything oppositional can be grounds for snooping. That is how the SIS justifies its existence. Just ask Tame Iti or Valerie Morse.

Remember this small fact: being a pain in the rear of the security apparatus because of one’s vocal criticism of government policy, or being a critic of the SIS or the Police itself, does not constitute a threat to national security per se. If it does, that is all the more reason for the SIS or Police to release the evidence justifying claims that is the case. In Jane Kelsey’s case, her requests for release of her file have been met with bureaucratic obfuscation rather than transparency even though the SIS has all but admitted that nothing she has done constitutes a threat to national security. So, one might ask, why the obstruction on “national security grounds?” Although I have an idea why the SIS and Privacy Commissioner are hiding behind the skirt of “national security,” there are broader issues for civil liberties at stake that are worth considering here.

With that in mind I urge any reader who has expressed a dissonant, much  less dissident voice with regards to the way the NZ government and its security agencies operate, to make an official request for  your files. That is because it turns out the the extent of domestic espionage is far beyond what most Kiwis expect to be reasonable, and the SIS is utterly unaccountable for doing so. By this I mean that any dissident, right or left wing, is a potential target of covert monitoring and thus has a probable reason to make an OIA claim. I do not mean just the fringes of the Left-Right continuum, but anything in between: if you piss off the government of the moment or attack the SIS /Police on ethical or practical grounds, you can well be subject to “investigation” on the grounds that you constitute a threat to national security. It is all justified by the empowering legislation that was passed in  the last 15 years, including clauses that justify spying on New Zealand citizens who constitute “threats to  economic security” (which means that anyone opposed to governmental macroeconomic policy might as well be Osama in the opinion of the SIS). So, because she opposes neoliberalism and the APEC “free trade” doctrine, Jane Kelsey is the economic equivalent of a jihadi as far as the SIS is concerned.

That having been said, ask and you shall not receive. If Jane’s campaign is any indication, these  taxpayer-funded security bludgers feel no need to answer the silly requests of the people who pay their salaries. But should you insist, the SIS can be contacted www.nzsis.govt.nz.

Remember that you have to make an OIA (Official Information Act) request, and you should be as precise as possible when specifying the activities that you consider would have “warranted” SIS opening a file on you (of course, even asking that question could “warrant” the SIS opening a file on you).

Please ask Director Warren Tucker for a personal response in your OIA, and tell him that “Pablo” sent you. He knows who I am.

PS: The post has been updated twice to correct typos and clarify some sentences.

Strange things are afoot at the circle K

datePosted on 22:55, July 31st, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission…”
Harry Schoell, CEO, Cyclone Power Technologies Inc.

– The best thing about cheesy 80’s SF on the telly, (and StarWars), was the robots. I was all kinds of disappointed when I saw my first real robot, via the news, and all it did was swing a big ‘arm’ around and did something to help build a car in a Japanese factory.

I suspect now, that the thing I found cool about those SF robots was that they were little metal persons. They clearly had more than just processing power and autonomic reactions. They were self aware, curious, emotional and aware of others. Nothing like robots at all then, appalling SF, and even worse telly. But still, they were pretty cool.

In the early nineties when I was looking at a few theories of mind, Artificial Intelligence was obviously a useful thing to think about. What would it mean to say that a computer, or an integrated system of machines, could think? That would obviously be a mind, wouldn’t it?

Back then I thought the most important issues, if such machines were invented, would be; “What rights, if any, do we give them” and ” Help, they are going to kill us”. Those are still important issues.

– There’s been a bit of talk about what they are calling ‘The Singularity’, defined as the point at which we invent a machine ‘smarter’ than us. The existence of such a machine, would cause a positive feedback loop with the machine(s) being able to further improve both their own descendants, and us, upwards along an increasing spiral of alleged awesome. I’m not at all sure what to think about that.

Most of the talk I’d heard about this was from people mocking the boosters of the idea, many of whom to be fair, do seem a bit strange.

This though, is a little bit different from that. More prosaic, less utopian, more real.

While the computer scientists agreed that we are a long way from Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” they said there was legitimate concern that technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.
The researchers — leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

They focused particular attention on the specter that criminals could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were developed. What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smart phones?

A bunch of scientists have had a meeting discussing AI issues, they’ll be releasing the report “this year”. Should be interesting. The NYT report itself is kind of strange. It seems to be offering a warning, but the meeting also seemed to be about letting people know that there is nothing to be alarmed about. (So look over there and don’t worry your good selfs. It’s all under control.)

Aside from the criminals and terrorists, I’m more than a bit concerned about what governments and corporations will find do-able, working together even.

I’m not stocking up on tin foil just yet, but some of this stuff needs to start getting regulated I think. Or at least talked about. That which isn’t already classified of course.

A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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