Archive for ‘USA’ Category

Coleman’s Cultural Cringe Moment.

datePosted on 15:35, October 31st, 2013 by Pablo

For some time I have had the impression that Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman is out of his depth on issues of defense and security, so I was not surprised by his joyful celebration of the signing of a bi-lateral defense pact with the US. Master of the flak jacket photo op, it was all sunshine and roses for Dr. Coleman at the Pentagon press conference, where he emphasized that US and NZDF troops would be training and working together on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions in between group hugs and port visits. He seemed blissfuly unaware that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, standing beside him at the press conference, made no mention of the kumbaya aspects of the bilateral, instead referring to the combat integration benefits of closer military-to-military relations.

What I was surprised at was how provincial and just plain goofy Coleman appeared to be. Among other country bumpkin moments, he dismissed concerns about US spying on New Zealand by referencing an editorial cartoon that had spies falling asleep listening to NZ communications; he outright lied and said that the NZ government would not say anything in private that it would not say in public (which makes its silence on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations all the more suspicious); he never once countenanced the thought that the bilateral might be part of the US strategic pivot towards Asia (in a military way), or that China might view the bilateral with some concern; and for a Pièce de résistance, he whipped out a junior sized All Blacks jersey and foisted it on the unsuspecting Hagel.

The last moment was gold. Hagel acted as if he was not sure what the piece of black cloth was all about. A pirate flag? A tea towel? Something for Halloween? Then Coleman did the most crassly egregious act of sponsor placement I have ever seen in an official government ceremony by turning the jersey to the cameras with all front logos on display (the back had Hagel’s name and the number 1 on it).  AIG and Adidas would not have believed their luck, but what does it say about Dr. Coleman and his government that he/they thought it appropriate to shill for sports team sponsors at such an event?

The usual protocol for government to government exchanges of sporting symbols (most often on the occasion of bi- or multination sporting events) is to keep the colors and national crests but not the commercial logos. Such exchanges are done at the conclusion of formal meetings, with approved media doing the coverage on cue. Otherwise, the exchange is approved at press conference photo opportunities by prior consent. This avoids impromptu, ad lib or extemporaneous embarrassments or hijacks of the media op, to say nothing of security breaches.

On this the ritual of public diplomacy is pretty clear: public posturing and grandstanding is expected, but surprises are not.

In this instance Secretary Hagel was clearly surprised by the unilateral token of affection. He had nothing to give in return in front of the cameras. That means that the NZ embassy in Washington was incompetent, deliberately mean or ignored in the decision as to choice of gift as well as the way in which to present it, because it is brutally clear that Coleman and his staff were clueless as to the symbolism and significance of their preferred option for a unilateral, unscripted gift.

Lets ponder this. Coleman and his staff decided that the best gift to give the US Secretary of Defense on the occasion of signing a major bilateral military agreement ending years of estrangement was a replica jersey for a commonwealth sport barely recognized outside of some hard core devotee circles in the US. He might as well given him a surf lifesaving jersey.

I would have thought that a Mere pounamu, or better yet a Taiaha or Pouwhenua (to signify continued distance), would have been more appropriate for the occasion. With some advance warning (perhaps in consultation with the US embassy in Wellington), such a gift would be appreciated in its full significance by the US counterparts and transmitted as such to the interested public. Instead, the most powerful US civilian decision maker on military matters was given a piece of quick-dry, stretchable artificial cloth with corporate logos as a symbol of New Zealand’s commitment to first-tier military relations.

Coleman compounded the back-handed compliment with the jersey sponsorship display, thereby commercializing the event. To be honest, I could not believe what I was seeing and can only imagine what the Americans thought. I say this because in a former life I was party to such official ceremonies involving the US Defense Department and allied nation officials, and it was simply unimaginable that someone would attempt to push product, however unintentionally, during a symbolic gift exchange. That is why the display was so utterly cringe worthy.

In general though, I was not surprised by Coleman’s hillbilly-in-the-big-city moment. After all, if the Prime Minister, as Minister of Intelligence and Security, says that he cannot be bothered asking the GCSB questions about US spying on its allies, then it is no wonder that Dr. Coleman thinks that US spies are asleep and the US government is up with the play when it comes to the All Black nation.

Disappointing.

datePosted on 13:54, May 15th, 2013 by Pablo

Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.

I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).

But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.

It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012,  the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).

The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.

While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.

There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.

Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.

The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.

Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.

I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.

Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.

I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.

Hence my disappointment.

 

Deconstructing the US Terrorism Meta-narrative.

datePosted on 17:50, April 19th, 2013 by Pablo

Broadly speaking, the way in which terrorists have been depicted in the US has some interesting, contrasting themes. White native-born (male) individuals who commit acts of politically-motivated lethal violence are generally depicted as marginalized sociopathic psychos rather than as individuals acting out of sincere ideological belief (I say “sincere” because homicidal individuals often attach themselves or attribute their actions to political causes without fully subscribing to the ideological precepts underpinning them). This lumps this type of terrorist in with genuinely insane psychopaths and allows the state to address their acts as criminal offenses rather than as political crimes.

For example, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City bombers and Atlanta Olympics bomber all acted out of sincere ideological conviction (Unabomber Ted Kaczynski published a 35,000 word manifesto of his beliefs). Yet, they were treated by the justice system less like al-Qaeda style fighters and more like the criminally deranged Tucson shooter who wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and killed six others.

In the 1960s and 1970s groups like the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army and Weathermen were treated as guerrilla groups, which by definition recognizes that their challenges to authority are based on contrary political ideologies. These groups marshaled their opposition to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Capitalist (WASP/C) status quo along racial and class lines. The used an unconventional war of position to convey their counter-hegemonic resistance to things as given. Because of this, the state saw them as an existential threat that challenged the socio-economic, cultural and political parameters of US society. They were treated accordingly, which in some cases slipped into extra-judicial punishment.

The predominant US born white male terrorist profile is that of a loner or small cell member whose ideological foundation is at the core of the WASP/C value system. The WASP/C terrorist believes in individual choice and natural rights in a free market unencumbered by tyranny. He may believe in God, a preferred religion and/or racial hierarchy. He despises the central (federal) government, foreign agencies and often times large corporations.

In effect, his armed critique of the system comes from deep within rather than from without. He sees the usurpation of traditional values and hierarchies as evidence of terminal moral decline, and he feels compelled to stand against it. He is a modern Minuteman.

This is why the WASP/C terrorist is treated like a psychopath rather than as a guerrilla or unconventional fighter. His values are too “close to the bone” of the US belief system to be treated first as an ideological critique rather than as deranged.  Instead, the WASP/C terrorist is profiled as having severe unresolved personal issues, to include sublimated or repressed sexual urges that are eventually expressed through anti-social violence. However he is portrayed, his political motivations are downplayed in favor of flawed personal psychological traits.

In recent times the terrorist challenge in the US has been seen by the state as coming from foreign-based Muslims and their domestic supporters. These have been treated much in the way the guerrilla groups of the 1960s and 1970s were. They are depicted as having an ideology that is anathema to the American way of life. They are held to hate US values and its freedoms. The fight against them is framed in existential and civilizational terms. Focus on the criminality of their acts is shared by focus on the ideological reasons for them. They are considered to be ideological enemies as much if not more than as criminals.

The two-track meta-narrative on terrorists allows the US to reaffirm its core beliefs without subjecting them to re-examination. It reinforces the dominant ideology by differentiating between criminal and political violence along lines that do not challenge core WASP/C values and beliefs, which are now shared by non-WASPs and WASPs alike (popularized in the “anyone can make it here” credo epitomized by the Obama presidency).

Although it is easy to see why the US would adopt this meta-narrative on terrorism, it is unfortunate. It creates two standards of justice, one political and one criminal, with which to treat terrorists. This is inimical to the equal justice underpinnings of liberal democracies and paves the way for the creation of parallel judicial systems such as that seen in the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals.

It would seem preferable to treat all terrorism as criminal offenses. The issue is not whether the perpetrators are foreign or domestic. The type and location of the crime is what matters, and issues of nationality or domicile are at most the justification for extradition requests. Political or psychological reasons can be offered as an explanation for why terrorist acts were committed, but they cannot be used for the purposes of meting our different standards of justice. That has the benefit of reassuring friend and foe alike that the focus will be on the crime, not the cause.

That, in of itself, can be a significant deterrent to those who would otherwise pursue terrorism as a form of political expression.

Postscript: It will be interesting to see which narrative emerges with regard to the Chechnyan brothers involved in the Boston bombings. Home grown, self-radicalized small cell jihadis, part of an international al-Qaeda plot, or siblings with some creepy inter-personal dynamics? The rightwing US media already see the Muslim -bashing angle as the preferred interpretation, but the official government response (so far) is to not be as quick to attribute ideological rather than criminal intent to their actions.

Once again, the namby pamby pinko liberals have gone ballistic about a school shooting. The closet Muslim atheist commie gay-loving half-breed president cried crocodile tears about the deaths of some children and a few teachers even though that many are killed each week in car wrecks, water mishaps and domestic violence incidents that have nothing to do with guns. Reliable reports from Fox News state that the killer may in fact be a Democratic plant used to whip up anti-gun hysteria so that the liberals can continue their secular progressive agenda against the second amendment and God. As the great statesman Charlton Heston once said, they will have to pry my cold dead fingers off my fully automatic, 50 round magazine AR-15 (American made of course) before they take away my right to bear multiple arms.

The hard target truth is that banning guns only allows the deranged and criminally minded to have them. Instead, we need more guns rather than fewer guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens (although perhaps not those of color given their proclivities). After all, an armed crowd is a polite crowd.

Guns do not kill people, people do. Guns are not sentient beings, with a conscience. They are tools. Tools should be readily available to everyone because they are helpful in advancing God’s plan for America. The more tools available the better the project advances. How the tool is used depends on the person wielding it. Just like a hammer, saw, crowbar or chisel could be employed in deranged or criminal ways, so too guns can be used for unlawful purposes. Just because they may be automated and are designed to kill does not mean that they are evil. Heck, if we follow the liberal-vegan-animal rights activist logic, a line trimmer in bad hands is a serial killer.

The issue is not the availability of guns in the US. It is about the prevalence of nutters in an increasingly non-religious multicultural society where traditional Anglo-Saxon values, to include worship respect for firearms, is no longer as sacrosanct as it was in the good old white patriarchical days (although it is a concern that black folk do not appear to shoot up schools, malls and workplaces as much as white folk do, but that probably has more to do with them having criminal records before reaching the legal gun buying age rather than any moral aversion–at least that is what my preacher tells me). Left morally rudderless by the decline of US civilization caused by the secular progressive communist non-Judeo-Christian feminist agenda, troubled youth will wrongfully employ the tools of the righteous.

With that in mind, as responsible gun fetischists the NRA has consistently lobbied for better security at schools. But unlike passive measures like metal detectors, rent-a-cops and triple locked gates during school hours, we advocate the arming of all school teachers and administrative staff. We have also undertaken studies that demonstrate that 10 year olds who have taken a gun safety course are quite capable of carrying concealed weapons and using them to good effect in self-defense situations, including those that may arise in schools. We say that it is better to target the solution rather than the problem because any solution that seeks to limit ownership of guns IS the problem.

We believe this even though we are fully aware that public schooling is a yoke placed around the necks of parents and children by big government, be it local, state or national. We understand that public sector employees, to include teachers and school administrators, comprise a large part of the enemy within. But as parents, siblings and spouses going about their lives, they have a right to defend themselves by force in the face of tyranny or criminal intent.

The bottom line is that this latest tragedy would not have happened if the principal, teachers and fourth grade students at this particular school had been armed. Say what they might, the liberals cannot escape that bullet proof logic.

Interpreting the conservative take on the US elections.

datePosted on 15:50, November 6th, 2012 by Pablo

If I read the conservative commentariat correctly with regard to tomorrow’s US elections, the following will happen:

Obama wins: As the fifth rider of the apocalypse, Obama will bring the end of days, armageddon, leading to the imposition of a debt-ridden, welfare-spending LBGT atheistic Islamofascist Zionist-Stalinist-Orwelian state in which children and the elderly are eaten after being vivisected and animals and dirt will have more rights than natural gas. The walls of the shining White house on the hill will crumble. Locusts will plague and fire will belch from the skies in non-industrial areas as the ground turns to dust and the rivers run dry. The seas will retreat and the icecaps will melt, but not due to man-made climate change. Female sports will become dominant.

Romney wins: Milk, honey, money and expensive Eau de Cologne will rain down upon the chosen debt producing and debt reducing Christian people and hedge fund managers, sunshine will spring eternal, a million flowers will bloom, all dole-bludging, illegal alien LBGT atheist Islamofascist Zionist-Stalinists will be rendered asunder by lightning strikes from the heavenly Father and world peace and prosperity will obtain in our time. White folk will become cool again. Soccer will be purged from the global landscape because it is un-American and does not involve teams with American Indian names, padding, helmets or blunt instruments and has a penchant for shorts that is second only to League in terms of questionability. White shirts and somber ties will once again be suitable apparel. Shoes will be tied. The help will know their place.

Blog Link: A Romney Foreign Policy and the South Pacific.

datePosted on 04:53, September 21st, 2012 by Pablo

For those interested in US domestic politics and the potential impact of a Romney presidency on US foreign policy with a South Pacific angle, my thoughts on the subject are gathered here.

A surfeit of services.

datePosted on 09:23, September 17th, 2012 by Pablo

My yearly sojourns to the US provide a regular opportunity to garner a snapshot of the state of the union, at least from my limited perspective. This year I returned to my old stomping grounds in the desert southwest and to the home away from home in South Florida. After a wet monsoon season the desert was lush and the 360 degree skies saturated with cumulus, cirrus and stratus cloud. It was great to hear Norteno music and Spanglish spoken in the street.

My son joined my partner and I for a trip to the old mining town of Bisbee, where we stayed at the haunted Copper Queen (est. circa 1880) and had a long night on the town that ended up in some biker/metalhead dive bar. It was great. I highly recommend the Arizona desert to New Zealanders interested in a dramatic contrast in landscapes and Western cultures.

South Florida has been less pleasant. There is a palpable tension in the air marked by hostile attitudes and unbelievably aggressive, to the point of criminally reckless, driving. The region is known for its fast pace and shallow materialism, but in this trip there is something darker about it. Some of this can be attributed to the election campaign, in which some of the local attack ads are truly astounding in their ferocity and disregard for decency (the issue is large: one-third of the US Senate, the entire US House of Representatives, and most local offices are in play). There is a buffoon Republican named Alan West running for the US Senate, and his ads make the Swiftboat and Willie Horton attack ads look tame. He says nothing about what he proposes and spends most of his time defaming his Democrat opponent. Seeing that Romney is set to lose the presidential race, the right wing talkback and television outlets have ratcheted up the hysteria and vitriol to the point that even John Stewart or Stephen Colbert cannot parody them adequately. In a word, the place is nuts.

This condition of political anomie may be compounding the sense of frustration and anger felt by an increasingly divided–the word “polarized” does not do justice to the chasm between the US right and left–polity that more than anything else is diffident in its regard for politics. Both the Republican and Democratic conventions were not as well attended and not as widely viewed by TV audiences as in previous years, and it appears that the election abstention rate is going to be very high this year. People appear to be cynical, bitter and lacking in hope for the future regardless of who wins in November. All in all, this is the sorriest state of mind I have found the US to be in since my move to NZ fifteen years ago.

That is the backdrop to the subject of this post. As readers will know, the focus of the 2012 US election begins and ends with the economy. Platitudes are proffered and panaceas are prescribed. Words like “competitiveness” and “innovation” are bandied about like lollies. But there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of a root cause of the American economic malaise: its reliance on services.

The US is a country dominated by the service sector rather than true productive enterprise. Think of the variety of services now on offer: wealth and asset managers; financial advisors; PR and other “communications strategists;” personal trainers; life coaches (of which there are half a million in the US); pain management specialists (aka pill doctors); landscapers; floral designers; escorts; private alarm and security companies; fishing, hunting and tour guides; real estate agents; internet and in-store movie suppliers; credit card purveyors; nail and hair “artists;” wedding planners; a zillion types of mental health counselors and ambulance chasing lawyers; insurers; car, cat and dog groomers; dog walkers; bird, cat, dog and horse whisperers; DJs; car valets; (for-profit) drug and alcohol rehabbers; tennis instructors; beauty consultants; fashion stylists; liposuction specialists; motivational speakers; management and risk consultants; self-help gurus; personal assistants and agents, accountants; home delivery services; website designers–the list is as varied as it is endless. While one might argue that all retail sales are a service, my point is that in the US the extent of service provision is on its way to infinite, and this infinite progression dominates its economy.

The basic problem of reliance on services as the core of economic activity is that making money through facilitation is not equivalent to being productive. Nor is working hard synonymous with productivity. Americans work the longest hours and take the shortest vacations of all OECD countries. By that standard they should be light-years ahead of the democratic capitalist world in terms of real productivity. But they are not. That is because hard work and income earned in services does not, in the larger scheme of things, add real value to productivity. It may make the national quality of life better, but it does not advance the overall condition of the productive apparatus. It is the economic equivalent of silver–it is nice and attractive, very malleable, easy to buy, wear and replace, but is no substitute for the economic iron required to build and progress a nation.

What is noteworthy about the US service sector is that, at over 75 percent and growing, it is steadily occupying a bigger and bigger percentage of the national GDP (agriculture is less than 2 percent and manufacturing is at 20 percent). The creative genius involved in the proliferation of services is matched by its relentless rent-seeking: in South Florida television ads are dominated by ambulance chasers (who prefer the term “personal injury lawyers”), pill-pushers and geriatric care providers who offer relief and compensation for a myriad of ills previously unheard of or for which personal responsibility used to suffice.

The majority of US college graduates, be they from two or four year colleges, receive degrees in areas other than science or engineering (business, education and liberal arts degrees are the majority of those granted in the US). Since the bulk of undergraduates do not go on to graduate school, this leaves a labor pool full of people who cannot actually produce or add value to anything other than by virtue of their slick talk and quick uptake on the job. Since most people coming out of US universities and colleges are neither particularly articulate or quick on the uptake, their default option is to join the legion of personal service providers.

No that all services are of the silver variety. Some of these are important, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, doctors, firefighters, police and lifeguards (I shall defer from elaborating on the public versus private aspects of the service sector, but note that what are considered public services are basically considered to be core functions of government, many of which are being privatized and downsized in the current fiscal environment). Many services are linked via supply chains to the manufacturing and research sectors. Others, such as the information technology services that spawned Google, Facebook and Twitter, create wealth but do not always really produce anything tangible or contributory to the value-added project (which in part explains the lukewarm stock market reaction to the Facebook public stock float). The vast majority of US services are, needless to say, even less contributory to the national productive apparatus.

The critical and deleterious aspect of the services domination of the US economy is that it is moving the country away from the production of real value added assets, much of which is increasingly monopolized in terms of ownership anyway. Add to that the overwhelming influence of the financial service sector, and what is left is a country that buys more than it makes (and what it makes are increasingly capital goods as much as consumer durables and non-durables), and in which people increasingly use services rather than do things or rely on themselves.

The social division of labor created by service sector dominance in the US appears to produce two distinct cultural characteristics. First–and this is very evident in South Florida and a subject that I have addressed in previous posts–is a culture of blame-assignment and responsibility-shifting where nobody is personally accountable for the consequences of their actions. Even hardened criminals commonly use the excuse that their teachers, counselors and psychiatrists failed them in the lead-up to their crimes, and in many instances this suffices to mitigate their culpability and reduce their sentences. They are not alone in this. In fact, there is an entire service industry comprised of counselors, insurers and lawyers that profits from shifting blame and responsibility, criminal or not.

The second aspect is the increasing compartmentalization and personalization of service work, which in turn produces an erosion of horizontal solidarities brought about by common insertion in the productive process. Much of the service sector is characterized by individual entrepreneurial or material pursuits. The individualization of service work, often aided by stay-at-home technologies that facilitate the rendering of such services, removes the associational and emotive ties that are part of the working experience in mass productive enterprise. This atomizes and alienates individuals as social subjects, as their material fortunes no longer depend on common identifications and sense of purpose (which occurs whether the workforce is organized or not precisely because it is a collective enterprise).

Social group associations, service group size and individual immersion in non-work related collective undertakings such as sports and churches mitigate against a complete return to survivalist alienation, but they do not fully overcome the dissociative effects of the nature of service provision. The effect of this is to reduce the ties that bind people together, which helps explain the turn to shifting blame and responsibility onto others.

Needless to say, I am only extrapolating from what I am seeing in the US during my limited time here. I recognize that generalizations are fraught and speculation based on fraught and fragmentary generalizations are to be suspected. So take this appraisal as an opinion, nothing more. Moreover, the US remains the largest national economy in the world, the largest trading nation, and the largest manufacturing economy. Its information technology, robotics, telecommunications and aerospace industries are world leaders. Its automobile and construction sectors are on the rebound. It is by no means weak in spite of what I have outlined above.

Even so, the trend is disturbing (at least for those with an interest in the US). For small countries not intent on projecting power or devoid of natural and human resources, reliance on services as the mainstay of the economy is acceptable if not advisable. Competitive advantage in services may counterweight a lack of comparative advantage in productive resources.

However, it seems to me that if a large, militarily aggressive country with a global reach relies on services as its engine of economic growth rather than on value-added production, than it will find it increasingly difficult to hold the its position over time. I might be wrong and, like (but better than) the USSR, the US can continue to ride on the production associated with an immense military-industrial corporate complex that spins off technological innovation and civilian applications as a matter of course even as the overall presence of value-added manufacturing as a component of GDP decreases. But if that is the case, it seems a risky proposition for sustained growth and global prominence given that an increasing percentage of the inputs to that type of production are derived from external rather than internal sources.

Meanwhile the life coaches continue to facilitate personal self-realization, realtors hustle properties, lawyers litigate and asset managers channel money made from services into other services. Wall Street and Washington both believe that ongoing reliance on services for economic growth is sustainable and desirable. In broad economic terms, that is like equating a merry-go-round with a wheel. It is that merry-go-round that Obama, Romney and other US politicians are trying to fix.

A White Bread Double Down.

datePosted on 12:12, August 19th, 2012 by Pablo

As is well known, the US is undergoing a demographic transition that will see the majority of the country being non-white in origin by 2030 or thereabouts (for the purposes of this essay I shall use the US definition of “non-white,” which is a person who does not have two caucasian parents. This definition is a throw-back to the bad old days but has managed to remain as a racial standard in census calculations. Interestingly, in Brazil a person is considered white if they have a single drop of white blood regardless of how dark they may look. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to why that may be). The US is also a country with more females than males as a percentage of the population. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the country is headed to a majority female, coffee-with–milk colored future in the next two decades.

The trend has motivated political parties to seek and court the new generation of dark skinned voters, be they Latino (of which there are many persuasions that do not exhibit uniform political or social attitudes), Arab (ditto), African (both continental and hyphenated new world such as Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Peruvians), Indians (both native and from the sub-continent) Asians (of all stripes) and other “non-white” populations. Although dark-skinned populations have traditionally occupied the working and lower middle classes, they now span the gamut of socio-economic status. This has meant that what was once the preferred recruiting ground for the Democratic Party and other small leftist-oriented political groups has now been opened up to the Republicans and their smaller conservative counterparts. One can no longer look at individuals of color and automatically assume their voting preferences. This has made the non-white electorate an extremely important swing vote in national and local elections.

I mention this because one would think that the GOP would understand the importance of recognizing these shifts in its election strategy and candidate selection. In 2008 it gave a nod to “hockey moms” by nominating Sarah Palin as its Vice Presidential candidate. The Democrats saw a fierce primary campaign for the presidency eventually won by a man of half-African descent over a white middle aged woman. The mixed race Presidential candidate brought on an older white male Senator as his VP choice, and together they went on to win the 2008 election over the hockey mom and her geriatric white male former war hero-turned Senator presidential running mate.

In this year’s election the Republican primary offered some interesting twists. It included a black man and a white woman along with an assortment of white males of various Christian persuasions (I mention religion because in the US atheists and agnostics stand no chance of being elected if they state so publicly. Even non-religious people like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have to pretend to be pious church-goers, so long as the church in question is a christian denomination. It will be a while before a Jew or Muslim makes it to the White House as either POTUS or VP, Joe Lieberman’s failed 2000 vice presidential nomination notwithstanding).

However, by the end of the GOP primary campaign it was an older white male millionaire ex-governor who emerged as the presidential candidate. He had many options when it came to choosing his running mate. Condi Rice was mentioned. Bobby Jindal (of Indian extraction) was mentioned. Marco Rubio (a Cuban American) was in the mix. But who did Mitt Romney choose? A younger white male congressman who, among other things, professed to be an Ann Rand devotee until the mid-2000s, has never run a business (which the GOP claims is essential for breaking out of the Washington DC mindset) and who is considered the intellectual giant behind the GOP small government, lower taxes, less expenditure philosophy–that is, at least until it emerged that he lobbied for Obama administration stimulus funds to be directed towards his congressional district in Wisconsin.

In effect, what the GOP has opted for as a presidential ticket is a white bread double-down on an increasingly blended ethnic stew: two caucasian males, one Mormon and one Catholic, both from privileged backgrounds, preaching fiscal austerity as the panacea for US ills. Neither has foreign policy experience. Both are “chicken hawks” (pro-military without having served) and have conservative social views (although Romney appears to have a utilitarian approach to his conservatism, in that he is when it suits him to be): anti abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-welfare, anti-undocumented immigrants (I refuse to use the term “illegal alien” that is preferred by right-wing commentators in the US). That also sums up the essence of the GOP ticket: it is defined by what it is against rather than what it is for (which, as I have written in previous posts, is a bad position upon which to base any political platform).

There is more to the picture but it strikes me that this choice of candidates says more about the GOP nostalgia for a lost past rather than a vision for the US future. It does not appear to recognize the changing nature of the US demographic mosaic (which, besides the changing ethnic blend also includes a different social fabric than in the past in the form of a rising population of single parent or blended family households, a fifty percent divorce rate and a slowing overall birth rate. Both Romney and Ryan live in traditional marriages with stay at home caucasian wives and multiple children). It is for that reason that I believe that, regardless of the merits of their macroeconomic arguments (and I see very little merit in them), the GOP presidential ticket will lose in November. Because whatever Obama’s flaws and faults (and there are plenty), he clearly understands that there is no going back to a white bread past that was not so good for grains of a different color.

 

On June 20 New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta signed the Washington Declaration, which specifies priority areas of cooperation between the militaries of both countries. The Washington Declaration is a follow-up to the Wellington Declaration signed by New Zealand and the US in November 2010 (with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Murray McCully doing the honors). The first was a general statement of principle with regard to New Zealand-US security cooperation and bilateral foreign relations. The follow-up provides more detail on the specific areas in which military cooperation will occur. These are counter-terrorism, maritime patrol, anti-piracy operations and humanitarian relief. The details of the logistics involved in those areas have not been finalized and/or made public, and in the case of counter-terrorism operations they are not likely to be divulged beyond a general statement. This has as much to do with New Zealand public sensitivities as it does with US public opinion or classified operational details (for example, the role of the NZSAS in joint counter-terrorism operations with US forces).

What is different in the Washington Declaration is that the military-to-military bilateral relationship is now taking concrete shape, whereas the Wellington Declaration was a diplomatic opening rather than a definitive outlining of military areas in which joint operations and exercises will occur.

Robert Ayson described the relationship as a defacto alliance between the US and New Zealand. Professor Ayson used the phrase because the US and New Zealand are not entering a formal alliance agreement but a “strategic partnership.” An alliance is essentially a contract with mutual obligations; a partnership is a looser arrangement in which obligations are voluntarily assumed but not contractually defined, binding or specified. Partnerships can be reviewed and modified on a case-by-case or temporal basis, whereas alliances commit the parties to treaty-strength obligations that require a major diplomatic rupture for them to be abrogated. This distinction theoretically gives the US and New Zealand a greater degree of flexibility in their relations with each other on military issues. That is diplomatically advantageous for New Zealand, which seeks to preserve its image and reputation for foreign policy independence, and also avoids domestic voter backlash to the resumption of something akin to the ANZUS alliance so spectacularly undone by New Zealand’s 1985 non-nuclear announcement. The Labour, Green and Mana parties, in particular, would have been very resistant to the restoration of a formal military alliance with the US, so on political grounds the strategic partnership agreement works out very well domestically as well as bilaterally.

In practice, the strategic partnership with the US aligns New Zealand with other “first tier” US security partners in the Western Pacific Rim such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. This is important for the New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) as it seeks to integrate more closely with Australian Defense Force operational doctrine, training and equipment (as was suggested by the NZDF 2010 Defense White Paper) at a time when Australia and the US are deepening their bilateral security ties (evident in the recently announced agreement to forward base a US Marine rapid response force in Darwin). Ayson is right in that the NZDF will now be working side by side with the US military on a regular and continuous basis in specified areas (such as the upcoming RIMPAC naval exercises that the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) has joined for the first time in two decades), although NZ will have a little more leeway in refusing US requests to join in foreign conflicts than if it had signed a formal alliance agreement that required both parties to come to their respective defense.

The resumption of near-complete bilateral military ties between New Zealand and the US is not a surprise. The 5th Labour government (1999-2008) started the rapprochement with the US post 9/11, and the National governments that followed it have openly embraced the prospect of finally overcoming the post-ANZUS freeze in security relations (with the exception of intelligence-sharing, which never suffered the curtailment of ties seen in military relations). Labour was wary of being seen as getting too close to the US, since that could jeopardize its reputation for an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance, particularly amongst non-aligned and small states. National prefers to embrace the US more whole-heartedly, in part because of the belief that there will eventually be economic as well as military benefits in doing so (such as via the Transpacific Partnership trade agreements currently being negotiated by the US, New Zealand and seven other Pacific Rim states). The idea behind National’s approach appears to be to use the improved military ties with the US as a hedge against the rise of The People’s Republic of China (PRC) by countering or balancing increased economic dependence on the PRC with the strengthening of economic and military ties with the US and other pro-Western nations along the Pacific periphery. National seems to believe that this balancing act (or straddling of fences), continues the tradition, or at least appearance of independence in foreign affairs.

That may be a mistake because independence in foreign affairs is most often predicated on neutrality with regards to foreign conflicts or great power rivalries. In aligning itself more closely with the US on military matters, New Zealand loses that appearance of neutrality in international security affairs. The New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries may believe that this is the best hedge against attempts by the PRC to exploit its economic relationship with New Zealand (since the PRC is clearly the dominant partner in the bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with New Zealand and has much leverage on New Zealand when it comes to Chinese market access as well as exports and investment from the PRC to New Zealand). Balancing economic dependence on China with strengthened security ties with the US (and its allies) may appear to National to be the best way of New Zealand having its cake and eating it.

Strengthening of political ties with the US is part of National’s larger policy of reaffirming diplomatic alignment with traditional partners. The belief is that New Zealand shares more in terms of core values with these traditional partners due to the Anglo-Saxon liberal democratic traditions that bind them together, rather than the mixed Confucian-Communist values that underpin the core beliefs of the Chinese political elite (or the Islamic beliefs of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern trading partners). Even if the PRC was to continue growing economically at a pace similar to the last decade (which now seems improbable), it seems prudent under this logic for National to reaffirm its Western heritage, joint vision and general orientation until such a time as China and other non-Western authoritarian states begin to open up politically. Reaffirming political ties to the US and other traditional allies does not undermine New Zealand’s position with Asian democracies like India, South Korea, Taiwan or Japan, or with Southeast Asian democracies (such as they are) like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. All of these countries, as well as Southeast Asian authoritarian states such as Singapore and Viet Nam, fear the rise of China as a military power and/or economic hegemon in the Western Pacific, and therefore welcome any counter-balancing efforts on the part of the US and its strategic partners and military allies.  The political alignment with the US also fits in line with the foreign policy approaches of Australia and the UK, and reasserts New Zealand’s position within that informal alliance structure (Canada is part of it as well).

There are benefits for both the US and New Zealand in this restored relationship. The benefits for New Zealand are that the NZDF will get to conduct exercises and operations with the most hardened, experienced and technologically advanced military in the world. That will expose it to the latest in US strategic doctrine and tactics. It may also result in the US providing military equipment to and training opportunities for New Zealand that it otherwise could not afford. It will reassure New Zealand of the implicit US defense guarantee in the event that New Zealand were to be threatened or attacked (to include economic coercion by the likes of the PRC). It may lead to closer economic ties, although that remains an open and much debated question (there is a large literature on security partners being preferential economic partners because of the mutual trust and dependence established between them. Most of that literature was written during the Cold War and things changed after it ended, but now with the emergence of the PRC and other powers some of those old assumptions are being resurrected and reviewed, especially in the US).

For the US the agreement is win-win. It gets an immediate benefit from securing another strong security partner in the South Pacific, one that has considerable “local knowledge” and relative influence in South Polynesia. This accords with the shift in US strategic emphasis to the Asia-Pacific, which is part of a long-term strategy of ring-fencing Chinese attempts at blue water expansion into the region. In signing New Zealand to a bilateral military partnership similar to those of other Western Pacific states, the US has moved to establish a security cordon in the region, something that also serves as a force multiplier in the measure that US strategic partners commit military assets to a common cause. New Zealand’s reputation as an honest broker in international affairs gives it diplomatic cover in this effort.

More importantly, after 25 years of estrangement and New Zealand foreign policy independence, at least with regard to international security affairs, the US has finally broken down New Zealand’s resolve and returned it to the fold. Post 1985 wooing of New Zealand began during the Clinton administration and continued with his successors. 9/11 accelerated the reconciliation (under a Labour government), and the Wellington Declaration codified it. In many respects, the US’s ability to re-gain New Zealand’s signature on a bilateral military-security agreement is a triumph of long-term great power diplomacy: after years of distance it secured junior military partnership from a small democratic state that prides itself on its modern history of foreign policy independence. To be sure, fluid global conditions since 1990 have contributed to the evolution in US-New Zealand bilateral relations, but at present it appears that the US has finally managed the contretemps of New Zealand non-nuclearism with diplomatic aplomb and to its ultimate benefit.

The negatives for New Zealand could be that the US will pressure it to increase its spending on defense, now below 1 percent of GDP, to something more in line with Australia’s two percent per annum. This would be on a par with other US strategic partners and around the NATO average, but will be politically unpalatable amongst New Zealand voters, who tend to under-appreciate defense when compared with education, health and welfare. Thus any such request will be politically thorny for a New Zealand government.  However, the US can leverage the fact that the NZDF is not “pulling its weight” in the strategic partnership (the Australians already say this).

For example, although the Washington Declaration speaks about closer bilateral military cooperation in the areas of maritime patrol and anti-piracy, New Zealand has very little in the way of long-range patrol and interdiction capabilities. Specifically, New Zealand only has two blue water ANZAC-class frigates, two off-shore patrol vessels and six long-range P-3 patrol aircraft, and its multi-purpose ship, the HMNZS Canterbury, spends more time in port being repaired than at sea, As for its logistical lift capability, not only is the HMNZS Canterbury unreliable, but the RNZAF C-130 fleet, at five aircraft, is also small and already stretched in terms of its operational readiness. Thus the US and Australia can pressure New Zealand governments to increase spending on defense so as to be able to perform the responsibilities and tasks that are expected of it as a strategic partner in the areas designated as joint priority.

There is the risk of being drawn into US conflicts that have nothing to do with New Zealand or an imminent threat to it. Even if New Zealand has leeway in terms of refusing a US request to get involved in a non-immediate foreign conflict, once bilateral military ties are established and consolidated they constitute a source of leverage on the part of the US since any retaliatory cancellation or disruption of the bilateral relationship will hurt the NZDF more than it will the US military. Moreover, the bilateral diplomatic backlash from a public refusal to work with the US in a foreign conflict theater could overcome any domestic and international support for the move.

There is also the more immediate issue of diplomatic fallout over the partnership. The more that New Zealand is seen as aligning itself with the US on security matters, the more US rivals such as Russia, the PRC, and various Latin American and Middle Eastern states will see it as a tool of US foreign policy and military strategy. Even other “independent” states like Uruguay, Finland, Costa Rica, Estonia and Turkey may begin to recast their view of New Zealand as an honest broker in international affairs. That is why National’s belief that its fence-straddling or hedging strategy will continue the image of independence may not work out to be the case, which could have adverse diplomatic consequences.

(The original version of this essay appears at 36th-Parallel.com)

 

Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.

Substance and political context

Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:

The statement changes everything because it galvanizes flagging liberal enthusiasm for this president—while subtly corroding even further the Republican hold on the next generation of voters.

(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)

Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.

Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.

So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.

The medium and the moment

Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.

Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.

And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.

Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.

This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.

But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.

L

* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.

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