Is Israel Democratic?

datePosted on 10:41, February 13th, 2019 by Pablo

An interesting thing happened after I wrote last week’s first blog post about Venezuela ( http://www.kiwipolitico.com/2019/02/on-the-venezuelan-mess/). A gentleman from the Israel Institute of New Zealand wrote me at my business email address to request a correction or retraction for something I had written in that post. The objectionable phrase was my reference to Israel as “semi-democratic.” He pointed out that Israel ranked just one point away from France as a “flawed” democracy in the latest Economist democracy ratings, not far behind Germany. In that post I characterised France and Germany as Right-leaning “advanced democracies” so he reckoned that I had slighted Israel when I labeled it as “semi” democratic instead.

We backed and forthed on the subject for a day or so. I told him that I based my characterisation on the fact that Arab Israelis are treated as second class citizens. I told him that I would leave it at that and not get into the subject of settlements on occupied land, the drift rightwards towards extremism and intolerance in its politics under the Likud Party (created by those paragons of democratic virtue Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon and now led by Benjamin Netanyahu), the corruption of its government under Netanyahu (and his predecessor), its approach to Palestinians etc. He countered by pointing out that Arab Israelis have all rights given to non-Arabs, that they do not have to do compulsory military service but can vote and that a High Court judge who will hear Netanyahu’s corruption trial is an Arab.

I explained to him that I do not take the Economist’s ranking as gospel. In fact, I think that they are flawed due to an Anglo-Saxon bias and formal procedures and frameworks rather than substantive interactions (for example, I believe that New Zealand is ranked too high and Uruguay is ranked too low in the Economist list). I pointed out that I had an academic background that included writing about democratic theory (and democratisation in practice), so understand democracy to involve procedural (free and fair elections), institutional (impartial application the rule of law), societal (toleration, equality as mass values), and economic (fair distribution of productive wealth) dimensions, all of which I believe are deficient in Israel. He replied that Israel fulfilled the first three criteria. I also told him that I was raised in a strongly pro-Israel household and that I understood its unique security and geopolitical conditions as well as the fact that, when compared to pretty much every other nation in the Middle East, Israel was the most democratic of them. But that is just damning it with faint praise.

Perhaps I expect more of the Israelis, but its behaviour in the last two decades (and more) leads me to believe that it is no longer (if it ever was) a liberal democracy. Just because people have formal, de jure rights on paper does not mean that they have de facto rights on the ground. It may not be apartheid but in its treatment of Arab Israelis, African migrants and other non-European Jewish peoples, it falls very short of the “equality for all” mark that I would expect of a truly substantive democracy and well short of most European, North American and Antipodean democracies. This is not to say that the latter are all healthy and above reproach. It just means that Israel does meet even their lowered standards.

We agreed to disagree. I did not print a reaction or correction. I invited him to explain his views in a comment on the thread but he declined. After our correspondence I found myself thinking about how KP readers would classify Israel. I realise that given the ideological leanings of the blog many will be firmly in the anti-Israeli camp, but I wonder what, upon honest reflection, readers think about Israel’s form of governance. In other words, what argument do readers make to themselves about where they stand on Israel?

So here is an invitation for readers to express their views on the matter, formally posed as this question: is Israel democratic? . That way we can get a sense of how intelligent (mostly Left and Kiwi) readers see the Jewish state. But first a few rules:

No anti-Semitic anything. One can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic (as an example, see this). One can criticise Israel without running nasty alt-Right tropes. One can defend Israel without resorting to false charges of anti-Semitism against those who oppose it, and one can defend Israel without making bigoted or other prejudiced remarks about Arabs, Palestinians etc. No re-litigating history. Israel is here to stay regardless of what some might prefer. And, as other democracies have done, it has behaved ruthlessly towards its enemies. So please, do not go down the worm-hole of who did what to who first.

IT goes without saying but is worth repeating nevertheless: No personal attacks on other commentators. Keep the discussion polite, rational and on-topic. I say this because any time Israel is mentioned people tend to lose their senses when confronted with contrary views. It really is a hot button issue.

I shall moderate the comments section a bit more vigorously given the subject matter. But by all means have at it because I am genuinely curious as to how people come to form their opinions on Israel.

The Venezuelan mess, again.

datePosted on 10:37, February 6th, 2019 by Pablo

I continue to watch developments in Venezuela with interest, including the reaction of the international community to the crisis. Increasing numbers of democracies are lending their support to Juan Guaido’s presidential challenge, including 11 of 14 members of the Lima Group convened to facilitate negotiations on a peaceful resolution. Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania joined the UK, France and Germany (and Canada!) in siding with Guaido after the Maduro government refused to call for new elections within the eight day deadline demanded in an ultimatum issued by the EU members. It seems that much of the Western democratic world is now openly opposed to seeing Maduro continue in office.

That got me thinking more about Juan Guaido. How could this young (age 35) man emerge so quickly and be received so warmly by so many democracies? What I found out is interesting.

Guaido is a former student activist and industrial engineer who received post-graduate training at George Washington University in Washington DC. He got into politics when the Chavez government closed down the most popular private TV station in Venezuela and proposed constitutional reforms that strengthened the presidency at the expense of the other two government branches, and has reportedly spent time since entering public life at several Right-leaning think tanks in the US and Europe. After his introduction to politics he came under the wing of the well-known anti-Chavista Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez, now under house arrest, is a neoliberal economist by training (he has degrees from Kenyon College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). He is the son of a former president and former mayor of Caracas himself, so his elite credentials are impeccable (he even did his high school education at an exclusive private boarding school in the US). Reportedly a friend of Elliot Abrams (see previous post), he was a leader of the 2002 abortive coup against Hugo Chavez and spent several years in military prison as a result. In 2014 he led another failed uprising against Maduro, getting house arrest rather than popular support for his efforts. He agitates from his home, where he uses social media and encrypted apps to communicate with foreign and domestic allies and uses his telegenic wife to serve as his spokesperson.

In 2009 Lopez and Guaido formed the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) Party. Although it claims to be a Social Democratic Party affiliated with the Socialist International, VP gained notoriety for its uncompromising, hardline anti-Bolivarian orientation and direct action street tactics. Although some of its thuggery was in response to that of Bolivarian militias and para-militaries, the strategy employed by VP was essentially a two-track approach: work within the institutional framework as given by contesting elections for the National Assembly and presidency; and use direct action on the streets to foment mischief and undermine Bolivarian attempts to establish law and order.

Under an agreement with Lopez, Guaido became VP’s parliamentary leader while Lopez retained the party chairmanship. First elected as an alternate delegate in 2010, Guaido was elected to a full National Assembly seat in 2015 and, given that more senior party members were either under arrest or exiled, named Opposition Leader in 2018. Under the power sharing arrangement in the National Assembly, Guaido assumed the rotating parliamentary leader’s position on January 5 of this year. A week later he declared his presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election was illegitimate due to massive fraud and low voter turn-out (both of which are true). Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the National Assembly leader is declared president if the elected President and Vice President are disqualified, absent or cannot serve, which Guaido claims is the case here.

There is strong suspicion that Lopez has a direct connection to neoconservative circles in Washington, and through them, the Trump administration. There is speculation that some form of material assistance is being funnelled from the US, including from Venezuelan exiles, to VP in order to support its anti-regime efforts and the Guaido campaign. Although I have no direct knowledge of this, it would not be surprising if these claims prove to be true given the quickness in which Guaido emerged on the scene, the strength of the organisation supporting him and the rapidity with which the US recognised his claim. What is confirmed is that emissaries from a number of the region’s democracies as well as the US met quietly and exchanged secret messages with Guaido and his representatives in the weeks leading to his assumption of the parliamentary presidency.

This has me wondering why so many democracies have been quick to jump on the Guaido bandwagon. They surely are not acting just out of ideological distaste for the Bolivarian regime. They surely have good information on Guaido’s background and connections to Lopez and US interlocutors. They surely must know that although Maduro and his cronies are reprehensible thieves posing as a popular government, Guaido’s connections to the US will make it very difficult for him to claim legitimacy and could in fact, spark a violent backlash from the 30 percent of the Venezuelan population that continue to support Maduro (mostly the poor and working class). They also must understand the perils of supporting a foreign-backed constitutional coup (which is essentially what being attempted), especially when the move is closely tied to the threat of US military intervention. So why would they abandon long-held commitments to upholding the doctrine of non-intervention?

Some will argue that the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela requires drastic action and that action cannot come from within Venezuela under present circumstances. Yet even the issue of humanitarian assistance has turned into a political tug of war. The Lima Group and European democracies, led by Spain, have pledged humanitarian assistance, mostly in the form of food and medical provisions, to Venezuela. The same is true for Argentina, Canada and Brazil. But they insist on having Guaido and his supporters administer the aid provision, something that the Maduro government categorically rejects. Neither contender is interested in talking to the other about jointly administering relief assistance and instead are busy staging demonstrations and claiming support from within the military (where so far Maduro has a considerable advantage).

Perhaps the show of external support for Guaido is designed to be no more than a form of pressure on Maduro to call for new elections under international supervision, and not really a vote of confidence in Guaido per se. Coupled with the redoubling of sanctions by the US, UK and others against Maduro, his entourage and state agencies suspected of money laundering, the idea seems to be that the combination of forces being applied to the Boliviarians will make them cave to the election demands. The reasoning may well be that Maduro will see this option as preferable to civil war or a coup because it gives him the chance to run again rather than be run out of town in a hearse. After all, the primary rule for coup-plotters is that the people being ousted must not survive the ouster less they come back to haunt the usurpers–something the failed coup against Chavez demonstrated in spades.

This assumes that the target of the foreign pressure a) feels it to the point of pain and b) has no other options other than to cave to it. At this moment there is no evidence to suggest that Maduro and company are close to either concern. And for all his foreign support, Guaido does not appear to have moved the dial with regards to popular support significantly in his direction.

What we have, thus, is what the Latin American political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell (of bureaucratic-authoritarianism and democratic transitions fame) once called (with reference to Argentina 1946-1983) an “organic crisis and hegemonic stalemate” where both sides can check the other but where neither can unilaterally impose its vision for arresting the national decline.

Under those conditions, it may well be external actors who play a decisive role in determining the outcome, something that does not bode well for the prospects of national reconciliation required to reaffirm democracy while returning peace and stability to Venezuelan life.

The Venezuelan mess.

datePosted on 14:35, February 1st, 2019 by Pablo

WARNING: This post is long and somewhat meandering, as it gathers several strands of thought about the issue.

There has been some concern voiced about New Zealand’s refusal to take a side in the power contest now being waged in Venezuela, where the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, has declared himself interim president in opposition to fraudulently re-elected Nicolas Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chavez in what is known as the “Boliviarian Revolution” that started in 1999. The Maduro administration is notoriously corrupt and incompetent and has driven Venezuela into the ground, to the point that millions are starving and more than 2.1 million have fled the oil-dependent country in the last two years (the largest refugee crisis in Latin American history). The reasons for this human-made disaster are many and will not be covered here. Instead, let’s start with the NZ reaction and proceed to how things might eventuate over the next weeks and months.

When first asked about US support for Guaido (the US recognised his presidency a few hours after he made his claim public) and whether New Zealand would follow suit, Prime Minister Arden said that NZ supported “neither side.” That sent the NZ political right into paroxysms of indignant fulmination, with politicians and commentators claiming that she supported Maduro, communism, evil-doers in general and people who kick their dogs. Not surprisingly, her ad-lib was followed shortly thereafter by a more measured comment by Foreign Minister Winston Peters that NZ does not choose between foreign political parties and contenders and prefers to allow them to settle differences on their own.

Coming after the PM’s comments (which reminded me of her “there are no undeclared Russian spies in NZ” remark in March 2018), Peter’s tidying up was appropriate. Although the Maduro regime is odious, it is less repressive than many other authoritarian regimes that NZ recognises and trades with (its major flaws are grotesque corruption and incompetence). NZ also has a long-standing public commitment to the principle of non-intervention and support for peaceful constitutionally-driven political change. The Maduro regime is now being confronted by an externally-backed constitutional coup in the form of the Guaido challenge (and no one elected him to be anything other than an opposition National Assemblyman. He only assumed leadership of the National Assembly in December as part of a rotation-in-office deal with other opposition coalition parties). Guaido and his supporters are not necessarily democratic champions themselves and their promises to hold new elections in a timely fashion are vague at best, so immediate recognition of him as “president” is more an act of faith or cynicism rather than a demonstrable fact of his democratic inclination. In that context Peter’s statement strikes a good diplomatic balance.

With some notable exceptions most of the Latin American governments supporting Guaido are right-leaning like that of Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Sebastian Pinera in Chile, with the advanced democracies supporting his challenge also being governed by Right administrations (UK, Australia, France, Germany as well as semi-democratic Israel). Meanwhile, left-leaning democracies such as those of Bolivia and Uruguay support the Maduro government. So there appears to be an ideological bias at play in how some democracies are casting their lots on the matter. The majority of the global community have taken a stance akin to that of NZ.

The usual clustering of dictatorships and semi-democracies that are backing Maduro such as the Cuba, PRC, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria have hard-nosed geopolitical as well as ideological reasons for doing so. Cuba gets the majority of its oil from Bolivia at discounted prices and has propped up the Boliviarians with both civilian and security assistance. Russia has cultivated Venezuela as an anti-US bulwark with weapons sales and military aid. China has spent billions investing in Venezuelan infrastructure. Iran and Syria have both benefitted from the Boliviarian’s alliance with Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. None of them may be particularly enamoured of Maduro but they have serious investment stakes in the game.

As for the NZ response, think of the PRC’s potential reaction to New Zealand siding with the US after its “choose a side” demands, particularly in light of the Huawei imbroglio. Think of the US response if it sides with Maduro. In other words, the diplomatic consequences of taking sides are not positive regardless of which side is chosen. That is why Peter’s statement is judicious–it annoys no one.

In summary, NZ is correct to not choose sides in the Venezuelan crisis, both for principled as well as pragmatic reason

With regards to the crisis itself, the solution has to be internal rather than externally imposed. They key is for the military–the 130,000 troop Army in particular since it will have to do the repressing–to drop support for Maduro in favour of a transitional government that schedules elections in the near future (the Navy has a limited land presence and along with the the Air Force can only support or resist what the Army does, but neither can prevail on their own no matter which side is chosen). To this end, Guaido’s emissaries have been working hard to establish a dialogue with the armed forces, something that, at least with regard to the Venezuelan high command, so far has been rebuffed.

Venezuelan flag rank officers are Maduro cronies who are deeply corrupt and incapable of leading troops in battle. Instead, they have been siphoning off “tax” from the ministries and border commands that they control (which cover drug, people, petrol and arms smuggling routes). The ones that are the key to what happens next are field grade officers (Colonels, LTCs, Majors and Captains) and NCOs who command the enlisted soldiers with the guns. That means bridging the division between constitutionalists (those who swear an oath to protect the constitution no matter who is president) and nationalists who see themselves as saviours of the nation in a time of need–but those include both pro- and anti-Maduro factions. The move involves mending horizontal (between service branches and ideological factions) and vertical (between ranks or military school graduating class) cleavages, something that often involves intra-institutional violence as a precursor to what follows.

In this type of scenario, the military is subject to what are known as “push” and “pull” factors. The “push” factors are those internal to the military that compels them to intervene in politics. These can be a loss of combat readiness or military discipline and professionalism, overt politicisation of the officer corps, rampant corruption etc. All of these are present within the Venezuelan military.

“Pull” factors are external events or conditions that draw the armed forces out of the barracks and into politics. They include armed challenges to military monopoly over organised violence (say, by paramilitaries, guerrillas, criminal organizations and the like, all of which operate with some impunity in Venezuela), and what is known as civilian pleading. Civilian pleading refers to calls from civil society for the military to act. This includes appeals by business groups, unions, religious and community organizations as well as external actors such as Venezuelan exile communities and foreign governments and organisations such as the OAS.

The sense of compulsion is reinforced by the personal experiences of troops when not in uniform. Militaries do not exist in a vacuum and in fact are reflective, in their own way, of the society from which they are drawn. Venezuela has a volunteer military and many of its personnel return to their families and homes after a day’s work. So they are living the crisis both as uniformed personnel as well as citizens.

In short, the Venezuelan military is getting an earful from many sides and has internal, “corporate” reasons to act in order to preserve its position as the pre-eminent institution responsible for managing organised violence in that society. Whether it adopts an arbitrator or governing role once it does so remains to be seen, but it is now the primary determinant of the nation’s political future.

If the field ranking officers and NCOs abandon support for Maduro he is finished, although his loyalists in the Cuban-dominated intelligence and police/paramilitary services will resist the move. It is also likely that, barring massive defections, the 70,000-strong National Guard (which is the agency primarily responsible for domestic repression and which has gained a reputation for brutality) and 150,000 strong National Militia will continue to side with Maduro. The scene is then set for mass violence and prolonged resistance (remember that the Cubans have helped Maduro create thousand of small-scale neighbourhood militias that are trained to use guerrilla tactics against any superior force, foreign or domestic. Along with National Guard resistance that could protract the conflict and drag foreign forces into another long-term ‘pacification” campaign).

The military could opt to simply lay down their weapons, but that is unlikely given the presence of loyalists in the ranks and the National Guard still loyal to Maduro. Or the military can unite around Maduro and ward off US interference by getting Guaido to back down on his presidential challenge, possibly in exchange for new elections and/or constitutional and political reforms. That is the most peaceful option but it does not solve the underlying economic and social problems or the issue of a potential US military intervention if Maduro remains in power (it is highly unlikely that any Latin American country will contribute troops to any US-led intervention force, although it is feasible that Colombia and Brazil might allow US forces to forward deploy and stage in their territories).

So the likely scenario is that Maduro is removed by force, be it threatened or actual. While inevitably bloody, a pro-Guaido military coup will be better than an external military intervention, where many erstwhile opponents of Maduro will rally against armed foreign interference, especially from the US. If it is revealed that Guaido and his supporters have been receiving advice, money and logistical help from the US, that could backfire hard on his military and civilian allies and increase as well as prolong the bloodshed.

In order to avoid civil war the military will have to be united in its support for one or the other presidential contender and willing to demonstrate its resolve. That is easier over the short term if the field officers and NCOs side with their superiors in defence of Maduro, but given the circumstances that is unlikely to hold over the longer-term and could lead to a direct confrontation with US forces should the Trump administration determine that it is expedient (say, as part of a declaration of “national emergency” that includes emergency funding of the border wall by Executive Order) to sacrifice lives in order to see him ousted (the annotation of “5000 troops–>Colombia” on John Bolton’s press briefing notes this past week may or may not be a real statement of intent but certainly signals that “all options are on the table,” even if they are not well thought out. After all, 5000 troops are not enough to control all Venezuelan territory and will have difficulty subduing militias, guerrilla groups and nearly 1 million strong volunteer military that even with defections and intra-service clashes will dwarf the invading force coming across a well defended land border. Which is to say, armed intervention by the US will involve a lot more than a brigade and a lot more than a land assault from Colombia).

It is telling that the person nominated to lead the US Venezuela task force is Elliot Abrams, of neocon Iran-Contra, death squads and the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez fame. His “skill set” is a dark and narrow one, so his appointment pretty much reveals the foundation of the current US approach to the crisis. The irony is that Abrams was originally a “never-Trumper,” who was initially blacklisted from any administration job. But with fellow neocon John Bolton as NSC advisor, the time for redemption is apparently at hand. It will be the Venezuelans who pay the price for that. 

Foreign supporters of Maduro like to claim that US sanctions imposed on his government are a large part of why the country was crippled. This ignores the fact that the sanctions targeted Maduro administration officials and state-controlled firms suspected of money laundering and pilferage. The sanctions did not target economic activities connected to the provision of basic goods and services, nor did it target average citizens. The loss of basics such as food and medicines is not due to sanctions, but to the rampant thievery and incompetence of what now can only be called a kleptocracy as well as the response by the private sector to it.

On the other hand, the Venezuelan political opposition, when not in-fighting, have behaved less than honourably towards the Boliviarians even before Chavez began to tighten his grip after the 2002 coup–a coup that business elites, domestic political opponents and the US government were quick to support even before his arrest was made public (he was freed and launched a counter-coup just hours after being detained). Business elites have largely liquidated assets and decamped the country rather than accept increased taxes on individual wealth and corporate profits. Since 1999 political opponents have schemed and plotted with the ex-pat community and other Latin American rightwing groups to overthrow the Boliviarians. So there is much blame to spread around and choosing between Maduro and Guaido will not necessarily solve the underlying fundamentals of the national decline.

Let us be clear on a key point: if Maduro and his associates had one shred of decency and honour they would have resigned rather than rig last year’s election. They have managed to squander Chavez’s already diminished legacy, allied themselves with some rather unsavoury foreign actors, alienated most of their regional counterparts and overseen the collapse of what once was a prosperous country. Some of that may be due to the so-called “oil curse,” where countries dependent on fossil fuel exports almost inevitably succumb to authoritarianism and the vicissitudes of commodity booms and busts (as has happened in Venezuela). But the blame for what Gramsci would call an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state lies squarely on the shoulders of Boliviarians, not imperialists and domestic reactionaries. The extent of their perfidy and ineptitude is outlined here.

Guaido is believed to have offered Maduro and his associates (including the military leadership) amnesty for their crimes in exchange for abdication. There are reports that he has offered safe passage into exile for regime leaders along with much of their ill-begotten assets. There are rumours of secret talks between his representatives and field rank officers. His supporters have gathered outside military bases clamouring for the troops to lay down their arms or join with the opposition. It is clear to everyone that the military holds the key to what happens next, but the question remains open as to whether the military will choose a side, fracture or simply remain neutral while the civilian actors negotiate or fight for political control. So far the military leadership remains loyal to Maduro, but defections in the ranks are commonplace (including the military attache to Washington, who defected and requested asylum).

It is unlikely that Guaido would have made his move spontaneously or without the encouragement and support of the US. It is very likely that US representatives worked with him in the weeks leading to his challenge for power, and it would not be surprising if the US has provided logistical and material assistance to his campaign. It is also likely that discrete overtures have been made to military officers by the US, if nothing else then to ascertain the mood of the troops. The emergence of a right-leaning political bloc in Latin America provided Guaido with a favourable geopolitical context in which to make his move (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica all have right-leaning governments at the moment). This has translated into Organisation of American States (OAS) support for Guaido, something that breaks with a long-standing tradition of promoting non-interference in the sovereign affairs of its members.

The bottom line is that Maduro’s position is increasingly untenable but Guaido is somewhat tainted by his association with the US. The solution to the impasse rests in the hands of middle and junior rank Army officers and NCOs, who must choose to defend Maduro or opt to support an election-based political transition to a post-Bolivarian regime (that may or may not be led by Guaido or Maduro if the elections are genuinely free and fair). That requires a public move one way or the other from within the Army as a signal of intent. There is likely to be violence involved with either choice, both within and between armed service branches, paramilitary organisations, intelligence agencies and guerrilla cadres connected to civil society and political parties. But that will be the lesser price to pay if the alternative is US military intervention.

In the meantime the international community can do its part by marshalling humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people. The UN and OAS can lead those efforts and the contending political factions can broker an interim agreement on priority needs and the means and methods of conveying that aid, something that could lessen factional and partisan tensions and set the stage for more substantive negotiations on the terms and conditions for the political transition that, one way or another, is an inevitable part of Venezuela’s future.

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KP ten years on.

datePosted on 12:20, January 30th, 2019 by Pablo

In January 2009 KP started publication. I was living in Singapore and was part of the original team that included Anita and Pete. Shortly thereafter Lew joined us. Over the years Pete, then Anita and later Lew dropped out (much to my regret) and others came and went. We have had a couple of guest contributors (Kate and Selwyn Manning) but these days it is just me rattling around the shed. I am not sure about Anita but Lew is a prolific presence on twitter, although I believe that however brilliant a 140 character snark may be, it is no substitute for the type of essays he used to write here. Pete moved into work roles that prevented him from continuing after the first few months and a couple of years later Anita made clear that work conflicts precluded her further participation, which is fair enough.

During the last decade I returned to NZ and welcomed a son into the family. I stay connected to academia through my partner but justify my existence with some consulting and commentary work. Most of the time, when not researching and writing for applied or personal reasons I dedicate my time to watching that boy grow up in the splendorous settings of the Waitakere seaside bush. He is lucky to have been born in such a place. He is not quite the hunter-gatherer yet but he is most certainly an outdoor kid who knows his way around livestock, dogs, poultry and wild birds and who knows which varmints are good and which are bad (in our household, the latter referred to as “evildoers” or, in the case of stoats, “Trumps”).

So, what have the ten years brought? We have published 1,072 posts, 542 of which are mine. There have been 901, 090 page views and 14, 825 approved comments (that does not included deleted troll comments and spam, which runs into the thousands). The greatest single day for pages views saw 4000 readers, but the average now is just 60-150 per day. Domestic topics get the most hits, which is slightly unfortunate given that my major focus is on international relations, comparative foreign policy, US politics, intelligence and military-security issues. As one can see from the Archives column on the right hand side of the front page, we started off with a bang but then gradually diminished the amount of posts published per month. Things dropped off markedly after Lew departed and now average around 1-3 per month depending on my mood, work commitments and what is happening the in the world. I continue to hope that Lew will return or that I can find another regular contributor but so far those hopes have not worked out.

The blog gets traffic from other NZ political blogs but most of what gets directed over is via search engines and mass consumption social media (Twitter, FB, Reddit). Although it is asked to accept advertising or paid content from time to time, it was the intention of the KP originators that we never go down that path, something that I continue to honour.

There is a dedicated cadre of regular commentators, some who have been around since the inception. Since I am unwilling to indulge ill-informed people, trolls or political onanists, it does not have much in the way of regular contrarians amongst the commentators, although people like Tom Hunter, Phil Sage, Redbaiter and, to a lesser extent, Paul Scott drop in to keep me on my toes. Otherwise the commentators display clear Left leanings, often considerably to the Left of me.

At this juncture KP survives as a tiny niche blog with a majority NZ audience but predominantly international focus. That is OK with me and justifies paying the server fees (it is a WordPress platform hosted by Dreamhost). For me it fits somewhere in between editorial commentary in corporate media, personal opinion and professional writing–a bit more ideological and subjective in many cases but most often somewhat above a rant.

It is hard to discern what the future holds for the blog but in the interim it will plod along in its current form in its designated space in the blogosphere. Thanks to those who continue to come along for the ride.

On the post-truth moment.

datePosted on 14:36, January 25th, 2019 by Pablo

For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.

I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.

As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.

Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.

9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.

It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.

Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.

In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.

His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.

The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.

But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.

It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.

New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.

For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:

“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”

Playing us for suckers.

datePosted on 19:18, January 13th, 2019 by Pablo

Huawei NZ has offered to only use NZ citizens to install its 5G equipment as part of the national broadband upgrade. It does so because of concerns about a revised Chinese National Intelligence Law that requires all Chinese citizens and firms to serve the interests of state security. Prior to now, many of the technicians involved in installing Huawei equipment around the world were and are Chinese citizens. After the GCSB advised against using Huawei in the NZ 5G roll-out citing national security concerns and publicizing of the Chinese intelligence law requirement of its citizens, Huawei NZ decided to allay fears by offering to use Kiwi technicians instead.

This is akin to ISIS using white females to deliver package bombs. It is not the method of delivery that matters but the content of what is being delivered.

Huawei technicians in NZ may or may not know what “backdoors” or other bulk collection or data mining filters are embedded in the equipment that they install. That comes from the source, and when it comes to Huawei the source is intimately bound up with the Chinese state and its ruling party. Huawei is not a publicly traded company. Instead, it is a state capitalist enterprise and the CCP has a major role in its direction. Its technical arm is believed by Western intelligence agencies to have close ties to Chinese signals intelligence, which given the intelligence law’s requirement on Chinese firms is part but not all of the reason that Huawei has been banned from 5G roll-outs in Australia, NZ and the US.

Western telecommunications firms also install backdoors in their equipment. Those are used to, via bulk collection and data mining, ascertain customer preferences with an eye to selling advertising. According to Western security agencies, the difference between them and Huawei and its Chinese counterpart ZTE is that the former do not work hand in glove with intelligence agencies and in fact (especially after the Snowden revelations about bulk collection of domestic communications in Western democracies) require warrants from security courts in order to access encrypted communications on private networks.

So the argument goes that Western telecommunications firms install backdoors in their equipment in order to enhance commercial profitability while Huawei and ZTE install backdoors in order to serve Chinese intelligence. This includes collecting political, economic, military, diplomatic, commercial and intellectually proprietary information that extend well beyond aggregating and selling consumer preference data.

That is a big difference that the nationality of the technicians doing the installing of such equipment cannot obscure. Perhaps the Huawei NZ management think the NZ public are gullible enough to believe that the citizenship of technicians is the reason the GCSB advised against using it as a supplier.

When it comes to who to believe in a contest between NZ profit-seekers and national security professionals, especially when the profit-seekers are backed by an aggressive authoritarian state that regularly violates international norms, my inclination on this particular matter is to believe the security professionals, warts and all.

It’s over.

datePosted on 14:01, December 27th, 2018 by Pablo

Media coverage of the Trump administration is like a group of people standing around the bedside of a terminally ill person. Instead of dealing with the fact that the person is soon to depart this earthly coil, they linger on the details of her illness, the early symptoms that remained undiagnosed, the downhill course of her trajectory, the therapies used to prolong her life, the deterioration of her body and the awfulness of it all. That is all well and true but the bottom line is that for the person in the bed, life will soon be over and no amount of picking through her medical history will change that.

Whether it be out of morbid curiosity or driven by ratings boosts linked to the politically macabre, the US media fixates on Trump’s every action. He fuels their addiction to administrative chaos with his inane tweets and moronic statements. Truth be told, the press cannot get enough of it and many a pundit has made his name off of analysing the Trump train wreck. But all this ignores the larger picture, which is that, whether it happen in days, weeks, months or a year, the Trump presidency is finished. Done. Dusted, Kaput. Finis.

The disaster that is his presidency is too obvious to recount in sordid detail here. Suffice it to say that people are being fired or leaving the administration in droves, and many jobs remained unfilled or have been taken by intellectual lightweights. Trump lashes out and reacts impulsively across a range of issues, with suspicions emerging in print that he is addicted to the prescription stimulant Adderol (which is a 25th amendment grounds for removal). He is besieged on several legal fronts, both at the federal as well as state level. Congress is soon to see Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives (which means his legislative agenda is all but finished), and his own Party is not wiling to blindly follow his policy leads. His foreign policy is in tatters, his border wall will not be built and the Mexicans certainly will not pay for it, North Korea still has nukes, his trade war is hurting the states where is electoral base is strongest, the Russians and others laugh at him to his face, his children are in legal jeopardy, and his cabinet has an increasingly feral character to it. Daily scandals, lies and inanities are a constant soundtrack of his presidency. Absorbing all of that, Wall Street, which had been so opportunistically bullish when he entered office (and for which he claims credit), is now moving beyond skittish into full bear territory (for which he blames the Federal Reserve). As New York state prosecutors pointed out with regard to the Trump Foundation, his administration is basically an on-going criminal enterprise rooted in fraud and corruption posing as a government. His lying acolytes are no longer able to keep straight faces when spinning the White House narrative and many of his supporters in high places have simply gone to ground. Even Fox News and rabid rightwing radio personalities are breaking ranks with him. The exact precipitant and method of exit remain unknown, but one thing is clear: He is isolated, incoherent and irrational. He will soon be irrelevant.

That is why the media would be better off ignoring him and focusing on the line of succession and other aspects of institutional continuity. The era of president Mike Pence is at hand, and if it turns out that he played loose with the Russians during the campaign (as is claimed), then he too may be shown the door. That brings the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, into the Oval Office, and if he is unfit to serve, then Nancy Pelosi as the incoming Speaker of the House follows in the line of succession. If Pence is not indicted or otherwise tainted by his association with Russians during the campaign, he is free to choose his own Vice President (subject to Senate confirmation).

It behooves the US political elite to be working with Pence on transition scenarios. Pence is a religious freak and troglodyte on gender and sexual issues, but as a former congressman and governor he knows what it takes to get things done in DC and he is rational in a hyper-conservative way. Although he will likely return to the neoconservative approach to foreign policy and continue to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to guns, reproductive choice and race relations, he will be, after the lunatic steps down, positively easy to deal with. The same goes for Pompeo, who served in Congress before being named CIA director and then Secretary of State.

The institutions themselves need to develop transition plans. Already defence strategists openly worry about Trump going rogue and trying to launch a nuclear strike somewhere as a diversion or as a act of petty revenge on his successors. They point out that he can do so on his own and that there are no formal institutional checks on him (he is only supposed to consult with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defence and National Security Council as well as other cabinet officials, but he is not obliged to do so or to heed their counsel). Even if senior officers refuse his orders to launch a nuclear strike, he can work his way down the nuclear chain of command until he finds a compliant one. There is consequently a move to get Congress to re-write the law governing nuclear weapons use, but in the meantime DoD and the service commands need to consider the very real possibility of having to refuse a presidential order to use the arsenal. There is precedent for this under Nixon (during Watergate) and Reagan (after his Alzheimer’s became apparent), so it is not an unimaginable task.

The same can be said across the federal bureaucracy. Although Pence will not roll back all or most of Trump’s policies (say, on the environment), he will want his own team at the helm of federal agencies and will want to impose his own stamp on the policy-making process. In order for that to happen in an orderly fashion, planning must be done in anticipation of the change-over. It would be best for career public service managers to prepare contingency plans with an eye towards moving out from under Trump’s political appointees, particularly in contentious portfolios like Education and Homeland Security.

The bottom line is that the obsessive focus on Trump obscures the inevitability of his demise and the need to prepare for a change of administration. Because his downfall of itself will not right the ship of state. For that to happen a plan of action must be in place, something that requires congressional and executive branch coordination even if done without the knowledge of the political moribund in the White House.

Cyber-hacking comes to Aotearoa.*

datePosted on 19:04, December 21st, 2018 by Pablo

The Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB) has announced that Chinese hackers were responsible for cyber intrusions against New Zealand managed service providers (MSPs), the telecommunications firms responsible for providing phone, email and internet services and data banking to individual, public agency and corporate consumers. This is surprising only because it confirms what private security analysts and partner intelligence services have been claiming for some time: that the Chinese are engaged in a global campaign of cyber theft of commercial secrets and intellectual property. They do so as part of a strategy to become the world’s dominant information and telecommunications player within 50 years, and they do so by using ostensibly private firms as cover for hacking activities directed by the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS).

The GCSB announcement coincided with indictment by the US Justice Department of two Chinese nationals who have been identified as belonging to the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)-10 Group of MSS hackers operating under the cover of a Chinese-registered firm, Tianjing Huaying Haitai Science and Technology Development Company Ltd. (Huaying Haitai). Huaying Haitai claims to provide network security construction and product development services but has only two registered shareholders, one manager and no web presence (the domain name huayinghaitai.com is registered to the firm but cannot be found on-line, which is particularly odd for an internet security provider). The US has publicly identified Huaying Haitai as the corporate front for ATP-10, and the GCSB has confirmed that ATP-10 was responsible for the New Zealand-targeted cyber intrusions it has detected since early 2017.

The UK simultaneously announced that Chinese hackers had conducted a decade long-campaign of cyber-theft against British commercial entities, while the US identified 75 US-based targets as well as others in 12 other countries (excluding New Zealand). The GCSB announcement is therefore part of a coordinated effort by Western governments to identify Chinese-based cyber-theft campaigns, and follows on similar Australian revelations announced during the 2018 APEC summit a month ago.

The ATP-10 cyber-hacking campaign violates the terms of a 2016 APEC agreement signed by China (and New Zealand) committing member states to not use cyber hacking in order to engage in commercial espionage or intellectual property theft. It violates similar pacts signed with the US and UK in 2015. This means that China is deliberately violating international agreements for commercial gain. It also makes all Chinese-based telecommunications suspect, both in terms of their purported use of so-called digital backdoors built into their products that can be used by Chinese intelligence as well as their duplicitous corporate behaviour when it comes to proprietary information. In effect, Chinese telecommunications are seen as bad corporate actors as well as intelligence fronts by Western countries. This has caused firms such as ZTE and Huawei being excluded from critical infrastructure projects and 5G network upgrades in a number of countries, including, most recently, New Zealand.

The GCSB announcement refers to Chinese hacking in pursuit of cyber theft of sensitive commercial and intellectual property. It does not mention specific targets or refer to cyber-espionage per se.Yet the two are overlapped because of the nature of the targets and means by which they attacked. ATP-10 hacking attacks are aimed at Managed Services Providers (MSPs) who store data for individuals, public agencies and firms. These include large multinational email, internet and phone service providers as well as smaller cloud-based data storage firms.

If ATP-10 and other hackers can penetrate the security defenses of MSPs they can potentially bulk collect, then data mine whatever is digitally stored in the targeted archives. Although the primary interest is commercial in nature, the overlapping nature of data networks, especially in a small country like New Zealand, potentially gives ATP-10 and similar hacking groups access to non-commercial political, diplomatic and military networks.

For example, a home computer or private phone that has been compromised by a cyber hack on a internet service provider (ISP) can become, via the exchange of information between personal and work devices, an unwitting entry point to work networks in the private and public sectors that are not connected to the individual’s ISP. This raises the possibility of incidental or secondary data collection by hackers, which in the case of state organized outfits like ATP-10 may be of as much utility as are the commercial data being targeted in the first instance.

The dilemma posed by the GCSBs announcement is two-fold. First, will the government follow the GCSB lead and denounce the behaviour or will it downplay the severity of the international norms violations and intrusion on sovereignty that the ATP-10 hacking campaign represents? If it does, it sets up a possible diplomatic confrontation with the PRC. If it does not, it exposes a rift between the GCSB and the government when it comes to Chinese misbehaviour.

Neither scenario is welcome but one thing is certain: no response will stop Chinese cyber hacking because it is part of a long-term strategy aimed at achieving global information and telecommunications dominance within fifty years. But one response will certainly encourage it.

  • An earlier version of this essay appears on the Radio New Zealand website, December 21, 2018 (https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/on-the-inside/378835/cyber-hacking-comes-to-aotearoa).

Differential Justice.

datePosted on 14:41, December 17th, 2018 by Pablo

For some time now I have wondered about standards of justice in NZ. Coming from the US and Latin America it seems that all to often people convicted of serious crimes are handed fairly light sentences, including violent recidivists. I understand the importance of rehabilitation over punishment, but sometimes it seems that the Courts let very unpleasant people get away with their crimes.

I thought of this recently when I read the news about a teenager hit and run driver who killed a boy crossing a crosswalk on his bike and who not only did not show any remorse, but in fact posed for a social media photo in an orange jump suit and Halloween makeup, presumably as a joke on where she could be headed. She got 11 months home detention and 250 hours community service instead.

That seeming injustice brought home another recent court case, one in which a famous Blenheim winery was fined $400,000 for adding post-fermentation sugar to its export wine in violation of EU standards (to which much of the wine was headed). The winery owner, a general manager and a wine-maker were fined between $20,000 and $35,000 each for their role in the subterfuge, which involved 6.5 million liters of wine, 3.7 million of which was sent to the EU between mid 2013 and late 2015.

That seemed about right to me. The Crown argued for serious fines because it damaged the reputation of the entire NZ wine industry. The individual fines were high enough to send a message of warning to others so inclined to cheat for opportunistic advantage, and the company fine was presumably large enough to make a negative impression on its bottom line.

Contrast this judgement against that handed down to a Hamilton-based aerospace company that sold a utility aircraft to a Chinese aerospace company knowing that it would be on-sold to North Korea in violation of international sanctions. Because the plane had potential military as well as civilian applications (such as parachuting) and was seen at an air show in DPRK Air Force livery, the violation was of “tier one” seriousness. 

The Chinese aerospace company has in fact majority ownership of the Hamilton company and three of its executives sit on the company board of directors. The contract for the plane included post-sale parts supply and servicing by Hamilton-based mechanics, so the initial claims that the company had no idea that the plane was on-sold to the DPRK fell flat in court. In fact, the entire defence went from “we assumed it would be used in the PRC” to “we did not know where it would end up” to “we did not know about the sanctions” in a hurry. That also did not stand up to the light of prosecutorial scrutiny as the Crown demonstrated that the firm falsified export documents in order to get the plane on its way out of NZ. Selling the plane directly to the DPRK would have required a special export license and would have been prohibited by the international sanctions regime. Selling to the Chinese parent company incurred neither constraint.

In other countries similar “tier one” violations of the international sanctions regime have resulted in million dollar company fines and jail time for company executives involved in the sanction-busting. There are enough successful prosecutions of such violators in Europe, the US and the Commonwealth to provide the Courts with sentencing guidelines. So what did the rogue Hamilton company get for what is an egregious violation of international norms that potentially damaged the reputation of the entire NZ aviation industry?

A $50,000 fine and no punishment to any individual. In some circles where corruption is rife that would be considered to be the acceptable, if not normal price for conducting dodgy business dealings. But is that the way business is conducted in NZ?

In light of the very different sentences handed down in these two cases, my questions are this: which is worse, the sugared wine scandal or the sanctions-busting affair? Is deceiving commercial partners overseas worse than helping a rogue dictatorship with nuclear ambitions and an atrocious human rights record skirt measures emplaced to hinder its ability to continue unchecked? Is international sanctions-busting considered to be a lesser offence than playing sleigh of hand with a commercial export product?

Perhaps the laws on the books limit the types of punishment available to the Crown when it comes to sanctions busting by NZ firms but give wider and heavier range to the penalties for instances of corporate malfeasance that do not involve sanction violations. If so, then the laws needed to be amended because if anything violating international sanctions regimes is a worse reflection on a country’s governance than is cheating within private commercial networks . If not, then the justice meted out in these cases appears at odds with international precedent and compound the reputation damage done by the Hamilton aviation firm because it gives the impression that “tier one” international sanctions violators will be treated more leniently in NZ courts than unethical commodity exporters.

If one egregious Kiwi-based sanction-busting firm can get away with a financial slap on the wrist when caught, so too may others decide that is an acceptable price to pay in the pursuit of profit over principle. That is another area where the application of differential and universal justice comes into play.

From a rules based order to a state of nature.

datePosted on 14:11, December 15th, 2018 by Pablo

One of the most disappointing aspects of the last decade as been the erosion of a rules-based majoritarian consensus in the conduct of international relations. Slowly but surely the painstakingly crafted set of institutions, norms, laws and rules by and through which foreign affairs were conducted during and after the Cold War were subverted, disregarded and outright ignored. The trend towards anarchy in international relations has been accelerated by the emergence of authoritarian great powers, China and Russia in particular, and by the unwillingness or inability of the architects of the rules-based order to aggressively defend the principles upon which it stood in the face of transgressions from these powers and others. Once Donald Trump took presidential office in the US and began to renege on US commitments to international agreements and institutions, the descent into anarchy accelerated.

Take a few examples. The Chinese island building project in the South Island Sea is a clear violation of international maritime law and has been ruled unlawful by the International Court of Arbitration. The Chinese have ignored protests and the ruling itself while lying that the islands would not be militarised. Because no one pushed back strongly against it at a time when they could have, the PRC not only maintained that the islands provided them legal cover to their claim to the entire South China Sea basin as China’s territorial sea under the Nine Dash Line or First Island Chain policy (as it does with the East China Sea), but built permanent military installations on them in order to reinforce the point. From there it began to challenge maritime freedom of navigation within 20 nautical miles of the artificial islands in a de facto assertion of the “possession is 2/3rds of the law” doctrine. Now Chinese dominance of the shipping lanes connecting Southeast Asia to the world, while periodically contested by the US and its allies, is on its way to becoming a fait accompli. Any move to reverse the new status quo will result in bloodshed.

The Russians went further. In 2014 they militarily invaded Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea by force when a pro-Moscow kleptocrat was removed after Western-backed demonstrations. They have built a bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland and subsequently asserted territorial rights over the Kerch Strait connecting the Azov and Black Seas (which was previously considered to be an international waterway). In Syria they have turned the tide of the civil war in favour of the Assad regime using attacks on civilian centres as well as rebel held territories and by casting a blind eye on, if not assisting with, the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilian targets. Since no Russian will be charged with crimes against humanity or war crimes over these atrocities, their impunity has been rewarded.

Lesser despots have gotten the message. The Saudi Crown Prince ordered the murder of a Saudi expat journalist in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Although his involvement was discovered by Turkish and US intelligence (and perhaps others), concerns about Middle Eastern geopolitics and oil make it unlikely that the Kingdom will face serious repercussions, especially if they offer up some lesser sacrificial lambs in the face of international outcry (as they appear to be doing).

Most recently, the US decided to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear control agreement signed by Iran with the P5+1 group (US, UK, China, France, Russia and Germany). It declared that it would impose additional sanctions on third party individuals and firms that did business with Iran after the US withdrew from the agreement. This month it requested the arrest and extradition of a Huawei executive–a daughter of the company founder as well as a very high ranking Chinese Communist Party official–on suspicion of fraud involving the creation of a shell company doing business with Iran. Under extant treaty obligations the Canadians agreed to the extradition request and detained the executive, who is now out on bail but confined to Vancouver while the extradition request is processed.

Not surprisingly the Chinese reacted poorly to this train of events. Within days two Canadians resident in the PRC found themselves behind bars on “national security grounds.” Although the tit for tat exposes the lie that Huawei is an independent private firm unconnected to the Communist Party (otherwise, why the official outrage and resort to hostage taking if it was just a private commercial matter?) and demonstrates that the Chinese will play rough when they feel that their interests are being contravened (something that may inform the New Zealand government’s approach to their bilateral relationship), it also shows what happens when one country unilaterally decides to impose its views against the opposition of others. Actions may have unintended consequences for more than the principles involved, and in this instance Canada is the caught between a rock and hard place just because it complied with a legal request from its southern neighbour.

There is plenty more. The US-backed Saudi and UAE campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen has seen war crimes and atrocities committed on an industrial scale. The Chinese have a million Uighurs locked up in “re-education” camps designed to strip them of their Muslim beliefs. The Russians carry out poison assassination plot abroad. The US detains and separates refuge-seeking children from their migrant parents and places them in detention centres hundreds of miles from where their parents are imprisoned or deported. Australia indefinitely holds asylum seekers on a remote island without access to proper legal representation. Indigenous lands are seized, occupied and expropriated throughout Latin America without compensation or redress. And then, of course, there is Daesh, which even if on the retreat in the Levant continues to represent a transnational evil with no regard for basic human rights, much less international norms.

The sclerosis of international organisations also contributes to the erosion of norm abidance. The dysfunction of the UN is well known, but everything from anti-poaching regimes to international fishery conventions and the much vaunted but piecemeal actioned climate change mitigation agreements are violated in the main. Regional organisations meet regularly, rooms full of delegates fill with hot air as speeches are given while sideline pontificators prattle, statements are issued and commitments to more dialogue are made. But very little gets done in a substantive way because in the end it is nation-states that must “walk the walk” after all that talk. US withdrawal from the climate change agreements while it renews fossil fuel exploration under the Trump administration is a case in point.

The larger point is two fold: the international rules based order is in perhaps terminal decline. The decline is attributable in the first instance to the belief that it would receive wide-spread voluntary adherence regardless of national interest or specifics of the policy issue. This was compounded by a lack of enforcement capability when it came to norm violations. Countries were either unwilling or incapable of committing to enforce the rules-based order in the measure that they had rhetorically championed, so it quickly became clear that violators, if strong enough or if the issue was not universal in nature, could literally get away with mass murder. And so they did.

That is where the decline of democracy and rise of despotism has had a negative impact on international norms. Since the very notion of democracy came into question in countries with long histories of it, and since autocrats of various stripes used authoritarian measures to impose their rule under the guise of imposing efficiency in governance, then it was only natural that such tendencies would flow into the realm of foreign affairs. Why get bogged down in international gabfests with “lesser” states when an easier, immediate and more favourable solution is at hand?: imposition by fact or force in the face of a lack of international norm enforcement capability.

Once again, might makes right in international affairs. Once again, the strong dominate the weak. Once again, power is truth and there is no speaking contrary to it. We are sliding into international anarchy

Policy-makers in Wellington can speak to the need for multinational norms and the importance of being an honest broker in a contentious world. But those claims hark to an international system that was stable and in which rules and norms were adhered to in the main rather than the exception. That is no longer true for the current international moment, where absent a rules-based Leviathan to enforce the agreed upon rules of the game, the global commons has reverted to a state of nature.

In such uncharted waters NZ policy-makers need to not only read their charts but also understand the interplay between geopolitical tides and winds. Because no matter how much faith they have in their current abilities and connections to larger states and international organisations, the fate of small nations in turbulent global seas rests as much on a deep understanding of history and long-term trends as it does on the benefits and consequences of policy decisions made over the last two decades. 

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