On the possible merger of NZ spy agencies.

datePosted on 23:43, September 8th, 2009 by Pablo

I originally posted this as a comment on Kiwiblog, but it is worth elaboration. I am not so much interested as why  sensitive documents somehow managed to be dropped on a public street into the path of a journalist, which, if interesting, is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. The real issue is the proposed, or at least potential merger of NZ intelligence agencies. From a democratic standpoint, I believe that centralising all intelligence-gathering and analysis in one agency is a recipe for disaster, or at least political manipulation. A core tenet of democracy is the decentralisation of power, evident in a system of checks and balances, particularly in its security component. I fear that NZ has lost sight of this tenet. In that light, here is my brief (excerpted)  thought on the matter of NZ intelligence agency mergers:

(With regard to the potential merger of the GCSB and NZSIS) I shall limit myself to pointing out two problems, one external and one internal to the intelligence agencies involved. Externally, the GCSB manages the Echelon stations in NZ and passes along foreign derived signals intelligence (SIGINT) to the SIS and Police where necessary, as well as monitor NZ signals traffic where required (this is a minor part of its operation). It is therefore more of a foreign-oriented intelligence collection agency rather than a NZ-oriented one. That spells potential conflicts of interest with larger intelligence liaison partners in the event that it is subsumed under or within the SIS. NZ intelligence requirements do not always run in concert with those of its larger partners, although it gains a measure of insurance and protection for providing its soil for the eavesdropping stations (another reason why NZ will never be invaded without a fight, since the stations are extremely valuable to the Echelon partners).

Internally, the SIS already has to handle external and domestic espionage and intelligence analysis along with counter-intelligence duties. This with a total complement of less than 200 people, a quarter of whom are clerical staff. That means that all of the human intelligence that gives NZ primary source or primary-derived information, plus the analysis of intelligence derived from the GSCB, NZDF, NZ Police, contract assets and liaison partners, has to be done by 150+/- people. It is a tall task already, and adding the SIGINT duties to it can complicate the management of intelligence flows and result in turf battles between the SIGINT and HUMINT branches and their respective analytic units (to say nothing of the fact that foreign nationals are heavily involved in the operation of the Echelon stations and therefore answer first to their foreign masters. Allowing them into the SIS could therefore compromise NZ national security even if they are erstwhile allies).

It is also generally believed that in a democracy it is best to separate domestic from foreign intelligence gathering, and SIGINT from HUMINT so as to avoid the monopolisation of intelligence flows and advice in any one agency, which could be politicised to deliver “intelligence” that is more politically-motivated spin than actual fact (as occurred with the Zaoui case under the previous SIS Director). Unified intelligence agencies can operate in democratic systems (such as in Canada), but that requires strong parliamentary oversight authority, something that does not exist in NZ.

The EAB is an intelligence client that undertakes foreign-oriented assessments rather than a collection agency, so a move to merge simplifies the intel streams coming its way. The same goes for the Police and the NZDF (which have their own collection branches), Treasury, other Ministries as well as the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG). But one of the good points of having different sources of intelligence collection and analysis is that it avoids “group think” (and mistakes) by getting independent vetting of sources, methods and interpretation. Under the merger plan intelligence will be reduced but not completely centralised, although the question remains as to whether a merged agency can competently handle all of the responsibilities that entails.

All of which is to say that the merger idea may be economical but it may not be efficient.

Chickens, scooters and dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does New Zealand have Public Intellectuals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shall leave the answers to you.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting what you voted for

datePosted on 14:55, August 30th, 2009 by Anita

It’s nearly 10 months since the election and the parties have just about found their feet. Bloggers on the left are delighting in saying to National, Act and Māori Party voters “look at what they’re doing, you didn’t vote for that!” which makes me curious, how many of us got what we voted for?


If you voted for hard-on-crime you’re probably feeling ok right now, it might not be as hard or as fast as you like, but the art of vengeance is definitely on its way back. If you voted for Rodney Hide, hurrah you have Rodney Hide. If you’re a small business owner frustrated with regulation, again you’re probably feeling pretty good at the signs of what’s coming. The neoliberals might not think things are happening fast enough, but they’re sure happening. It’s only the old ACT libertarian core who must be feeling cheated by the concessions to the crime-and-punishment lobby, and who else could you have voted for anyway?


I voted Green looking for a genuinely left wing party, and I’m feeling a bit let down: the MOU and the lack of visibility over the pain National’s policies are causing the poor and the vulnerable. That said, I also know that the Greens don’t have any parliamentary power so I expect some compromise. If you voted for the environment it’s probably feeling pretty good, while we lost the election the Greens are being effective at raising the issues and progressing a handful of them – about as good as you could hope for in the current political climate.


You lost, that’s all bad, but how’re you feeling about this incarnation of Labour-in-opposition? Labour’s actually doing ok I reckon for the centrist middle class left voters, and for the co-opted unions – they’re making the right noises about National policy, they’re sounding union and struggling middle-class friendly. People on the left of the party, however, are perhaps less happy: the current strategy appears to be a fight for the centre rather than a return to Labour’s working class roots.

Māori Party

Possibly it’s enough to be part of government, but at some point doesn’t the lack of policy wins start to hurt?


Well… if you voted for that nice John Key you’re probably happy with the smiley vacuous man who gets to go on Letterman. If you voted against Labour you were once happy with the lack of Helen Clark, but National’s starting to look a bit nanny state-ish. If you voted for the agriculture sector you’re probably adequately pleased by the reversals on the ETS and RMA, big business should be similarly happy. So the ideological backers are probably happy, but the soft centre?

Progressives & United Future

You got Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne, you must be rapt! :)

The universal law of genetic decline.

datePosted on 15:18, August 29th, 2009 by Pablo

Upon hearing the news that Ted Kennedy’s death has meant the “end of the dynasty” for the US equivalent of political royalty, I got to musing on why the “dynasty” is done. There are dozens of Kennedy children and grandchildren running about, and a few–Teddy Jr. and Joseph (son of Robert) in the House, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as lieutenant govenor of Maryland earlier this decade–have served in elected office. Thus there is enough biological material to keep the dynasty going. Why then, is it not?

The answer may be in the universal tendency of genetic decline in influential families. The logic goes like this: the first generation of any modern dynasty is characterised by “lift-from-the-bootstraps” ambition, entrepeneurship, innovative thinking, cunning, risk-taking, and flat out smarts. Through ruthlessness and hard work the progenitor of the dynasty emerges out of poverty and proceeds to achieve money, power, influence–or any combination thereof. As s/he ascends (it usually is a he), the first generation achiever moves out of his/her lower class station and begins to mingle with the hoi paloi. Eventually, as s/he reaches upper class status they  breed with members of the established aristrocracy who are long on manners and etiquette and  short on real achievement or talent. There begins the slide.

The first generation of children produced by this mix tend to have the progenitor’s determination and drive, as they hear first hand about the suffering and work it took to get them the silver spoon. They tend to reproduce the progenitor’s ambitions in politics, finance, enterprise or military affairs. They share the progenitor’s flaws but better reproduce his/her talents, which when coupled with the material advantages afforded to them, reinforce their positions as part of the elite. They proceed to breed with other members of the elite–some old school, some hereditary, some new blood, and go on to produce the third generation of aristocrats.

That is where the dynastic decline takes on momentum. 50 or so years removed from the hardships of the progenitor, his/her grandchildren live in the rarified air of the elites. They go to elite schools, they have maids and chauffeurs, they play with the most expensive toys, live in opulent houses, summer in beautiful vacation spots, jet around the world for pleasure, go to the best parties, sleep with the most handsome or beautiful people, and would not know a hard day’s work if it smacked them in the face (even though they are appointed to corporate boards and trusts). Most importantly, they can buy themselves out of trouble, and because they can, they do. Coupled with the lack of drive derived from their comfortable status, and with their ambition gene diluted by inter-marriage with members of established elites, this is the generation of decline.

The story of the Kennedy’s is well-known: bootlegger father with a penchant for the ladies and fascist inclinations. A generation of sons that included war heros (at least as far as the story goes), an assassinated president, an assassinated presidential front-runner and Senator, and Ted. Lest it be forgotten, it included Eunice Kennedy, the founder of the Special Olympics, who arguably may have influenced as many lives as did her brothers.  Then came the grandkids—Maria Shriver, Robert Jr. Joseph, Kathleen, Teddy Jr and a a host of others. It is those others that matter here because they have done virtually nothing to advance the fortunes of the family or the community. In fact, many of that generation, and their fourth generation children, are most known for their celebrity antics and criminal transgressions and ability to escape the type of justice usually meted out to the less fortunate.

The Kennedy’s are not alone. Think of the Hilton dynasty. Think of the Rockefellers, Gettys or Carnegies. Think of Saddam Hussein’s sons. Think of Kim jung-il and his off-spring. Or European and Arab royalty. Everywhere one looks, regardless of culture or creed, the universal law of genetic decline is hard at work turning the off-spring of the mighty into social parasites and elite bludgers. Some will argue that it is not a genetic condition but the way in which they are socialised that brings about the decline. That is probably true, and since I am not a geneticist I cannot argue against the idea that it is nurture, rather than nature that produces the effect. But what I can say is that I see this process as a good thing.

The reason I believe that the universal law of genetic decline is a good thing is that it puts a natural shelf-life on any modern dynasty. Dynasties are to social life what monopolies are to capitalism: they stifle creativity, ambition and innovation, to say nothing of egalitarianism and equal treatment. Anything that breaks up these hierarchies is thus a public good, as it forces renovation, if not rejuvenation of elites  by circulating new blood into them, blood that often times comes from lower rungs on the social totem pole.

So let us mark the end of the Kennedy era by honoring the things that Teddy and his family have contributed to US political life, and be thankful that their influence has apparently come to and end. Now the question remains, what about the status of the NZ elite? Or, more specifically on one issue: Old money has found its way into the National party presidency, whereas it is new money that leads its parliamentary wing and government. Is that sign of things on the upswing or things in decline for the blue side of the political spectrum?

Another post on blog moderation.

datePosted on 14:14, August 27th, 2009 by Pablo

When Anita and Jafapete invited me to join this blog collective, I agreed on condition that we assiduously avoid descending into the flame wars and rant fests so prevalent in the blogosphere, and that we be non-partisan (as I do not want to be seen as a Labour party toadie).  It turns out that we are unanimous in our opinion on both conditions. Even so, in the first few months of operation I took much flack because of my attempts to impose a “zero tolerance” approach to vulgarity and ad hominem attacks (and yes, some of my early attempts at moderation were quite crude). This included, not surprisingly, personal attacks on me (complete with the usual cheap shots about my well known employment dispute) on other blogs. But proof of the worthiness of that stance is now evident.

On the one hand, many well-known blogs–be they right or left–that do not practice moderation of posts and comments have descended into what colloquially are known as “troll farms:” places where the unhinged, cowardly and blindly zealous (as well as purposeful stirrers and trouble makers) trade insults and threats behind pseudonyms working from the safety of their keyboards. This has taken a toll particularly on the right side of the spectrum, where absent Helen Clark (“Klark,” in the right wing lexicon) and Labour in government, the more rabid commentators have taken to fighting amongst themselves over who is most pure to conservative principles and espousing a variety of conspiracy theories borrowed from US nutters and their media facilitators. Several right-wing blogs have simply shut down or splintered. The overall effect is to damage the brand of those that remain. This is particularly the case with DPF’s showcase, in which his reluctance to censor the hateful and vitriolic has seen many of his reasoned commentators decamp entirely, leaving a number of the threads to fester in their nastiness.

The Left side of the spectrum has its own version of this decline. Besides the overtly and blindly partisan scribbling of party mouthpieces, some of the major “independent” Left blogs allow their own version of flaming, to say nothing of serving as conduits for anti-Semitic rants posing as critiques of Zionism and Israel, blanket hatred of the US and hyperbolic attacks on National and its policies (which, if I oppose them in general, are not quite the “fascist”  measures that some of the Left blogs claim them to be).

Which is why I feel quite vindicated in holding the hard line on comments. Over the short life of this blog the commentary and debates have been notable for their (general) civility and intelligence. In fact, the level of discourse is such that the comment threads are often more insightful than the original posts. A regular cadre of highly informed commentators contribute to the discussion, and in the case of Pascal’s Bookie, joined the collective. Meanwhile the ranters (both Left and Right), after initially trying to inject their venom into our arguments, and given up and moved back to their (respective) caves. Even so, we continue to have to moderate the commentary, now mostly for vulgarity (as it is a NZ cultural feature, it seems, to be reflexively profane). But the larger point has been proven: if one wants to have reasoned commentary and debate on political and social issues in a blog format, then moderation is absolutely necessary so as to ward off the inevitable intrusion of trolls (be they ideological or by nature). Over time the need for moderation subsides as the commentariat becomes self-enforcing in its expression (as has been the case here), but it remains as the default principle for newcomers and established commentators alike.

There may be a place for flaming and trolling on other types of blog, but when it comes to political, economic and social matters, reason and grace in expression are the standard by which we live.

Valuing women’s votes and money

datePosted on 12:45, August 26th, 2009 by Anita

There is a political party which has made a choice to keep someone with a recent history of domestic violence in a highly visible position[1].

So they’ve made a political calculation:

((loss of support) + (loss of money)) < ((loss of face of firing him) + (loss of skills that he has))

Which makes me wonder about several things. Firstly, they are counting on the suppression order holding for the wider public, but not for insiders, so they must think the money from insiders is secure – do they have no funders who care about domestic violence? Are they counting on people keeping on funding them, through all the little social touches that parties do to big donors, even when many people wouldn’t be comfortable having dinner with him right now? What does this say about their assumptions about their donors?

Secondly, liberal women was a key area of contention at the last election, this is one of the little things that eat away at their credibility in that space. Again, I guess they’re counting on the suppression order and two years, but it’s still going to cut away at their credibility with women. Do they just not realise that for many women domestic violence is more important than party politics? Do they have another plan to retain women voters? Have they already given up liberal women as lost?

Finally, and more for the curious than the ethical, this provides a huge opening for internal politicking and intrigue and factionalising. If that’s the down side, what’s the up side?

P.S. Remember the suppression order, amongst other things comments must not name his victim, him, or his party.

[1] Yes, there is a political party which has made a choice to promote someone with an older history of domestic violence into a highly visible position too, but that is a story for another day.

Get off my lawn, you damn kids

datePosted on 08:15, August 26th, 2009 by Lew

exurbiaI will be scarce around these parts for the next few weeks because I am trading my beloved south coast for the one to the north-west, having bought a house in the ‘burbs. Three bedrooms and a garage, a character doer-upper with good bones which we got for a good price, our own half-gallon quarter-acre pavlova paradise. On Friday I suppose I will officially be middle-class, as if I wasn’t already. Before I know it I’ll be caring about things like whipper-snappers tagging my fence and rates and tree-pruning restrictions. Before then, I have to figure out how to move house with an increasingly mobile and ingenious nine-month-old.

This will require some significant changes, including acclimatising to what in NZ terms is a very long commute (by train, although I might consider carpooling since I’ve heard good things about the GWRC scheme). I will likely have much less time to write here, and elsewhere. But I will still be around.


Bipolarity, unipolarity and the coming USBRIC world.

datePosted on 20:05, August 25th, 2009 by Pablo

The lack of informed public debate on New Zealand foreign policy, to include its international security policy, is equaled only by its seemingly directionless drift under National. On the one hand National has embraced the idea of shifting its trade focus–which as Lew mentioned in an earlier post has once again become the basis for all foreign policy–towards Asia (and increasingly the Middle East). On the other hand, National is attempting to reforge its security ties with the US and Australia as well as regional partners like Singapore. It continues to pay lip service to the UN multilateral ethos, but in practice appears less committed than the Bolger, Shipley and Clark governments to supporting the multinational cause in places that are not of immediate import to economic prosperity. This has even been reflected in its approach to regional issues in the southwest Pacific, where the expansion of Chinese economic and military influence has been met with diffidence rather than focused attention. All of this suggests that even if the foreign policy bureaucracy understands the complexities of international relations in the present moment, its current political masters do not.

I shall elaborate on the implications of a growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific in a future post. For the moment what I propose here is to outline, in a highly simplified fashion, the broader contours of the changes undergone and ongoing in the international political system, with an eye towards situating New Zealand in that fluid context. In so doing, perhaps a clearer picture of the need for foreign policy direction will emerge.

The Cold War was characterised by a tight bipolar balance of power, in which nuclear-armed superpowers and their allies aligned themselves along a communist/anti-communist axis that divided the world into peripheral and shatter zones depending on the probability of direct confrontation. Collective security via superior counter-force was the basis for mutual deterrence under the so-called “balance of terror” principle, which was premised on the shared belief that conflict in shatter zones had a high possibility of escalation into nuclear war. Central Europe was the most vital shatter zone, so conflict avoidance was the overriding principle in that theater. Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America were peripheral to the core interests of the superpowers, so they became the sites for proxy wars and unilateral interventions in which weapons were trialed and tactics refined, but in which no immediate possibility of superpower confrontation existed. Some places were so remote, they only served as monitoring stations or way fares for the big players. Depending on the technologies available and their spatial location , a few peripheral countries could be accorded special interest by the superpowers. On that score, New Zealand and Cuba were exemplars of each side of the continuum, respectively.

As oil increased in importance as a strategic commodity, the Middle East was increasingly defined by the US and its allies as a shatter zone, which helps explain the reduction in direct inter-state conflict between Israel and its Soviet-backed neighbours (Egypt, Syria and Jordan especially) after 1973. It was not until the demise of the USSR that the so-called “secular nationalists” in the Middle East adopted a more pro-Western stance, but the dye had been cast on their position more than a decade before.

The fall of the Soviet bloc ended the bipolar balance of power and began a decade of unipolar domination by the US. No country or combination of countries had the military or economic power to confront the US on either or both grounds. Russia descended into post-Stalinist chaos; China was still in the early stages of embracing capitalism. East and Western Europe integrated, but the process was fractious and economic, demographic and social differences precluded the emergence of a truly “unified” Europe as a political and military actor. Post-colonial despotism abounded in Africa, and if Latin America democratised, it did so largely amid conditions of economic stagnation. East Asia prospered by remained politically divided amongst itself. Under such conditions, and coupled with major advances in telecommunications and the global opening of markets, the US imposed a form of pax americana in which the only types of conflicts feasible were of the low-intensity variety in failed or peripheral states. Inter-state conflict was replaced by pre-modern ethnic and religious conflict, and nation-building and peace-keeping in failed states became the raison d’etre of military forces in the loosened post-Cold War alliance structures as well as for a host of other middle and small powers. New Zealand was one of them.

As it turns out, market globalisation and technological change were the source of both US strength and weakness. While the US focused resources on the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” and fourth generation warfare in which the element of human will is supposedly trumped by technological capability, market forces pushed both technological advancement and consumption in a host of previously underdeveloped states. In the measure that these states welcomed foreign capital and investment, both the input and output sides of the supply chains flourished within them, and they developed increasingly advanced economies of scale. Foremost of these are what are now known as the “BRIC” countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Through an astute mix of good government policy, size and resource base, national ambition and foreign investment, these countries have emerged (or re-emerged in the Russian case) as nascent great powers. The US, for its part, overextended itself militarily in response to 9/11, where it is confronted by irregular, decentralised non-state actors fighting asymmetrically so as to negate US technological superiority and reduce both the tactical and strategic confrontation to that basic element of will. Although US technology still affords it clear battlefield advantages, it cannot on its own prevail decisively or quickly against well-prepared and ideologically committed irregulars fighting on their home soils. Under such circumstances, in which a long-term war of attrition is fought on mostly unconventional grounds, irregular actors can force strategic stalemates that for all intents and purposes are political defeats for the militarily superior adversary. That is because the logistical and human costs of engaging in such long term military adventures without resolution erode the will not so much of the troops engaged in them, but of the civilian support base at home that votes on matters of policy. Such is now the situation in Afghanistan, as it was previously in Iraq.

Since 2003 the US has entered into a slow economic decline, fueled in equal parts by the W. Bush administrations fiscal policies, the costs of its wars and the failure of a large swathe of the US business community to recognize and adapt to the changes in the global system of production and exchange post 1990. Conversely, not saddled with military burdens comparable to that of the US, the BRICs have directed their national energy and resources into economic development. The results are impressive. In the last decade the individual BRICs have increased their yearly GDP by an average of nearly ten percent and collectively have advanced their growth rates by more than 50 percent when compared to 1990. They have all survived the recession of 2007-09 and currently display growth rates in excess of 4%/yearly on average (the US is predicted to have an average growth rate of less than a 3 percent for the next five years). Barring some human-made disaster, the upward economic trend for the BRICs shows no sign of abating for another  decade. The same cannot be said for the US, regardless of its recent rebounds. In an economic as well as military sense, the tide seems to have turned against US unipolar dominance.

All four BRIC nations are major sources of consumption. Russia remains the most vulnerable economy because of its dependence on fossil fuel exports and criminal influence in policy making, but even so has reconstituted a significant measure of its military capability and battle tested it in Chechnya and Georgia. China and India have become technological incubators, value added export platforms and, most recently, purchasers of advanced weapons systems under slowly opening forms of elite rule. Militarily, China is constructing nuclear submarines as well as an indigenous aircraft carrier amid a major expansion of its entire range of force; India is modernizing and expanding both its sub and carrier fleets as well as it land and air wings. Both countries have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them at considerable range from a number of platforms, and both have been aggressive in asserting their military presence abroad (as has Russia). Of the four countries, Brazil is the least focused on military expansion, although it too has upgraded both its offensive as well as defensive capabilities. In no case can the US stop this progress by the use or threat of force or economic sanction. The result is that the world is now evolving into a multipolar system in which US power is balanced, in the first instance, by the BRICs, and in the second instance by the interplay between the BRICs themselves and with other middle powers such as France, Germany, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, Malaysia and the UK.

Emergence of the BRICs and the move towards multipolarity has further accelerated the loosening of Cold War alliance structures and increased the profile of smaller or emerging national actors such as South Africa and Singapore, which in turn has pushed a general reconfiguration of diplomatic, economic and military relations within the multi-tiered international community. Needless to say, the US will not disappear from the scene or be conquered anytime soon. What the emergence of new powers and changing international dynamics does mean is that it will have to share space with the new great powers: enter the world of USBRIC multipolarity.

Such change should be welcomed. The situation remains fluid but from a historical standpoint the move towards multipolarity is encouraging because it promises an era of greater peace once the multinational-balances and attendant blocs have been sorted out. Unipolar systems have historically been the most unstable type of international order because absent universality of values one-sided domination breeds resentment and challenge. Bipolar systems are stable (as the Cold War demonstrates), but  stability rests on a the precarious assumption that both rivals share the same form of rationality when it comes to strategic perspective, and that cannot be guaranteed over time. In a situation in which 3 or more powers contend for power, balancing becomes the pivot of the system because it serves as a hedge against single actor dominance. Here the actions of national elites matter less than the systemic response, which pushes the determinant logic out from the national (unit) level to the international (systemic) level. Hence small number multipolar systems are considered to be the most stable type of international political community.

Closer to home, the questions that arise are as follows: is NZ cognizant of these shifts and does it have a coherent foreign policy and international security strategy to ensure that it can take advantage, or at least not be disadvantaged by them? Is the current approach to trade, security and diplomatic affairs conducive to advancing the national interest over the long term, or is it more of an opportunistic hodgepodge of traditional and new perspectives and relations that do not account for the fundamental nature of the afore-mentioned shift towards USBRIC multipolarity? That, dear readers, I shall leave for you to ponder.

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