Posts Tagged ‘Foreign policy/affairs’

Tacitly encouraging local conspiracy theories.

datePosted on 13:41, December 5th, 2018 by Pablo

I do not mean to bang on about the Anne Marie Brady case but since it is coming up on one year since the campaign of criminal harassment began against her, I feel compelled to mention how the Labour-led government’s silence has been used as a window of opportunity by pro-China conspiracy theorists to question her credibility and defame her. Until I blocked the troll I shall call “skidmark,” this was even seen here on KP where he launched numerous attacks on professor Brady as well as question the very notion that the burglaries and vandalism that she has been subjected to were somehow related to her work on PRC influence operations in NZ.

What we know so far is this: the Police/SIS investigation has been passed on to INTERPOL and therefore is not yet complete. Professor Brady said that she was told by the Police that the investigation was complete, but perhaps that was just on the domestic side of the case. The fact that it has been handed over to INTERPOL suggests that the culprits are not common domestic criminals and that they have left the country. Otherwise, why involve INTERPOL? To be sure, it could mean that some local common criminals left the country once the heat was on, but given that what was taken in the burglaries were not items of common value but were related to her research, and given that the tampering with her vehicle occurred a few months ago, long after the burglaries, that suggests that it was not an ordinary crime done by locals. Repeated targeting of one individual spanning ten months using different criminal methods also suggests that there is more to the story than theft. The word “intimidation” comes to mind.

Because the government and its security agencies refuse to offer status reports or provide a fuller brief on what they know, the field has been left open for the pro-Chinese conspiracy trolls to jump in. They have three main angles of attack.

The first is to question Ms. Brady’s credibility because she receives external funding and spends time in US think tanks. They apparently believe that such funding and hosting is contingent on her spinning a particular anti-Chinese line. This betrays ignorance of how US think tanks and funding work, where scholarly independence is respected. Her critics also point to Taiwanese sources of funding, but there the link between money and research product is assumed rather than firmly established. I do think that it was unwise for professor Brady to be seen as closely associated with the US Embassy in Wellington and some China-focused US think tanks given the current state of PRC-US relations, but no one has credibly argued that her findings about PRC influence operations are wrong. In fact, they have clearly sparked calls for review and reform of NZ political contribution regulations, so her concerns are not imaginary.

The irony is that Brady pointed out that PRC-backed academic institutions like Confucius Institutes and various PRC funded scholarship programs do come with ideological strings attached. Perhaps the trolls simply believe that the same is the case for non-Chinese academic exchanges.

The second and third attacks centre on the criminal harassment against her. The first posits that it is a hoax perpetrated by Ms. Brady to increase public wariness of the Chinese and promote herself. I have already mentioned that she would be taking a great risk to her reputation and have to be pretty cunning to pull that off to the point that the cops and spies have not yet figured it out. Claiming that she perpetrated this hoax questions her mental stability and veracity on other matters (which has never been questioned before), and if untrue is defamatory. The latter has not stopped “skidmark” and others from propagating the claim.

The second line of attack is that the burglaries and vandalism are the work of the NZSIS and/or the CIA with or without professor Brady’s complicity in order to poison public sentiment against the Chinese. Again, as I said before, this would entail a degree of risk and expenditure of resources disproportionate to any potential gains. And if this was indeed the case, would not the Police and SIS have come out with a stronger move against the Chinese by now? After all, if you want to falsely frame a specific party as responsible for a crime you drop evidence pointing in its direction. Delaying offering proof of the accusation only casts doubt as to its veracity in part because it leaves things open to the type of bad-minded diversionary conjecture and speculation that I am discussing here.

It is very likely that the government’s reticence to talk about the case is due to diplomatic concerns, and that political pressure has been put on the Police and SIS to delay offering any more information about the status of the investigation until ITERPOL has come up with some answers. My feeling is that the culprits will  not be found and certainly not extradited if they are identified (for example, by checking the movements of Canterbury-based Chinese student visa holders in NZ in the days after the burglaries were first reported).

The problem is that the longer the government delays providing anything more than it has so far, the more oxygen it gives to the pro-Chinese trolls, which when added to the other doubters and conspiracy types I mentioned in my previous post serves to confuse the picture even if the circumstantial evidence pointing towards (even if indirect) PRC involvement is strong. That helps sustain the slander campaign against Ms. Brady and/or the view that it was all the work of the NZ and US Deep States working in concert.

Gathering from the tone of her recent remarks it appears that Ms. Brady is frustrated and increasingly frightened by the government’s inaction. I sympathise with her predicament: she is just one person tilting against much larger forces with relatively little institutional backing. I also am annoyed because this is a NZ citizen being stalked and serially harassed on sovereign NZ soil, most probably because of things that she has written, and yet the authorities have done pretty much nothing other than take statements and dust for fingerprints.

If this was a domestic dispute in which someone was burglarising and vandalising a neighbour’s or ex-partner’s property, I imagine that the cops would be quick to establish the facts and intervene to prevent escalation.  If that is the case then the same applies here. Because to allow these crimes to go unpunished without offering a word as to why not only demonstrates a lack of competence or will. It also encourages more of the same, and not just against Ms. Brady.

If one of the foundational duties of the democratic state is to protect the freedom and security of its citizens, it appears that in in this instance NZ has so far failed miserably. The government needs to step up and provide assurances that the investigation will proceed honestly to a verifiable conclusion and that it will work to ensure the safety of Anne Marie Brady against those who would wish to do her harm.

To not do so is to abdicate a basic responsibility of democratic governance.

Left compass lost.

datePosted on 14:35, November 29th, 2018 by Pablo

One of the disappointing aspects of the Anne-Marie Brady affair has been the reluctance and sometimes outright refusal of people on the New Zealand Left to condemn the criminal harassment directed at her as a result of her research into Chinese influence operations in Aotearoa. I shall enumerate the general reasons justifying their stance but want to note first that it is not similar to the very real fears of the independent minded expat Chinese community in NZ, who remain silent in the face of threats against them here as well as against their families and associates back on the mainland. It behooves readers to read, watch and listen to the Mandarin-language media here in NZ (even if needing translators) because the rhetoric employed by these outlets–which Brady has pointed out are with the exception of the Falun Gong mouthpiece Epoch Times all controlled by CCP-linked United Front organisations–is hostile to the point of threatening towards all those who do not toe the Party line. To get an idea of the hostility, check out the Facebook page of a fellow by the name of Morgan Xiao, a Labour LEC member in Botany Downs and “journalist” for some local Chinese media outlets. He clearly does not like Anne Marie Brady.

Amongst the NZ Left, there seems to be 3 main reasons why people do not want to support Anne Marie Brady or the general concept of academic freedom in a liberal democracy. The first, prevalent amongst academics, is concern about losing funding or research opportunities for publicly siding with her. The concern is obvious and acute in departments and institutes that receive PRC funding directly or which receive NZ government funding related to Chinese-focused studies. All NZ universities have such connections as well as being reliant on Chinese students for a large part of their tuition income, so the dampening effect is nation-wide. Academics are also worried that public association with a “controversial” scholar may somehow diminish the research grants and opportunities made available to them even if they do not work on matters related to China. Guilt by association is alive and well in the NZ academe.

Overlapping this is concern about Professor Brady’s sources of funding and ties to US think tanks. Some believe that this skews her research in a Sinophobic direction and that she in fact parrots the opinions of her US sponsors. I can only say that, even though it might have been prudent for her to not be closely identified with the US Embassy and conservative US organisations focused on China (although she also maintains ties to reputable institutions like the Woodrow Wilson Center), she was a well known China watcher long before she published the Magic Weapons paper and NZ-based sources of funding for overseas research are few and far between. Beggars cannot be choosey and under circumstances of limited research funding in NZ in general and at her home university in particular, it is not surprising nor compromising for her to accept funding from abroad so long as she is transparent about it and conducts her studies independent of any external political agenda. From all that I have read, that is what she has done. So even if her views dovetail with those of foreign entities in places like Australia and the US,  it does not mean that she is their puppet. Plus, no one has decisively refuted what she wrote in a paper that was always intended to be applied research product rather than a theoretical or conceptual scholarly breakthrough. In a word: her research is sound regardless of how it was funded.

Other academics refuse to support Brady because they personally do not like her. I do not know the woman but if irascible personalities were a disqualifying trait in higher education then there would be no universities to speak of here or elsewhere. Egos, intellectual insecurity and professional jealousy are constants of academic life, and it seems that they have percolated into the discussion about her work and its ramifications for her personal life. One can only be dismayed that some people cannot separate personal animus from defence of the principle of academic freedom (and freedom of expression in general), in this case the right of an academic to not be criminally harassed for her work.

Outside of academia the refusal of some Leftists to support Ms. Brady appears to be rooted in a form of “whataboutism” connected to strong anti-US sentiment. Although some old-school Marxists are equitable in their dislike for all imperialists, new and old, most of the “what about” relativists believe that the US and/or UK are worst imperialists than the PRC and in fact (in the eyes of some) that the PRC is a benevolent giant seeking to better international relations through its goodwill and developmental assistance. For them the whole story, from the content of Ms. Brady’s Magic Weapons paper to the subsequent burglary of her office and home and tampering with her car, are just concoctions designed to stain the image of China in NZ and elsewhere.

A sub theme of this strand is the argument that if NZ is going to have to choose a master, better that it side with trade over security. That follows the logic that we are utterly dependent on trade for our survival but we are utterly insignificant as a security target. NZ involvement in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network and Anglophone military partners is of minor concern, both in terms of the guarantees they give to NZ security as well as the difficulties posed by trying to abandon them.

Then there is the tin foil hat crowd. Leftist conspiracy theorists share views with Rightwing nutters about the “Deep State,” chemtrails, 9/11 holograms and assorted false flag operations, including the harassment of Ms. Brady. If you believe them the same people who target anti-1080, anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination and anti-TPP activists are behind the staged assaults on the Canterbury academic. I am not sure who these puppet masters are but I somewhat doubt that Ms. Brady is wrapped up in a chemtrail conspiracy.

If we gather up all of the arguments against supporting Ms. Brady, they boil down to two main lines of thought. First, that Anne Marie Brady has staged the break-ins and vandalism in order to promote herself via sympathetic PR. Second, that the attacks on her property were done by the NZSIS with or without US connivance in order to smear the PRC.

My answer to the first is that Ms. Brady was sufficiently well known at home and abroad before the attacks, so she did not have to stage anything in order to garner attention. If she did so in order to widen public attention on Chinese wrongdoings outside of academic and policy-oriented circles, then she would have to be very crafty indeed. Although that is possible, I tend to think it not probable.

As for the false flag suspicions. Why would the SIS and/or US expend resources and run the risk of detection in such a low level operation? What would be achieved that was already not in the public domain already? Even if the spy agencies thought about doing so, would not the costs of being discovered outweigh any benefits accrued from falsely framing the PRC? So on this one, too, I say “possible but unlikely.”

Of course, there is the third explanation, which is that people acting on behalf or under the instructions of the Chinese state did the deeds. These would not have to be intelligence operatives tasked by the PRC embassy or Beijing. They could be patriotic expats, perhaps living in NZ on student visas, who took umbrage at professor Brady’s claims and the publicity surrounding them. With or without the connivance of Chinese authorities they may have wanted to make an intimidatory point much along the lines outlined in the opening paragraph of this post.

What is clear, because the NZ Police have said that the investigation has passed on to Interpol, is that the perpetrators are likely overseas and will not likely be caught and extradited. Since the investigation into the burglaries is now 10 months old, it is equally unlikely that local common criminals are suspects (especially given that nothing of value was taken in the burglaries other than phones, lap tops and flash drives). So whether the government equivocates or not the finger of suspicion rests most heavily on the criminal harassment being the work of people unhappy with Ms. Brady’s work on China, and in particular her Magic Weapons paper.

What is ironic is that the United Front-Organised “influence operations” that she expounds upon at length are not illegal. Their genius lies in that they exploit the system as given, in NZ’s case being the looseness of campaign finance and political contribution regulations. They also exploit a lack of enforcement capability in the financial and other business sectors in order to overlap legitimate and ethically questionable behaviours. But all of this is, while ethically dubious, perfectly legal.

Engaging in criminal acts against a NZ citizen on sovereign NZ soil is another thing entirely. This moves from peddling influence to, indeed, engaging in intimidation as a “hard” form of interference. It is an intrusion on academic freedom but also a breach of professor Brady’s freedom of expression. it reinforces the view that no one is untouchable should they dare to criticise the Chinese state, and that NZ is powerless to stop more of the same.

That is why the government response has been weak and the Left reluctance to fully support Anne Marie Brady so disappointing. Because the issue is as much about sovereignty, democratic civility and human rights as it is about anything she wrote or her personal and professional attributes or flaws. One may understand why the Right wants to cast a blind eye on such mischief because capitalists put profits before people’s rights, and trade with the PRC definitely brings profit to a select few. But for a Left Centre government and many Left activists to not strongly repudiate criminal harassment of a local academic for any reason, especially economic reasons, is a betrayal of the basic principles upon which the democratic Left is founded upon.

Shame, then, on those who proclaim to be of the Left but on this matter clearly are on the Right side of the Chinese.

A bridge too far.

datePosted on 07:28, November 21st, 2018 by Pablo

The Labour-led government in New Zealand has settled on a new mantra when it comes to addressing the US-China rivalry. It claims that New Zealand is ideally situated to become a bridge between the two great powers and an honest broker when it comes to their interaction with the Southwest Pacific. This follows the long-held multi-party consensus that New Zealand’s foreign policy is independent and autonomous, and based on respect for international norms and multinational institutions.

The problem is that the new foreign policy line is a misleading illusion. It ignores historical precedent, the transitional nature of the current international context, the character and strategic objectives of the US and the PRC and the fact that New Zealand is neither independent or autonomous in its foreign affairs.

The historical precedent is that in times of conflict between great powers, small states find it hard to remain neutral and certainly do not serve as bridges between them. The dilemma is exemplified by the island of Melos during the Peloponnesian Wars, when Melos expressed neutrality between warring Athens and Sparta. Although Sparta accepted its position Athens did not and Melos was subjugated by the Athenians.

In stable world times small states may exercise disproportionate influence in global affairs because the geopolitical status quo is set and systemic changes are incremental and occur within the normative framework and around the margins of the system as given. When international systems are unstable and in transition, small states are relegated to the sidelines while great powers hash out the contours of the emerging world order—often via conflict. Such is the case now, which has seen the unipolar system dominated by the US that followed the bi-polar Cold War now being replaced by an emerging multi-polar system aggregating new and resurgent powers, some of which are hostile to the West.

In this transitional moment the US is in relative decline and has turned inward under a Trump administration that is polarizing at home and abroad. It is still a formidable economic and military power but it is showing signs of internal weakness and external exhaustion that have made it more reactive and defensive in its approach to global affairs. China is a rising great power with global ambition and long-term strategic plans, particularly when it comes to power projection in the Western Pacific Rim. It sees itself as the new regional power in Asia, replacing the US, and has extended its influence world-wide.That includes involvement in the domestic politics and economic matters of Pacific Island states, including Australia and New Zealand.

China’s rise and the US decline are most likely to first meet in the Western Pacific. When they do, the consequences will be far reaching. Already the US has started a trade war with the Chinese while reinforcing its armed presence in the region at a time when China cannot (as of yet) militarily challenge it. China has responded by deepening its dollar and debt diplomacy in Polynesia and Melanesia as part of the Belt and Road initiative, now paralleled by an increased naval and air presence extending from the South and East China Seas into the blue water shipping lanes of the Pacific.

There lies the rub. New Zealand is neither independent or autonomous when it confronts this emerging strategic landscape. Instead, it has dichotomized its foreign policy. On the security front, it is militarily tied to the US via the Wellington and Washington Declarations of 2010 and 2012. It is a founding member and integral component of the Anglophone 5 Eyes signal intelligence gathering network led by the US. It is deeply embedded in broader Western security networks, whose primary focus of concern, beyond terrorism, is the hostile activities of China and Russia against liberal democracies and their interests.

On trade, New Zealand has an addict-like dependency on agricultural commodity and primary good exports, particularly milk solids. Its largest trading partner and importer of those goods is China. Unlike Australia, which can leverage its export of strategic minerals that China needs for its continued economic growth and industrial ambitions under the China 2025 program, New Zealand’s exports are elastic, substitutable by those of competitors and inconsequential to China’s broader strategic planning. This makes New Zealand extremely vulnerable to Chinese economic retaliation for any perceived slight, something that the Chinese have been clear to point out when it comes to subjects such as the South China island-building dispute or Western concerns about the true nature of Chinese developmental aid to Pacific Island Forum countries.

As a general rule issue linkage is the best approach to trade and security: trading partners make for good security partners because their interests are complementary (security protects trade and trade brings with it the material prosperity upon which security is built). Absent that, separating and running trade and security relations in parallel is practicable because the former do not interfere with the latter and vice versa. But when trade and security relations are counterpoised, that is, when a country trades preferentially with one antagonist while maintaining security ties with another, then the makings of a foreign policy conundrum are made. This is exactly the situation New Zealand finds itself in, or what can be called a self-made “Melian dilemma.”

Under such circumstances it is delusional to think that New Zealand can serve as a bridge between the US and China, or as an honest broker when it comes to great power projection in the Southwest Pacific. Instead, it is diplomatically caught between a rock and a hard place even though in practice it leans more West than East.

The latter is an important point. Although a Pacific island nation, New Zealand is, by virtue of its colonial and post-colonial history, a citizen of the West. The blending of Maori and Pasifika culture gave special flavor to the Kiwi cultural mix but it never strayed from its Western orientation during its modern history. That, however, began to change with the separation of trade from security relations as of the 1980s (where New Zealand began to seek out non-Western trade partners after its loss of preferred trade status with UK markets), followed by increasingly large waves of non-European immigration during the next three decades. Kiwi culture has begun to change significantly in recent years and so with it its international orientation. Western perspectives now compete with Asian and Middle Eastern orientations in the cultural milieu, something that has crept into foreign policy debates and planning. The question is whether the new cultural mix will eventuate in a turn away from Western values and towards those of Eurasia.

The government’s spin may just be short term diplomatic nicety posing as a cover for its dichotomous foreign policy strategy. Given its soft-peddling of the extent of Chinese influence operations in the country, it appears reluctant to confront the PRC on any contentious issue because it wants to keep trade and diplomatic lines open. Likewise, its silence on Trump’s regressions on climate change, Trans-Pacific trade and support for international institutions may signal that the New Zealand government is waiting for his departure before publicly engaging the US on matters of difference. Both approaches may be prudent but are certainly not examples of bridging or brokering.

While New Zealand audiences may like it, China and the US are not fooled by the bridge and broker rhetoric. They know that should push come to shove New Zealand will have to make a choice. One involves losing trade revenues, the other involves losing security guarantees. One involves backing a traditional ally, the other breaking with tradition in order to align with a rising power. Neither choice will be pleasant and it behooves foreign policy planners to be doing cost/benefits analysis on each because the moment of decision may be closer than expected.

Political Market Clearing.

datePosted on 15:27, November 17th, 2018 by Pablo

As I watched the results come in on US midterm election night, it struck me that the tally was a microcosmic distillation of what democracy is in terms of preferred outcomes: no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something of what they want. With the Democrats regaining the lower House in Congress and the GOP increasing its Senate majority, and governorships distributed more evenly with a few Democratic wins, it struck me that this was the “mutual second best” that democratic theorists argue is the core of the democratic bargain.

Over the ensuing days it became clear that the Democratic wins were larger than anticipated on election night and that even if the GOP holds on to disputed seats in places like Florida (where I voted in infamous Palm Beach County), the erosion of Republican electoral support was significant. Conventional wisdom has it that Trump was a decisive factor in both victory and defeat for the GOP, as he galvanised his Red state base but alienated the suburban female demographic nation-wide. Women candidates, including women of colour and non-Christian cultural backgrounds, were the major winners in the congressional contests, although most of that came on the Democratic side (but even Republican women did well in places). What the results mean in practice, beyond all of the talk about investigations and impeachment (which are real possibilities now that the House is under Democratic control), is that Trump’s legislative agenda has had the brakes put on it. Unless he moderates his behaviour and reaches across the partisan aisle to secure bipartisan support for landmark legislation on health care, immigration reform, infrastructure spending, etc., then nothing will get done. And if the Democrats try to unilaterally push through their own pet projects, they may find resistance in the Senate and a veto waiting in the Oval Office.

Given that many in the GOP blame Trump for their losses and most of the new Democratic legislators are ideologically to the Left of their House and Senate leaders, the president and leaders of his congressional opposition have reason to seek each other out in an accord. That could cement their legacies and ward off insurrection within their party ranks in the build up to the 2020 elections.

Of course, Trump can just continue to behave like the unhinged bullying a-hole that he is, the GOP can continue to fracture along pro- and anti-Trump lines while Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer stifle calls for change from the Left of their party. That will lead to government dysfunction and potential gridlock, which opens the door to unforeseen and unexpected developments on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there is the Mueller investigation…

All of that aside, what interests me the most at this juncture is the notion that the 2018 midterms represent a type of political market clearing in the US. As with the notion of “mutual second best” the term “political market clearing” is a conceptual transfer from economics. It refers to the moment when after a period of stress and tension in the political system there is a breakthrough that leads to the re-establishment of the system along new equilibrium points. This can entail a clearing out of old structures and individuals and their replacement with newer political agents and/or can come via a re-balancing of the political party system at the federal, state and local levels. The idea is that a watershed moment leads to a catharsis  of the political system, which then seeks a new equilibrium of power relations that is more efficient than the previous aggregation.

This is not just another way of saying political “pendulum swing.” Pendulum swings are metronomic, which makes them regular and predictable. There is nothing regular or predictable about a political market clearing, as it is born of the crisis of the previous system and may undergo several iterations before settling into a newly equilibrated status quo.

In the political market policy ideas and initiatives are the stock in trade. Some rise as others fall. For example, a decade or so ago the idea of universal single user pays health care with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions was considered ridiculous and politically impossible to achieve in the US. Today, it is at the centre of the health care debates, with the non-exclusion of pre-existing conditions being a successful Democratic talking point in the midterms. Likewise, for years the notion of limiting the type of firearms made available for public purchase was considered as ludicrous as was the notion that the National Rifle Association could be confronted directly in any election. Now both of those notions are being actively disputed, including by a few Purple state Republicans. Even the intractable issue of campaign finance reform has, thanks to Bernie Sanders and his influence on the incoming class of congressional Democrats, now been pushed onto the policy trading floor.

If policy platforms are the stocks traded in the political market, then votes are its currency.  With the shift to Democratic governors in several important states two years before the national census and subsequent congressional re-districting process (which are controlled by State governments), gerrymandered  districts that favor Republicans by atomizing non-White voting populations will cease to exist and will be replaced by those that more accurately reflect the demographic and socio-economic shifts of the last decades. That will translate into continued and perhaps more elected Democrats in state and federal legislatures and/or a move to moderation among Republicans at both levels. Voting occurs in committees as well as in upper and lower chambers as a whole, and with the shift in power last week the relative value of selected policy stocks have undergone reappraisal. This will inform any approach to bipartisan consensus on federal legislation so, for example, the sell-off of plummeting stock in the border wall policy proposal will be balanced by increased buying of the rising stocks of comprehensive immigration and health care reform.

It seems to me that the US midterms mark the deepening of a political market clearing. Although the Obama administration will be treated kindly by history, it represented the end of a political generation marked by a quarter century of increasingly polarised and partisan politics reproduced and magnified by media outlets masquerading opinion and advocacy as journalism. It culminated the end of a bipartisan consensus and its replacement with a fiercely disloyal Republican opposition in Congress that stymied any administration initiatives simply because it could. And it was under those conditions that the Trump candidacy emerged and won the presidency with its calls to drain the swamp and make America great again. Although Trump’s rhetoric is more demagogic rather than informed by the realities of the day, it marked the beginning of the US political market undergoing value reappraisal.

The midterms have shown the direction of the reappraisal and the emerging equilibrium points around which policy efficiencies will cluster. Yet the process is ongoing. The political market clearing will not fully re-equilibrate until after the 2020 elections (if then), even as the foundations for new policy efficiencies have been and will continue to be laid.

If I am correct, then we will be able to look back at the Trump era as the last gasp of a political system drowning in its lack of popular representation and elitist excess. Think about it: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and general celebration of bigoted ignorance unleashed by the Trump effect on US politics–Trump being both a symptom and aggravator of already latent trends–is the inevitably futile last stand of a cultural, racial and socio-economic demographic in inexorable decline. The venality of its political defenders is proof of that, and  the ideological vitality of its supplanters is evidence of the sea change coming ahead. Political clinging to a mythical past that never was will continue for a while more but the trend is clear and that is where the political market re-equilibration gains strength. It is not a matter of if but when the new policy efficiencies are  balanced and a new stable political equilibrium is established.

The questions for the next few months are whether Trump has the ability to build a bridge to the congressional Democrats after demonizing them as a means of whipping his retrograde base, and whether the Democratic congressional leadership will take the bait of bipartisanship on the terms that he may offer. If this happens then the political market clearing will be stymied (which is beneficial mostly to the current political status quo). On the other hand, if the congressional Democrats impose on Trump and the congressional GOP a new legislative agenda that recognises the changing electoral demographic that brought them victory last week, then the process of policy re-equilibration in a political market clearing could well begin to take hold.

One can only hope.

Venezuela Agonistes.

datePosted on 16:04, September 12th, 2018 by Pablo

There are two things remarkable about coverage of the Venezuelan crisis. The first is the silence of the Left in the face of it. This includes the champions of the so-called Latin American “Pink Tide” who saw in the Boliviarian Revolution an alternate developmental model that along with the left leaning regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Nicaragua offered hope for a new socialist bulwark in the Western Hemisphere that, unlike the Castro regime in Cuba, was both socialist and democratic. Or at least, that was the thought in the early 2000s. Now, rather than offer robust critiques of what went wrong, those champions have gone quiet, perhaps hugging small comfort pets against their Che Guevara t-shirts while muttering into their pillows something about the sulphuric impact of “neo-imperialism” and globalised corporate control.

The second remarkable aspect of the coverage of Venezuela is the continued misrepresentation by conservative (and even mainstream media) commentators that Venezuela demonstrates (yet again) the failures of socialism in practice. Allow me to address this fallacy.

Before I do so let’s briefly note what is clearly an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state (seen, in Gramscian terms, as economy+civil society+political society).  Regardless of external factors and interference (such as oil prices, Cuban security assistance and US government hostility) and the disloyal nature of most of the traditional opposition to the Boliviarian Movement, the crisis has at its core the incompetence and corruption of the Maduro government. The seeds for the decline were sown by Hugo Chavez himself with his prolifigate spending and cult of personality, but the bitter fruit of criminality, cronyism, patronage, partisanism and despotic maladministration ripened, then rotted under Maduro.

This not entirely surprising because in truth the Boliviarian experiment was always more populist than socialist. Socialism is not just about downwards redistribution of income and expansion of public goods and services via the use of tax revenues.  It is not just about progressive tax reform to make the rich pay their fair share. It is not just about nationalising privately held productive assets or at least strategic economic assets. It not about state ownership of the means of production. And it definitely does not involve a self-appointed authoritarian revolutionary “vanguard” telling everyone what their best interests are, what to do in pursuit of those interests, and concentrating power in a small partisan elite in order to compel others do so.

Instead, socialism involves equality in and of production, to include worker control of decision-making on everything from occupational health and safety to production levels to distribution and reinvestment of profit. Socialism involves decentralisation and local autonomy in political decision-making, to include about the distribution of public goods, social investment and economic development. It involves not just matters of production, particularly with respect to control of productive assets, but also of decision-making behaviour within production and the attendant social relations linked to it. Socialism has cooperatives as a basic unit of social integration; national populism has paramilitary militias and neighbourhood political snitches.

There is more to socialism than what I have outlined, but the point should be pretty clear: socialism is about devolving power to the people, not concentrating it in the hands of a central government. Even if a transition period is needed after bourgeois rule, the move to socialism involves expansion of the number of decisional sites that determine the material, cultural and political fortunes of the average citizen. To do so requires dismantling of a capitalist state apparatus, which is characterised by top down managerial control of public and private policy decision-making, and its replacement with a socialist state in which policy decisions ultimately rest in the hands of immediate stakeholders and are conveyed upwards into national-level platforms. The transition between the two–from a capitalist state to a socialist state–is the hard part of any change from liberal to social democracy (even more so than in violent social revolutions where the destruction of the capitalist state runs in parallel with the elimination of capitalism and its elites), and in Venezuela’s case it was never done. Both Chavez and Maduro have relied on a capitalist state to implement and enforce their populist, and increasingly authoritarian mode of governance.

Rather than socialist and democratic, the Boliviarian revolution is a left-leaning national populist regime using a state capitalist project and corporatist forms of interest group intermediation marshalled along partisan lines in order to redistribute wealth via partisan patronage networks to its support base and to its leaders. It has uncoupled wealth redistribution from productivity and, for all the achievements in education and health made under Chavez, those gains were lost once prices for the single export commodity it relies on (oil) fell and the revenues from oil experts shrunk. Corruption and incompetence, coupled with private capital flight and the exodus of the managerial class (mostly to Florida), accelerated the downward spiral, and now Venezuela is for all purposes a failed state. Inflation is stratospheric, food scarcity is rife, there are shortages of essential medical supplies, power and potable water, petrol supplies (?!) are increasingly spotty, unemployment, under-employment and crime are at all-time highs (the murder rate is 85 per 100,100 population, one of the highest in the world). Violent street protests have become the norm, and spot curfews and other coercive and legal curtailments on freedom of movement and speech are now the most widely used tools with which the Maduro regime handles dissent. For a purportedly Leftist regime, there is no worse indictment than that.

That Chavez, Maduro and their supporters refer to the Boliviarian regime as “socialist” is offered as proof  by some that it is, and that is it is therefore socialism that has failed. That is hopelessly naive. “Socialism” is the label that the Boliviarians have cloaked themselves in because they know that given its history, “populism” is not in fact very popular in Latin America. In its own way the US is finding out why that is so, but the important point to note is that there is nothing genuinely socialist about they way the Boliviarians behave.

The current reality is that the Boliviarian regime has descended from a left-leaning national populist form into an Scotch-addled kleptocracy (Venezuelans have one of the highest per capita intakes of Scotch in the world, and in recent years the regime has taken to hoarding supplies of it). In the measure that it is besieged by its own weaknesses and the rising opposition of the popular base that it ostensibly serves, it increasingly relies on coercion and criminality for its sustenance. Military and government involvement in the narcotics trade, the presence of Cuban intelligence in and out of the armed forces and security apparatus, covert links to states such as Syria and North Korea, the presence of operatives of extra-regional non-state actors such as Hezbollah in government circles–all of these factors suggest that Venezuela’s national interests are no longer foremost in the minds of the Boliviarian elite.

This has not been lost on the population, and the last year has seen over 1.5 million Venezuelans emigrate. This is on a par with Syrian and Rohinga refugee flows and amount to more than 4 million Venezuelans now living outside their motherland (with most leaving after 1999 when Chavez was first elected). The refugee crisis has impacted the relations between Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, with their borders heavily militarised and safe passage corridors opened for migrants to proceed to countries such as Ecuador and Peru. The extent of the Venezuelan refugee crisis is now regional in nature.

Not surprisingly, there have been some moves against the Maduro regime from within the armed forces. This have failed due to basic incompetence of the plotters and the fact that the Venezuelan military is stocked with Boliviarian sycophants buttressed by Cuban intelligence agents who spend more time looking for moles and dissidents than they do improving national intelligence collection capabilities per se. The combat readiness of the Venezuelan military has been replaced by proficiency in crowd control, and the High Command is staffed by flag ranked officers who have more good conduct medals and Boliviarian revolutionary awards than they do insignia demonstrating operational proficiency in any kinetic endeavour. May the goddess help the Venezuelan armed forces should they ever pick a fight with the battle hardened Colombian military or the well-disciplined Brazilians.

For a military coup to happen, there need to be vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military and push and pull factors compelling it to act. Vertical cleavages are those between officers and the enlisted corps, including rivalries between flag, field and company ranked officers, Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and the enlisted soldiers they command. Horizontal cleavages are this between armed services–Army, Navy, Air Force, national gendarme, border patrol, interior ministry secret police, etc–and within those services (say, between armour and infantry in the land forces, or surface fleet and submariners in the Navy).

The Boliviarians and their Cuban advisors have been very good at purging non-loyalists from the officer corps. Their control over NCOs and enlisted personnel is a bit more tenuous, as evidenced by recent attempts to kill Maduro using a drone and an earlier helicopter attack on military installations. But the big cleavages needed to form a coup-making nucleus simply do not exist in the measure that is required, even if the push and pull factors are clearly present. The push factors are those internal to the military that compels it to act, for institutional reasons, against the government (such as loss of discipline, corruption, lack of effective military leadership etc. that erode the ability of the armed forces to discharge their basic defence functions against foreign counterparts ). The pull factors are the external societal conditions, to include family ties of military personnel and civilian elite pleading for the restoration of social order, that draw the uniformed corps towards intervention. So the coup “equation” is just half complete: the motives for intervention are present but the organisational or institutional conditions as of yet are not.

Not that a military coup is a panacea for Venezuela. It could well make things worse. Perhaps this is where a bit of good news has emerged. It turns out that the US was approached by military coup plotters for support and turned down the request. This, in spite of Donald Trump’s public statements about US military intervention against the Maduro regime. It seems that, even if not for all the right reasons, seasoned diplomats understood the downside of agreeing to the request and cooler heads prevailed.

It is praiseworthy that the US, or at least its foreign policy decision-makers, understand that Venezuelans need to be the sole owners of their collective destiny. This destiny might or might not include the reactionary wishful thinkers in the self-exiled community that has made Weston, Florida, a mini-Caracas (and whom have joined with the ageing Cuban exiles to form an anti-communist mafia that fund-raises in “dark” ways). Whether they join or not, the key to resolving the Venezuelan crisis involves providing Maduro and his entourage with a safe passage out of government and an incremental and negotiated restoration of the productive apparatus to a mix of interests of different political persuasions under an agreed upon caretaker regime. This will be a difficult process even with military tutelage and arbitration since the military itself will have to be reformed.

However, since the Boliviarian Revolution was never socialist and the capitalist state remains intact even if decrepit, the foundations for a rejuvenated economy are present. Likewise, many of the social gains made by the lower classes under the Boliviarians have taken enough social root so as to be non-removable if violence is to be avoided. So the foundational compromise underpinning the new democratic regime  seems to involve an exchange whereby a return to private ownership of some aspects of the Venezuelan economy under broader market steerage is traded for ongoing state control of strategic assets and the extension of social guarantees involving health, education, housing and welfare. The tax regime will need reforming and the art of tax evasion by the wealthy will need to be curtailed for this to happen, so it is unsure if the majority in the opposition will accept anything other than the status quo ante the emergence of the Boliviarians.

If we remember the sclerosis of Venezuelan democracy before Chavez appeared on the scene, where the two major parties–Accion Democratic and COPEI–alternated power in a concertative arrangement where elites siphoned off the country’s wealth while buying off popular consent with oil revenue-derived subsides of public goods and services, then we can understand why the back to the future scenario will not work. It will take a sincere effort by fair-minded people on both sides, Boliviarians and Opposition, to recognise that the experiment is over and the country needs a new course that is not a repeat of the past, be it recent or distant.

And there is where I will leave with a note of optimism. Unlike many Latin American countries, Venezuela has a historical precedent of reaching consensus–or at least elite agreement–on the characteristics and contours of a new political system. The 1958 “Pacto de Punto Fijo” (roughly translated as the Full Stop Pact) defined the features of the new democratic regime after years of unstable oligarchical and often violent rule. It led to the power alternation agreement between AD and COPEI under conditions of electoral competition and state control of the oil sector in which agreed upon parameters for public revenue expenditures were respected. While it deteriorated into a lighter version of the current cabal of thieves, it lasted for forty years and only fell because it did not recognise, because of its institutional myopia, the social forces that lay at the root of the Chavez phenomenon and emergence of the Boliviarian movement.

In other words, Venezuela needs a new foundational Pact the provides peaceful exit and entrance strategies to the Boliviarians and their inevitable successors. Otherwise there will be blood whether the imperialists get involved or not.

Unearthing the mole.

datePosted on 14:12, September 7th, 2018 by Pablo

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.

An authoritarian nut in a democratic shell.

datePosted on 16:51, July 31st, 2018 by Pablo

At the turn of the 21st century I was teaching an upper division undergraduate  course titled “Comparative Regime Transitions” in which I explored the four “waves” of democratisation that had occurred since the early 1970s in Southern Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and East Asia. I noted that I had also witnessed the rise of concurrent waves of new-form authoritarianism during that rough world time time frame in which old types of despotic leadership were replaced by bureaucratic authoritarians from the Left and Right in response to the crises of oligarchic, populist and weak democratic regimes. These varied from the military nationalists of the Arab world to the revolutionary regimes of Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua and the military junta led-regimes of the Southern Cone of South America, the Philippines, South Korea and Turkey. I also pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, authoritarianism was the more natural political fit for many societies organised along hierarchical lines drawn on gender, class, race, religious or ethnic differences.

My point in doing so was to remind students that contrary to the belief of those like Francis Fukuyama who claimed that the emergence of electoral (if not liberal) democracy as a seemingly global trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s signalled the “End of History” where the political and economic combination of democratic regimes and capitalist production triumphed over all others (particularly authoritarian capitalism and socialism), human history was dialectical rather than linear. There is no simple progression towards a (preferred) end state and the possibility of reversal is always latent in the move from one political-economic form to another. In this I was channeling my view that Hegelian dialectics, rather than dialectical materialism or any number of property and individual-centric “liberal” theories, best explained the superstructural dynamics inherent in political regime change. They are grounded in but not reducible to changes in production and the social division of labour attendant to it, which means that they have a pattern of historical development all of their own.

This belief comes to mind when I think of today’s widely lamented condition of globalised democratic decline and decay. In both the developed and developing world new and old democracies alike are crumbling from within, beset by a nasty combination of corruption, power-grabbing, institutional sclerosis, gerrymandering, electoral manipulation, economic inefficiency and income disparity, racial and ethnic conflict, migration pressures, youth alienation, crime, judicial bias, incompetence or indifference, poverty and assorted other social ills. This has prompted a return to authoritarianism under electoral guise; that is, in its newest version, the turn to despotism occurs under conditions of electoral rule and is instigated from within the institutional edifice of ostensibly democratic governments in response to what is claimed to be the crisis of civil society.

Here is context in order to explain.

In the 1980s a considerable body of academic writing was focused on the demise of authoritarian regimes and the restoration, resurrection or return of democratic forms of governance throughout the world. This followed on earlier academic work that focused on the causes of democratic breakdown. I was lucky to have been mentored by several of the leading figures in that discussion, and through them was exposed to the work of other intellects who together with my mentors formed what came to be known as the first generation of “transitologists,” i.e. people who studied the fluid dynamics of regimes in processes of decline or rise rather than the durable features of stable regimes. As it turns out, regardless of the specific ideology of the regime in question, authoritarians tend to fall for broadly the same reasons having to do with the nature of their rule over time. Likewise, democracies rise and fall due more to general institutional failures than whether they are right or left-leaning in nature.

(For those interested in the dynamics of authoritarian and democratic transition and who may think that recent writing on the subject is all that there is, I commend the companion four part volumes that started the whole transitology industry: The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Johns Hopkins, 1978 and Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Johns Hopkins, 1986).

Into the mix came the person of Juan Linz. A Spanish born sociologist at Yale and one of the editors of The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Linz was more than professionally concerned about dictatorship and democracy. He had seen both in his homeland and worked hard to understand why democracies could fail from within rather than be overthrown from without. As it turns out, just like the reasons for a coup d’état, there are “push” and “pull” factors in democratic decline. The pull factors are those that come from outside the government of the day, be it a disloyal opposition, military plotting, rising civil unrest, business sabotage, irredentist or separatist strife, economic downturns, etc. These should normally be handled by the government through the institutional process into order to reach mutual satisfactory, or at least second best social outcomes: not everyone gets everything that they want but most get some of what they want. When the institutional process fails to meet expectations and achieve those solutions, the external pull to replace those in power gowns stronger if not irresistible.

Linz understood this but also knew that absent an armed insurrection or military interruption, pull factors alone could not bring down a democracy. He consequently focused on the push factors that impelled democratic governments to turn towards authoritarianism as a response to crisis. His concern was on more than the individual whims of megalomaniac presidents and political cabals intent of holding on to power. Instead, it was on deficiencies in institutional design that left some types of democracy more prone to authoritarianism than others.

He outlined a number of factors in his considerable body of work but pinpointed two, one general and one specific, that made some democracies more susceptible to the “authoritarian temptation” than others: presidential systems and the use of Executive decrees. Basically, there are two types of democratic government, presidential systems and parliamentary systems. The latter are dominated by parties that form governments based on the percentage of votes received and the ability to attract coalition partners. The government is led by a Prime Minister who is the leader of the dominant or majority power of any given coalition, but parliament remains a strong check and balance on what the government can do when it comes to policy-making. In contrast, presidential systems, also known as Executive-dominant systems, are those in which the chief executive of the nation–the president–is elected separately from the legislature (parliament or Congress). Here the Executive branch has much more power and authority to enact policy free from the checks imposed by the legislature, to the point that it is the “first amongst equals” when it comes to the three branches of democratic governance.

For Linz presidential systems have a built-in bias towards ruling without the advice and consent of the legislature or judicial review. That is where the more specific design flaw comes into play. Executive decrees or orders are designed to by-pass the legislature in order to provide efficient and decisive policy-implementation in times of crisis or emergency. Normally a president would not make use of such prerogatives if the national condition was stable and peaceful and indeed in most instances that is a case. But take a president confronted with the pull factors mentioned above and/or one who wishes to perpetuate him/herself in office, impose a specific agenda against the will of the people and its elected representatives, or in others ways benefit or take advantage of executive privilege for personal, private or political gain, then the authoritarian temptation becomes authoritarian practice.

This is the phenomena that we are seeing now. It is not just that right-wing national populists are being elected into office and using demagogic language and behaviour to advance their goals. It is not just elected post-revolutionaries like Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro who have turned on their people when these take to the streets in protest against incompetence, corruption and wide-spread scarcity. It is their use of executive powers that is turning their governments into authoritarian vehicles. Donald Trump is a variant on this theme, where executive orders and decrees are used by everyone from Rodrigo Dutarte to Recap Erdogan to Maurico Macri and are championed by leading political contenders such as rightwing extremist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (who openly supports Dutarte’s approach to crime and waxes nostalgic about the days of military rule). In all instances these political leaders have advocated for or turned to the use of executive decrees and orders to impose unpopular or anti-democratic policies.

The situation is made worse when the powers of the presidency are defined more by custom and tradition than by law. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the Trump presidency, where time-honoured practices and norms have been repeatedly trampled by the vulgarian in the Oval Office because, as it turns out, there is nothing in law that prevents him from doing so. Presidential practice in the US, as it turns out, is about as much grounded in law as is the interior decoration of the White House because most of it is informal and therefore dependent on the president’s disposition when it comes to adherence to informal norms and customs.

Be that as it may, time and time again, using the pretext of fighting crime, restoring order or handling some other type of national emergency, executives in presidential systems have resorted to decrees and orders to accomplish their ends. And now, in a spectacle that Linz perhaps fortunately did not live to see, we have parliamentary majorities giving extraordinary powers to prime ministers in order to do the same thing. Witness Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and his xenophobic policies or Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s assaults on judicial independence, which come after their parties gained large coalition majorities that allow them to push through laws in spite of popular opposition or the strictures of decency and fair play.

The key point is that Linz’s bottom line is correct: the combination of a constitutionally strong executive and decree or order-making powers accorded to it is an authoritarian nut in a democratic shell. Short of changing to a parliamentary system with multiple party representation in government, the best immediate solution to the authoritarian temptation inherent in presidential systems is to strip presidents of decree or order-making privileges except in cases of dire national emergency (with what constitutes a dire national emergency spelled out in a constitutional or legal amendment). While this may not prevent the abuse of majorities in parliamentary systems to ram-rod legislation under “urgency,” it can weaken the temptation to go full authoritarian when the law does not explicitly prohibit doing so because it might cause a parliamentary revolt or conscience votes of no-confidence within the ruling coalition.

It is doubtful that any president will abolish the decree or order-making privileges. History has shown that even the most fair minded incumbents tend to leave Executive decree-making powers on the books “just in case.” One only need think of how Barack Obama used Executive Orders to muzzle leakers and whistleblowers to understand that the authoritarian  temptation is powerful even in the best of cases. So the solution has to be found elsewhere, in legislative reform and judicial review that constrain or eliminate the decree-making powers of the Executive.

Even with the cases noted, parliamentary systems are the best safeguards against the authoritarian temptation, something that can be reinforced by eliminating first-past-the-post variants and requiring supermajorities (say, two thirds) to pass legislation under urgency or emergency. A number of parliamentary regimes have in place just such mechanisms but others, including New Zealand, to my knowledge do not. In addition, in parliamentary systems where custom and practice rather than law governs much of what Prime Ministers and their cabinets do (for example, when it comes to national security), the need to increase parliament’s check and balance (if not veto) power is all the more necessary. Getting rid of simple majorities both for government formation and legislation passage is a step in that direction.

When we look at the problems of contemporary democracy, it is not enough to focus on the external or pull factors that cause or facilitate democratic decline–social media manipulation, corporate influence, rank partisanship etc. All of these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the breakdown of democracy. What is sufficient is an inherent institutional disposition towards authoritarianism, something that the combination of presidentialism and executive decree-making authority all but assures.

Word: It is time to re-read Juan Linz and craft our remedies accordingly.

In defence of public ostracism.

datePosted on 14:40, June 26th, 2018 by Pablo

Public confrontations between Trump officials and activists, ordinary citizens and at least one restaurant owner have reignited the debate about “civility” in political disagreement. The editorial boards of leading US newspapers and Democratic leaders have called for restraint and asked those with anti-Trump opinions to refrain from harassing or confronting Trump officials in the public space when the latter are in a private capacity (such as eating in a restaurant). They claim doing so will play into Trump’s hands by reinforcing the narrative that the “Left” is an unruly mob uninterested in the right to privacy and free speech.

That is nonsense.

This is no longer a situation where taking the moral-ethical “high road” when the opponent goes low is practically effective. The “high road” strategy has not worked in the US since the Reagan days, when Republicans adopted a “stop at nothing” approach to politics that eventually produced the Trump presidency. Time and time again Democrats and progressives have been trumped by a disloyal Rightwing armed with unsavoury and unethical tactics such as Swiftboating and race-baiting. The situation at present is an ethical nadir that calls for what game theorists define as a “tit for tat” strategy: open with a cooperative (read: civil) move, then repeat the opponent’s move (with a turn to cooperation by the opponent rewarded for it). When Trump was elected the Democrats and public at large waited to give him the benefit of the doubt and some political space to prove his opponents wrong. He responded by proving them right and turning the White House into a cesspit of incivility, aided and abetted by a coterie of surrogates, advisors and sycophants who all share his sociopathic tendencies. Thus the proper retort is to respond in like kind, albeit with a twist.

Let’s begin with the fact that the US “Left” or what passes for it is of the soft (non-violent) persuasion. For all the talk about Antifa and Trotskyites smashing things, the bulk of Left violence is the garden variety protest march-turned-small riot where either a few provocateurs try to incite a bigger riot by breaking windows, looting and/or assaulting police or opponents (because most of the “militant” Left rallies are in fact counter-protests against white supremacists and neo-Nazis); or the Left protestors engage with Rightists in physical confrontations using sticks, bottles, Mace, edged and other improvised weapons (the Right does in fact bring firearms to many protests and its adherents of course have used them on more than one occasion, but the majority of the Right-on-Left fights involve variants of basic hand weapons). There have been no assaults on Trump officials and no attempts on the lives of anyone in his administration.

The US Left is mostly about shouting slogans and making witty placards against the status quo; the US Right is mostly about threatening or carrying out violence in defence of racial and ethno-religious supremacy. So when it comes to civility or the lack thereof, it is not the Left that is the problem.

Then take the Trump administration itself, which is anything but “civil.” There are two dimensions to its incivility: its policies and its tone. Trump and minions like Sarah Huckabee Sanders regularly use insults, character assassination, dog whistles, stereotypes and slander to belittle and undermine opponents and critics (and allies!) at home and abroad. The list of such is far too long and readers will be all to familiar with them for me to recount here. This is an administration that thrives on the politics of personal attack and which regularly sets new lows when it comes to Executive discourse. In fact, the immediate response of both Sarah Sanders and Trump to her denial of service at a restaurant (where her presence was opposed by the majority of staff) was to use their official Twitter accounts to disparage the establishment and its owner. In effect, Trumpsters whining about being confronted in their private time is just a case of crocodile tears on the part of bullies unaccustomed to being personally called out on their behaviour.

Add to that its callous disregard for fundamental ethics on a number of fronts (conflicts of interest, disclosure of confidential material, use of taxpayer money for private pursuits), and what we have today is the most uncivil US administration ever. Heck, Trump makes George W. Bush look dignified and smart and Richard Nixon look honest and statesmanlike, so there never again can be an argument as to who is the worst US president of all time. If nothing else his record when it comes to incivility will be hard to beat.

Then there are the policies of the Trump administration and the ways in which they are implemented or attempted. The Muslim ban, the ban on transgender military service, the opening up of wild lands to fossil fuel exploration, the withdrawal from international treaties and agreements, the removal of protections for disabled people, the cutbacks in funding for special education, denial of climate change and removal of scientists from White House offices, the edict to engage in forced separation of undocumented immigrant families–these and many more policies are underpinned by overtly racist, classist, misogynist, xenophobic and authoritarian attitudes that reek of contempt for the institutional process, the meaning of public service and the basic democratic principle of public accountability.

More importantly, Trump administration policies are mean in intent and consequence. They are designed to hurt rather than help people. They are designed to use the power of the federal government to punish and oppress outlier groups and reward and advantage insiders. They are blunt instruments of malevolence aimed at pounding the body politic into complying with a vision of society based on hierarchy, hate, privilege, stratification and self-interest/greed. In word and deed, Trump and his cabal hurt tens of thousands of people on a daily basis and make no apologies for it.

So what is so civil about that? And why should we be civil to them in return? Is not staying silent in the face of official incivility submission or acquiescence to it? I believe that it is.

Instead of silence, I think that we should make things very personal to every single Trump minion, surrogate, spin doctor, media acolyte, political donor and corporate toady. The message, delivered up close and personal, should be that the policies of hate and greed have no place in a secular cosmopolitan society and the politics of personal attack can work two ways. In this case the attack is not physical even if confrontational: the Trump entourage need to understand and feel in their personal lives the discomfort of threat and opprobrium. The repudiation of Trump policy needs to be made personal to them because both the administration lackeys as well as the foot soldiers implementing their policies believe that they are personally immune from liability or accountability.

Those at the top believe that the office of the presidency protects them from personal reproach, and those at the bottom believe that anonymity protects them from individual retribution. If we cannot confront the originators of bad policy in the public space and their personal lives and if we do not equally confront the enablers and implementors of uncivil policies, where is dissent and opposition heard? The courts, which are increasingly stacked with Trump appointees? Congress, where both chambers are controlled by the entity formally known as the Republican Party but which is now a Trump coat-tail and rubber-stamp machine?

No, the time for civility ended a while ago. The truth is that “civility” in political discourse has been eroding since the Reagan era, mostly thanks to the antics of the media and Political Right. So the calls for Left civility are both hypocritical and self-defeating because they work to silence those who wish to stand up to political bullying while ignoring the bullies themselves.

Mind you, I am not talking about physically attacking people or confronting their dependent children in any way. I am not advocating people go out and deliberately harass  Trump administration officials. What I am defending is the practice of calling out those responsible for despicable policies regardless of place. If we are going to ostracise or “name and shame” sexual offenders, local fraudsters, animal abusers and assorted other low-lifes and miscreants who are not in the public eye, why should we defer from doing so to those that are?

The best way to drive home to Trumpsters the fact that their actions have negative consequences is to make things personal understanding that timing and place need to be factored into the equation in order to be effective (e.g. yelling at people outside of church or at kid’s sporting events may be counter-productive while a quiet or polite rebuke in a parking lot may make the point better. There are plenty of ways to be direct and personal without seeming creepy or unhinged). It is not as if these agents of misery are constantly exposed to public wrath. They have enough time to enjoy the bubble and echo chamber that is their political support base in and outside of the institutions of office. They have the option to defend themselves via argument or escape, and many have bodyguards to buffer them from physical aggression. So let’s stop this nonsense about civility and lets make things real: in order to gain respect one has to give respect. In order to be treated with civility one must be civil as well. And if one disrespects entire groups of people and ruins the lives of thousands while catering to the baser instincts of the minority that are one’s political adherents, then better be prepared to hear about it in person.

Because civility is not about silence or submission. It is about consent. And when consent is lost, then civility includes the right to make personal to those who rule the reasons why.

Pick your poison.

datePosted on 13:37, June 12th, 2018 by Pablo

Two decades ago New Zealand uncoupled the security and trade strands in its foreign policy. The decision stemmed from the removal of New Zealand’s preferential trade status with the UK in the early 1970s and the fallout to the embrace of a non-nuclear status in 1985, which led to the dissolution of the Australia-New Zealand-US military alliance (ANZUS). With the end of the Cold War, New Zealand foreign policy elites decided that one of the cornerstones of foreign policy in the tight bipolar world that dominated international affairs from 1945 to 1990, issue linkage between security allies who trade preferentially with each other, no longer applied to the conduct of its international relations and that placing the trade and security “eggs “of foreign policy in different baskets better ensured independence and autonomy in international affairs.

Over the next twenty years New Zealand shifted its trade orientation to non-traditional partners in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East while slowly re-establishing its security ties with its traditional Anglophone allies. The latter trend was accentuated after 9/11 but did not slow the pursuit of preferential trade agreements with new markets, China in particular. In fact, New Zealand signed the first bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) between a Western democracy and the PRC in 2008, and within a few short years China has become New Zealand’s second largest trading partner (after Australia), supplanting both the EU and the US in that regard.

In parallel, New Zealand joined the US-led “war on terror” (sic) by deploying troops to Afghanistan from 2001 to the present (now in a diminished role), Iraq 2003-2013 and Iraq and Syria from 2015 to the present. It signed the bilateral Wellington (2010) and and Washington (2012) Declarations that made it a first tier defense partner of the US, and it has strengthened its intelligence ties with the Anglophone partners in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network as well as upgraded liaison relations between its human intelligence agency, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and Western counterparts such as ASIO (Australia), the CIA (US), DGSE (France) and others.

The trouble with the “eggs in different baskets” approach is that it assumes that a balance of power can be maintained and ignores the possibility of conflict between major trade and security partners. The guiding principle of issue linkage was that security and trade partners trusted and did not conflict with each other. Conflict was limited to between alliance systems. Uncoupling of security and trade linkages consequently raises the possibility of conflict between competing security and trade partners, something that makes the delinked stance more akin to straddling a barbed wire fence while standing on ice blocks than balancing between competing interests.

The situation is made worse for small states trying to remain neutral between competing great powers. That situation, described by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian Wars when recounting the siege of Melos and its attempts to skirt the conflict between Athens and Sparta,occurs when a small state is forced to choose between two great power rivals. Although the Spartans accepted its neutrality, Melos refused Athenian demands to swear fealty and as a result was starved, invaded, ransacked, its men killed and its women and children taken prisoner.

Mutatis mutandis, this is increasingly likely to be the dilemma posed to New Zealand as a resulted of its bifurcated foreign policy. China and the US are on a collision course across a range of strategic issues, including security and trade, as the jockey for dominance in the Western Pacific. Chinese militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea and its claims to sovereignty over that entire water space (and territories claimed by five neighboring states), coupled with its aggressive use of “checkbook diplomacy” to win friends in and influence the foreign policies of Pacific Island nations, added to its rapid naval expansion and power projection into the blue waters of the Western Pacific have been met with a US “pivot to Asia” and a shifting of US military assets to the Pacific theater. The Chinese have tied their military expansionism in part to the “One Belt One Road” trade initiative that seeks to extend China’s trade influence across continents (combining the old land-based Silk Road routes with a Maritime Silk Road linking Southern China and East Africa with ports in between). It also has a naval strategy—the “chain of pearls” strategy– premised on moving beyond defence of what it considers to be its inshore seas (such as the South and East Asian Seas) and into the Indian and Pacific oceans where it can self-guarantee maritime security in its sea lanes of communication.

Under Donald Trump’s presidency the US has retrenched economically, abandoning free trade pacts such as the Transpacific Partnership in favor of an economic nationalist strategy premised on protective tariffs and bilateral trade agreements. It has turned its back on much of the rules-based liberal world order crafted over the past sixty years in favor of a unilateralist diplomatic approach heavily grounded in aggressive military re-assertion in contested areas. It has also abandoned issue-linkage between trade and security with ertswhile allies except to use “national security” as an excuse to gut extant trade pacts (as the most recent G7 fiasco demonstrates).

The combination of economic nationalism and military-led diplomacy raises the possibility of open conflict with power contenders disinclined to bend to US demands. More broadly, the transition from the Cold War to the unipolar world in which the US was undisputed hegemon has now been followed by the rise of a contentious multipolar order in which rising and re-assertive powers contest US leadership in world affairs, China and Russia especially. Since conflict serves as a systems regulator during transitional international moments and because old alliance systems are under siege and new “power blocs” are being created, the likelihood that conflict will break out between ascendent and descendent powers as they jockey for supremacy in the new world order has increased markedly.

The jostling for position has many manifestations. One of them is the contest for influence in non-aligned and uncommitted states. Because of its bifurcated foreign policy New Zealand is seen as one such state by China, and recent controversies about PRC “influence operations” in Aotearoa parallel similar debates about the extent of Chinese “soft” subversion in the political and economic systems of Australia, Canada and several African and Latin American states. In fact, there is enough backlash throughout the Five Eyes network about PRC use of front organizations and other “magical weapons” (including corrupt inducements to key actors) so as to have it rated as a threat as grave over the long-term as espionage and other intelligence collection activities conducted by the Chinese. They are seen as more pernicious than Western influence activities such as educational and cultural exchanges, etc. because they are more directly focused on influencing political and economic outcomes in ways favorable to the PRC and are designed to support (and are in fact closely linked to) the authoritarian policies of the Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad.

The result is a growing ideological battle between the PRC and New Zealand’s Western allies, particularly the US and Australia, over the future direction of the country. On the one hand, the Chinese presence in New Zealand has been materially beneficial. But that has come with strings attached that are believed to compromise the integrity of New Zealand institutions. For its their part, New Zealand’s Anglophone orientation has not paid similar material dividends in recent times even though it gives it a seat at the table in security meetings with its traditional partners. And although Western influence in New Zealand has been benign due to shared values and cultural norms, the record of the the US when confronting democracies that stray from their preferred political and economic approaches demonstrates that there is a dark side to their influence as well (one only need think of US subversion of the Whitlam government in Australia and record in Latin America to get a sense of this).

New Zealand consequently finds itself caught on the horns of an impending dilemma: if push comes to shove between China and the US, which side should it choose? Even if the great power conflict is economic and diplomatic rather than military, it will be forced to choose within the next decade or so because New Zealand is too deeply tied to both countries to play the balancing game once the great power rivalry erupts into open conflict. The question is therefore not a matter of if but of when and for/against who?

There will be significant costs to whatever choice is made. Should New Zealand choose China (as a rising great power), it will lose the security umbrella and suffer the diplomatic wrath of its most traditional and closest international partners. The consequences will be felt in a loss of trade and diplomatic ostracism, but most acutely in security relations with other Western democracies. The Five Eyes listening posts in New Zealand will be dismantled and all of the highly sensitive equipment, to say nothing of archived records and stored data, will be removed under duress. This could well cause a revolt within the New Zealand intelligence community given its Anglophone orientation and when coupled with “dark” influence operations could prompt civil unrest amongst those disinclined to cast their lot with the Chinese. It could even prompt covert and overt hostile responses from the jilted partners, who will likely discontinue military relations with New Zealand, including sale and supply of equipment. There will be a moment of national crisis.

Should New Zealand opt to side with the US and its security allies in any future conflict with China, it will suffer serious economic losses as a result of Chinese retaliation. This has already been presaged by the Chinese response to New Zealand’s support for the International Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China over island-building in contested waters, where New Zealand goods were held up in port and CCP-controlled media editorials warned New Zealand over the consequences of siding against China in future disputes.

Given that the New Zealand economy is highly dependent on agricultural and other primary good exports to China as well as tourism and students from it, the economic costs of losing the Chinese market will not be balanced by increasing trade elsewhere or recruiting tourists and students from other countries. That includes trade with the European Union with or without Great Britain, particularly if New Zealand persists in negotiating a bilateral FTA with Russia in the face of EU sanctions against it. No other export market can compensate for the loss of China, and since New Zealand does not have enough value-added exports or a domestic service sector that can take up the slack, and because its tourism and foreign student markets have been framed around preferential treatment for Chinese (e.g. via special visa schemes), it is bound to suffer a severe economic downturn should its choice go against the PRC.

The PRC will also use its deeply embedded influence assets to sow discord within the Chinese expat community and within the power circles that it has penetrated. That could add to the general unrest caused by the turn away from such an economic powerhouse and benefactor. It will undoubtably use diplomatic as well as economic and perhaps even covert and overt hostile means to punish New Zealand and hurt its interests (say, by abandoning fishery and other conservation schemes in the South Pacific and using naval assets to protect its commercial fleet from foreign law enforcement). This list of retaliatory measures is long and the means by which they are delivered powerful.

So what could precipitate the forced choice? Consider the following scenarios which, if not exhaustive or immediate, are definitely within the realm of the plausible:

1. China continues to demand that New Zealand renounce its participation in the multinational naval conducting freedom of navigation and safe passage exercises in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. When New Zealand refuses to do so and send a ship on patrol just outside the 12 mile territorial limit claimed by the Chinese around, say, the Spratly Islands, the Chinese respond by suspending all agricultural imports from New Zealand for six months. New Zealand exporters go crazy over the loss of income and the government is pressured to give in to the Chinese demand; or, the government refuses to give in to the demand and a subsequent patrol by a New Zealand frigate is hit by an anti-ship missile fired from the Spratlys**. Several sailors are killed and the ship is crippled and towed into Chinese claimed waters and held until apologies are given for its “intrusion” and “provocation.” What then?

2. The Chinese announce the signing of a forward basing agreement with Fiji in which a deep water berthing complex, a 14,000 foot runway and facilities for a division’s worth of troops will be constructed near Suva. Soon after that the Russians announce that they have made a deal with the Chinese to rotate expeditionary forces through the base for tropical warfare training. Australia, France, the UK and US denounce the move as unacceptable. What does New Zealand do?

3. Australia and the US announce the uncovering of a Chinese espionage ring in the South Pacific. It includes several Chinese individuals, including dual nationals, in New Zealand. These are diplomats, students, business people and front agencies engaged in both intelligence gathering and subversive activities that extend into the Beehive and security bureaucracies. The allies call for the closure of Chinese diplomatic facilities and the expulsion of diplomats identified in the sweep and the arrest of those without diplomatic immunity on spying charges, including the possibility of their extradition to the US because of attempts to penetrate the Five Eyes listening posts and other sensitive sites in which the US has a presence. How does New Zealand respond?

4. The US imposes redoubled tariffs on New Zealand exports because it refuses to raise its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP and permit US pharmaceutical and IT companies to extend the lifetime of monopoly patents and proprietary intellectual property rights in New Zealand. It demands New Zealand take a more adversarial stance against China in regional and international fora and reinforces its position by restricting intelligence flows and military-to-military contacts within 5 Eyes and between the two countries, including a cut off of US Air Force resupply flights to NZ Antarctic bases from Christchurch.

Strategic planners in Wellington may not like to ponder these unpalatable scenarios and the unpleasant consequences that a forced choice entails regardless of the nature of the decision. But given the way great power rivalries are playing our at present, they need to consider the possibility that the time will come when the “eggs in different baskets” approach is proven detrimental to the national well-being and a choice between great power poisons has to be considered.

** Less readers think this scenario far-fetched, be aware that it would demonstrate Chinese resolve to defend its self-proclaimed territories knowing that New Zealand’s larger security partners will not risk war over an attack on the “weakest link,” in the multinational naval coalition, especially given New Zealand’s seeming reluctance to denounce Chinese norm violations in the region. That will force a diplomatic resolution, which itself is a victory for the PRC.

Cherry picking on Chinese influence.

datePosted on 11:32, May 29th, 2018 by Pablo

Concern about Chinese influence operations in Western democracies has increased over the last few years, including here in NZ. The concern stems from the fact that, although not espionage or intelligence gathering per se, such operations–which involve money spent on individuals and organisations, establishment of pro-China fronts and media outlets, and placement of individuals linked to or controlled by the Chinese Communist Party in positions of corporate and political importance–corrupt Western democratic systems and undermine the political, social and economic values that underpin them.

The impact of Chinese influence operations has been the subject of considerable discussion in Australia, to the point that politicians have been forced to resign because of undisclosed ties to Chinese interests and intelligence agencies have advised against doing business with certain Chinese-backed agencies. As usual, the NZ political class and corporate media were slow to react to pointed warnings that similar activities were happening here (people may remember my essay on a Chinese fifth column from a few years ago). It was not until Canterbury University academic Anne Marie Brady published an essay last year on so-called Chinese “magic weapons” that the extent of Chinese influence in the local political and corporate worlds was revealed and became a matter of public interest.

It is significant that Brady’s work was first published in the US for a think tank focused on Chinese international affairs, and her first public exposure happened in Australia at a parliamentary committee hearing. That is because, unlike the US and Australia, NZ politicians are not particularly interested in digging into the nature and extent of Chinese influence on the party system and government policy. This, in spite of the “outing” of a former Chinese military intelligence instructor and academic as a National MP and the presence of well-heeled Chinese amongst the donor ranks of both National and Labour, the close association of operatives from both parties with Chinese interests, and the placement of well-known and influential NZers such as Don Brash and Jenny Shipley in comfortable sinecures on Chinese linked boards, trusts and companies.

As I have written before, there is enough to this pattern of behaviour to warrant scrutiny from NZ intelligence agencies and the police. But we also need to put Chinese influence operations in perspective. How are the Chinese any different than the Indians or Polynesian groups when it comes to infiltrating political parties, other than the amount of money available to them? How are these influence operations substantially different than those of other governments such as the US, which funds an array of scholarships, visitor programs, parliamentary delegation junkets and the like? How are Chinese backing of friendship and solidarity groups different than those backed by other foreign governments? How is Chinese corporate fund raising, “fact-finding” and conference travel and other ear-bending efforts any different than the lobbying of corporations, business associations, advocacy groups, etc.?

The answer seems to be that the Chinese are authoritarian, have lots of money to spend on making friends and influencing people and do so in a clearly transactional fashion, much as they do via their chequebook policy in the South Pacific. The implication is that they engage in corrupt practices when necessary and will not adhere to the strictures of democratic governance other than as lip service when it comes to pursuing their interests. Since NZ is, in essence, just another Pacific Island nation, why should this come as a surprise? In fact, the more interesting issue is why, fully knowing that the Chinese are using influence operations for purposes of State that go beyond international friendship or business ties, do so many prominent New Zealanders accept their money and/or positions on front organisations? Is the problem not so much what the Chinese do as as a rising great power trying to enlarge its sphere of influence as it is the willingness of so-called honourable Kiwis to prostitute themselves for the Chinese cause?

Last week the beat up on Chinese influence in NZ took a strange twist. At a US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCESRC) hearing, an ex-CIA analyst said that the Chinese had penetrated the “political core” of the country and that in light of that the US should reconsider keeping NZ in the Five Eyes signals intelligence sharing network.

The absurdity of these remarks needs to be deconstructed, not only for what was said but for what was not said. Let it also be noted that although nominally a bipartisan agency of the US Congress, the USCESRC has increasingly become a China-bashing forum, something that has been accentuated under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who oversees Commission appointments) and President Trump. This also matters because the witnesses called to testify before USCESRC are often cherry picked for their views on matters of US-China relations.

In his case the ex-CIA analyst rightly pointed out that, in contrast to the US and Australia, the NZ political elite were blasé about the extent of Chinese influence in local politics. But he took a step too far, downplaying the record of the previous National government and criticising the new Labour government for casting a blind eye on pernicious Chinese influence within its ranks (the only mention of National was a reference to the Jian Yang case). He then jumped the shark by recommending that the US and other 5 Eyes partners reconsider NZ’s membership in the signals intelligence sharing partnership.

Let’s be very clear: for the previous nine years National was in power, the deepening of Chinese influence was abided, if not encouraged by a Key government obsessed with trade ties and filling the coffers of its agrarian export voting base. It was National that ignored the early warnings of Chinese machinations in the political system and corporate networks, and it was Chinese money that flowed most copiously to National and its candidates. It is not an exaggeration to say that Chinese interests prefer National over Labour and have and continue to reward National for its obsequiousness when it comes to promoting policies friendly to Chinese economic interests. In fact, it is National that had a Minister, in the person of Judith Collins, attempt to use her position and manipulate the NZ ambassador to China into pushing her husband’s dodgy Chinese-backed business.

All political parties protest that they strictly adhere to campaign finance law and on paper they clearly do. But the whiff of dark money, dirty politics and other forms of unacknowledged influence trading has long clung to National in a measure not shared with its opponents. Put succinctly, contrary to what the the ex CIA analyst intimated, the influence of Chinese interests has been strongest when National is in government. And it is not just the Chinese who have availed themselves of the favourable climate operative during National’s tenure.

Not that National is solely to blame when it comes to trading favours. Labour clearly has consorted with some unsavoury Chinese donors and it remains to be seen if it will be any different than National now that it is out of the wilderness and back into government. But if foreign penetration of the “political core” is such a concern, it is surprising that no serious mention has made either at home or abroad of Winston Peters’ ties to Russia via the horse industry and beyond. In fact, when one looks at Peters’s links to an assortment of industries and interests, it is not just foreigners who appear to have an inside track on his thinking. Even so, the notion of a “political core” being compromised assumes that a whole array of constituent groups, from unions to manufacturers to iwi, are in the pockets of the Chinese no matter who is in government. Perhaps they are, but if so, I have not heard about it.

Labour may have the likes of Raymond Ho in its ranks and some dubious Chinese businessmen among its supporters, but it comes nowhere close to National when it comes to sucking up to the Chinese. That is why Jian Yang is still an MP, and that is why we will never hear a peep from the Tories about the dark side of Chinese influence operations. For its part, Labour would be well-advised to see the writing on the wall now that the issue of Chinese “soft” subversion has become a focal point for Western democracies. After all, Chinese influence operations that work to subvert basic value structures do so against a backdrop of aggressive Chinese cyber attacks and intelligence gathering in the countries in which influence operations are most prominent, NZ included.

But that is also why the recommendation that NZ be excluded from 5 Eyes is ridiculous. First, because for all of the talk about counter-terrorism, the bulk of counter-intelligence efforts by NZ (through the SIS and GCSB) and its 5 Eyes partners are directed at state actors, China in particular. Even if the NZ political elite were totally compromised by the Chinese, the security bureaucracies would insulate their operations from political interference and would likely work with the Police to demonstrate when and where politicians were acting on behalf of Chinese rather than NZ interests. It is the NZ intelligence community (NZIC), more than anyone else, who know the full extent of Chinese activities in the country, and the NZ intelligence community is fully ensconced in Anglo-centric democratic intelligence networks. It is therefore not likely that the NZIC would overlook the type of Chinese influence operations that result in capture of NZ’s “political core.”

Secondly, getting thrown out of 5 Eyes is not simply a matter of being told to take one’s toys and go home. The equipment at the listening posts at Waihopai and Tangimoana and at GCSB headquarters in Wellington is acutely sensitive and there are numerous citizens of partner countries working at those installations. Dismantling and removing equipment, files, archives and other sensitive material from such facilities will be time consuming, diplomatically fraught and operationally vulnerable, especially when it is well known that the Chinese, foremost amongst others, are extremely interested in them.  Institutional history, to include linkages with 5 Eyes partners and broader security networks, would have to be purged in order to avoid it falling into adversary hands. So getting kicked out of 5 Eyes involves much more than a rebuke, and, given NZ’s taskings within the 5 Eyes network, it is precisely the Chinese who will benefit the most from the expulsion.

If the US and other 5 Eyes partners are as worried about NZ being compromised by the Chinese as the ex-CIA analyst suggests that they are, a message of concern would have been sent to the NZ government in at least three ways: via diplomatic communications from the US embassy (which undoubtably has sent reports back to the State Department about the prevalence and impact of Chinese influence operations and intelligence gathering in NZ); by a diminishing of intelligence feeds from those partners in an obvious fashion; and by direct communication between the intelligence chiefs involved. This could well have been the purpose of the visit by the US Director of Intelligence to NZ a few weeks ago and if so, the gravity of the concerns have now been made clear to the Ardern government. However, the PM as well as the Opposition leader have both said that nothing has been brought to their attention that causes them to believe that NZ’s political system has been compromised by Chinese agents.

Given my antipathy towards authoritarians, I hold no particular affection for the PRC. But I do recognise that it does so as a maturing great power and accept that its behaviour is not going to change any time soon unless action is taken to circumscribe its activities in the West–a problem for societies founded on notions of freedom of association, movement and speech (including of opinion and the press). Because these rights are seen as Achilles Heels to be exploited by authoritarian rivals such as China and Russia, it should be expected that they will continue to be used as avenues of exploitation by them (as has been well demonstrated in the US).

What I deplore the most, though, is attacks on left-leaning governments (such as they are) like the current Labour government in NZ for supposedly going soft on Chinese influence pandering when in fact it has been right-leaning governments, not only in NZ but elsewhere, that have most assiduously courted Chinese investment and better diplomatic ties in spite of the PRC’s authoritarian character and dubious record when it comes to human rights and adherence to international conventions. For the NZ media to pick up and bang this hammer when it is part of an orchestrated attack on the Chinese by the US doing so for geopolitical reasons of its own demonstrates how shallow and uncritical reporting has become in Aotearoa. The issue is serious, which is precisely why it should not be subject to partisan manipulation or, ironically, pressure from allied states.

So yes, NZ has a problem with Chinese influence operations on its soil, particularly the willingness of NZers to serve Chinese interests for a handful of coin. But no, it is not just the fault of Labour and no, it is not as bad as has been alleged by the ex-CIA analyst. Nor is what the Chinese do in terms of influence mongering that dissimilar to what many other entities do when pushing their message in the NZ political system.  So let us take better notice of the phenomenon and address it for what it is without succumbing to the apocalyptic diatribes of people whose concern about Chinese influence operations has  less to do with the particularities of NZ and more to do with the broader strategic competition that sees China on the rise and the US in decline.

BONUS LISTEN: Here is an interview done on RNZ by the ex CIA analyst in question. Readers can form their own opinions as to whether he sounds like an authoritative and credible source for the claims he has made: https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018646774/ex-cia-analyst-admits-trump-irony-in-china-influence-warning

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