Posts Tagged ‘Foreign policy/affairs’

Is Iran a Menace?

datePosted on 19:13, October 6th, 2009 by Pablo

Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.

But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.

First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?

The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semites rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and  the Mahdi Army and other  Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to Shiia irredentism in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.

It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at Riyadh or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”

Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question.  So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just that Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?

Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”

John Rides the Fence

datePosted on 21:55, October 1st, 2009 by Pablo

Besides serving as a prop for some Letterman piss-taking, John Key’s visit to the the UN allows us to finally see the contours of National’s foreign policy. It can be captured in a neat phrase: firmly straddling the fence.

At the UN Mr. Key made all the right noises, speaking about fighting climate change, reducing carbon emissions, supporting multilateral approaches to conflict resolution and nation-building, promoting free trade and economic transparency. But his actions elsewhere speak volumes about what National really intends, at least in core areas of international relations. I shall break them down in order of importance to NZ.

On trade, NZ is gradually but decisively shifting to an Asian/Middle East orientation. National clearly sees that NZ’s competitive advantage lies in its traditional comparative advantage in primary good and derivative exports rather than value added manufacturing (except in niche industries such as weapons componentry). The bulk market for primary goods and their derivatives is in the East not the West, and even if certain NZ niche export industries such as wine prosper in the advanced liberal democracies, National’s future bet is with consumption growth in Asian and Middle Eastern autocracies. The recent championing of the growth in NZ-PRC trade since the 2008 bilateral FTA was signed demonstrates that National cares less about the after-entry effects of the FTAs (to say: labour market conditions, environmental standards, corporate responsibility to share holders and the general political climate in which export/import Kiwis make their money) and more about profit generated from trade volume growth.

On aid, NZ is privatizing the lot. The recent NZ$1 Million disaster relief assistance offered to Samoa and Tonga notwithstanding (already in the NZAID budget formulated by the Fifth Labour government, and directed to an afflicted area where the cost of recovery will run into the US$ 100 millions), the focus of NZ aid assistance under National, as Lew mentioned in a post a while back, is to promote private entrepeneurship and trade rather than poverty alleviation and social welfare. Moreover, the broader philosophical instinct betrayed by this approach is the National disbelief in nation-building efforts. Now it is clear that National believes that nation-building is a self-help issue: no matter if there are intractable pre-modern conflicts at play, or the  prospects for peace and security for millions are at stake, the answer is to promote capitalist entrepeneurship. In other words, the pursuit of profit trumps all humanitarian concerns when it comes to National’s approach to using taxpayer dollars to provide foreign aid. For National market approaches and trickle down effects are all that is needed to make the world right.

(I should note that this market fetish is now reaching deep into university planning schemes and in efforts to attract foreign fees paying students. As I have experienced directly, the impact on quality of instruction is negatively impacted by the rush to profit from ‘bums in seats.’)

Then, of course, there is national security. Here market logics may or may not apply. National has ramped up its commitment to play the role of Australia junior, which is to say a role in which it actively participates in the foreign military missions of its traditional partners. Afghanistan is the testing point for this re-orientation, because National has re-committed the NZSAS to front line combat duties while at the same time signaling its intention to withdraw the NZDF nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) contingent in Bayiman province. Something tells me that the costs of the NZSAS re-deployment will largely be borne by others (which makes it affordable),  whereas the PRT came mostly at NZ expense (whcih makes it unaffordable in spite of its excellent work). It appears that cost-cutting without principle abounds in these NACTIONAL daze. Given National’s downplaying of nation-building efforts in favour of market-driven logics, the Bayiman PRT is gone-burger (incidentally, the majority of the people who inhabit Bayiman are traditionally the slaves/servants of Pushtuns, so they are natural allies of UN/NATO reconstruction efforts).

So, on security issues National wants to curry favour with Australia, the US and the UK. On trade grounds it wants to curry favour with China, the UAE, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–to mention just a few favoured trade partners. At the same time it appeases the UN with platitudes about environmental protection, non-proliferation and disarmament.

This is a three-sided foreign policy that is designed to be all things to all people divided into selected audiences. Although professional diplomats will work admirably to overcome the difficulties in reconciling these positions under the “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy stance that has obtained since 1990, one has to wonder–beyond the ridicule incurred by not even getting an invite to sit down and talk with the host on the American TV show but instead agreed to lip-read a bunch on American written deprecatory one-liners– if John Key’s loins not were chaffing under the strain of keeping a straight face while enunciating what is basically a  (N.8) wire-top foreign policy for the next three years.

PS–the NZ bid for a rotating Security Council seat is another case of splitting the difference. NZ will clearly be western on security matters but as a small state with an Asian trade orientation, will toe the multilateralist, non-interventionist “open border for trade” policy line, all the while getting to have a temporary say in how threats to the international community are perceived. Given its non-nuclear commitment, that means that NZ  will be duty-bound, among other things, to condemn the Iranian nuclear (weapons) programme and vote in favour of the sanctions/military resolutions occurring thereof. That places its trade orientation at odds with its security stance (since Iran has become a major export destination). Presumably MFAT has thought this one through and contingency planned accordingly.

Blog Link: The Giant’s Rival Part Two: The US responds.

datePosted on 12:21, September 21st, 2009 by Pablo

The second part of the series on China’s growing presence in the South Pacific is now on Scoop. It explores the US response.

Blog Link: China on the Horizon, Part One.

datePosted on 12:07, September 14th, 2009 by Pablo

I have been working on a project focused on the growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific. It will eventually materialise as a magazine or journal article, but as I worked on the draft I decided it would make for a decent “Word from Afar” column at Scoop. Because of its length I have cut it into two parts as well as expanded or modified some aspects of the original text. This first part explores China’s growing influence in the Southwestern Pacific Rim.

Next week I shall cover the US response.

On the possible merger of NZ spy agencies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bipolarity, unipolarity and the coming USBRIC world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following on the theme of my posts on the Honduran coup, but from a different angle, this month’s “Word from Afar” column at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0907/S00170.htm

Explaining the Opening of Diplomatic Dialogue

datePosted on 00:47, April 22nd, 2009 by Pablo

There has been much blather about Obama kow-towing to Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega at the recent Summit of the Americas conference, as well as his overtures to Cuba and Iran. At a minimum, his opponents accuse him of sending the wrong message (apparently it involves “legitimizing” governments that have already been majority elected by their own constituents), and at the worst he is labeled a “socialist” and a “traitor” to the US ideals. The drumbeat of hatred in disloyal opposition is stoked by conservative media outlets, who openly incite the ideologically inclined to physically act upon their irrational fears.

Notwithstanding that type of beat-up, and partisan idiocy aside, there is no reason to be alarmed. US broaching of diplomatic dialogue with various adversaries is a tried and true aspect of conventional diplomacy. Henry Kissinger was a major exponent of the approach, so it is no less useful for US President Obama and Secretary  Clinton to do so. 

As a proven diplomatic tactic, one that the Clinton re-treads who run Obama’s foreign policy apparatus clearly subscribe to, the offer to thaw relations between the US and Cuba, Iran and Venezuela is a “tit-for-tat” strategy designed to gauge the intentions of the opponent. Derived from game theory, it simply states that you open with a cooperative move, then replicate the opponent’s response. If the opponent responds with a cooperative gesture, then continue the iteration. If they opponent responds in an uncooperative fashion, then respond in kind, and only change when the opponent changes the tone of its response. In other words, always replicate the opponent’s move.

As the stronger actor, the US is advantaged by such a strategy, as it puts the other side in a quandary vis a vis domestic constituencies and its own rhetoric (Iran is the current case in point). If there are internal contradictions within the political structure of the opponent, such a strategy is designed to expose them.   For example, the US (under Reagan of all people!) told General Pinochet that they would prefer that he not stand for the presidency of Chile under his rigged constitutional referendum in 1988, and offered several inducements (personal as well as political) for his cooperation. He refused, so the US responded by publicly announcing that, in the interest of US-Chile relations, it would prefer that he did not assume the presidency even if he won.  The conservative coalition that backed him splintered over the offer. He consequently lost the referendum and his hand-picked successor lost the 1989 election that restored democracy to Chile. The point is that Reagan and company wanted a conservative post-authoritarian elected government untainted by the name “Pinochet.” When he showed his megalomaniac tendencies and his support base fractured, Chileans got a left-center, pro-market government instead. Win-win on all counts from a post-Reagan US perspective.

I use the Chilean example only because I am personally familiar with it, but the general point is this: a willingness to talk after periods of estrangement is a diplomatic tit-for-tat opening. It puts the ball in the opponent’s court and gives (US) politicians room to delineate their subsequent moves. Exploiting media opportunities to show “friendliness” is symbolic sop thrown out to soften the opponent’s constituency, and can only be undermined by resistance from one’s own constituency (which is why Fox News and its Republican lapdogs are barking so ferociously about it).  Watching local and international media spinmeisters weave their interpretations (however governments may succeed in controlling interpretations), both sides can measure the external and internal consequences of their respective responses, and carry on accordingly. That gives them a degree of separation from political responsibility in the event of failure.

Closer to home, the question arises: does New Zealand understand the utility of a tit-for-tat strategy when dealing with places like, say, Fiji? If not, MFAT should read the above, and the vast literature that underpins it.

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