Posts Tagged ‘Foreign policy/affairs’

The bin-Laden legacy.

datePosted on 12:47, May 1st, 2013 by Pablo

Nearing the second anniversary of Osama bin-Laden’s death, it might be wise to pause and reflect on his legacy. The purpose is to give an objective appraisal rather than to engage in emotive debate or prejorative discourse.

Bin-Laden’s major legacy is one of ideological inspiration: he cemented in the minds of some sectors of the global Islamic community the idea that Western encroachments on Muslim societies, particularly that of the US, could be resisted with irregularly deployed armed force. These actions need not be spectacular, such as the 9/11 attacks. They could equally be low-level, localized and home-grown so long as they were persistent and unpredictable. There cumulative effect would increase the anxiety of the targeted (mostly but not exclusively Western) populations while prompting an over-reaction by their respective security authorities that impacted on basic notions of civil liberties, individual freedoms and collective rights. The sum effect would be risk aversion by non-Muslims when it came to imposing non-traditional values and interests on Muslim societies.

With regard to the US, bin-Laden’s broader strategic objective, as former CIA officer and bin-Laden profiler Michael Scheuer has pointed out, was to over-extend the US military in an ongoing global unconventional conflict unconfined to national borders or specific regions, which would result in economic bankruptcy and ensuing political polarization within the US. That in turn would prompt the resurgence of isolationist and pacifist tendencies within the US public that would erode support for foreign policies of intervention in Muslim lands.

Although the strategic concept vis a vis the US has not been fulfilled to its ideal, it seems to have been in some measure successful: the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the fiscal crisis that led to the 2008 recession and ensuing politics of austerity. Iraq was a strategic over-reach (and mistake) by the Bush 43 administration intent of demonstrating its resolve as well as its military might. Increasingly polarized over basic notions of identity and values, the US public has nevertheless become more collectively risk adverse when it comes to engagement in foreign conflicts, something reflected in the tenor of politics within the Washington beltway.

Likewise, the Afghanistan conflict went from being an attack on al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors to a war of occupation without end under the guise of “nation-building” and “security assistance.” The material costs of both wars have been phenomenal and the human costs, if not counted in the billions, have been equivalent to those of Vietnam and the Korean Conflict. Previously dormant ethno-religious tensions have been awakened in Asia, Europe and North America with ill political and social effect. The politics of toleration, once a hallmark of Western democracy, now competes with xenophobia and religious separatism for electoral favor. Even Australia and New Zealand are not immune from the syndrome.

In terms of the armed conflict itself, there are now two broad fronts involving two very different strategies at play from a “jihadist” point of view. On the one hand, attacks in stable nation-states with minority Muslim populations have devolved into dispersed, decentralized, self-radicalized grassroots small cell operations in which elements of the Muslim diaspora use their local knowledge to conduct symbolic attacks on host societies. Modeled on Che Guervara’s “foco” (wildfire) theory of guerilla warfare as channeled by Carlos Marighella with his “two-prong” strategy of simultaneous urban and rural insurgency, the objective is not just one of symbolic protest but also to prompt a blanket over-reaction by local authorities in which many are targeted for the crimes of a few.

The lock-down in Boston during the one suspect manhunt after the marathon bombings, a clear violation of the fourth amendment to the US BIll of Rights prohibiting unwarranted searches and seizures (ostensibly done in the interest of “public safety”), is a case in point. More generally, the suspension of civil liberties under a variety of anti-terrorist legislation in a number of Western democracies, to include New Zealand, demonstrates just how successful bin-Laden’s strategy has been at eroding the constitutional pillars of these societies.

That is all the more poignant because Islamic terrorism does not constitute an existential threat to any stable society, Western democratic or not. In fact, one can argue that terrorist acts are more acts of desperation in the face of permanent value or cultural change than it is a defense of tradition or promotion of a preferred alternative (think of the attacks of armed Marxist groups in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s). It may be injurious and tragic for those involved, but in the larger scheme of things it is more akin to the last grasp of a drowning person than it is a serious challenge to the socio-econmic and political status quo.

However, in fragile or unstable states where Muslim populations are a majority or a significant minority, the strategic objective is to gain state control waging more conventional wars. The confluence of historical grievances rooted in traditional forms of discrimination superimposed on territorial or resource disputes lends popular support to jihadist attempts to wrest sovereign control away from pro-western regimes in places like Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and increasingly, Nigeria. Likewise, Muslim irredentists with local grievances engage in guerrilla wars in Chechyna, Thailand, Pakistan the Philippines and Kazakstan, among other places.

In a twist of fate, the so-called “Arab Spring” has allowed battle hardened jihadists from places such as Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan to exploit the window of opportunity offered by civil war in places like Libya and Syria to promote their Islamic agendas in solidarity with their local brothers. Courageous, ferocious and determined, these forces provide discipline to otherwise rag-tag resistance movements who in the absence of such help are more likely to be defeated than to prevail.

The impact of these internationalists was felt in Libya, where in spite of covert Western military assistance the jihadists gained a significant toe-hold that has yet to be dislodged. Likewise, the resistance in Syria is increasingly led by black flag fighters drawn from throughout the Sunni world. The possibility of these forces eventually securing power in both countries remains very real.

Not all has gone to plan according to bin-Laden’s dream. The use of lethal drones as a favorite anti-terrorist weapon has decimated al-Qaeda leadership ranks. The military and intelligence campaigns against militant Islamicists have prevented the organization of large-scale attacks such as 9/11 because the number of people and logistics involved invite early detection and proactive response. With the exception of Pakistan, which has strategic reasons for playing both sides of the fence in the so-called “war on terrorism,” Muslim states have largely joined the anti-Islamicist campaign (although Sunni Arab support for the fight against the Gaddafi and Assad regimes is clear). Thus the decentralization of jihadist operations was a practical necessity as much as the second part of a long-term plan.

The bottom line is that although the bin-Laden legacy is mixed, it has been indelible: the world is a changed place as a result of his actions, for better or for worse. But the world is also a different place because of the response to his actions, for better or worse. It is the latter that will determine the fundamental impact of the former long after his death.

 

Trust in spies.

datePosted on 16:54, April 24th, 2013 by Pablo

A recent TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll showed that 32 percent of those surveyed had little or no trust in New Zealand’s intelligence agencies, 32 percent had much or complete trust in those agencies, and 33 percent were lukewarm either way (with 3 percent undecided). That means that 65 percent of respondents were less than strongly trusting of New Zealand’s spies. This is a remarkable degree of public skepticism of intelligence organizations in a democracy.

The Prime Minister has said that the New Zealand intelligence community has to work hard to regain public trust. He is wrong, or is just being politically polite.

Unlike agencies such as the Land Transport Authority, Police, Fire Service, Health Boards, WINZ and Education, which provide direct goods and services to the public and which depend on public trust in order to operate efficiently (notwithstanding the well-known problems afflicting at least some of these “direct provision” agencies), the intelligence community need not concern itself with expressions of public trust. That is because the service that intelligence agencies provide as ostensibly commonweal organizations (i.e. ones that serve the universal public interest), although for the general good in the last instance (at least theoretically), is not provided directly or even openly. Instead, the intelligence agencies answer to the government of the day as the representative of the public will and provide their collection and analysis skills to the government for the national good as defined by their charter and the government’s interpretation of it.  They do not need the public’s trust in order to operate efficiently because most of what they do is away from the public eye.

Thus, in the first instance, the trust of the government is what matters for the spies. In this the intelligence community has an advantage because politicians elected into government are generally not conversant with intelligence matters and therefore are susceptible to espionage agency “capture:” the information that the spies provide gives the political elite a privileged window on the world, so they are most often reluctant to critically dispute the view.

More importantly, New Zealand’s intelligence sharing partners must have strong levels of trust in its spies. Without that, New Zealand’s access to allied intelligence sharing may suffer because foreign partners will be reluctant to risk placing sensitive information in the hands of untrustworthy people. The saving grace for New Zealand’s spies is that the years of relationship-building with its intelligence partners could allay the latter’s fears of incompetence or unprofessionalism on the part of the former.

On the other hand, even long standing relationships can be damaged by breaches of trust. This could well be the case in the wake of the Dotcom scandal, where the case against the internet magnate is crumbling in light of disclosures of illegal warrantless wiretapping by the GCSB (which makes evidence collected by those wiretaps inadmissible). Between the GCSB’s failures to follow its own basic protocols with regards to eavesdropping requests from sister agencies, coupled with the over the top nature of the raids on Dotcom’s residence (which included the presence of armed FBI agents and the detention of women and children by armed police), it is unlikely that any NZ judge will grant the US extradition request. That means time and resources spent by the US and NZ on pursuing the case against Dotcom will be for naught.  The GCSB failings are bound to be noted by New Zealand’s intelligence partners, who will wonder about the assurances given by the GCSB and Police (and more than likely the SIS) that their course of action would not be subject to legal challenge or public scrutiny.

The bottom line is one of vertical and horizontal accountability. In democracies, governments are held accountable by the electorate (expressed both individually and collectively). That is the vertical dimension of accountability. Under that government, public agencies are accountable to each other via a system of checks and balances. That is the horizontal dimension of democratic accountability, which is used to cultivate the public trust that is key to vertical accountability.

In New Zealand there is very little horizontal accountability between the intelligence community and other parts of government, to include parliament and the judiciary (and perhaps even the executive in specific instances). This makes its agents (to include the GCSB and SIS) even less vertically accountable than in most liberal democracies, where oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms are much better developed.

As a nation-state New Zealand is also accountable to its diplomatic and security partners. That is another facet of horizontal accountability, writ large. New Zealand’s foreign partners must have trust in its diplomatic, military and espionage agencies in order for their mutual relationships to prosper. So long as they do, domestic trust is of secondary importance. But for that to happen, New Zealand’s intelligence community must be able to deliver on what it promises, which means that it must offer iron-clad guarantees that its activities will not be the subject of contentious public or political debate that can jeopardize ongoing intelligence collection and analysis operations

Thus, on the one hand, the poll results are not as worrisome for the government as may appear at first glance. So long as the New Zealand intelligence community and its component parts have the trust of its allies, then it will suffer no harm as a result of the public loss of faith in it. But should foreign partners come anywhere close to exhibiting the flat bell curve of trust that characterizes the results of the TVNZ survey, then New Zealand could well find itself excluded from at least some of the sensitive intelligence flows that are the ostensible reason for its participation in the Echelon/Five Eyes network, to say nothing of the wider intelligence community of which it is part.

As for the domestic side of the equation: a nation of sheep is led by the sheep dog.  The sheep dog is the government, of which intelligence agencies are part. The shepherd is the institutional system of checks and balances that govern intelligence gathering and analysis, to which the government of the moment is subject. Absent such effective oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms, sheep are always at the mercy of an unrestrained and unaccountable dog.

 

El Chavismo sin Chavez.

datePosted on 12:23, March 6th, 2013 by Pablo

I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.

The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.

After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.

He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.

All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.

Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.

In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.

He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).

He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states) so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had  significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.

He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response to his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.

On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderate caudillo (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.

The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).

To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days  after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.

Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.

For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?

Blog Link: A “Guarded” Democracy in Fiji.

datePosted on 11:15, January 17th, 2013 by Pablo

The rejection of the 2013 draft constitution by the Baimimarama regime in Fiji (a constitution drafted by a panel of international jurists and partially funded by New Zealand), has led to speculation as to whether the promised 2014 elections will be held. What has not been mentioned in press coverage of the constitutional crisis is an end-game that is neither dictatorial or democratic: elections leading to a “guarded” democracy. In this analysis I outline some reasons why the prospect of a guarded democracy in Fiji should be considered to be very real.

Blog Link: Issue Linkage in foreign policy.

datePosted on 07:24, December 20th, 2012 by Pablo

Media coverage of trade negotiations in the Asia-Pacific have largely overlooked the strategic perspectives underpinning different countries’ approaches to the subject. In this analytic brief I outline some of the issues involved, to include potential problems when different strategic outlooks are juxtaposed.

Australia and India are emerging great powers that are the core of the Indo-Pacific strategic architecture, yet they do not have as strong bilateral ties as history, culture, politics, common threats and interests would suggest. In this collaborative essay with an Indian journalist, we explore some of the issues involved in their incipient strategic relationship, along with the prospects for closer ties in the near future.

Bibi does show and tell.

datePosted on 10:07, September 28th, 2012 by Pablo

Benjamin Netenyahu gets up in front of the UN General Assembly with a poster board showing a caricature of a bomb (surprisingly similar to the Mohammed Turban bomb cartoon motif) that supposedly shows how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear weapon. The bomb is bisected by horizontal lines at the “70%” and “90%” uranium enrichment marks, the latter at the neck of the 19th century cannonball drawn on the board. Bibi draws a red line at the “90%” mark, declaring that it was time to draw a red line on the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Pardon me if I cough. Forget the fact that Israel has at least a dozen nuclear warheads, some of them submarine launched. Forget that even if Iran was to develop a trigger for its fissile material, it still would have to place it in a warhead that in turn must be installed in an artillery shell, airborne deployed bomb, or on a missile, all of which are exposed to attack at the point of loading. Forget the Iranian nuclear physicists have one of the highest occupational morality rates in the world, dying in a myriad of unfortunate and unexpected ways. Forget that the computers governing the Iranian nuclear enrichment process are unusually susceptible to catastrophic failures caused by worms and viruses. Forget the fact that Iran is merely seeking what could be called deterrent parity: no one seriously messes with a nuclear armed country, as North Korea, India, Pakistan and yes, Israel, have demonstrated.

Forget all of that. Why should Iran not seek deterrence parity given what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in light of the US attacks on them even though they threatened no vital US national interest (let’s be clear: terrorist attacks, no matter how atrocious, are not existential threats to any well-established state). Given the attitude towards it on the part of the US and other Western countries, to say nothing of Israel, Iran has every reason to seek the ultimate deterrent.

In fact, Iran is on the horns of a classic security dilemma: the more it feels threatened by the actions of hostile states, the more it is determined to protect itself by seeking the nuclear trump card. The more that it does so, the more the US and Israel will feel compelled to move against it.

One might say that it is the Iranian regime’s rhetoric and support for terrorism that warrants grave concern. I say give us a break. Ahmadinejad talks to his domestic audience the way Netenyahu and Romney talk to theirs, especially during electoral season or times of internal crisis. However Westerners may wish to misinterpret and mistranslate what he says (which, admittedly is offensive and often bizarre, as his latest “homosexuality is a product of capitalism” remarks demonstrate), and no matter what an unpleasant fellow he may be, Ahmadinejad is no more of a threat to international security than any of the dozen or more Central Asian despots that the West supports, and who do not even try to hold contestable elections. They may not have nukes, but that does not mean that they are any more peace-minded than the mullahs in Teheran. As far as the use of armed proxies are concerned, does anyone remember the Contras?

And even where nuclear states have elected leaders, they are not often the most stable or impeachable. I mean, does anyone seriously think that Iran is a worse threat of starting the nuclear apocalypse than Pakistan? And yet billions of dollars in foreign aid flow to the Pakistani government, whose corruption is matched only by the rapidity with which they take offense at perceived slights.

No, the real problem is that the Persian Shiia did a bad thing to the US three decades ago by throwing out the US-supported Shah and holding US embassy hostages for more than a year (the latter a definite inter-state transgression and diplomatic no-no, to be sure). They also pose a grave threat to the US-backed Sunni Arab autocracies because of their evangelical and proselytizing Shiaa fanaticism. Yet Iran has attacked no other state directly (Iraq attacked Iran to start the 1980s war between the two), even if it uses proxies like Hezbollah to pursue military diplomacy and exact revenge on its enemies. After all, plausible deniability can work many ways.

In any event, Bibi’s show and tell show at the UN demonstrates the hypocrisy and disdain he and his supporters hold for that international organization and the intelligence of the interested public. Trying to reduce and simplify into a cartoon a complex diplomatic and military subject that is layered upon centuries of cultural, religious and ethnic enmity is not a useful teaching aid: it is an insult to the audience.

If anything, with a different presenter that ticking/fizzing poster bomb could be well be read as an indication of the state of Palestinian frustration with a territorial occupation and ethnic subjugation that has been decades in the making.  As the leader of a state that yields nothing to the self-determination aspirations of the Palestinian people, aspirations that have exacted a terrible toll on both sides of the conflict, Bibi’s bomb poster is an incitement, not an explanation.

What is galling about Bibi’s demonstration is a) his denial of Iran’s right to pursue a course of action that has proven to be an effective deterrent against aggression by larger powers and which Israel itself has availed itself of; and b) his disrespect for the UN in trotting out a kindergarten poster as an illustration of the threat he claims that Iran poses.

I am no fan of the Mullahs regime and Ahmadinejad. I believe that the Iranians are lying when they say that there nuclear program is entirely peaceful. But I understand their reasons for doing so, especially since the Israelis have lied all along about their nuclear program.

The real issue here is that Netenyahu is trying to provoke the US during an electoral campaign into supporting a pre-emptive strike on Iran. He is doing so more for his own domestic political reasons than out of concern about any imminent Iranian nuclear threat. He is a scoundrel, and he is mistaken. The US, quite frankly, is in no position to do support his preferred move, which Israel cannot do on its own. The US needs a break from more than a decade of constant war and Iran is a far more formidable adversary than Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. Thus the timing of the cartoon presentation is ill-advised as much as its substance is childish.

The bottom line is that only a clown would find explanation and justification in Bibi’s poster bomb. That clown is Bibi himself.

Media Link: The GCSB and the Dotcom case

datePosted on 08:07, September 25th, 2012 by Pablo

I was interviewed by the RNZ Nine to Noon program on the subject of the GCSB involvement in the Kim Dotcom case. Nicky Hagar followed me. Although it now has been confirmed that the Police misled the GCSB as to the residency status of Dotcom and his associates, the dates of the awarding of residency status to at least some of the group, including Mr. Dotcom, is somewhat nebulous in the MSM reporting.  This is being clarified as the media dig into the issue, but my initial comments before yesterday’s revelations might be of interest to some. They are here.

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

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

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

A surfeit of services.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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