Posts Tagged ‘USA’

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.

A return to the banality of evil.

datePosted on 13:17, June 20th, 2018 by Pablo

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” in Nazi Germany, she was referring not to the leaders but to the thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, civil servants, cops, tax collectors and everyday citizens who went along with the Nazi project or simply said that they were “following orders,” “doing their jobs” or being “good citizens.” The Nuremberg trails put paid to those excuses.

Today in the US we have a variant on the theme. It may not quite be holocaust in size, but the forced separation of children from undocumented parents in order to use them as pawns in Drumpf/GOP attempts to extract Democrat concessions on immigration reform (pay for the wall, etc.) is abhorrent nevertheless. And while attention rightfully is focused on Drumpf and his minions, my question is this: who are the people who are enforcing this wretched policy? These are the people who take the evil abstract of forced family separation and turn it into executable action via bureaucratic procedures and regulations (e.g. wearing of surgical gloves when handling detainees, using female agents to process women, providing water and x amount of calories via solid food at regular intervals, etc.). Who are the border patrol, local law enforcement and homeland security agents and private contractors who are doing the actual separation and detention of children in cages? Are they doing this because they agree with Drumpf, are racists themselves or are just plain psychopathic? Or are they going to tell us that they are only following orders and doing their jobs?

Until we make those carrying out this atrocity as personally responsible as Drumpf, Sessions, et.al, we will continue to see the steady undermining of the moral foundations of the Republic. Make no mistake about it: these enforcers of the morally reprehensible are neighbours, friends, family members and church goers who go about their lives as if all was normal. And that is exactly what Arendt was describing. It is the banality of such evil that eventually makes it normal.

Less NZ readers think that it cannot happen here, just hark back to the Police invasion of Nicky Hager’s privacy in search for the elusive “Rawshark” source. You may recall that I wrote a post about how the cops used Customs, Immigration and airline companies to obtain the personal data of thousands of passengers who flew on certain dates between Auckland and a foreign country where the Police suspected Rawshark was vacationing. None of this was done under warrant, but instead, just as in the case the banks that gave up Hager’s financial records so readily, they did so willingly upon request. All of those involved will defend their actions as cooperating with the Police but in fact they were under no obligation to do so without a warrant. But they did.

We now learn that a private security firm has a hand in glove relationship with NZ public agencies in spying on people who pose no threat to national security, and that in fact the private security firm may have business steered to it by a NZ intelligence agency in spite of the obvious–or at least appearance of–conflict of interest. Here as well we have a case of people just doing as they are told without consideration of the ethics or morality about what they are being told to do, some in pursuit of profit and some for reasons known only to them. They are following orders, doing their jobs, chasing leads and tip-offs without consideration of the fact that what may be legally permissible (or at least not outlawed) may not be morally or ethically proper.

These, in sum, are Kiwi examples of evil gone banal. And there are bound to be others, so perhaps the abomination that it is the Drumpf policy of separating undocumented asylum-seeking families at the southern US border should serve as a reminder to New Zealanders as to the depths to which a nation can plunge if it allows that evil banality to become the new normal.

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.

The political rope-a-dope.

datePosted on 12:39, April 10th, 2018 by Pablo

Older readers will remember the “Rumble in the Jungle” where Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman for the heavyweight boxing title. Held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, the contest pitted the undefeated champion Foreman, a beast of a man whose stock in trade was brutal early round knockouts of people such as Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and other contenders of the time (the uppercut punch that KO’d Norton earlier in 1974 actually lifted him off of the ground) against an ageing Ali, well past his prime after lengthy suspension when his concientious objection to the Vietnam War was ruled invalid and he was convicted of draft-dodging.

In the build up to the fight Ali pushed the line that he was going to take the fight to Foreman with his superior speed and agility. But Foreman and his trainers knew, based on the workouts Ali allowed the public and media to see, that his hand, head and foot speed were no longer what they used to be, and he could no longer “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” The Foreman fight plan was therefore simple: bear down on Ali, cut off escape angles and corner him in the corners and on the ropes, then expose and exploit his slowness in a ferocious and relentless beatdown.

As readers will know, that did not happen. Ali privately trained to absorb body blows and using the lax rules of the boxing federations sponsoring the fight, was able to get the ring ropes loosened to their maximum extent (which allowed up to 12 inches of slack from the bottom to the top rope). Come fight time, this allowed Ali to lean back against the ropes, absorb Foreman’s increasingly frustrated and reckless body blows while dodging the occasional head shot and in doing so conserve energy by not punching himself out in a toe-to-toe brawl.

 

By the eighth round Foreman had thrown hundreds of punches. He was staggering around the ring in pursuit of Ali and physically spent, punch drunk and arm weary from throwing jabs, roundhouses and uppercuts rather than taking them. Once his hands dropped and stayed at his sides Ali pounced, using a series of jabs and hard rights to knock him down and out. It remains one of the greatest sporting upsets–and spectacles–of all time.

I mention this anecdote because it seems to me that we are witnessing a variation on this theme in US politics today. Although it is blasphemous to say so, think of Trump as Ali, his civil and political opposition and mainstream media as Foreman, the courts as the referee and the Republican party and rightwing corporate and social media, including state-sponsored trolls and disinformation purveyors, as the ropes.

In a straight up contest between Trump and the US constitutional system of checks and balances, it would be no contest. The courts, Congress and independent media would prevent Trump from slipping the boundaries of executive responsibility, would hold him to account and would punish him when he transgressed. Given his background and behaviour, he would not make it out of the first round.

But in the US today he has a support cushion in the GOP and rightwing media. Like the rules governing the tension on boxing ring ropes, the strictures governing partisan behaviour and truth in reporting have been stretched to their limits. Every blow he is dealt by the institutional system–the “swamp” as he calls it–is absorbed and countered by a chorus of hyper-partisan hyperbole and media ranting about “fake news,” conspiracies and the “Deep State.” This allows Trump to deflect, weave, dodge and counterpunch his accusers, questioning their character, motives, looks and heritage as if these were somehow equivalent or worse than the activities he has and is engaged in. The courts can only enforce what exists on paper, and since what exists on paper regarding presidential conduct is predominantly an issue of norms, custom and mores rather than legal accountability, there are limits to what they can do as referees in battles between Trump and other institutions.

Put another way: Normally a wayward president could not stand toe to toe with the institutional system of checks and balances without taking a beating. But that assumes that the limits of executive power are codified in law and not subject to manipulation. This turns out to be untrue. Much executive power does in fact answer to the law, at least in terms of how presidential decisions affect others. But much of it is also a product of precedent, practice, custom and tradition, not legislation, particularly when it comes to the president’s personal behaviour. In turn, the limits of presidential behaviour has always rested on the assumption that the incumbent will honour the informal traditions and responsibilities of office as well as the nature of the office itself, and not seek to manipulate the position for pecuniary and political self-advantage and/or personal revenge.

Trump has done exactly that. He regards the presidency as a personal vehicle and has disdain and contempt for its traditions and norms. He realises that he can play loose with the rules because the political constraints that bind him have been loosened by his corporate, congressional  and media supporters. He and his allies are willing to play dirty and use all of the tools at his disposal to thwart justice and destroy opponents.

This is the great irony of US politics. For a country that provides itself on constitutional protections and the “rule of law,” the framework governing presidential behaviour is little more than the ropes on a boxing ring.

For those interested in a return to civility and institutional norms this is problematic but is not the only thing that parallels the “rumble in the jungle.”  Like Trump’s attacks on those investigating him in the FBI and Justice Department, for months prior to the fight Ali poisoned the well of good will towards Foreman. Ali lost his prime fighting years to the suspensions levied on him by boxing associations after he refused to be inducted into the US Army in 1967. Although he never spent time in jail and became an icon of the anti-War movement, he resented the five lost athletic years and those who profited by stepping into the ring during his absence. He particularly loathed Foreman, who he considered to be the white man’s favorite because of his quiet, polite and compliant demeanour out of the ring. He publicly labeled Foreman an “Uncle Tom” and “House Negro” who turned his back on his fellow people of color. Although none of this was verifiable, Ali’s charges resonated beyond boxing circles.

When Ali arrived in Kinsasha he held public training events that were part sparring, part evangelical preaching. He railed against colonialism and imperialism, averred his faith in Islam, lauded African nationalists like Mobuto Sese Seko, then-president of the host country Zaire (and not one known for his affinity for democratic rights), and generally carried on like a bare-chested revolutionary in shorts and gloves. Foreman, for his part, stayed quiet, trained mostly in private and had his handlers speak for him. When they entered the ring on that storied night, the 60,000 strong crowd crammed into the national stadium was overwhelmingly on Ali’s side.

Perhaps Ali’s mind games were designed to help sway the judge’s decision in the event that it was close. Perhaps it was to intimidate Foreman himself. Whatever the motive, there is a parallel to be drawn with Trump’s attacks on his critics and investigators on Twitter, at press conferences and at campaign-style rallies. His ranting serves to raise public suspicion about the critical media and federal law enforcement much in the way Ali’s insults about Foreman had the effect of raising questions about his ethnic identification and personal integrity, something that eventually turned African opinion against him. Could the same happen with Trump’s support base and undecided voters in the US?

It is too early to tell if Trump’s “rope a dope” political strategy will see him triumph over his adversaries. But that leaves pending an open question: is there a person out there that can play Leon Spinks to Trump’s Ali? And if so, is that person named Robert Mueller, or could it turn out to be Stormy Daniels?

One thing is certain. Trump is a big fan of the WWE and likes to fancy himself as a tough guy willing to take on all challengers. However, in this contest, unlike the WWE, the outcome is not pre-determined and the blows are both real and far from over.

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today

In the US, what is needed is a Broad Front.

datePosted on 11:03, February 20th, 2018 by Pablo

The mass murder of 17 high school students and teachers in Florida at the hands of a deranged gunman has once again prompted public outcry about the need for better gun control in a country where gun-related violence is at epidemic levels. Foremost amongst those leading the charge for legislative reform in and around the 2nd amendment are teenagers, led by classmates of those killed and supported by a legion of kids nation-wide who have decided that they will do what their parents could or would not do: confront the National Rifle Association and the politicians in its pocket on the issue of who should have access to firearms, and which firearms should be made legally available to the citizenry.

Sadly, noble intentions notwithstanding, I fear that their efforts may be in vain and the movement will whither and die before any significant change can be made. Think of it this way. In this instance we have a mentally ill teenager kill other teenagers and staff at his former school. Teenagers are largely good if difficult to deal with, but there are enough of them (such as the killer) who push the boundaries of acceptable social convention for nothing more than self absorbed thrills. So one could say that not all of them are the precious flowers they are now being made out to be and that the loss of some teenagers (even if not these), while tragic, does not actually represent a complete waste of untapped human potential. I do not mean to be insensitive or cruel, but instead am trying to put things into context.

Because there are those other incidents to consider. For example, what about Sandy Hook? There 20 primary school kids were murdered along with six staff. These were little kids, still innocent, still wondrous, still untouched and untainted by the distractions of teenage life and attractions of the adult world. And yet, even as then president Obama tried to get the Republican controlled Congress to do something when it came to mentally ill people having legal access to semi-automatic weapons, nothing–as in zero–got done. A movement in their memory was started and yet it failed to gain wide-spread traction across the country. Little kids–precious, innocent kids– were murdered and nothing was done. So why do we think that the deaths of some teenagers will suddenly change the terms of any national discussion about guns?

I suggest that it will not change unless the teenage #NeverAgain movement joins forces with other social movements in what can be called a Broad Front (or, as the Maoists used to say in its original incarnation, “United Front”). The objective is to join together otherwise seemingly disparate groups in common cause. That is because if the #NeverAgain crowd go it alone they can be isolated and divided from, if not against, other mass based collective actors seeking systemic and institutional reform. This type of stove-piping or siloing makes divide and conquer tactics on the part of the status quo easier to accomplish, especially when the teenagers in question are not monolithic on the subject of gun control and may not have the type of national reach that they aspire to (say, for example, amongst adolescents in North Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia or Wyoming, where the gun and hunting culture is ideologically hegemonic).

Instead, what the kids in the #NeverAgain movement need to do is establish links with groups such as Black Lives Matter, the #TakeaKnee anthem protesters, the Women’s March on Washington, LGBT groups, unions and professional associations (including those that represent professional athletes, musicians and other artists), student governments, Hispanic, Arab, African-American, Asian and other identity organisations, religious entities, political organisations, pacifists and peace advocates, medical and psychiatric associations and lobbying groups, chambers of commerce, even local governments. The common cause is rejection of the existing gun culture and the agents of death that represent it in politics, to include the NRA and the media types and politicians who parrot its lines. The Broad Front can then rally around a few simple, good sense-based propositions regarding the who/how/what and whens of gun ownership in a diverse and democratic (as of yet) society. The unifying thread in both facets is the belief that the mental, physical and social costs of the current gun ownership regime far outweigh whatever benefit it may have in terms of personal and collective safety, and that since most of the costs are paid by taxpayers while the benefits are accrued by weapons manufacturers and dealers, the interest groups that represent them and some individuals rather than society as a whole, the current gun culture is reactive rather than proactive in its approach to commonweal costs and biased in favour of death merchants rather than children.

Interestingly, there is a parallel and example provided by the Argentine “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) movement that emerged from the ashes of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s and which grouped a wide swathe of organisations in the effort to find justice for those victimised by the junta and to put an end to the culture of impunity that led to the so-called “dirty war” in which so many innocent lives were lost. In name and in broader intent, this is exactly what the English hashtag eponym movement is all about.

Organizing a Broad Front around the #NeverAgain movement will be hard to do but that is what collective action is all about–organizing people by making them think outside of their own personal circumstances and in terms of the collective good. For the #NeverAgain movement there has to be a conscious, deliberate and systematic effort to reach out and establish horizontal solidarity ties with other mass-based organisations and collective agents with agendas for change. There are few subjects that can unite a wide array of ideologically diverse and often narrowly-defined interest and activist groups in a heterogeneous society such as that of the US, but if there is one that can do so, it is the issue of gun control.

And a Broad Front can be made from that.

Plus ca change, or, does Labour have a foreign policy?

datePosted on 07:34, January 5th, 2018 by Pablo

Among the things mentioned during the 2017 election campaign, foreign policy was not one of them. This is not surprising, as domestic policy issues tend to dominate election year politics in times of peace in virtually all democracies. The syndrome is compounded in New Zealand, where matters of diplomacy, international security and trade are notable for their absence in both parliamentary debates as well as public concern, only surfacing during moments of controversy surrounding specific issues such as foreign troop deployments, NZ involvement in Anglophone spy networks or negotiating trade deals that appear lopsided in favour of other states and economic interests.

Even if foreign policy is not a central election issue, it nevertheless is an important area of governance that should in principle reflect a Party’s philosophy with regard to its thrust and substance. Given that the Labour-led coalition that formed a government in 2017 represents a departure from nine years of center-right rule, it is worth pondering what approach it has, if any, to reshaping foreign policy in the wake of its election.

It should be noted that NZ foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the last 20 years regardless of which party coalition was in government. Dating to the break up of the ANZUS defense alliance on the heels of its non-nuclear declaration in 1985,  NZ has championed an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line that, if not completely integrating it into the non-aligned movement that rose during the Cold War, granted it some latitude in how it approached its diplomatic relations and international commitments. Foremost amongst these was support for multilateral approaches to international conflict resolution, concern with ethics, rules and norms governing international behaviour, advocacy of small state interests and a self-assigned reputation as an “honest broker” in international affairs. Issues of trade, diplomacy and security were uncoupled once the Cold War ended, something that allowed NZ to navigate the diplomatic seas without the constraints imposed by binding alliance ties to larger partners.

From the mid-90s there has been a trade-centric core to NZ foreign policy, to the point that promoting “free” trade and negotiating trade deals, be they bi- or multilateral in nature, is seen to have overshadowed traditional diplomatic and security concerns such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection and human rights promotion. This “trade-for-trade’s sake” approach was initiated by the Shipley government but deepened under both the 5th Labour government as well as the National-led governments headed by John Key. After 9/11 it was paralleled by a reinforcement of security ties with traditional allies such as Australia, the US and the UK, in spite of the fact that the move towards expanding trade relationships in Asia and the Middle East ran against New Zealand’s traditional advocacy of a principled foreign policy that defended human rights as well as the thrust of the geopolitics perspectives of security allies (which view NZ trade partners such as China and Iran as adversaries rather than partners).

Although both Labour and National continued to voice the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line during the 2000s, what actually took place was the development of two separate tracks where NZ pushed trade relations without regard to security commitments and human rights, on the one hand, and on the other hand deepened its involvement in US-led security networks without regard to broader diplomatic concerns. This was formalised with the signing of the bi-lateral Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012. For NZ diplomats, the parallel track approach was a matter of keeping eggs in different baskets even if it violated the long-standing principle of security partners trading preferentially with each other. That is not a problem so long as NZ trading partners are not seen as hostile to or competitors of the US and its main allies. Yet NZ chose to expand its trade ties with China with the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2008, something that has not only increased its trade dependency on China in the years that followed (China is now NZ’s second largest export market and third largest import market), but also put it in the unenviable position of trying to remain balanced in the face of increased US-China competition in the Western Pacific Rim. Similarly, NZ-Iranian trade ties, and the nascent talks about NZ-Russian bilateral trade, both run the risk of negatively counterpoising NZ’s economic and security interests in each case.

Following Labour’s lead, the National government doubled its efforts to reinforce its ties to the US-led security network while pushing for trade agreements regardless of domestic opposition to both. It committed troops to the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and continued to maintain presence in Afghanistan after its formal commitment to the ISAF mission ended in 2013. It revamped and upgraded its commitment to the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection partnership that includes the US, UK  Australia and Canada. It loudly advocated for the TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) even though the 12 country pact was largely seen as favouring US economic interests and serving as the economic component of a US containment strategy towards China in the Western Pacific.

Now it is the Labour-led coalition headed by Jacinda Ardern that holds the reins. What can we expect from it when it comes to foreign policy? Continuity when it comes to the “two-track” approach? A deepening of one track and softening of the other? An attempt to bring a third track–what might be called a humanitarian line that re-emphasises human rights, environmental protection and non-proliferation, among other rules-based policy areas–into the mix?

From what is seen in its foreign policy manifesto, Labour appears to want to have things a bit of both ways: overall continuity and commitment to an “independent” foreign policy but one in which ethical concerns are layered into trade policy and in which international security engagement is framed by UN mandates and multilateral resolutions (as well as a turn away from military combat roles and a re-emphasis on peace-keeping operations). A commitment to renewed diplomatic endeavour, particularly in international fora and within the South Pacific region, is also pledged, but the overall thrust of its foreign policy objectives remain generalised and rhetorical rather than dialed in on specifics.

A few months into its tenure, the new government has done nothing significant with regards to foreign policy. Jacinda Arden made some noises about resettling the the Manus detainees in NZ during her first official trip abroad, only to be rebuked  by Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and her own Opposition. She also made  ill-advised comments about who Donald Trump may or may not thought she was, leading to skepticism as to the veracity of her story. NZ First leader Winston Peters was named foreign minister more as a matter of style (and reward) rather than in recognition of his substance when it comes to foreign affairs. Likewise, Ron Mark got the nod to be Defense Minister in what appears to be a sop thrown to an old soldier who enjoys military ceremonies but cannot get his medals rack sorted correctly. Andrew Little was apparently made Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security because he is a lawyer and a reputed tough guy who as Opposition Leader once sat on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security, rather than because he has any particular experience in that field, especially with regard to its international aspects. The Greens, in the past so vociferous in their defense of human rights, pacifism, non-interventionism and anti-imperialism, have gone silent.

As for the Labour Party foreign policy experts, whoever and how many there may be (if any), the question is how do they see the world. Do they use (neo) realist, idealist, constructivist or some hybrid framework with which to frame their perspective and that of their government? Do they use international systems theory to address issue linkage in foreign policy and to join the dots amongst broader economic, social, military and political trends in world affairs as well the nature of the global community itself?  Are they aware of the Melian Dilemma (in which small states are often forced to choose alliance between competing Great Powers)? iven the predominance of trade in NZ foreign policy, how do they balance notions of comparative and competitive advantage when envisioning NZ’s preferred negotiating stance? If not those mentioned, what conceptual and theoretical apparatuses do they employ? On a practical level, how do their views match up with those of the foreign affairs bureaucracy and career diplomatic corps, and what is their relationship with the latter?

Issues such as the ongoing NZDF deployments in Iraq (and likely Syria, if the NZSAS are involved) have not (yet) been reviewed in spite of early campaign promises to do so. Nor, for that matter, has Labour taken a detailed critical eye to the stalled TPPA negotiations now that the US has abandoned them, or re-examined its diplomatic approaches towards the Syrian, Ukrainian and Yemeni civil wars, South China Sea conflicts, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, post-Brexit economic relations, maritime conservation regimes and a host of other important and oft-contentious topics.

Judging from the manifesto it is hard to discern a coherent intellectual underpinning to how Labour policy makers approach international relations. It is also difficult to know how the new government’s foreign policy elite relate to the careerists charged with maintaining NZ’s international relations. So far, there is no identifiably Labour approach to foreign affairs and policy carry-over from previous governments is the norm.

That may not hold for long. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has changed the global environment in which NZ foreign policy is formulated and practiced because if anything, he has rejected some of the foundational principles of the NZ approach (support for the UN and multilateralism) with his “America First” philosophy and has increased global tensions with his belligerent posturing vis a vis adversaries and his bullying of allies. That combination of provocation, brinkmanship and alienation of allies brings with it high risks but also a diplomatic conundrum for NZ. Given that NZ maintains good relations with some of US adversaries as well as allies, yet is intimately tied to the US in uniquely significant ways, its ability to maintain the dichotomous  approach to an independent foreign policy may now be in jeopardy.

After all, the US now demands open expressions of “loyalty” from its allies, for example, in the form of demands that security partners spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense (NZ spends 1.1 percent), and that trade partners give acknowledged preference to US economic interests when signing “deals” with it. In that light, and with Trump increasingly looking like he wants open conflict with one or more perceived rivals (and is on a clear collision course with China with regards to strategic preeminence in the Western Pacific), the “two-track” NZ foreign policy may now be more akin to trying to straddle a barbed wire fence while balancing on ice blocks rather than a matter of saving diplomatic eggs.

In light of this, it is time for the Labour government to stand up and be heard about where they propose to steer NZ in the international arena during what are clearly very fluid and uncertain times.

In my final interview in the “Letters from America” series with Mitch Harris at RadioLive, I reflect on the Alabama senatorial election, the plight of Rex Tillerson, the attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and a few more things. After five months, it is time to go home.

Thanksgiving Weekend is ending here in Boston. For the first time in 15 years I spent it in the US with family and friends. It struck me that Thanksgiving is one of the few remaining symbols of common values left in the US. Independence Day, Christmas, New Years and Super Bowl Sunday all have broad appeal, but only Thanksgiving has the single unifying thread of family to keep it above partisan, religious, ethnic, racial and assorted other divisive tendencies within US society.

Buchanan family Thanksgiving table in The Barn, Holliston, MA.. Photo courtesy Kathy LaCroix Buchanan

Not that all believe Thanksgiving to be controversy-free. Plenty of indigenous people believe that the Pilgrims were complicit in the subjugation and expulsion of eastern tribes from their ancestral lands. The Pilgrims, we may recall, were 40 religious refugees (“Separatists” or “Saints”) who were among the 102 passengers from England who landed first at what became known as Provincetown (on Cape Cod), then Plymouth, Massachusetts (on the mainland) on November 11, 1620 after crossing the Atlantic from the southern English port of Plymouth on the Dutch-made merchant (“fluyt’) ship Mayflower. Originally intending to settle on the Hudson River where an earlier European settlement was already in place, the Pilgrims were thwarted by bad weather and sailing conditions and decided to seek shelter further East. Armed with a grant from the London Company and Crown for the exchange of goods for religious autonomy and self-governance, the Saints/Pilgrims and their fellow travelers were decimated by illness and harsh winter conditions, with only half surviving until the next winter.

Conventional history has it that the Pilgrims arrived in peace and interacted amicably with the native Wampanoag and their sub-tribes (mostly grouped as Alonquian peoples). They also established the Mayflower Compact as the governing framework for the new colony, something that guaranteed all male colonialist participation in collective decision-making and which is considered to be one of the foundations of US democracy. It was in this context that the first shared meal with the local Pokanoket tribe was held in 1621, something that has passed into folklore as Thanksgiving. That meal followed on the heels of the Wampanoag-Pilgrim Peace treaty of April 1, 1621, which bound the settlers and all Wampanoag tribes together against other tribes (such as the Mohawk and Mohegan).

Critical interpretations paint a less rosy picture, noting prior conflict between earlier European settlers and Eastern tribes, with the first shared meal being less an act of cross-cultural friendship than a forced terms of settlement ceremony by which the Pilgrims began a divide-and-conquer process against the indigenous people. Whatever the intent of that breaking of bread, and admitting that colonization did result in the loss of land and displacement of the indigenous majority over the next centuries, “Thanksgiving Day” entered into US mythology as a moment to pause in order to give thanks for the blessings received and ties that bind.

Fast forward to today and one can see that the divide and conquer process is now being used on the settler colonizers in an extremely effective way, yet one that is different to that used on the original indigenous inhabitants. The instrument of division is called “commercialization” and it employs retail therapy as a form of community dismemberment.

For the last decade consumer non-durable retailers have pushed the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” not so much because it is a deadly day to be avoided but because it is a day for so-called “black” sales of retail goods: everyone gets a heavy discount on whiteware, electronics, toys,clothes and other merchandise so long as they are able to get their hands on the discounted goods. This causes thousands of commodity fetishistic numbskulls to line up 24 hours in advance of opening at assorted malls and other shopping venues in the hope of snagging a 20 dollar 60 inch TV and whatever else is within grasp amongst the grappling hordes. This has caused crushes, riots and a few deaths over the years, but the urge to shop on Black Friday is now reified in the media and popular culture to the extent that the original point of Thanksgiving–to give thanks for family and the benefits at hand–has been replaced by the urge to engage in competitive shopping. This no joke: on Black Friday the retail zombies literally fight each other over bins of discounted goods less than a day after the day of thanks. The media cover the crowded malls and traffic chaos as if they were national celebrations (or disasters, depending on your point of view), with person-in-the-street interviews suggesting that for many the importance of the weekend is the sales, not in spending time with family.

Although the day after Thanksgiving Thursday is not a statutory holiday, it has traditionally been treated as the middle of a long family weekend. Football has been added to the mix, with a range of college “rivalry” games and professional football contests serving as backdrops to the reunions. In recent years it has morphed into Black Friday, which in turn has also become a weekend affair culminating in Cyber Monday: the day in which telecommunications devices are fire-sold, especially via on-line retailers. In fact, on-line sales are rapidly approaching in-store sales, which has prompted shopping outlets such as malls to turn the Thanksgiving weekend into a sales event masquerading as a cultural moment, but without the historical linkage back to 1620. Today it is all about pumpkins, autumn colors, pilgrims and turkeys as caricatures rather than historical legacies, and the vibe is about using Thanksgiving as an icon in order to sell an infinite array of product. Fathers and sons can bond over ride-on lawn mowers and ratchet sets as they undertake autumn outdoor chores; moms and daughters can get their pumpkin baking mojo going together with the latest Martha Stewart oven accessory line. Granddads and grandmas can hug the little ones as they fiddle the consoles of their Pilgrim-themed electronic games.

The commercialization frenzy brought on by Black Friday has not only eclipsed the meaning of Thanksgiving but is in fact just the start of a month-long sales push leading towards Christmas, which in turn is followed by its own returns-and-exchanges day (Boxing Day). The entire month between the two holidays is an orgy of conspicuous consumption and brand tie-ins (to the military, football, Santa Claus and whatever else can entice a purchase). Whatever the spirit of togetherness fostered by the communal offering of thanks in late November, the ensuing four weeks is an exercise is materialist self-gratification.

This extends to petty thieves. The advent of on-line shopping has led to a proliferation of so-called package thefts, whereby thieves follow delivery vehicles around and steal packages from front doorsteps. The distinctive packaging used by Amazon is particularly irresistible to the low-lifes, but the general trend is to let others do the shopping and treat doorsteps deliveries as an invitation to help oneself to the surprises that they contain. Let here be no doubt about it: there is a country-wide epidemic of this type of theft, something that is a microcosmic distillation of how the spirit of Thanksgiving is well and truly gone.

Therein lies the tale. What wars and internal political divisions could not do (even Trump was silent on Thanksgiving Day!), the consumerist mentality and grotesque commercialization of everything has done. It has further broken many of the horizontal solidarity ties that once held communities together and promoted a form of nihilist alienation that is abetted and deepened by the advent of social media and individual telecommunication devices. The result is a society of self-gratifying materialists unconcerned with and unencumbered by the responsibilities of civic engagement.

There are just 2700 Wampanoag left today and they are dependent, as is the case with so many tribes, on gambling for economic sustenance. Things might have been different had they discovered that the best way to undermine the Mayflower Compact and its historical sequels was to push commodities on the white man rather than share a meal and foster community with him.

PS: Here is the RadioLive interview counterpart to this post. It begins with Thanksgiving, then wanders into a range of other subjects: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/home/audio/2017/11/-thanksgiving-is-being-degraded-in-the-states—-paul-buchanan.html

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