Coleman’s Cultural Cringe Moment.

For some time I have had the impression that Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman is out of his depth on issues of defense and security, so I was not surprised by his joyful celebration of the signing of a bi-lateral defense pact with the US. Master of the flak jacket photo op, it was all sunshine and roses for Dr. Coleman at the Pentagon press conference, where he emphasized that US and NZDF troops would be training and working together on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions in between group hugs and port visits. He seemed blissfuly unaware that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, standing beside him at the press conference, made no mention of the kumbaya aspects of the bilateral, instead referring to the combat integration benefits of closer military-to-military relations.

What I was surprised at was how provincial and just plain goofy Coleman appeared to be. Among other country bumpkin moments, he dismissed concerns about US spying on New Zealand by referencing an editorial cartoon that had spies falling asleep listening to NZ communications; he outright lied and said that the NZ government would not say anything in private that it would not say in public (which makes its silence on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations all the more suspicious); he never once countenanced the thought that the bilateral might be part of the US strategic pivot towards Asia (in a military way), or that China might view the bilateral with some concern; and for a Pièce de résistance, he whipped out a junior sized All Blacks jersey and foisted it on the unsuspecting Hagel.

The last moment was gold. Hagel acted as if he was not sure what the piece of black cloth was all about. A pirate flag? A tea towel? Something for Halloween? Then Coleman did the most crassly egregious act of sponsor placement I have ever seen in an official government ceremony by turning the jersey to the cameras with all front logos on display (the back had Hagel’s name and the number 1 on it).  AIG and Adidas would not have believed their luck, but what does it say about Dr. Coleman and his government that he/they thought it appropriate to shill for sports team sponsors at such an event?

The usual protocol for government to government exchanges of sporting symbols (most often on the occasion of bi- or multination sporting events) is to keep the colors and national crests but not the commercial logos. Such exchanges are done at the conclusion of formal meetings, with approved media doing the coverage on cue. Otherwise, the exchange is approved at press conference photo opportunities by prior consent. This avoids impromptu, ad lib or extemporaneous embarrassments or hijacks of the media op, to say nothing of security breaches.

On this the ritual of public diplomacy is pretty clear: public posturing and grandstanding is expected, but surprises are not.

In this instance Secretary Hagel was clearly surprised by the unilateral token of affection. He had nothing to give in return in front of the cameras. That means that the NZ embassy in Washington was incompetent, deliberately mean or ignored in the decision as to choice of gift as well as the way in which to present it, because it is brutally clear that Coleman and his staff were clueless as to the symbolism and significance of their preferred option for a unilateral, unscripted gift.

Lets ponder this. Coleman and his staff decided that the best gift to give the US Secretary of Defense on the occasion of signing a major bilateral military agreement ending years of estrangement was a replica jersey for a commonwealth sport barely recognized outside of some hard core devotee circles in the US. He might as well given him a surf lifesaving jersey.

I would have thought that a Mere pounamu, or better yet a Taiaha or Pouwhenua (to signify continued distance), would have been more appropriate for the occasion. With some advance warning (perhaps in consultation with the US embassy in Wellington), such a gift would be appreciated in its full significance by the US counterparts and transmitted as such to the interested public. Instead, the most powerful US civilian decision maker on military matters was given a piece of quick-dry, stretchable artificial cloth with corporate logos as a symbol of New Zealand’s commitment to first-tier military relations.

Coleman compounded the back-handed compliment with the jersey sponsorship display, thereby commercializing the event. To be honest, I could not believe what I was seeing and can only imagine what the Americans thought. I say this because in a former life I was party to such official ceremonies involving the US Defense Department and allied nation officials, and it was simply unimaginable that someone would attempt to push product, however unintentionally, during a symbolic gift exchange. That is why the display was so utterly cringe worthy.

In general though, I was not surprised by Coleman’s hillbilly-in-the-big-city moment. After all, if the Prime Minister, as Minister of Intelligence and Security, says that he cannot be bothered asking the GCSB questions about US spying on its allies, then it is no wonder that Dr. Coleman thinks that US spies are asleep and the US government is up with the play when it comes to the All Black nation.

Is Child Abduction Media Coverage Color-Based?

Does there not seem something odd about the coverage of the little white girl found with a Roma (gypsy) family in Greece? From what I have seen the coverage has focused on her supposed abduction and the search for her birth mother (who, as it may turn out, is a Bulgarian gypsy with eight children living in squalid conditions who gave the child away to the Greek Roma family. If so, the “stolen” girl is the lucky child given the relative circumstances of her adopted and birth parents). But little coverage has been devoted to why the Greek police decided to seize the girl from her Roma guardians, who may well have been her legitimate adoptive parents if the story about her Bulgarian mother turns out to be true.

What prompted their suspicions? A tip-off about drugs in the Greek gypsy camp has been offered as the official reason, but why would that prompt suspicion about the child? Was it the that she looked different from the Roma parents? Or was it that the people involved were Roma and have a (largely mythological) reputation for abducting and selling children? Could it be that the Greek cops acted out of prejudice rather than legitimate concern, and the press followed their lead?

Given the virulent racism and intense hatred of Roma in Greece, what exactly prompted the Greek police to decide to intervene given that the girl appears to love her adopted parents and seemed happy with them? Would they have done so if the parents were white and the child was black?

The general Greek attitude was inadvertently summarised by a local sociologist who studies Roma, who expressed surprise because, according to him, Roma were known to act as intermediaries for illegal adoptions by childless Greek couples but where not known to adopt a non-Roma child as one of their own (this said before the identity of the Bulgarian gypsy mother was confirmed).

More tellingly, why the focus on the little white gypsy girl when there are thousands of non-white children being abducted, sold and traded every year, including in Greece? Why has the story not been used to highlight child trafficking in general, rather than as a window on Roma and their reputed criminal proclivities?

It could well be that there was something sinister in the placement of this particular girl with that particular Greek Roma family. But it is equally possible that she was adopted in accordance with Roma culture and received the love and care of a natural-born child. So why, exactly, the fuss about her when so many other children suffer far worse fates?

It is hard not to come away with the impression that what matters is that she is white and was being raised by “swarthy” people whose culture does not accord with the Western mainstream. If so, it tells us much more about the imbued or latent racism of the media coverage rather than the merits of the case. Worse yet, it leaves the fate of thousands of non-white children largely ignored by the same press that is so keen to follow this story.

If we backdrop this case against the incessant coverage of the Madeleine McCann case and the endless coverage of missing white kids in Europe, the US and elsewhere, then it becomes hard to escape the view that some missing kids matter more than others, and they matter only because of the colour of their skin as opposed to the circumstances of their disappearance.

I hate to say it and do not mean to go all soft on this particular subject, but if that is so then the media coverage stinks.


Espiando nossos amigos (Spying on our friends).

Well well well.

Edward Snowden has revealed that the Canadian signals intelligence agency Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), a Five Eyes partner of New Zealand’s signals intelligence agency GCSB, has been electronically spying on a communications network operated by the Brazilian mines and energy ministry. Brazil has a strategy of using its natural resources exploitation to become a major power, and the Ministry of Mining and Energy (MME) is the coordination node for that strategy. The network connected the ministry, state run oil and mine companies and private Brazilian energy firms, and was a forum where subjects such as investment strategies, negotiating positions and other sensitive commercial information were discussed. This included comunications with firms such as Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil conglomerate.

Needless to say, the MME communications network, presumably internet and telephonic in nature, would be of value to competitors or others seeking to countervail Brazilian economic growth and power projection. With its own energy sector comprising a vital part of Canada’s economy (often in competition with Brazilian interests), it should not be entirely surprising that the Canadian government authorized this instance of economic espionage.

CSEC shared what it obtained with its Five Eyes partners. That particular revelation follows on the heels of Snowden disclosing that the NSA tapped into the personal as well as official communications of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, although it is unclear if these were also shared with the other Five Eyes partners.

The CESC angle is interesting because Brazil is no adversary of the Five Eyes nations (in fact, it has a history of alliance with the US) and because Petrobras is a direct competitor of US and Canadian energy firms in a number of markets, including some in the Asia-Pacific. Petrobras has also been involved in pushing for off-shore oil and gas exploration rights in New Zealand, which means that the New Zealand government is quite possibly privy, in advance and thanks to the Canadians, to the Brazilian’s internal logics and bottom lines with regards to those ventures.

If so, it is possible that the recently passed legislation to severely curtail sea demonstrations against oil and gas exploration in New Zealand waters was motivated not by a direct request from Petrobras and other energy sector actors, but by direct knowledge of its internal concerns about the cost impact of such demonstrations if left unchecked. If this speculation is correct, it would be a twist to the economic espionage tale because the National government used the information gleaned by Echelon to help rather than hinder the activities of a foreign based private firm facing strong domestic opposition.

Whatever the specifics, the Canadian-Brazilian spy saga confirms what Snowden has previously disclosed, which is that the Five Eyes network routinely engages in economic espionage on allies as well as adversaries. Brazil has protested the intrusions vigorously, most recently by calling in the Canadian ambassador in Brasilia to complain about the breach of trust and previously by means of President Rousseff’s scathing speech to the UN General Assembly where she denounced the practice of spying on friends and partners. The Brazilians denunciations are not just rhetoric–they are actively looking for ways to create alternative internet routing systems that can circumvent US dominance of fiber optic cable networks. They have been joined in this initiative by–no surprises here–the Chinese.

Given these revelations, the questions begs as to what the GCSB is doing when it comes to economic espionage on allies or partners as well as adversaries. Given the Canadian revelations and given that Canada is considered to be a junior partner in Echelon/Five Eyes just like New Zealand, by what means does the GCSB do so and does it share the information that it collects with its Five Eyes counterparts?

We must remember that it is already known that the GCSB has eavesdropped on Japanese diplomatic communications regarding whaling and on UN communications in the build up to both Gulf Wars. Although this is a more traditional form of signals intelligence gathering in that it targeted diplomatic intercepts, the communications being intercepted were from a country that New Zealand is friendly with and an organization that New Zealand has been a champion of (and in which it is lobbying for a seat on the Security Council).

The revelations are important because it suggests that economic espionage by the Five Eyes network is pervasive and equally shared amongst the partners.

If I were involved with a Chinese firm, to say nothing of Petrobras and any number of other foreign commercial entities (state or private), I would be concerned about doing business in and with New Zealand given what we now know (so far–there is more to come). Forget milk powder contamination and other production snafus: the real issue is not so much product quality or reliability but whether New Zealand can be trusted to not use its signals intelligence capabilities and network to engage in the type of economic espionage the Canadians and Americans are clearly doing (and one would assume the Australians and British are doing as well). That the GCSB can now do it locally as well as from afar (thanks to the recently passed GCSB Act amendments) should double the concern.

The same concerns might be raised by the eight countries involved in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade and investment agreement that are not Echelon members. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US are parties to the negotiations, which given the Snowden revelations raises questions as to what they might covertly know about the other countries’ negotiating positions and about how much of what they might know is shared exclusively amongst themselves in order to better coordinate their approaches to the negotiations.

It should also be remembered that the NSA used private telecommunications firms and other corporate entities to cast its signals trolling net overseas. Does the GCSB do the same?

Of course, other countries engage in economic espionage. The Chinese, Russians, French and Israelis are known for it. But none of these countries have had their means and targets exposed in public, nor do they have the reach of the Five Eyes network at their disposal.

It is a big difference. If the Chinese, Russians or many others, either directly via state agencies or through  any number of non-state (including corporate) fronts, want to obtain signals intelligence abroad, they have to do so covertly. But the Five Eyes partners freely share their signals intelligence. In other words, non-Five Eyes signals intelligence agencies have to try and sneak through back doors to access the sensitive information of others, whereas the Echelon members freely pass surreptitiously gathered information through the front doors of their respective signals intelligence agencies.

Perhaps that is why the GCSB and TSIC Bills have been pushed so hard and so fast by the National government. The concern was not about terrorism, which served as a good fig leaf. The concern was not just defensive, in countering cyber and signals espionage on New Zealand targets and interests No, the concern was as much if not more offensive in nature in that the new powers of the GCSB facilitates exactly the type of spying that the CSEC was engaged in with regard to Brazil.

More precisely, before the passage of the Bills (I am assuming that the TSIC bill will pass) the GCSB could engage in economic espionage on friendly countries and firms but the legality of it doing so was in question when it came to it engaging in such spying (as well as more traditional types of signals intelligence) on New Zealand soil. Now it can do so legally. Any country or firm not part of the Five Eyes network that proposes to do business with or in New Zealand needs to take account of that.

The bottom line is that the Snowden revelations increasingly point to GCSB involvement in economic espionage of the first order. It may be only a matter of time before he drops a bombshell about the who, what and where of GCSB espionage. For a minuscule isolated nation heavily dependent on trade with foreign partners for its economic prosperity, this could be a potentially disastrous development.

Mission to nowhere.

It is said that the who and when of diplomatic missions tells much about the disposition of the government sending them. If that is true, then consider this.

The most important annual Trans-Pacific diplomatic (APEC) meetings are being held in Bali this week. John Key and Tim Groser are there, once again pushing their trade-first (only?) agenda in the main sessions and back rooms.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Murray McCully is on a mission to Antarctica.

Since Antarctica has no diplomatic agencies on its soil, it seems odd that the foreign minister is headed that way in the absence of a treaty signing or other diplomatic event. His press release states that the visit, his first, is because he is the minister responsible for New Zealand’s Antarctic Affairs and that along with his visit to Scott Base he will head to the US base at McMurdo Sound. But there is nothing diplomatic on his agenda.

Mr. McCully is not a minister for anything scientific, so he is not discharging science portfolio responsibilities by visiting one of the research stations on the continent. Perhaps, as Minister of Sports and Recreation, he is looking into possibilities along those lines, especially since he was flown down on an Air Force plane along with 117 others plus the 11 person Air Force crew.

But if he is not engaged in anything other than a tour of the realm, why is he not with other Trans-Pacific foreign ministers in Bali? Is this the contemporary equivalent of the colonial practice of assigning diplomats in disgrace to a posting in Brazzaville? Is Antarctica New Zealand’s diplomatic version of the Mosquito Coast?

MFAT and National will say that he was superfluous to requirements in Bali (not exactly in that language) because the PM and Trade Minister are there. That tells us two things.

On the international relations front it confirms that New Zealand’s foreign policy is dominated by a trade fixation (fetishism?) that has come to dominate all other aspects of New Zealand’s diplomatic endeavor. In spite of Mr. Key’s posturing at the UN with regard to UN reform, weapons non-proliferation and multilateral intervention in search for votes for a Security Council temporary seat next year, the hard fact is that New Zealand’s diplomatic ranks have been purged, one way or another, of arms control and non-proliferation specialists, climate change and human rights experts and many other senior diplomats whose primary expertise lies outside the realm of trade. They have been replaced by younger, less costly and more narrowly focused trade zealots (many riding on Groser’s coat tails) whose knowledge and experience in other diplomatic fields is comparatively thin.

This has been accompanied by out-sourcing lead responsibility for intelligence sharing and security assistance negotiations to the GCSB, SIS and NZDF, which is one of the reasons, in concert with the trade fixation, that New Zealand’s foreign relations have taken a distinctly schizophrenic look under National (trade with the East, defend with the West, even if the PRC and US are on a collision course for supremacy in the Western Pacific).

One might respond that spy agencies and armed forces should cut their own deals with foreign counterparts, since it is their business after all. But that is precisely why diplomatic intercession is required–securing the national interest is a long-term game played on many fronts that is not reducible to bureaucratic self-interest, making friends amongst foreign counterparts, or currying immediate favor. It is a fluid balancing game rather than a static one-off opportunity, which is why allowing spooks and uniforms to dictate the terms of engagement on matters of intelligence and security is less than ideal. That is particularly so when the ministers in charge of security and intelligence as well as military affairs are less than conversant with the nature of the operations they are responsible for and where there is no independent oversight of their decisions regarding the conduct of those operations.

Likewise, trade zealots need to have their single-minded obsession with neo-Ricardian prescriptions tempered by those who understand that the world is not solely dominated by trade balances and import/export quotas, tariffs, licensing and the other minutiae of cross-border economic interaction. Important as these are, they need to be considered in relation to other areas of diplomatic endeavor so that coherence, congruence and continuity in foreign affairs can be achieved and maintained. The latter is important for no other reason than it helps establish and maintain a nation’s reputation as a global actor.

New Zealand’s reputation as a global actor has transformed under National from that of an independent and autonomous honest broker into that of a wheeling, dealing “free” trading operator that hedges its bets by cozying up to the world military superpower. It remains to be seen how tenable this position will be over the long-term.

On the internal front McCully’s Antarctic junket offers proof that he is an outcast within his own party, a pariah best unseen and unheard. He has no significant allies in the Collins or Joyce factions of the National caucus and no real friends elsewhere. He has no discernible influence on foreign policy, serving more as a spokesperson and chief of ceremony. The weeks before his trip to the frozen continent he was flitting about the US and Caribbean, visiting the America’s Cup before heading to the UN for some meeting and greeting, then onto bilaterals with Caribbean counterparts. Prior to that he was at the Pacific Island Forum in the Marshall Islands, preceded by trips to Hong Kong, China and Mongolia, Melanesia and the Cook Islands and Africa and the Seychelles. He presented many gifts to a variety of dignitaries from far-off lands and wore colorful shirts as much as he did suits. He did little hard negotiating.

That is a lot of time spent abroad during times when parliament is sitting, particularly when the bulk of the trips were for more symbolic than significant purposes. Come to think of it, when was the last time he answered a question in the debating chamber? I may have missed it but he does seem conspicuous by his absence.

In effect, McCully has been given a comfy sinecure to ensure that he stays away from his own caucus and steers clear of involvement in the “real” business of foreign affairs, that being trade. This neuters him in terms of the internal politics within National as well as with regard to foreign policy making (which is now the province of Groser and his minions). This is a variation on the theme used by Labour with respect to Winston Peters, when he became a Foreign Minister not in cabinet who spent a similar amount of time as McCully does exploring the far–and nicer–reaches of the globe. Except Antarctica.

And we have paid for all of it.


Blog Link: The Transition Tango in Fiji.

Over at 36th Parallel Assessments I explore some of the dynamics that are and will be key factors in the political transition to free and open elections in Fiji scheduled for mid 2014. Unique circumstances in Fiji notwithstanding, the success of a transition from military-bureaucratic authoritarianism to freely elected government (if not democracy) hinges on some key factors, particularly the interplay between regime and opposition hard- and soft-liners. The essay explains how and why.