Confronting Despotic Interference.

It is hard to fix a precise date when despotic politics entered the liberal democratic world, and then again when it began to corrode the rules-based international order. Some say that it started with the emergence of right-wing nationalism in Europe in response to the importation of authoritarian cultural values on the back of mass migration from non-European regions. Others see the rise of despotism as the response to the sclerosis and decay of liberal democracy in advanced capitalist states, where corporate influence, political corruption, post-industrial decline and technocratic indifference to popular concerns conspired to undermine confidence in the institutional system. Still others saw it as a response to unfulfilled expectations in newer democracies, where hopes of equality of opportunity and choice were dashed by a return to oligarchical politics dressed up in electoral garb.

Whatever the cause, the response has been the corrosion of democracy from within exemplified by the rise of new form of despotic politics, and despots, that promise much and which use imposition and manipulation rather than persuasion and compromise as their main tools of trade. Democracy is increasingly rule by the the few for the few, with the mass of citizens serving as pawns in inter-elite struggles and useful fools susceptible to demagogic appeals.

Much attention has focused on the rise of right-wing national populists like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Dutarte or Recep Erdogan. But the turn to despotism in seen on the left as well, such as in the case of the Venezuelan regimes led by Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, the post-revolutionary Sandinistas led by Daniel Ortega and the South African ANC under Jacob Zuma.

To this can be added the places where despotism never left the scene and defied the successive waves of democratisation that marked the late 20th century. That includes the Middle East in spite of the so-called Arab Spring, most of Sub-Saharan Africa and much of  East, Central and Southeast Asia. Throughout the “Stans” despots reign and places as different as Morocco, Jordan, North Korea and Singapore are ruled by authoritarians of varying degrees of benevolence and legitimacy.

Whatever the date of origin, the rise of despotism is inevitably due to a mix of factors and motives, many idiosyncratic to the country in question. Hungary is not like Italy, which is not like Turkey, which is not like the Philippines or the US. And yet in spite of their variance  across the globe there has been a shift to despotic politics, something that in turn has had a pernicious impact on the international system. The truth is that, much like the waves of democratisation that preceded it and to which it is the antithesis, we have entered a new age of despotism that has international as well as national ramifications.

The global rise of despotic politics has clearly been encouraged by the election of Donald Trump in the US. His attacks on the media, “fake news,” the so-called “Deep State,” his vilification of minorities and political opponents, his xenophobic and racist dog-whistling and his courtship of foreign authoritarians in parallel with his insulting of long-time US allies and trade partners all provide an environment in which the US in no longer seen as a defender of human rights, press freedom and the international rule of law. On one level this has encouraged other despots to emulate him (e.g. Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan of “Make Brazil Great Again,” Matteo Salvini’s calls for erecting an Italian wall against Arab and African immigrants and Dutarte’s dismissal of reports of extra-judicial killings by his police as “fake news’). On another level the US retreat from international affairs and the poisonous impact of domestic despotism in other democracies has led to breakdown in respect of international norms by despots and ostensible democrats alike. It is, in a phrase, a move back towards a Hobbesian state of nature in international affairs.

Into the vacuum left by the US abdication of its traditional international role have entered the politics of despotic interference. Unlike the hard power of military force, soft power of diplomatic persuasion and smart power of hybrid approaches using both in concert, despotic interference is one application of authoritarian “sharp power” where the projection of influence has hostile and subversive intent. Among other objectives, despotic interference is designed to influence foreign perceptions in a favourable way while stifling dissent at home and abroad by nationals and foreigners alike. It offers honey to those who bend to its will and vinegar to those who do not.

Seen in Chinese “influence operations” such as those outlined by Anne-Marie Brady with regard to New Zealand, or in the cyber warfare practiced by Russian military intelligence against Western targets (including hacking attacks on the World Anti-Doping Agency, Democratic National Committee and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), authoritarians no longer feel constrained by the rules of diplomatic respect and non-interference in the sovereign affairs of foreign states. The most unpleasant of these include attempted murder by poison, as practiced by the Russians against a turn-coat Russian spy living in Salisbury, UK and a male member of the Pussy Riot dissident group. In their murderous intent the Russians are not alone. This week a Saudi journalist disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish authorities believed that he was either killed or kidnapped when in the consulate. Not to be outdone, bodyguards of Turkish president Erdogan physically assaulted, in front of the Washington DC police and assembled media cameras, Turkish expat protesters on the occasion of a state visit to meet with president Trump. For their part, the Chinese have used strong-arm tactics against dissident groups abroad such as Falun Gong and, as Australia has found out, muscled its way into political and corporate circles without regard to the conventional niceties of democratic competition (such as having mobs of pro-Chinese students assault and intimidate compatriots voicing non-Party lines). In fact, just like the Russian poison campaign, the Chinese appear to be interested in intimidating opposing views regardless of where they are located.

Many will respond to this line of thought with the usual “whataboutism” that the US and other former colonial powers and mature democracies have extensively intervened in the domestic affairs of other states.  That is obviously true and to be condemned, but it ignores the fact that if we value democracy as an intrinsic good and believe in the right to dissent, then the recent turn towards despotism and despotic interference are inimical to basic values of free and fair societies. That does not excuse the historical excesses and crimes of the US and other liberal democracies when it comes to their meddling in other countries affairs, but it does recognise that what has emerged in recent years is a new form of interventionism that has a negative impact on rules-based societies, to include the international community.

This is where New Zealand comes in. In the months after Professor Brady published her now famous “Magic Weapons” paper, in which she details how the Chinese Communist Party uses “United Front” organisations to advance its interests and suppress dissent in New Zealand and elsewhere, her office and home were burgled by parties unknown. The thieves left valuables behind but took her lap tops, phones and memory sticks, and in the home robberies rifled her bed sheets. Given the brazen nature of the burglaries and public nature of most of what was on her devices, it appears that the break-ins were done as acts of intimidation and warning rather than as information-gathering operations. The question is who would have motive to do so?

If the thieves were acting on behalf or under the orders of Beijing, then the burglaries were a step up from influence operations into criminal acts committed on sovereign New Zealand soil.

The New Zealand Police involved the SIS in the investigation, and most recently announced that the detective work had been handed over to Interpol and that leads were being pursued abroad. This implies that the New Zealand authorities believe that the perpetrators are now overseas, which means that they likely will never be brought to justice even if identified. And if they were Chinese agents, what is the New Zealand government going to do in response? Therein lies the rub.

Despotic interference, to include influence and disruption operations and the direct intimidation of dissidents and critics abroad, happens because those ordering the interference believe that they can get away with it. What are the target countries to do in the face of a hacking episode, a simple burglary or assault on a foreign national because of his/her political beliefs? Escalate things into a diplomatic confrontations? Declare War? Begin trade embargoes?

The beauty of despotic interference is that it does not invite easy retaliation and in fact makes a proper response very difficult to calibrate. The situation is all the more difficult for small target states like New Zealand, especially when the perpetrator of a criminal act of interference happens to be the government of its largest trading partner and a major source of foreign direct investment in the local economy. And yet to allow acts of despotic interference to go unpunished only encourages more of the same, so policy makers in targeted states are caught in a vicious circle about how to appropriately respond.

This is the situation New Zealand will find itself in if the burglars in the Brady break-ins are identified as having links to the Chinese state. Its response options are limited. It might issue a formal protest to the Chinese ambassador in Wellington or expel a low ranking diplomat. It might withdraw the New Zealand ambassador to Beijing for consultations. If the burglars entered New Zealand on student visas, then reducing the number of such visas issues to Chinese nationals might be considered. Limitations on tourist numbers could be considered and military-to-military contacts reduced.

The problem is that the response has to be seen as proportionate and discrete because the Chinese are acutely interested in saving face and are known to react disproportionately to even small slights. This is a serious problem for New Zealand given its trade dependency on China and the as of yet unchecked influence of Chinese money and favours in local politics (unlike Australia, New Zealand has placed no restrictions on fund-raising or influence peddling by suspected Chinese agents operating in Aotearoa). But New Zealand also cannot be seen as doing nothing in the face of such a criminal violation of sovereignty.

There lies the conundrum. If Western liberal democracies do not respond to acts of despotic intervention then they will likely continue and even increase. But many within Western liberal democracies, to include those in policy-making circles, no longer have faith in democratic values or see them in purely instrumental and opportunistic terms. The example being set by Trump in the US is emblematic in that regard but the consequences are felt globally, both in his imitators in other democracies and in the emboldenment of other despots such as Putin and Xi when it comes to meddling in the domestic affairs of sovereign democratic states. In that regard New Zealand is no different, with apologists for China denying or downplaying the pernicious nature of  its honey and vinegar approach to Antipodean affairs.

In that regard New Zealand again has become a laboratory rat for larger geopolitical experiments. In this instance the research question, to quote Lenin, is “what is to be done?” Rather than addressing the imperatives of making revolution, here the question is directed at how to respond to despotic interference in order to deter future applications of it. As mentioned, Australia has already tightened legislation governing foreign money and accounting transparency in campaign financing. All of the Five Eyes partners save New Zealand have placed restraints on the involvement of Chinese telecommunications companies in strategically sensitive infrastructure. But even in the face of the criminal violation of Anne Marie Brady’s privacy and academic freedom, New Zealand authorities have only offered vague assurances that it will respond forcefully if the culprits are found to be working for a foreign state.

The answer to the question of what is to be done is whether to draw a line on despotic interference in New Zealand given that it may have escalated into criminal behaviour, or downplay the episode given the diplomatic and economic necessity of avoiding offence and therefore injurious retaliation from an authoritarian great power.

To a significant degree, the true nature of New Zealand’s autonomy and independence in foreign affairs will be seen in how it responds.

13 thoughts on “Confronting Despotic Interference.

  1. It’s as if the ghosts of the Weimar Republic are returning to haunt the major corridors of power. That said, WW3 may not necessarily erupt, but all the same there could well be a “World Troubles” – basically what happened in Northern Ireland which was too violent for cops to handle, but not violent enough for formal declarations of war.

    And I wonder if the “JACKSNNZ 7” grouping (Japan, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Switzerland, Norway & NZ) might just gain in relevance with the above events.

  2. “…Declare War?…”

    Eventually, I am pretty certain we will have to defend ourselves from the Chinese despots if we wish to remain a free people.

  3. I agree with much in this piece, and disagree with some of it, but wish to focus just on the question of what NZ will do about China.

    The short answer is nothing, both in the short and long term. The reasons we will do nothing are myriad.

    We’ve steadily given away our means of defending ourselves over the decades, and I don’t just mean the poor state of our sad little military in terms of equipment, staff, and training.

    Economically we have had virtually no productivity growth for decades now, with much of our GDP growth a simple result of population increases and increased quantitities of exports. When other nations, both developed and developing, are pushing productivity along at 2-3% or more per annum, it does not seem much. But as the decades pass it means they can outbid us for doctors, nurses, teachers, and other public goods and services, not to mention the private sector, where firms find that they are being outbid for skilled workers. But I don’t think this will really be noticeable until we see ourselves unable to get trained staff from developing countries (as we do now) because even they will have become wealthier than us, rather than just the OECD.

    Our economic dependency on China is a merely a symptom of this, and while we’re not as badly off as developing nations that have found themselves over a barrel with Chinese loans, we’re not far short of that. Not to mention the Chinese money and influence tracked into both Labour and National, even Phill Goff’s mayoral campaign, as discussed here in Michael Reddell’s anguished blog article. The disturbing silence from both major parties on China’s malign efforts in various spheres is another symptom, but probably the most concerning “tell” to me. What a complete moral faliure of Adern, Bridges, and their MPs.

    But it’s also the spirit of the nation that has fallen away since my childhood. We’ve had fifty years of relentless approval of “anti-war” thinking, and the disparagement of nationalism as expressed in military or security services, because apparently that will turn us into jingoistic war-mongering lapdogs for the US or some other Western group. That has succeeded in NZ beyond the wildest hopes of the 60’s radicals. High school students express mockery for, or airy dismissal of, all those services now. The NZDF’s recruiting advertisements are regarded as so sad in their pleading.

    But the hoped-for replacement for this spirit – of building patriotism and national pride by participating in global, UN-approved efforts, whereby our tiny forces land on foreign scorched earth and declare peace amidst the bones of wars that have ended, together with an endless parade of signalling to eachother how virtuous we are by joining UN agreements and initiatives, has not seemed to make any impact aside from making us even more useless and timid on both an individual and collective level. We go along to get along.

    The Web’s atomisation has crashed in at the same time. Look at the poor crowds for most domestic rugby games! Cricket -we get a few 5-day games; scraps thrown from the big boys table of England, Aussie and India. Our netball teams were basically chucked out of the Aussie league for similar reasons. And without coverage on free-to-air broadcasting, what families sit around watching these games? All Black tests are still a thing, but the needs SKY and people are ditching them too.

    All of this adds up to a population increasingly not that connected to NZ – economically, culturally, or spiritually. The eyes of the youth I encounter turn overseas every day and they’re not talking about OE’s so much as simply leaving forever for the opportunities their skills have given them, whether it’s Engineering, Science, IT, or even Arts expressed in some way (such as Animation). Moreover, the discussions I hear from my kids and their friends – whether it’s sports, politics, media or just about anything – focus on overseas events and people to a far greater degree than in my 80’s youth, when we thought we were oh-so connected to the world. Oh, they’ll participate in Kapa Haka and some such, but their hearts are not in it and they’re eager to find a spare moment to hit Instagram as soon as possible, where they follow foreign sport and media stars and events.

    They all think NZ is a nice place to live and they express some hope that they may return one day to raise their own kids here – but only if they’ve made enough money to survive in the flat NZ economy. But that’s as far as it goes. The suggestion that they might someday “defend” this country draws puzzled responses as to what that even means nowadays, and how it’s impossible to do anyway given our size. Words like that, or patriotism, is regarded as “American-type thinking”, which is regarded as gauche and crude: “What, you want us to start waving little NZ flags”. No, better to roll with the punches, plan to escape, or leave ahead of the problem.

    Their attitudes have certainly had a sobering effect on mine as a born-and-bred Kiwi. I’m no pacifist, but I no longer think the place is worth the sort of sacrifice that my parents endured. One result is that my attitude towards politics has moved to one of not caring who is in power, let alone arguing, debating and commenting about Labour-led vs. National-led governments as I did for many years.

    In my case my kids are almost certainly going to head for the USA, which means my wife and I likely will also in a few years. In the meantime I’ll continue to make money, pay taxes and keep things ticking along, but to put it bluntly, I will not waste one drop of my kins blood nor one gram of treasure, to defend New Zealand. The good news is that Maori will; after all, as we’ve been constantly told for five decades, it’s their country. I’m just not sure they’ll be any more successful than they were in the 19th century.

  4. I should add one thing to maintain a direct “on-topic” comment, which is that the chances of a figure like Trump, Salvini, or Orbán arising here in NZ are slim to none for the very reasons I outline in my previous comment.

    There’s simply not a large enough cohort of people left here anymore who give enough of a damn to respond to such calls.

  5. Wow Tom,

    That was a pretty depressing analysis. Especially so since my wife and I returned to NZ from Singapore precisely to raise our child. Although like you we have prepared contingency plans for him to head to the US for his higher education should he be academically inclined (he is a dual NZ/US citizen so may have some opportunities in that regard). Given the deterioration of NZ higher education this may turn out to be the only real option if he wants to pursue a high quality degree.

    I have mixed feelings about your prognosis. On the one hand I completely agree with your assessment of the political classes’ subservience to Chinese interests and short term vision. And with a lap dog media (for the most part) no one is holding people like Jenny Shipley, Don Brash and Raymond Hu accountable for being useful (and selfish) fools in that regard. Add to that the poor state of talent in the political class–just take a look at the major party back-benches or Green front row to get an idea– and yes, the chances of political reform that diminishes Chinese influence are small.

    I am less inclined to agree that NZ youth are hopeless when it comes to valuing what they have here. Perhaps it has to do with my living in a small rural community dominated by surf lifesaving and other outdoor pursuits, but it seems to me that there is enough of a reservoir of youthful interest in community service to warrant tempered optimism in the future. As for the military–the existence of other avenues of economic opportunity is directly related to lack of interest in military service, so it is not so much a result of lack of patriotism as it is of better (and easier) ways of making a living. There will always be those who want the adrenaline rush and there will be those who see the military as a way of learning important skills that are transferable to the civilian sector without having to pursue a university degree. So the issue is how to configure the military in light of labour market looseness and the geopolitical threat environment in which NZ exists (hint: IMO we need to be more maritime focused and less Army dominated).

    That brings up your pessimistic economic picture. I read Reddell fairly regularly and share some of his concerns, but it is the refusal to wean the economy off of agricultural commodity dependency and consequent exposure to fluctuations in external market demand and pricing that bothers me the most. Again, we are sacrificing long-term economic growth for short-term gain by not expanding the range of value-added production, something that we are now seeing is a losing strategy (witness Fonterra’s misfortunes). But beyond that, I think that it will be a while before socioeconomic conditions and wages in other parts of the world will outweigh NZ’s other features when it comes to attracting foreign skilled labour. And that too has to be a priority for Immigration. In fact, IMO the whole Immigration scheme needs to be reviewed and revised so as to keep a proper balance of cultural and labour inputs in the mix.

    It strikes me that NZ has not been tested as a nation for a long time. It is only when that signature moment arrives that we will know what the country is made of. It could be a political assassination, it could be diplomatic or military intimidation by a larger power, or it could be an internal revolt against business as usual, but until we are confronted by such a moment then it is hard to assess whether NZ truly is a nation or just a group of demographic silos sharing “benign” geographic space and a thin web of shallow cultural cross-overs.

  6. It is as Thomas Jefferson said… the tree of liberty must be sometimes watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.

    In NZ that tree has gone un-watered for some time.

    It will not be easy but I look forward to the time when New Zealand is tested in blood and fire, against the enemies of freedom (both foreign and domestic).

    I know the commenters here like myself, Tom, Sanctuary and Pablo will not be found wanting.

    Let’s hope the rest of the nation can follow our example…

  7. @Erewhon
    That’s very nice of you to say that, but I think you missed the part where I specifically said:

    …to put it bluntly, I will not waste one drop of my kins blood nor one gram of treasure, to defend New Zealand.

    That’s a tough thing to write for me, given that my father and four uncles fought against the Nazis, and given all that they and their families did after WWII to build this society. But it’s a grim truth that I’ve had to acknowledge in recent years.

    We have no Jefferson (or Adams, Hamilton, Washington, etc) in our history. We did not fight a revolution to be free and the nearest we had to a civil war was not some vast, bloody fight over something as moral as slavery and what a Constitution and Bill of Rights actually meant, but a bitter series of tiny contests over what was and remains essentially a broken and betrayed land contract, the aftermath of which was 110 years before we even began to attempt addressing the betrayals. Even then we did little but reward an elite.

    WRT to rural areas I think you are correct. I’ve still got cousins and old school friends in such places and I’m sure they would not agree at all with what I’ve written. In fact I think they would be pretty saddened or disgusted by it. But the fact is that their attitudes on these matters also incorporate many others that are traditional and that simply do not fit with the majority of their countrymen, who have increasing contempt for them. And they are vastly outnumbered. And they are not unaware of these things.

  8. Tom
    A very dispiriting analysis.
    I suggest you read . It shares your view but is directed at the US and wider western perspective. To further dispirit you please do not believe that the problem is limited to New Zealand

    I am sixth generation New Zealander, have kin in NZ, US territory (Guam) and Hungary but live in the UK. A daughter and 2 nephews chose to move to NZ for lifestyle ( and university cost). I have actively encouraged some of the younger ones to join the military and serve. So in some respect I am the opposite of your lifestyle perspective.

    I view the problem as being the “liberal” (not), progressive, anti war, snowflake tribes with their socialist international perspectives. They have sapped the will of the people. The popular emergence of the Orban, Trump, Brexit style of leadership is a recognition that the Western path over recent decades is a failure.

    It is your cousins and old school friends who vote against the progressive elite who have the handles of power. Ardern is simply the most recent example of a weak progressive elite leader. The silent NZ majority have not reacted but the support for Winston Peters taps into that.

    Shipley is no different to Blair & Major, making money once out of office.

    New Zealand is like Ireland, not at the centre of things but still capable of being dynamic and making cool things providing it does not sell off what makes it special. That said Varadkar is taking it backwards fast.

    NZ has some hope. The NZ dairy industry is decades ahead of the protectionist subsidy focused European & American industry in terms of innovation. Think Weka. Think rockets; I visited an old school friend recently in a rural area close to Auckland whose local mate helps make rockets.

    Fonterra tried to go corporate a few years ago and it may be no bad thing over the long term that it retains its New Zealand dependent ownership structure. UK farmers are in a terrible place. New Zealand farmers own the vertical route to market and constantly innovate. UK farmers are price taking, subsidy dependent and almost powerless.

    As far as China is concerned we should be careful not to sell our birthright. In that we should be thankful that the current coalition government is taking a more nationalist approach to land sales.

  9. “Others see the rise of despotism as the response to the sclerosis and decay of liberal democracy in advanced capitalist states, where corporate influence, political corruption, post-industrial decline and technocratic indifference to popular concerns conspired to undermine confidence in the institutional system. Still others saw it as a response to unfulfilled expectations in newer democracies, where hopes of equality of opportunity and choice were dashed by a return to oligarchical politics dressed up in electoral garb.”

    I’m largely in these camps. Many mainstream social democratic parties have tried too hard for too long to be “Tory-lite”, and the result is that parties to their Left flank like Podemos, SYRIZA & Die Linke have filled the void – a phenomenon known as “Pasokification”.

    And the neo-despotic wave could be just the start of something even worse, particularly if the elephant in the room of technological underemployment isn’t addressed. As I’ve mentioned at the start of this thread, there may not be a WW3 but there could well be a World Troubles.

  10. And in the weeks since this was published we have commemorated the end of The Great War, which is held to be a classic example of right-wing national populism, among other factors.

    Moreover, we have just had another critique of this, from President Macron of France no less, with his claim that nationalism is not patriotism, and it’s implied slam of Trump.

    The following, lengthy article explores this, and not just in the context of 1914-18, but a number of vast European wars fought in much earlier times.

    France has neither Nationalism nor Patriotism. Some key quotes:

    Just 29% of the French are willing to fight for their country, according to a 2017 WIN/Gallup poll, a bit above Germany’s 18%. Contrast that to 84% of Israel’s Jewish population. That’s “patriotism” or “nationalism,” as you prefer.

    But before the Left celebrates, the writer points out the sad source of this reluctance, which is driven less by some principled opposition to war, than by mere apathy:

    Each of the major European nations worshipped at its own altar, and held itself to be a superior culture, a superior civilization, a new Roman Empire, or a new “chosen people,” entitled to dominate its neighbors.

    French grandeur, German Kultur, and Russian messianism fought each other to the death twice in the 20th Century.

    Fully supported by intellectuals and artists too, at least in 1914. But the aftermath is the attitude expressed in Macron’s pithy statement:

    If you worship yourself, you become the God that failed. Europe wallows in its own pessimism and self-disgust.

    Europe learned at length that blood and soil, Kultur and Grandeur, were not worth fighting for. But Europe could find nothing to live for after it forswore the national gods of its violent past. It is dying of enervation and ennui, disgusted with its past and unconcerned for its future, unwilling to bring sufficient numbers of children into the world to ensure its survival for another century.

  11. Thanks Tom,

    For what seems to be a “more food for thought” comment. I do not take away much from the anniversary celebrations other than that of futile sacrifice for the vanity of kings (or if not that, then the sorry plight of the (often colonial and post-colonial) cannon fodder of ascendant and descendant imperialist powers jostling for position in the emerging world order of the time). My hope is that is the lesson learned and that the reification of military “heroes” stops once and for all. The Ozzies are about as bad as the Yanks on this sort of historical revisionism, so I am also hoping that NZ keeps proper historical perspective.

    For more food for thought, try this:

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