Countering coercive politics

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s two week foreign mission to Europe and Australia was by all accounts a success. She met with business and government leaders, signed and co-signed several commercial and diplomatic agreements including a EU-NZ trade pact, conferred with NATO officials as an invited participant of this year’s NATO’s Leader’s Summit, gave several keynote speeches on foreign policy and international affairs, and in general flew the Aotearoa flag with grace and a considerable dose of celebrity. As she wraps up her visit to Australia, it is worth noting that she gave different takes on foreign policy to different audiences. These may appear incongruous at first glance but in fact display a fair degree of strategic and diplomatic finesse.

In Europe she emphasized the commonality of shared values among liberal democracies across a range of subjects: approaches to trade, security, human rights, representative governance, the rule of law within and across borders, transparency and rejection of corruption, and the common threat posed to all of these values by authoritarian great powers that are trying to usurp the international order via persistent challenges and encroachments on international norms and institutions.

Towards the end of her trip while in Australia, she shifted tack and emphasized NZ’s “independent” foreign policy while dropping the value-based view of a global geostrategic contest marshalled along ideological lines.

Instead, she publicly decoupled the Ruso-Ukrainian war from broader geostrategic competition between democratic and authoritarian-led powers, treating Russian behavior as idiosyncratic rather than as a result of regime type. That framing of the conflict avoids messy arguments about domestic political legitimacy and its impact on great power rivalries. In doing so Ardern reaffirmed the independence of NZ’s foreign policy approach from those of larger Western allies while reducing the possibility of retaliation by the PRC on trade and other diplomatic fronts. The PRC is well aware of the reality of NZ’s recent strategic shift towards the West, but a public position that pointedly refuses to lump together PRC behavior with Russian aggression based on the authoritarian nature of their respective regimes gives NZ some time and diplomatic space in which to maneuver as it charts a course in the international transitional moment that it is currently navigating. That is a prudent position to take and hence a good diplomatic move assuming that the PRC reads the statement as NZ intends it to be read.

The strategy behind this approach–one that recognizes the larger ideological divide at play in international affairs but treats State actions as unique to individual national history and circumstances–might be called a “confronting coercive politics” approach. Allow me to explain.

Politics ultimately is about the acquisition, accumulation, administration, distribution, maintenance and loss of power. Power is the ability to make others bend to one’s will. It can be persuasive or coercive in nature, i.e., it can induce others to act in certain ways or it can compell them to act under (threat of) duress .

Power is relative and variable across several dimensions, including economic, political, military, personal, class, social (including gender and reputational/”influencer” in this day and age), cultural, intellectual and physical. Power is wielded directly or indirectly as a mixed bag of “hard” and “soft” attributes, a dichotomy that is well mentioned in the international relations and foreign policy literatures. Hybrid combinations of soft and hard power have led to “smart” and “sharp” power subsets depending on the emphasis given to one or the other basic trait.

The harder the exercise of power, the more coercive it is. Conversely, the more persuasive the way in which power is welded, the “softer” it is. Moreover, soft power can give way to hard power if the former is unsuccessful in accomplishing desired objectives, and soft power can be used as a follow up to the exercise of hard power. For example, “dollar diplomacy,” whereby large states fund development projects in small states on generous terms, is a form of soft power that can turn into hard power leverage once it becomes debt diplomacy in the form repayment conditions for those projects.

The exercise of State power has been institutionalized, codified and regulated over the years in a variety of contexts, including international relations and foreign policy. That is designed to strip inter-state relations of more overtly coercive approaches in favor of more consensus or compromise-oriented forms of engagement. However, in recent years the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world-in-the-making has led to international norm erosion and a diminishing of international rule and law enforcement. That has produced a “back to the future” scenario where the international context has regressed to a modern version of the anarchic state of nature that Hobbes warned about in Leviathan. Emerging or restored great powers, particularly but not exclusively the PRC and Russia, have rejected international norms and laws in favor of a “might makes right” approach to international differences. Geopolitical coercion is at the heart of their international perspectives, which challenges the basic rules, norms and institutions of the liberal international order.

The turn towards more coercive forms of international politics is mirrored in the domestic politics of many States, including those led by democratic regimes. It is this–the emergence of coercive politics as a core feature of domestic and international governance–that is the focus of Ardern’s bifurcated foreign policy pronouncements in recent days. Her government understands that “liberal” governance is more than free and fair elections and respect for human rights. It is based on tolerance, compromise and mutual contingent consent between individuals, factions, parties and States.

Being unable to control the domestic regimes that govern States, Ardern’s bifurcated approach to NZ foreign policy (I would not call it a doctrine or anywhere close to one), is focused on countering coercive politics in international affairs. The general value principles of liberalism are upheld, but individual relations with other states, particularly important trade and security partners, are treated with a mix of value-based and pragmatic considerations, with pragmatism prevailing when strategic interests are at stake.

This approach allows NZ to broadly critique a trade partner’s human rights record while increasing or maintaining its trade with that partner in specific commodities under the argument that engagement with NZ’s values is better than isolation from them.

In other words, adherence in principle to liberal international values cloaks realistic assessments of where Aotearoa’s material interests are woven into the global institutional fabric. That may be cynical, hypocritical or short-sighted in its read of how the global order is evolving, but as a short-term diplomatic stance, it splits the difference between adherence to principle and amoral commitment to self-interested practice.

16 thoughts on “Countering coercive politics

  1. An excellent analysis, thank you Pablo. It makes me feel we’re in good hands – for the time being at least.

  2. I assume that I will be accused of being an Ardern fan boi but truth is this strategy has been developed by a very competent team of senior diplomats. She is just the deliverer of the message, and she does that very well.

  3. Could the above approach also apply to Trumpified American states such as Florida & Mississippi, while still trading freely with California & New York?

  4. Thank you once again, very much for this. (I have to read some sentences more than once to get the gist lol)
    I watched JA give her speech to the Lowy Institute in Sydney; and wondered about its change in tone; especially after her visits to NATO, Europe and the UK, USA, Australia earlier (then again on her return from this trip) …. I saw a headline to the effect that China welcomed her softened approach.
    I am just not sure how long we shall be able to sustain this tightrope walk of international affairs; though I understand the reasoning behind it (we are such a small nation, and heavily reliant on trade, and aid if we are ever threatened) … I recently stumbled over a statement from Xi from last year, where he said he wanted to reintegrate Taiwan into the PRC by 2049 – the anniversary of the founding of the PRC. I’m not sure how the PRC will go about that (by force, one presumes); and then wonder if the United States really will go to the aid of a small island off the east coast of Asia, and against the might of the PRC.
    Incidentally I was interested and surprised to see the more informal atmosphere of the Lowy Institute (I had never heard of them before…). Like her press conferences, JA rattled through her speech with little emphasis or emotion; but the question time that followed did not seem to be scripted. She seemed lively and inspired to be there, and answered the questions confidently; though as a seasoned politician. It was interesting that the international press then seized upon her description of the world as ‘ bloody messy’ to use briefly as a headline. I guess I was surprised too at her descriptive language but it highlighted the more informal atmosphere. She seemed to relish it.
    I cannot imagine any other politician, our last PMs, able to traverse international politics the way she does. I am (still) full of admiration for her. I am sure being a woman helps. She can charm the likes of Biden, Johnson, Macron and Trudeau, the Spanish PM. For them it must be so refreshing to have an attractive woman who also has a sharp and trained, now seasoned, political mind. (Why can’t I celebrate that!). Lets hope she gets another term …. Kind regards.

  5. PS do you have any reason, inkling, why international domestic politics might be returning to a more coercive model? In a (brief) word. Thanks.

  6. Barbara:

    Root cause: the failures of liberal democracies to deliver on citizen expectations because of deepening corruption, elite influence peddling and institutional sclerosis. This leads to increasingly bitter contempt and disdain for politics, politicians and the State.

    Proximate cause: The emergence of national populism, be it Left or Right in orientation, under both liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. National populism thrives on scapegoating, stereotyping and stirring of xenophobic, racial, class, religious, ethnic and gender animosities for political gain. A key feature of the populist approach is to bully and denigrate opponents in often violent terms. just think of Trump or Erdogan as the embodiment of the syndrome.

  7. Of course. Thank you.
    I recently read Max Rashbrooke’s book ‘Too Much Money: how wealth disparities are unbalancing Aotearoa NZ’ and was ashamed to read of the 1984/87 Labour govt’s introduction of neoliberal (broadly speaking) politics to NZ, later of course to be picked up and run with by subsequent National govts. Now Labour has started the task of unpicking all the damage these policies have caused. I wonder if they have the courage to introduce a wealth tax, etc. I suspect/know these things are much more entrenched overseas in USA and the UK. Both so much more corrupt too – BJ the latest debacle.
    Another key to overcoming this is education. I was surprised to see Germany still has free tertiary education – as we grew up with here in NZ. I think it is the same of course in the Scandinavian countries. How different our country was back then, so much more social equality, we didn’t even think about it. Germany must be one of the most socially and politically aware countries that I know of now. I watched people on the street in Germany being asked about their country’s contribution to the war in Ukraine – they were universally supportive of more military support. They seemed to express the wisdom and understanding of that.
    Thank you :-)

  8. KR:

    The US has federal customs requirements, and each state then has its own. The decision to not invest in certain states would have to be made by the NZ exporter/investor, perhaps using MFAT guidance on the matter. Given NZ exporter’s track record, I doubt that any will hesitate, much less refrain from consorting to Red states.

  9. Pingback: Political Roundup: Are we spending too little – or too much – on the military? | The Daily Blog

  10. Hello Paul

    May I unload some baggage ? I have not read any NZ MSM – NZ Herald, Dom Post, Stuff since the beginning of this year . And really I don’t think I have missed much!

    Sheesh… I didn’t even know that ” That Woman” had gone overseas. EU trade deal … !! ( Tui’s ad please )
    Refer the attached link

    Our government is lead by student politicians. As a friend of mine pointed out, they have never
    earned an income by working in the private sector. They have only taken an income through the effort of others.

    Safe hands?? I question that

  11. Hi Edward.

    We will have to disagree. I think that the Ardern/Robertson team has been a good one and look forward to another three years of Labour-led government after next year’s election. After all, at least the PM and her Deputy do not travel overseas to bad mouth NZ businesses and workers to potential investors and trade partners!

  12. Your correspondent above really is misguided. Perhaps he should read at least some of the msm, to avoid looking like an ostrich with his head in some sand somewhere (perhaps the Dairy News) .
    I believe (from other reports) the PMs latest trip was a huge success. You cannot deny it. They achieved results for others in the productive sector, like the kiwifruit growers, the winemakers. It was never going to be a ‘goer’ getting dairy into the EU in any significant way – where has your poster been living? And when the PM (any PM in fact) travels overseas, she is accompanied by representatives of many of our major businesses. These are things not usually reported. Listen to the opening comments here:
    and also opening comments from the previous week, 4th July.
    Our current PM is a real asset.
    And the dairy farmers (if that who Mr. Main is allied to) are doing very well anyway, thank you, and have done so for a very long time. Really, a dairy farmer complaining about their lot at the moment must surely look nothing more than downright greedy.
    Kind regards.

    PS very good jibe about the Leader of the Op. Pablo. I had not seen much written about that trip!

  13. PS Pablo, I wanted to thank you for posting the above link (‘are we spending too much on the military’).
    Usually I like to know the authors of the things I read – I’m not clear on that one, though I think TDB is run by Martyn Bradbury, n’est-ce pas? I thought the article ran a bit like ‘he said, she said’ which was not entirely satisfactory. And it mentions nothing of the shelving of the plan for the icebreaker for the Navy, which I thought significant.
    The tone of the article makes me think of a little book, which I would recommend. It is called ‘The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism’, by Peter Oborne (pub’d 2021 London, Simon & Schuster). It chronicles the inveterate, habitual lying by Boris Johnson (in particular, as the author is a Brit) and how the media (at least those biased towards the Tories in the UK) are complicit in this. Its only a little book, one could read it in a weekend; but hard-hitting and somewhat alarming with regard to politics in the UK (and the USA). The author would be relieved that both Trump, and now Johnson, have gone – though who will replace Johnson remains a completely different matter. ( They may be no better, as he has set such a poor example, with new lows.) But Oborne was concerned enough to end the book with a list of actions readers could take, people in authority they could contact, if they felt there was some breach of political ethics, honesty. It is a sobering little book, and one highly recommended. I hope we in NZ do not fall into believing political lies, as the media (and therefore the public) has done in the UK. We really need to check our facts and figures before believing anything anyone says – and boy, there are always a lot of facts and figures bandied about (incl. in the article above). How on earth are we to believe anyone ? About any thing.
    Kind regards.

  14. Barbara:

    As I have said to many a politicians and media type, it is not the percentage of GDP spent on defence that matters, but the types of things that are purchased in light of the country’s threat environment. NZ is a maritime nation yet has an Army-centric defence force that is too small to deploy armoured and artillery units of any scale. Its Air Force has no Close Air Support (CAS) capability and will only upgrade its long range patrol capabilities once the P-8s come on line in a few years. The Navy does not have enough people to crew that ships that it has, so is stretched thin because of a lack of human assets rather than equipment. So the bottom line is whether to spend 1.5% or 2.0% of GDP on defence but on how to properly allocate financial resources given the security challenges that currently confront NZ and which will do so in the medium future.

    I am not sure that has been the priority in recent years although the order for the NNZDF/MoD to produce a strategic white paper by mid-Spring of this year should indicate how the military community views the world and the threats to NZ inherent in it.

  15. I guess the army is the cheapest option when it comes to defence. And it can be deployed quickly and cheaply when required, always to overseas conflicts, in any kind of capacity – like Ukraine at the moment.
    The navy, ships, must cost a huge amount by comparison. Ditto the air force but I imagine the Navy costs the most of all 3. Its a terrible admission that we do not have enough crew to run our ships!
    So perhaps we do need to spend more? On personnel; and ships.
    I think the 1st of the P8s are due the end of this year, so thats positive.
    And the ‘strategic white paper’ you mention, is that the ‘review’ mentioned in the press recently. The govt has been criticised for it, apparently there was one as recently as 2019 under Minister Ron Mark. Gerry Brownlee said the govt was just ‘kicking the can down the road’ … (I do think its time Mr Brownlee was kicked down the road, but thats beside the point and for another time perhaps lol) ….
    Lets hope this time a more realistic approach to our defence needs might be highlighted, one that responds to perhaps a different and new, Pacific setting.

    And how much of a threat do you think China really is ??
    (Its ok, you don’t need to answer that!)

    Thank you & kind regards.

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