Authoritarian Realism.

In International relations, realism refers to the view that States have interests and use relative power capabilities to pursue those interests in an anarchic world order lacking a superordinate power or Leviathan (that is, a condition that Hobbes referred to as the “state of nature’). Conversely, idealism refers to the better angels and perfectibility of humankind, seeing a desire for cooperation as being equally as strong as the urge to enter into conflict with others. Constructivism tries to bridge the gap between realism and idealism by positing that the creation and expansion of international institutions designed to foster cooperation and diminish conflict is a means to constrain anarchy in world affairs. International systems analysis serves as a meta-theory that sees the world order in quasi-organic terms, as an evolving entity that is more than the sum of its aggregate parts and which has an unconscious logic and process of its own that is a collective response to the machinations of individual States and other non-State actors, thereby mirroring the invisible hand of the economic market when it comes to determining efficiency at a systemic level.

Classic realism dates back to Otto von Bismarck and has it most recent exponents in Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Idealism draws its inspiration from Woodrow Wilson, and constructivism owes its reputation to Alexander Wendt. International systems theory is the brainchild of Morton Kaplan. The works of these authors and others such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz continue to be the guideposts for current practitioners throughout the West (the list is illustrative only, as the number of authors involved in International relations theorising is great).

Realism posits that States have core and secondary interests; that threats are existential, imminent, or incidental; that States may have allies and enemies but do not have friends because interest, not affection is what defines their relationships; that wars are defensive or offensive in nature and are fought for existential and imminent reasons that can lead to pre-emptive strikes against existential and imminent threats as well as preventative attacks to reduce the possibility of an adversary reaching imminent threat status. Wars of opportunity are discouraged because they can lead to uncertain and unexpected outcomes and do not involve existential or imminent threats or core interests; wars of necessity are fought because they have to be, as they involve core interests and are fought against existential or imminent threats.

The current world moment has seen another development, one that is less salubrious in part because it originates from within authoritarian regimes like those governing Russia, the PRC, DPRK, Turkey, Iran and other contemporary dictatorships. The basic premise of this school of thought, which I will call “authoritarian realism” is that a new world order must be created that replaces the Western-centric liberal international order that has been present in world affairs for the last sixty or so years and which has dominated the landscape of international relations since the end of the Cold War. The latter is the system that we see in the form of the UN and other international organisations like the ILO, WTO, WHO, IMF, EU, OAS, OAU, PIF, SPC, NATO, SEATO, UNITAS, ASEAN, IADB, World Bank and a word salad of other regional and multilateral organisations.

For authoritarian realists, these organisations constitute an institutional straitjacket that constrains their freedom of manoeuvre on the global stage as well as that of most of what is now known as the “Global South:” post-colonial societies locked into subordinate positions as a consequence of Western imperialism and neo-imperialism. For authoritarian realists, the supposed ideals that liberal international institutions espouse and what they were constructed to pursue were done for and by Western colonial and neo-colonial powers seeking to establish an undisputed hierarchical status quo when it comes to how international affairs and foreign policy is conducted. More pointedly, in authoritarian realist eyes now is the time for that hierarchy to be challenged because the balance of power between the liberal democratic West and emerging non-Western contenders has shifted away from the former and towards the latter.

That is due to the fact that in the transitional period after the US lost its status as sole superpower “hegemon” in world affairs (stemming from 9/11, its ill-advised invasion of Iraq, long-term and futile engagement in Afghanistan and other conflict zones as well as it mounting internal divisions), the world has been moving to a new order in which other Great Powers compete for prominence, and in which the norms and rules-based liberal internationalist system has been replaced by norm erosion, norm violations and conflict on the part of uncooperative nation-States and non-State actors pursuing their goals outside of established institutional parameters.

This is, in other words, the state of nature or anarchy that Hobbes wrote about on which realists are most focused upon. Liberal rules and norms are no longer universally binding so the default option is to use national power capabilities to pursue individual and collective interests unfettered by self-binding adherence to dysfunctional and biased global institutions.

In realist views power is relative rather than absolute and covers a host of material and ideological dimensions–economic base, diplomatic acumen, military might, internal political and social stability and ideological consensus, and so forth. Adversaries must calibrate their responses to others based on their assessments of relative aggregate power vis a vis each other as well as other States and international actors. For authoritarian realists it is clear that the West is in decline on most power dimensions, especially morally, culturally and politically as exemplified by the US in the last decade. The West still has economic, military and diplomatic power, but the rise of the PRC, India (nominally democratic but increasingly authoritarian in practice), Russia, Turkey, Iran and lesser dictatorships, coupled with an rightwing authoritarian shift in places like Hungary, the US, Italy and France, demonstrates that the halcyon days of liberal democracy are now past. All talk of climate change, work-life balance, LBGTQ rights and indigenous voice notwithstanding, progressivism (either class-or identity-based) is not making significant gains on the world stage, at least in the eyes of realists in both the West as well as the South and East.

Most fundamentally, what separates the democratic and authoritarian realists is not power per se, but values. For authoritarian realists the liberal democratic West is in decline, overcome by its own excesses, degeneracy, corruption, inefficiencies, vacilliatory leaders and other affronts to the “natural” or “traditional” order of things. In contrast, modern authoritarians (including those in the West) value hierarchy, efficiency, unity of purpose, the demographic superiority of their dominant in-groups, decisive leadership and strength of resolve. Freedoms of speech, association and features such as judicial independence from political authority are seen by authoritarians as easily exploitable Achilles Heels through which division and disunity can be fomented in liberal democracies using disinformation, misinformation, graft and other influence campaigns. Liberal democrats are egalitarian “betas.” Authoritarian realists are self-identified “Alphas.” Consequently, the current word moment is seen as a window of opportunity for authoritarian realists to press their relative (Alpha) advantage in order to re-draw the global geopolitical map and its institutional superstructure. This redrawing project can be considered the authoritarian (neo) version of constructivism on the world stage.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas attack on Israel are examples of how Russia practices authoritarian realism directly and indirectly. The idea in the first instance was to redraw the map of Europe via direct aggression on a former vassal state, assuming that NATO and the EU were too divided and weak after BREXIT and Trump when it came to a collective response. That would impede military support for Ukraine, thereby facilitating a Russian victory on Europe’s southeaster flank, something that would further divide and weaken European resolve to confront Russia, leading in turn to more Russian “assertiveness” along its Western Front. Although that assumption proved false and in fact has backfired at least for the moment, the original concept of exploiting perceived Western weakness was and is clearly at play given ongoing divisions within Western nations about if and how to continue supporting the Ukrainian military effort. The end game of that conflict has yet to be written and could well play into Russia’s favour if extended indefinitely until Western electorates tire of supporting governments that continue to direct resources towards someone else’s war.

Hamas’s attack on Israel came after long-term planning, training and equipping involving its two major sponsors: Iran and Russia (who are military partners). Here the goal is to use the attack and the expected Israeli over-reaction (collective punishment of Gazan civilians for Hamas’s crimes) to sow discord within the Arab world and beyond. Although the official response from most Western governments and corporate media is (at times jingoistically) pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the world have laid bare the broader social-political divisions aggregated around the conflict. Moreover, other than the US and UK, no major power is offering military support to Israel, and China and Russia have both condemned the Israeli response without mentioning Hamas in their pronouncements (and in fact are silent partners with Iran in supplying war materiel to Shiite militias like Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis and the al-Sadr brigades in Iraq, even while both maintain strong economic ties to Israel). Although a NATO member and a quiet security partner of Israel’s, Turkey has been silent on the matter and allows Hamas to maintain a presence on its territory. Normally a strong supporter of Israel, India has gone very muted in its response to the violent tit-for-tat now taking place. It is as if authoritarian realists see the broader realignment taking shape before them and do not want to be caught off-side.

Sunni Arab governments such as those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have worked to normalise relations with Israel, have now had to backtrack in the face of unrest emanating from the Arab street, and the prospects of the conflict expanding to several fronts in Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights and West Bank and even spilling over into a major regional war involving Syria, Iran and their patrons cannot be discounted. All of which will help redefine the geopolitics of the Middle East as well as its relationship to extra-regional interlocutors regardless of the specific outcome of this latest iteration of what has become a perpetual war.

In the South and East China Seas, the Sino-Indian border and the borderlands of Tibet and Bhutan, the PRC has engaged in aggressive military diplomacy, using force to annex foreign territories and present a new territorial status quo to its neighbours. As with the Russian interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, these usurpations have been declared unlawful by international courts and condemned by international organisations like the UN. And yet, because of alack of enforcement power–and will–on the part of the International community as currently represented by its institutional edifice of regional bodies and international organisations, these moves have been only lightly challenged, gone largely unpunished and certainly have not been reversed. The result is a new status quo in East Asia in which PRC sovereignty is claimed and de facto accepted well to the West of its recognised interior land borders and far to the South of its littoral seas.

In the authoritarian realist mindset, moves to take advantage of the current moment in order to redraw the international geopolitical order, including its institutional foundations, are critical to their survival as independent powers. The PRC is driven by a desire to finally achieve its rightful place as a Great Power after centuries of humiliation by foreign powers. For Russia it is about re-claiming its place as an Empire. For lesser dictatorships it is about using national power to move unconstrained in the global arena, unencumbered by the protocols, norms and niceties of the liberal internationalist order. For all of these authoritarians, marshalling their resources in a common effort to undermine and replace Western institutions is a giant step towards real freedom of action in which relative power is the sole determinant of what a nation-State can and cannot do when it comes to foreign relations. If one is charitable, there might even be a bit of idealism attached to these various projects, as authoritarian realists use soft power applications in order to help the Global South out from under the yoke of Western post-colonial imperialism once and for all even as they empower themselves by doing so.

Some of this is evident in projects like the PRC Belt and Road Initiative, which is a global developmental project that is designed to challenge and replace Western developmental assistance and cement the PRC’s position as the foremost provider of infrastructure investment and financial aid to the Global South. In parallel, both Russia and China have expanded their military alliance networks in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa while courting more engagement with Latin American and Central Asia countries (India and Pakistan, respectively). Russia and the PRC have quietly revived and assumed stewardship of the so-called BRICS bloc of nations, including expanding its membership to include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2024. On both economic and military fronts, authoritarian realists are constructing an alternative to the liberal international order.

All of this manoeuvring has added a new twist to the long transitional moment that the international system is undergoing and in fact has altered the way in which the emerging systemic realignment is being shaped. Rather than the anticipated move from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a multipolar world in which the US shared space as a Great Power with emerging and re-emerging Great Powers like the PRC, India, Russia, Japan and perhaps Brazil and/or others, what is coming into shape is a new bipolar world made up of competing constellations or networks of like-minded nation-States, to which are being added non-State technology actors looking for economic opportunity in increasingly loose regulatory environments brought about by the erosion of international rules and norms in the field of transnational commerce.

There is some time to go before the full shape of the new bipolar “constellation” order is confirmed. Authoritarian realists will retain their own nation-centric views even if their interests overlap in the bipolar constellation format. Western nations will need to revise their approaches to world affairs and in particular their positions vis a vis the post-colonial Global South given the competition for the South’s attention provided by the authoritarian realists. All of this makes for uncertain and fluid times in which the best hedge is multi-level power multiplication with focused application by the emerging constellations of competing States and associated non-State actors. How the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza turn out will give us a relatively short-term glimpse into what the geopolitical order will look like by the end of the decade because technology, will and multinational commitment are now being put to the test in both new and old ways in those arenas.

Two things are worth noting. At this critical juncture it is by no means assured which side of the emergent bipolar constellation balance of power will be favoured over the long term. What is certain is that only one side is actively working to re-make the world order in that image, Those are the authoritarian realists.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” returns to discuss Hamas/Israel.

After the hiatus that also forced me to suspend KP posts for a while, Selwyn Manning and I have resumed the “AVFA” podcast series. In the restart episode we dip our toes into turbulent waters by talking about the first order dynamics and potential second and third order consequences/repercussions of the Hamas/Israel conflict.

It is an emotion-laden subject but we do our best to be dispassionate. You can find the show here.

Bully Pulpits and the Politics of Nastiness.

Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the US presidency given the position that the country occupied in world affairs. He saw it as a tremendous platform for promoting political, diplomatic, social and economic interests and agendas. Over time the phrase has been broadened to include a wider range of positions of authority and institutional platforms from which to amplify and project views and projects on a range of public and private policy issues. This can include people and agencies involved in popular culture as well as politics and business affairs, sometimes in overlapped fashion (think Elon Musk).

In years past I discounted the weight of the US presidential bully pulpit. I saw it as being more relevant to US domestic politics than foreign policy and international affairs. As a child of Latin America I did not see its influence on my daily life nor on the behaviour of local politicians even if the US was the elephant in the room when it came to Latin American politics in general and economic and security affairs in particular. Even after moving to NZ as an adult, the bully pulpit of the US presidency was to my mind more of a historical anachronism or abstract than a reality of contemporary diplomatic relations or social exchange. For all the US talk about being a “leader of the free world,” “shining house on the hill,” “world’s greatest democracy” and all that other blather, I never got the impression that a US president could use the office to project his particular vision or brand onto the international, multicultural stage. That includes charismatic presidents like Barak Obama and Ronald Reagan (as much as I hated that guy).

To be sure, the US has interests that it projects onto the world stage, but the notion that a US president could use his office to promote a global vision beyond the usual rhetoric of freedom and democracy seemed far-fetched because if nothing else, most of those type of platitudes fell on cynical if not deaf ears. For me, the bully pulpit was just a domestic soapbox.

This notwithstanding, the US has always been a bastion of cultural as well political imperialism, exporting its culture and social mores world-wide along with its economic interests, be it from Coca Cola and KFC to rap, death metal and jazz music. The synergies of economic, political and cultural imperialism are well known so nothing else need be said here other than that I used to teach about this phenomenon, noting how local societies incorporate, adopt and adapt cultural artefacts in their own style according to their native mores and narratives, often with a dominant group versus subordinate group (often ethnic minority) twist added to the mix (e.g., people of colour in the developing world have adopted rap while European descendents have adopted pop-rock, among other things). One only need think of NZ’s hip hop scene to see the process at work.

Now, I see bully pulpit and cultural imperialism being combined in a most pernicious way as manifested in the person of Donald Trump. Trump embodies what I call the politics of nastiness, and he has used the US presidency as a bully pulpit to project his vulgar full spectrum neo-fascist bigotry world-wide. At first I thought of Trump as someone who tore the scab off of racism, xenophobia and crude low brow money-grubbing in the US. But after four years of his presidency and the sequels to it, I realise that his long moment in public life has served as an invitation to and license for others around the world to follow his approach to political and social discourse. The core of this approach is to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the basest of terms, seeking to appeal to the darkest of instincts and deepest ignorance extant in a given political community. This is the politics of nastiness, and the nasty has reached NZ.

It is well known that National has been for some time looking to US rightwing spin doctors for campaign guidance and narratives (crime! waste! taxes!), but now Winston First and ACT’s David Seymour have decided to go full US conspiracy theory (Winston: globalists! mandates!) and pseudo-libertarian racist (David: free speech! bureaucrats! Treaty separatists!). The tone of politics in NZ has gotten cruder (see: Chris Bishop, Judith Collins) and more personal (e.g. treatment of Kiri Allen). The corporate media has clearly decided to go full Murdoch in approach (with a few exceptions duly noted) by stirring partisan and racial division and polemics, focusing on personal foibles and conflicts rather than platforms/proposals and going for “gotcha” moments rather than offering dispassion analyses of the policy platforms of the respective parties.

This is Trump politics 101, and it is nasty.

NZ is not alone in this. From Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Dutarte in the Philippines, to Orban In Hungary, to Milei in Argentina to Modi in India, rightwing populists have adopted nasty politics as the core weapon in their political quiver, demonising competitors and personalising attacks on their opponents in order to get them to capitulate rather than concede and to be destroyed rather than defeated. Besides their embrace of nasty politics, what binds them together and to Trump is that they all profess to be defending “traditional” values and social structures against the supposed (and imaginary) threats posed by “progressivism,” “woke” politics and the growing presence of long suppressed (and oppressed) groups in their respective societies.

In NZ it is not only mainstream politicians who have seen the opportunity of emulating Trump. The Wellington protest riots saw a number of Trump, MAGA and Confederacy references amongst the agitators. The likes of Sue Grey, Liz Gunn, Brian Tamaki and Leighton Baker openly spout conspiracist lunacy and self-serving opportunist populist tropes. The overall effect is that the scab has truly been ripped off and the extremist infection has now spread throughout NZ’s political culture. There is a violent element in it that NZ security authorities continue to be reluctant to fully address, and it is the tail that wags the rightwing minor party dogs, if not National itself.

In summary: Trump is a cultural imperialist phenomenon that has used the US presidential bully pulpit to export his style of nasty politics world-wide. For all their talk about centrism, it is evident that the right side of NZ’s political spectrum has been heavily influenced by the Trump effect. Voters need to be cognisant of that not only when deciding who to elect, but when considering the prospects of how the potential “coalition of chaos” (ACT, National, NZ First) will approach governing once installed. Mutatis mutandis, the model for that approach could well be Trump.

Things could get nasty.

Shoutout to Starship.

My son returned home this week after spending two weeks at Starship undergoing major surgery. It was dicey for a while, as he had a lemon-sized tumor removed from his anterior sternum that was putting pressure on his heart and lungs and which had extended out onto his upper left rib cage. It turns out that he had a mediastinal multilocular thymic cyst, most likely congenital and therefore present since his birth. Normally they atrophy and are absorbed by the age of three, but in his case it apparently kept growing. He was asymptomatic until this past May, when he developed shoulder pain and shortness of breath. After several misdiagnoses and a change of GPs he was referred to Starship in late September, where chest X-rays showed a large mass. Things accelerated from there. It turns out that the shoulder pain was referred pain and common with chest tumors–but one has to know what to look for and the original GPs did not.

Multilocular thymic cysts are extremely rare but fortunately most often benign. There are more tests to be done and even the possibility of further surgery to remove remnants of the mass from his ribs, but the hope is that now that the large hard mass has been removed the rest will stop growing and wither or can respond to drug therapy or some other form of non-surgical intervention. What is amazing is that my son’s left lung had collapsed at some point in the past–maybe even a year ago–but he had continued to play soccer, ride his bike and run cross-country until his symptoms appeared in May. He finally had to stop sports in July while we looked for an answer.

In any event, he is on the mend even if not entirely out of the woods yet. The prognosis is good for the long-term. He is now pleased at his ability to breath and move about pain-free (other than from the chest and drain wounds), He thought that the shoulder pain was just from over-doing it on the monkey bars and that it was normal to be short of breath after exertion. And well one would be on both counts when operating on one lung and a compressed heart.

I wanted to use this post to publicly thanks the medical staff at Starship for saving his life and for the world-class quality of the attention that my son received, both during the surgeries (he had two), during four days in paediatric cardiac ICU and during the remainder of his time on the cardiac paediatric ward (he was there because of the open chest surgery, not his heart per se, because cardiac surgical teams are the best versed in matters of chest surgery recovery). Everything about Starship was first rate, especially the surgical care from the moment the mass was detected to the ongoing post-operative recovery here at home, where the team has called us to check on him and outline a schedule for follow-ups. Above their skills as surgeons, anaesthetists and paediatric nurses, what sets the Starship staff apart if their incredible level of compassion and empathy for their patients as well as their patient’s whanau. My son was on the upper end of the paediatric age group (ten) but the way in which the staff interacted with toddlers and newborns was, from my family and I could see, absolutely wonderful.

If there is an institution to which a charitable contribution can be made, I recommend Starship Hospital simply because it provides world class care and, among all the other worthy causes that can be supported, it is uniquely able to provide an actual physical future for those who otherwise would have none.