Policing protests.

Images of US students (and others) protesting and setting up tent cities on US university campuses have been broadcast worldwide and clearly demonstrate the growing rifts in US society caused by US policy toward Israel and Israel’s prosecution of its war against Palestinians in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli-occupied territory along the Gaza Strip on October 7 of last year. The police behaviour appears to be a bit over the top, to say the least, given that the protests are purportedly peaceful for the most part, or at least until the cops arrive. It would seem that the police do not care for freedoms of speech or assembly, so there appears to be an anti-democratic bias at play in the suppression of these protests. But there are some angles to the subject that need further discussion, so let’s dig in on them.

Assuming that protesters are not harassing, intimidating or assaulting people or damaging public or private property, then the police response in place like Emory University, University of Southern California and the University of Texas (to name a few), is in fact excessive. Even if trespass orders are given, there is no need to manhandle, use tear gas, rubber bullets or generally hurt protestors in order to get them to leave a designated area unless they are being violent. If they block roads and physically impede public movements in and around the demonstration, then protesters can be arrested and cited under law for a subsequent court appearances. But unless they actively (as opposed to passively) resist, then violence should not be used against them and even then, all care should be made by law enforcement to consider the physical well-being of those arrested. Marching people out by the elbows is one thing. Throwing them to the ground and cuffing them behind their backs is another. Breaking arms or legs and pepper-spraying people people is a step too far. Again, this assumes that protesters are not behaving in a threatening or violent manner.

Private schools can issue trespass notices for any reason and have the police enforce them. Likewise, public institutions can do much the same although here the space being occupied is owned by taxpayers and therefore not as easily subject to tresspass orders unless people start damaging things or other folk. This was the case with the 2022 Wellington parliamentary protest, which was held on parliament grounds but eventually spilled into adjacent streets (and beyond), all of which are public spaces. Given that public institutions are thought of as “the people’s places,” authorities must exercise extra caution when attempting to end protests on and in them. Unlike the centralised nature of law enforcement decision-making in NZ (due to the unitary nature of government), as a federal republic that means that in the US State and/or local authorities must make the decision to move against a protest, usually at the request of university administrators. There are plenty of regulations in place that give State and local governments authority over public spaces, so the right for public authorities to enforce trespass notices is there. It is how they do so that is the issue.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about “free” versus “hate” speech, which is at the crux of the protests and how they are handled. Waving banners and yelling “long live Hamas” is an example of protected free speech. Given Hamas’s record, it may offend many people but no harm is invited and no violence is incited. On-lookers can walk away if they object. It is therefore a case of protected “offensive” speech at worst. However, yelling or waving banners saying “kill the Jews” or “nuke Gaza” is not. It is an incitement to violence against a specific group of people. As such it needs to be treated as a precursor to a hate crime as it invites and incites violence against a designated target. Law enforcement authorities need to understand the difference and formulate their responses accordingly.

Think of it this way: Kyle Chapman and other NZ neo-Nazis can play dressup and march around yelling “Sieg Heil” and “white power” all they want, so long as they do not cross the line into advocating violence or committing acts of violence against others. The police need to know what is protected (anti-social racist incel boorishness) and what is not (advocating harm to others). Unfortunately, the police in Christchurch have a history of downplaying the issue when Kyle and his fellow creeps cross that line, something that may have been a factor in the events of March 15, 2019.

The same logic holds true for pro-Palestinian demonstrators. They cross the line if they call for the eradication of Jews anywhere. “Death to Zionism” is not the same as “Death to Jews” no matter how much some would like to conflate the two. Zionism is an ideology. Jews are people. One is a belief, the other are living humans. Although some Jews are Zionists, not all are and even then they do not deserve to be targeted for being Jews (there are non-Jewish Zionists as well, especially in US fundamentalist Christian communities).

The matter of how to end protests is complicated by the fact that infiltrators with other agendas often join sincere people participating in legitimate protests who are exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The agitators may act as agent provocateurs in order to turn otherwise peaceful protests into something nasty, in order to expose the contradictions of the Deep State, capitalism, Big Pharma, the government or any number of other nefarious agencies who are believed to usurp and act contrary to the popular will. I witnessed this phenomena close up during my youthful protest days, where a group called the Spartacus Youth League, of Trotskyite persuasion, in Chicago and Washington DC, used a tactic where masked “Spart” columns moved to the front of crowds facing off with police and proceeded to assault the cops at close range with projectiles and blunt objects (but from behind the frontline of peaceful protesters). That usually caused a police riot where cops began to beat on everyone in front them while the “Sparts” slunk away to the back of the crowd and started looting and vandalising on the sidelines. The original reason for the protest often got lost in the mayhem, which of course is what the media focused on.

Although I do not know if the “Sparts” or other groups have engaged in this sort of action in the recent student protests, there are reports of non-students joining the student protesters, which in of itself is not a bad thing. But if they come with other agendas, say, turning a pro-Palestine or anti-genocide protest into a “Kill the Jews” hate fest, then the usual protections of speech and assembly no longer apply. Again, that is because the latter is a type of hate speech, inciting violence against a specific group of people because of who they are (as opposed to what the State of Israel does), and as such is no longer afforded the protections available to offensive “free” speech.

Not to belabour the point, but consider this: One can vociferously call Netanyahu a murderer and Israel a genocidal regime without personalising and inciting violence against Jews as an ethno-religious group. One can voice support for Palestinians and call for university divestiture of investments in companies that do business with the State of Israel without hating all Jews. Although holding and voicing these views may be offensive to some, it is not anti-Semitic to do so. After all, not all Jews are Israeli or support Netanyahu or Israel’s polices towards Palestine. The line is drawn when support for Palestinians or criticism of Israel turns into calling for violence against Jews. That moves what some may consider offensive speech into the realm of hate speech, which does not deserve the protections of law. Likewise, defence of Israel cannot extend to advocating the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their ancestral lands. If so, the line between free speech and hate speech is then crossed.

For police in liberal democracies (I shall not bother writing about how authoritarians handle protests since they do not concern themselves with the niceties of free speech and assembly), the conundrum is this: do they come in hard from the onset and disperse the crowds with overwhelming force? Or do they adopt a passive containment strategy that allows people to blow off steam before they decide to end their action either voluntarily or with non-violent encouragement by or disincentives from the authorities (say, by threatening suspension or dismissal from universities if students do not disperse by a specific time)?

In the Wellington protests the police adopted the passive approach. For a month they dealt with the crowds in a largely peaceful manner even though agitators and extremists joined the ranks of the original anti-vaccination/anti-mandate crowd. The police even overlooked the fact that there were public health restrictions (specifically, social distancing requirements) still in place when the protest caravans began to arrive in Wellington in early February, something that contributed to an upsurge in Covid cases in the crowd. Over time the infiltrators began to dominate the protest discourse, to include voicing MAGA support, waving confederate flags, railing against the “Deep State,” echoing QAnon weirdness, voicing violent threats against “Jabcinda” (including her execution and that of other officials) and otherwise behaving like aggressive a-holes. As days turned into weeks the public health and public order downsides of the protest grew larger and more uninvolved people were negatively impacted by it. Many of the original protest leaders, like the so-called Voices for Freedom, retreated back to their home keyboards rather than staunch things out to the bitter and inevitable end. Eventually, after a month of paralysis in central Wellington and at high cost in resources and injury, the cops moved in to disperse the encampment. A riot ensured.

Perhaps it did not help for the then Speaker of the House to order that the parliamentary lawn sprinklers be turned on and that awful pop music be played over loudspeakers above the encampment. Presumably he thought that would weaken the resolve of the protesters and they would all go home. Instead, that just turned the parliament lawn into a cow paddock and irritated the aesthetic sensitivities of the conspiracy theorists, who simply added bad pop music and involuntary cold water showers to their list of Deep State machinations. More importantly, the Speaker clearly did not consult with the Police Commissioner before he made his moves, or if he did, they must have concocted that genius plan after sharing a few pints at The Backbencher. In retrospect it was not a good decision.

So for the police the question is what to do? Go in hard early or adopt a passive containment/defusion strategy? (I will leave aside the idea that the police would chose not to enforce anti-demonstration laws and let people gather as they please simply because in a place like NZ or the US, the cops are mostly anything but progressive or anti-status quo in mindset even if individual members may be sympathetic to a specific cause. Having said that, the Washington DC police refused to move against pro-Palestinian protestors at George Washington University, a private school, after university administrators requested that they clear the student encampment. The cops said that the group was small and peaceful, so the “optics” would not look good. Make of that what you will.).

A different approach might have been to identify infiltrators and extremists via undercover and technological observation and use more selective techniques to isolate and separate them from the crowd. After all, the police are part of a repressive apparatus that not only has a monopoly over organised violence within a given territory but which has the authority of the State behind it. Of all actors, they should know–in fact be schooled in–the art of subtle extirpation of troublemakers as well as in the well-known goon squad tactics usually associated with riot control. That did not happened in Wellington and the goon squad approach eventually had to be used.

(I cannot go into the details here but in Greece there are two types of riot police, one dressed in green gear and the other in blue gear. The different colours signals to protesters the different levels of repression that is about to be meted out so that people can chose whether to stay or leave before the blue goons make their entrance. That serves to separate the protest wheat from the chaff once the blue squad arrives. For their part protesters in Athens had Loukanikos the riot dog on their side during my time in Athens as well as his “son” Kanellos, who is said to still be part of the resistance).

In the US things are different. The police doing the repressing represent state and local (municipal and county) authorities. Consequently, their training and approach to protest varies widely. From what I have seen, the cops at Emory (which is in Atlanta, Georgia) and the University of Texas have very little time for protestors. Their governors, both reactionary Republicans, have joined in the smear that the protestors are anti-semitic and pro-terrorist, thereby opening the door to a heavy-handed approach to dispersing the crowds. It should be noted that Emory University is a private school and its administrators requested that the Atlanta police break up the demonstration. At UT-Austin it was the governor who ordered the troops in (I do not know if that was done at the request of university administrators or of his own volition, but given his remarks the latter appears to have been the case).

Conversely, at Colombia, Yale, Harvard, New York University and USC (all private schools outside of the Deep South), the police initially exercised a bit more restraint but nevertheless resorted after just a few days to forcibly removing people in handcuffs or bodily if they refused to move. Perhaps that is reflective of the US police mindset when it comes to this particular cause and the people doing the protesting. If the protests were reversed (pro-Israel rather than pro-Palestine), it would be interesting to see if the police tactics changed. From the standpoint of equality under the law, one would hope not, but a realistic appraisal of the situation suggests to me that pro-Israeli demonstrations in the US would be met very differently by law enforcement and in fact may have to be “protected” from counter-demonstrators (as has happened in Australia).

Then there is the issue of disinformation. Most of the word about the protests is spread by social media, and various platforms are used by protest organisers to spread the action beyond its origins. This opens a window of opportunity for state and non-state actors to introduce disinformation into protest campaigns in order to advance other, hidden agendas. For example, it would seem to be a professional imperative for Russian and Chinese disinformation units to target the protests in order to further undermine the historic public consensus in support of Israel in the US (born of political elite and media bias in favour of Israel), in order to advance their respective adversarial interests vis a vis the US in the Middle East and beyond. From a strategic perspective it would be derelict of them not to exploit this window of opportunity, as undermining an enemy from within using non-military means is far more resource efficient that waiting until open conflict with that enemy has begun. Both the PRC and Russia have prior form in this regard (including in NZ), so it is not a stretch to speculate that they may be doing so with regard to the student protests. Police and other intelligence agencies need to be aware of this possibility and approach the cyber realm accordingly.

Of course, the root cause of this situation of discord and dissent in the US is the Israeli elite’s psychopathic behaviour both before and after October 7 and the willing blindness of US foreign policy elites to the fact that Israel is not only the tail that wags the US foreign policy dog in the Middle East but has now become a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset (which derives from its importance when it comes to intelligence gathering on and sharing of Middle Eastern affairs). It has taken young adults–students–to bring critical attention to that fact, but for US adversaries they are just pawns in a larger game.

In the end how to police protests has much to do with the cause, the culture (both in civil society as well as in policing), who is doing the protesting and who is in government at the time. Some causes may be purer than others. The students are protesting about terrible events in a far-off place based on the ideal that collective punishment leading to genocide is wrong and that casting a blind on it is complicit. Besides the cookers and nutters, the anti-vaxx crowd in Wellington were more about their personal inconvenience and material losses rather than protection of the commonweal or public good. In an odd way that suggests that the latter should have been dealt with in stronger terms from the onset while the student protests need to be handled in a less repressive way. But that is where culture and governments come in. In the US the police are more about kicking a** and taking names, whereas in NZ the approach is more to play community cop rather than Judge Dread. Likewise, US governments at every level always want to be seen as upholding “law an order” even if the laws are retrograde and the order is rigged, whereas the Labour government in place at the time of the protests was determined to try and play things softly-softly in the hope that cooler heads would prevail in the protesting crowd and things would end quietly, in the Kiwi way.

They did not.

There are lessons to be learned from both of these protest episodes, mostly about what not to do rather than what to do.

Again, hate crimes are not necessarily terrorism.

Having written, taught and worked for government agencies on issues involving unconventional warfare and terrorism for 30-odd years, two things irritate me the most when the subject is discussed in public. The first is the Johnny-come-lately commentators who have zero practical or academic experiences with the subject but who, in an effort get their “brand” out in the public eye will pontificate ad nauseum about things that they do not know about. In NZ this an especially acute problem because people with real knowledge of what terrorism is and is not are few and far between, so the “look at me” opinionators are way too prominent in discussions of acts of mass violence.

The second source of irritation is the abuse of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” in order to generate headlines, clickbait or to pursue other agendas. Rightwing corporate and social media are full of this egregious mis-application of a very specific concept to any number violent incidents carried about by by a variety of perpetrators. The latest example of this is the coverage of the stabbings in Sydney this past week.

I wrote a series of social media posts clarifying my objection to the coverage and have aggregated and edited them here. I have also linked to a couple of previous essays on the subject in order to give recent readers of KP some idea of the basis for my concerns about this particular type of conceptual stretching.

Let’s begin with the bad news. Since 9/11 the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” have been rendered meaningless. Terrorism has a target (victims), subject (wider audiences) and object (to bend the audiences to the terrorist will, say, by altering government policy). The three aspects are not one and the same. If these three aspects or conditions do not apply to a specific violent incident, then it might be a hate crime inspired by bigotry or other form of animus (say, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism), (mass) murder due to mental impairment, or criminal murder (e.g. mob hit, domestic violence or in a bar brawl). None of these fatal incidents are terrorism even if victims are terrified in the moment. For it to be terrorism there has to be an audience beyond the victims, and the object is not just the act of violence itself.

Terrorism is about more than the terror inflicted on targets. It is about ulterior motive/intent, the wider audience and specific messaging, which is collective in focus, not personal. Labelling every act of public violence as terroristic confuses the issue and allows for bad-minded or deliberately hateful manipulations of coverage to suit ideological agendas. Witness the initial coverage and reaction to the Bondi mall attack. It was a case of a white male with violent schizophrenia acting out of incel hate, but was immediately deemed a terrorist attack. That allowed racists to jump on the Islamophobic bandwagon and claim the attacks was done by a jihadist (because he had a beard!), which in turn brought out calls for revenge, deportations of Muslims, cultural stereotyping and other types of violent trolling. The real cause was lost in the xenophobic, bigoted din.

The attack on the bishop at a Sydney church was motivated by religious animosity, but the attacker’s target, subject and object were the same, a preacher who disparages other religions and their leaders. Motive did not extend beyond that. That is a hate crime, not terrorism. But it does not stop malignant narcissistic charlatans like Brain Tamaki from using it to urge for the mass deportation of Muslims from NZ, something that has reverberated around the NZ rightwing echo chamber.

Unfortunately, NZ has bad form when it comes to misidentifying violent crimes and perpetrators as “terrorists”. Here is a post that I wrote after the supermarket stabbing in New Lynn in 2021.

And yet, this time around NZ media outlets again initially jumped on the terrorism bandwagon, only to back off once the Australian authorities identified the Bondi attacker as someone with a history of mental illness but who was allowed to circulate in public. That is a public security failure, not anything related to terrorism.. Even so, both the Australian police and NZ media continue to refer to the church attack as terrorism, which shows that even security experts as well as media talking heads do not have their conceptual ducks in a row when it comes to this type of violence. Perhaps they know but choose not to do so because, well…

I also wrote an academic article a while back about how a specific type of terrorism–state terrorism–can be used to reinforce a particular social and economic project. It is long but you can find it here. I link to it here because terrorism not only has many varieties, but it also has ulterior motives. Neither incident in Sydney this past week meet that criteria.

This may seem tedious and repetitive, but so long as the concept of terrorism is stretched out of all context and meaning, I will have to be pedantic about its real significance and permutations.

Arguing about a moot point.

I have been following recent debates in the corporate and social media about whether it is a good idea for NZ to join what is known as “AUKUS Pillar Two.” AUKUS is the Australian-UK-US nuclear submarine building agreement in which the US and UK will provide Australia with the know-how and training on how to build and operate a small nuclear submarine fleet beginning in the 2030s. It has two components.

Pillar One involves the submarines themselves, which will be home ported at HMAS Stirling outside of Perth. Beginning in 2027 US Virginia-class and UK Astute-class attack subs (from which the future AUKUS-class Australian submarines will incorporate design features) will start rotating through HMAS Stirling so that Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and civilian personnel at HMAS Stirling can become familiar with nuclear submarine technologies and home port surface operations. The US will sell Australia up to three Virginia-class Block IV and Block VII subs beginning in the early 2030s and delivery of five new AUKUS submarines (designated as SSN-A’s) will begin in the mid 2040s. RAN crews are already attending the US Navy nuclear propulsion school in South Carolina and they will also join UK and US Astute- and Virginia-class boats on deployments as a part of their training. The project envisions the Royal Navy receiving SSN-A boats to replace their Asute-class fleet beginning in the early 2030s, and for the RAN to have a nuclear fleet of eight boats by 2050. Although nuclear propelled, they will not be nuclear armed. They are attack submarines whose main roles are to kill other submarines, surface vessels and land-based targets with conventionally armed torpedoes and cruise missiles. They are also tasked with intelligence-gathering missions involving technical, signals and even human collection methods.

Pillar Two of the AUKUS agreement involves complex technology research, development and transfers. The primary areas of focus will be on computer and cyber technology (including Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and classified undersea technologies), hypersonic and counter-hypersonic platforms (already in progress), and Radar Capability, including the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) that will see tracking stations built in the Pillar One Countries. Pillar Two is designed to move beyond basic systems interoperability between the military allies, which is already in place, and integrate the military-industrial complexes of the three partners in ways that will not only lead to more seamless integration of complex technologies but also help create and expand high tech development hubs in each country, but especially in Australia and the UK. This is seen as having tremendous “trickle down” benefits for the civilian economies of each country as the flow-on effects of Pillar Two ripple into related industries up and down the supply, service, and delivery chains and their associated labour markets.

In March 2023 then Defense Minister Andrew Little of the Labour Party said that NZ was interested in discussing potential involvement in the non-nuclear aspects of Pillar 2, and in July 2023 US Secretary of State said that the “door was open” for countries like NZ to join the agreement. In December 2023 new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon reiterated his government’s interest in potentially joining in the non-nuclear aspects of Pillar Two, something that was followed by an announcement in February 2024 by Australia that it would begin to brief NZ officials on developments with regard to Pillar Two. However, after losing the October 2023 election the Labour Party reversed course and announced its opposition to participating in Pillar Two, and even the Grande Dame of the Labour Party, former NZ Prime Minister and UNDP chief Helen Clark, came out strongly against it. She has been joined in her opposition by a number of prominent NZ academics, peace, non-proliferation and disarmament campaigners, human rights and environmental activists, civil society organisations and left political movements as well as former diplomats.

Their concerns range from not wanting to jeopardise NZ’s trade relationship with the PRC, which has strongly denounced AUKUS as a provocative attempt to militarily counter and encircle it in the Western Pacific (and there is truth to that), which has a history of using trade as a retaliatory weapon in order to show its displeasure with other State’s behaviour, and upon which NZ is significantly trade-dependent, to fears of a nuclear arms race and/or great power conflict in the Southwestern Pacific that would have a disastrous impact on Pacific Island societies, economies and environments.

That latter point is significant because the permanent basing of nuclear submarines at HMAS Stirling appears to be in violation of the 1997 Treaty of Rarotonga declaring the South Pacific to be a nuclear-free zone.The maps of the South Pacific nuclear-free zone attached to the Treaty include the Australian West Coast fronting the Indian Ocean, and the Treaty prohibits the storage of significant quantities of fissile material or nuclear-processing facilities within the Zone. So the AUKUS agreement is seemingly in violation of the Treaty, which if so sets a dangerous precedent (AUKUS supporters claim that at worst the signatories exploited loopholes in the Treaty that make the agreement compliant with it). This can now open the door for other States to station nuclear powered submarines in the region, say for example, the French in New Caledonia or French Polynesia or the PRC in the Solomon Islands (thanks to the recently signed bilateral security agreement between the two countries). That would not be good from a strategic or arms control standpoint and would fulfil the darkest dreams of the non-proliferation community.

These opposition voices are countered by security experts and conservative political observers who see closer relations with AUKUS as enhancing NZ’s security in a rapidly deteriorating international security environment (in which militarily aggressive Russia and the PRC are seen as leaders of an authoritarian, anti-democratic, anti-Western bloc emerging from the Global South), and which also has great economic benefits for NZ should it join Pillar Two.

That is the foundation of the debate I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Put crudely, Lefties do not want NZ involvement in Pillar Two. Righties do.

All of this seems to me to be a bit of a moot point. I hopped on the consultancy social media account to outline two reasons why, and I have expended them below.

First: the NZDF and GCSB (as part of 5 Eyes) will share AUKUS-related military technology and signals and technical intelligence collection advances because of their ongoing integration with Australian and US maritime operations and 5 Eyes partnership, especially when it comes to Western Pacific Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) roles. The incorporation of new P-8 long range patrol and ASW aircraft into the RNZAF and upgrades to the RNZN frigates have been done with that complex interoperability in mind. The NZDF already uses the principle of interoperability when working alongside its military partners–the US, UK and Australia being foremost among them– so whatever systems integration upgrades that result from AUKUS will be shared with NZ in any event. As it is, the NZDF already communicates with US and Australian submarines as a matter of course, so it will continue to do so once the nuclear-propelled ships come on board (remember that submarine hunters and surface patrol platforms need to distinguish friend from foe, and the best thing to do in that case is to ask upon contact or be alerted in advance by friendly forces). So as far as non-nuclear military technology sharing with the NZDF goes, it is a done deal. NZ does nothing (at least publicly) and yet it still gets to play with the military “big dogs.”

Also keep in mind that submarines are excellent signals intelligence collection or intercept platforms, particularly when it comes to undersea fiberoptic telecommunications cables. So upgrading to nuclear powered subs by the RAN will expand the range and operational capabilities of its maritime signals intelligence collection platforms as well as improve its ability to monitor hostile naval movements above and below the water line. The NZDF and GCSB will benefit from that, again, without having to do anything different than what they are doing already but with improved intelligence-gathering capabilities as a result.

Secondly, Australia, the UK and the US high technology sectors will not gift NZ firms a slice of the Pillar 2 pie for competitive and political reasons. Why allow the small high technology sector of a non-nuke “freeloading” country to benefit when AUKUS firms can benefit instead? Plus, AUKUS high technology sectors employ voters, have entrepreneurial lobbies and involve established economies of scale, so why share the Pillar Two market with what essentially would be a start-up upstart that has no political influence and electoral impact in the AUKUS countries themselves?

In effect, for operational as well as economic and political reasons, NZ involvement in Pillar Two is improbable. It will be briefed about Pillar Two as announced, but an invitation to join the endeavour faces opposition both from within and from without NZ. It therefore seems that the current government is engaging more in political and diplomatic posturing when it speaks of NZ’s involvement in Pillar Two rather than realistically assessing the prospects of that ever happening.

In that light, perhaps the fears of Pillar Two opponents are overblown?

A moment of friction.

In strategic studies “friction” is a term that it is used to describe the moment when military action encounters adversary resistance. “Friction” is one of four (along with an unofficial fifth) “F’s” in military strategy, which includes force (kinetic mass), fluidity (of manoeuvre), fog (of battle) as well as uncertainty (of outcomes, which is usually referred to in military circles as the “oh F**k” factor)). Friction comes from many causes, including terrain, countervailing force, psychological factors, the adversary’s broader capabilities and more. As German strategist Karl von Clausewitz noted, friction can be encountered at the three levels of warfare: strategic, operational and tactical.In other words, “Clausewitzian friction” is not just confined to the battlefield.

The notion of friction is drawn from the physical world and has many permutations. It is not confined to one particular element or dimension. It is about opposition, even if of similar elements or forces, including the element of will. For example, when they meet, fluids and air of different weights create turbulence. Fire on different fire extinguishes or expands. Earth on earth leads to crumbling or inertial momentum. The product of the combination of these physical forces, say fluid on air or earth or fire, depends on the relative weight of each. The same goes for psychological factors in human contests. Mutatis mutandis (i.e., with the necessary changes having been made), this is applicable to international relations. It may seem like a conceptual stretch but I see the use of the notion of friction in terms of international relations more as an example of conceptual transfer, using Clausewitz as a bridge between the physical and the political/diplomatic worlds (more on this later).

In the past I have written at length about the systemic realignment and long transition in post Cold War international relations. The phrase refers to the transition from a unipolar post-Cold War international system dominated by the US (as the “hegemon” of the liberal internationalist world order) to a multipolar system that includes rising Great Powers like the PRC and India and constellations of middle powers such as the other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, South Africa and recently added members like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ethiopia and perhaps Argentina (if it ratifies its accession)) as representatives of the rising “Global South.” In spite of their differences, these rising power blocs are counterpoised against what remains of the liberal institutionalist order, including the EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia. I have noted that the long moment of transition is characterised by international norm erosion and increased rule violations and the consequent emergence of conflict as the systems regulator until a new status quo is established (and from which that new status quo emerges). That conflict may come in many guises–economic, diplomatic, cultural and, perhaps inevitably, military or some combination thereof. When conflicts turn military, the moment of force has arrived. And when force is met by opposing force, then friction is inevitable.

Here I extend the notion of friction to include the international moment that we are currently living in. That is, I have conceptually transferred the notion of friction to the international arena because “transfer” in this instance means applying the notion of friction to a wider environment beyond the physical plane without distorting its original meaning. That allows me to avoid the methodologically dubious practice of conceptual stretching (where a term is stretched and distorted from its original meaning in order to analytically fit a different type of thing).

The long transitional moment is what has taken us to this point and allowed me to undertake the transfer, and it is here in the transitional trajectory from unipolar to multipolar international systems where the future global status quo will be defined. It is a decisive moment because it is the period where force has become the major arbiter of who rises and who falls in the systemic transitional shuffle. Given that there are many competitors in the international arena who are capable and willing to use force as well as other means to advance their interests, I suggest that the global community has reached its moment of friction, that is, the turning point in the long transitional process. Everything that has come before was the lead-in. Everything that comes after will be the result of this conflict-defined moment.

It is no exaggeration to write this. Besides the Ruso-Ukrainian war and the Israel-Hamas war, there is the armed stand-off in the Red Sea between Iran-backed Houthis and a naval coalition led but he US, the ongoing skirmishes between PRC naval forces and those of the Philippines, Vietnam and Western naval forces as well as the PRC military threats to Taiwan, the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict along the Israel-Lebanon border, Islamist violence in the Sahel and Eastern Africa as well as in Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other other parts of Central Asia, ongoing conflict in Syria between Assad’s Russian-backed forces, the remnants of ISIS and Western-backed rebels, the Turkish-Kurd conflict along the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi borders, the civil war in Libya, escalating fighting between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda over mineral rich areas in and around the eastern Congolese city of Goma (in which private military companies and irredentist militias are also involved), narco-violence in Latin America that has reached the level of challenging state monopolies over organised violence in places like Ecuador and parts of Mexico, piracy in the Indian Ocean and in the Malacca Straits, cross-border ethno-religious conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the PRC and Gaza, tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea and more. Norms and rules governing interstate as well as domestic forms of collective behaviour are honoured in the breach, not as a matter of course. Individuals, groups and States are increasingly atomised in their perspectives and interactions and resort to the ultimate default option–conflict–to pursue their interests in the face of other’s opposition..

Friction extends to economics. The era of globalisation of free trade has ended as nations revert to post-pandemic protectionism or focus on “near-“and “friend-shoring” in order to avoid supply chain bottlenecks resultant from commodity production concentration in a small number of countries. Although not a trade pact strictly speaking, the PRC Belt and Road Initiative undermines Western trade agreements like the TPPA and lesser regional arrangements because it ties developmental assistance and financing to Chinese industries and markets. Intellectual property and technology theft is wide-spread despite International conventions against them (endnote just by the PRC). The era of Bretton Woods is over and the agencies that were its institutional pillars (like the World Bank, IMF and regional agencies such as the IADB and ADB) are now increasingly challenged by entities emerging from the Global South like the China Development Bank and BRICS common market initiatives.

In addition, as part of international norms erosion and rules violations, many diplomatic agreements and treaties such as those prohibiting the use of chemical weapons and even genocide are also now largely ignored because, in the end, there is no international enforcement capability to reinforce what is written. The International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court can impose sanctions and issue arrest warrants but have no enforcement authority of their own. The UN can authorise peace-keeping missions and issue resolutions but is subject to Security Council vetoes on the one hand and belligerent non-compliance in the other (besides Israel ignoring UN demands for a cease-fire and humanitarian pauses in Gaza, people may forget that there are UN peace keeping missions in the Sinai, Golan Heights and Israel-Lebanon border, including NZDF personnel among them, because these “blue helmet” missions have had no ameliorating impact on the behaviour of the participants in the Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah-Syria conflict). Adverse rulings in international courts have not stopped the PRC island-building and aggressive military diplomacy in the South China Sea. The examples are many. Given that state of affairs, States and other actors increasingly turn to force to pursue their interests.

Whatever restraint was promoted by the laws of war and international conflict-resolution institutions during the post-Cold War interregnum has been abandoned or become exceptions to the new anarchic rule. One might even say that the international community is increasingly living in a state of nature, even if the terms “anarchy” and “state of nature” are loose interpretations of what Hobbes wrote about when he considered the Leviathan of international politics. But the basic idea should be clear: the liberal internationalist system has broken down and a new order is emerging from the conflict landscape that characterises the contemporary international arena.

Again, the friction is not just things like the military confrontations between Russia, Russian and Iranian-backed proxies in the Middle East and the PRC against a range of Western and Western-oriented nations in the Western Pacific. The BRICS have proposed to develop a single unitary currency to rival the Euro and are openly calling for a major overhaul of international organizations and institutions that they (rightfully so), see as made by and for post-colonial Western interests. But the question is whether what they have in mind as a replacement will be any better in addressing the needs of the Global South while respecting the autonomy of the Global North. My hunch is that it will not, and will just add another front to the moment of friction.

I shall not continue enunciating the reasons why I believe that we have arrived at an international moment of friction (e.g. cultural degradation and social vulgarisation, etc.). That is because I cannot specify what will be come given that push has now led to shove, nor can I offer a solution set to the problems embedded in and underwriting this sorry moment. What I can say is, just like the fact that we need to learn to embrace uncertainty in the transitional process since outcomes are not assured and guarantees cannot be offered (although some industries like tobacco, liquor, weapons and insurance all profit during times of uncertainty and market hedging strategies become the common response of risk-adverse actors to uncertain economic times, so can be calculated or anticipated), so too we must, if not embrace, then learn to prepare for an era in which friction will be the dominant mode of international transaction for some time to come.

For small countries like NZ, repeating empty mantras about foreign policy “independence” no longer cuts it even as a slogan. The moment of international friction poses some existential questions about where NZ stands in the transitional process, how it will balance competing international interests when it comes to NZ foreign and security policy, and about who to side with when conflict comes.

Because it will.

Forget the date. This is no April Fools joke.