Media Link: AVFA on protests in China and Iran.

This week in “A View from Afar” Selwyn Manning and I try to provide a conceptual/analytic backdrop to the protests in the PRC and Iran. The thrust is that although there are similarities as well as differences between them, each confrontation involves a strategic game between the protestors and regime elites, who in turn can be respectively divided into different camps based on their objectives and approaches (ideological versus material goals on the part of militants and moderates in the Opposition, reforms or repression on the part of soft-liners versus hard-liners in the regime). Hybrid strategies involving carrot and stick approaches and immediate versus longer-term objectives are also considered. The episode is here.

Media Link: “AVFA” on US midterms and Trump’s return.

After a small hiatus due to Covid hitting my household, Selwyn Manning and I resumed our weekly ” A View from Afar” podcast series with an analysis of the 2022 US midterm results and a look at what Trump’s decision to run for president again means for the GOP. You can find the podcast here.

On NZ foreign policy “independence.”

For many years New Zealand elites have claimed to have an “independent” foreign policy, so much so that it has become a truism of NZ politics that transcends the partisan divide in parliament and is a shibboleth of the NZ foreign policy establishment that is parroted by media and pundits alike. But is it a correct characterization? More broadly, is any country able to maintain a truly independent foreign policy?

If “independence” in foreign policy is defined as the unfettered freedom and ability to pursue courses of action in the international arena without regard to cost or consequence, then the answer is no. Foreign policy independence is an aspirational goal (for some) rather than a practicable achievement (for very few).

Instead, what NZ has is a flexible foreign policy based on what can be called constrained or bounded autonomy. Just like the notion of bounded rationality in game theory (where rationality is not opened-ended but framed by the interactive context in which decisions are made), NZ’s foreign policy autonomy occurs within identifiable parameters or frameworks governing specific international subjects and relationships that are not fungible or identical in all instances. Some are broad and some are limited in scope. Some are more restrictive and some are looser in application. Some are more issue-specific or detailed than others depending on the frameworks governing them. Within those parameters NZ has a significant range of foreign policy-making choice and hence room to maneuver on the world stage.

One reason that NZ does not have an independent foreign policy is that NZ is inserted in a latticework of formal and informal international networks and relationships that to varying degrees constrain its behavior. Things like membership in TPPA, 5 Eyes, WTO, IMF, WHO, NPT, COP, World Bank, INTERPOL and other multinational agencies as well as regional organizations like the Pacific Island Forum, Five Powers Agreement, NATO partnership and various international conservation and legal regimes, as well as bilateral agreements such as the NZ-PRC FTA, Washington and Wellington Agreements and Australia-NZ close defense relations, clearly demonstrate that NZ has formal and informal commitments that bring with them (even if self-binding) responsibilities as well as opportunities and privileges. What they do not bring and in fact mitigate against is foreign policy independence.

This latticework of relationships is the foundation for NZ’s commitment to a rules and norms-based international order because as a small country operating in a world dominated by great and medium powers, it is the commitment and enforcement of international codes of conduct that balances the relationships between big and small States. That gives NZ a measure of institutional certainty in its foreign relations, something that consequently grants it a degree of autonomy when it comes to foreign policy decision-making.

This is what allows NZ, in the broader sense of the term, to be flexible in its foreign policy. Within its broadly autonomous and flexible position within an international system governed by an overlapping network of rules, regulations and laws, comes the “nested” (as in “nested “ games as per rational choice theory, where the broadest macro-game encompasses a series of “nested” meso- and micro-games) ability to move between approaches to specific issues in a variety of areas in the diplomatic, economic and security spheres. 

A second reason that NZ does not have an independent foreign policy is due to what international relations theorists call the “Second Image” effect: the influence of domestic actors, processes and mores on foreign policy-making. NZ’s foreign policy is heavily dominated by trade concerns, which follow mercantilist, Ricardian notions of comparative and now competitive advantage. The logic of trade permeates NZ economic thinking and has a disproportionate influence on NZ foreign policy making, at times leading to contradictions between its trade relations and its support for liberal democratic values such human rights and democracy. As trade came to dominate NZ foreign policy it had a decided impact at home, with the percentage of GDP derived from import-export trade averaging above 50 percent for over three decades (with a third of the total since 2009 involving to PRC-NZ trade).

Meanwhile, the domestic ripple effect of trade-related services expanded rapidly into related industries (e.g., accounting, legal and retail services related to agricultural export production), adding to its centrality for national economic well-being. As things stand, if NZ was to be cut off from its major trading partners (the PRC and Australia in particular), the economic shock wave would wash over every part of the country with devastating consequences.

What this means in practice is that export sector interests have a disproportionate influence on NZ’s foreign policy-making. The country’s material dependence on trade in turn locks in pro-trade mindsets amongst economic and political elites that either subordinate or inhibit consideration of alternative priorities. That reduces the freedom of action available to foreign policy-makers, which reduces their independence when it comes to formulating and implementing foreign policy in general. Almost everything passes through the filter of trade, and questions about trade are dominated by a narrative propagated by actors with a vested interest in maintaining the trade-dependent status quo. 

Althugh less influential than the export-import sector, other domestic actors also place limits on foreign policy independence. Disapora communities, the intelligence and military services, tourism interests, religious groups, civil society organizations—all of these work to influence NZ’s foreign policy perspective and approaches. Balancing these often competing interests is an art form of its own, but the key take-away is that the influence of domestic actors makes it impossible for NZ to have a truly “independent” foreign policy for that reason alone, much less when added to the international conditions and frameworks that NZ is subject to.

Given those restrictions, the key to sustaining foreign policy flexibility lies in being principled when possible, pragmatic when necessary and agile in application. Foreign policy should be consistent and not be contradictory in its implementation and requires being foresighted and proactive as much as possible rather than short-sighted and reactive when it comes to institutional perspective. Crisis management will always be part of the mix, but if potential crises can be foreseen and contingency scenarios gamed out, then when the moment of crisis arrives the foreign policy-making apparatus will better prepared to respond agilely and flexibly.

In short, NZ has and should maintain a flexible foreign policy grounded in support for multilateral norms and institutions that allows for autonomous formulation and agile implementation of discrete positions and approaches to its international relations and foreign affairs. Whether it can do so given the dominance of trade logics in the foreign policy establishment remains to be see.

The big picture.

The issue of foreign policy independence matters because the world is well into the transition from unipolarity (with the US as the hegemon) to multipolarity (which is as of yet undefined but will include the PRC, India and the US in what will eventually be a five to seven power constellation if the likes of Japan, Germany and other States emerge to prominence). Multipolar systems are generally believed to be more stable than unipolar systems because great powers balance each other on specific issues and obtain majority consensus on others, which avoids the diplomatic, economic and military bullying (and response) often associated with unipolar “hegemonic” powers. However, the transition from one international system to another is marked by competition between rising and declining great powers, with the latter prone to starting wars in a final ttempt to save their positions in the international stats quo.

In the period of long transition and systemic realignment uncertainty is the new normal and conflict becomes the default systems regulator because norm erosion and rules violations increase as the old status quo is challenged and the new status quo has yet to be consolidated. This leads to a lack of norm enforcement capacity on the part of international organizations rooted in the old status quo, which in turn invites transgressions based on perceived impunity by those who would seek to upend it. This has been seen in places like the South China Sea, Syria, and most recently Ukraine. 

The transitional moment is also marked by confclits over the re-defining of new rules of systemic order. These conflicts may or may not lead to war, but the overall trend is the replacement of the old system (unipolar in the last instance) with something new. Illustrative of this is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where a former superpower well into terminal decline has resorted to war on a smaller neighbor as a last attempt to hold on to Great Power status. No matter what the outcome of the conflict itself, Russia will be much diminished by its misadventure and therefore will not be a member of the emerging multipolar configuration.

The new multipolar order will include traditional “hard” and “soft” power usage but will also include “smart” and “sharp” power projection (“smart” being hybrids of hard and soft power and “sharp” being a directed focus by State actors on achieving specific objectives in foreign States via directed domestic influence and hybrid warfare campaigns in those States).

They core feature of the emerging multipolar system is balancing. Great Powers will seek to balance each other on specific matters, leading to temporary alliances and tactical shifts depending on the issues involved. They will then seek the support of smaller States, creating alliance constellations around individual or multilateral positions.That is why systemic multipolarity is best served when odd numbers of Great Powers are present in the configuration, as this allows for tie-breaking on specific subjects, to include rules and norms re-establishment or consolidation.

More importantly, in multipolar systems balancing becomes both a focus and a feature of State behaviour (i.e. States seek to balance each other on specific issues but also desire to achieve an overall balanced system of interests in the multipolar world). In a sense, multipolar balancing is the diplomatic equivalent of the invisible hand of the market: all actors may wish to pursue their own interests and influence the system in their favour, but it is the aggregate of their actions that leads to systemic equilibrium and international market clearing.

In a nutshell: although international norms violations are common and conflict becomes the default systems regulator during periods of international transition and systemic realignment, the multipolar constellation that emerges in its wake is chracterised by balancing as both a focus and a feature. That demands flexibility and agility on the part of great powers but also gives diplomatic space and opportunity to smaller powers with such traits.

In this context a flexible and agile foreign policy approach allows a small State such as NZ considerable room for maneuver, may magnify its voice regarding specific areas of concern (such as climate change, environmental security, migration and the general subject of human rights, including indigenous and gender rights) and therefore give it increased influence disproportionate to its size and geopolitical significance (in other words, allow it to genuinely “punch above its weight”).

Issues for New Zealand.

On the emerging international system.

If a flexible and agile foreign policy is pursued, NZ has the ability to expand its diplomatic influence and range of meaningful choice in the emerging system. For self-interested reasons, NZ must push for the early consolidation of a new multipolar order dominated by liberal democracies, recognizing that there will be authoritarian actors in the arrangement but understanding that a rules-based international order requires the dominance of liberal democratic values (however hypocritically applied at times and always balanced by pragmatism) rather than authoritarian conceptualisations of the proper world order. In practice this means extending the concept of “liberalism” to include non-Western notions of cooperation, consensus-building, transparency and proportional equality of participation and outcomes (this is seen in the current NZ government’s inclusion of “Maori Values” in its policy-making orientation). The need for univerally binding international rules and norms is due to the fact that they help remove or diminish power asymetries and imbalances that favor Great Powers and therefore level the playing field when it comes to matters of economic, cultural, diplomatic and security import. For this reason and because it is a small State, NZ has both a practical reason to support a rules-based international order as well as a principled one.

NZ and the PRC-US rivalry.

The key to navigating US-PRC tensions is to understand that NZ must avoid the “Melian” Dilemma:” i.e., being caught in the middle of a Great Power conflict (the phrase comes from the plight of the island-state Melos during the Peloponnesian Wars, where Melos attempted to remain neutral. Sparta agreed to that but Athens did not and invaded Melos, killed its men, enslaved women and children and salted its earth. The moral of the story is that sometimes trying to remain neutral in a bigger conflict is a losing proposition). 

NZ will not have a choice as to who to side with should “push come to shove” between the US and PRC (and their allies) in a Great Power conflict. That choice will ultimately be made for NZ by the contending Powers themselves. In fact, in a significant sense the choice has already been made: NZ has publicly stated that it will stand committed to liberal international values, US-led Western security commitments and in opposition to authoritarianism at home and abroad. While made autonomously, the choice has not been made independently. It has been forced by PRC behaviour (including influence, intimidation and espionage campaigns in NZ as well as broader misbehavior such as its record of intellectual property theft, cyber-hacking and the island-building projects in the South China Sea) rather than NZ’s desire to make a point. Forced to preemptively choose, it is a choice that is principled, pragmatic if not necessarily agile in application.

How much to spend on defense?

Focus on overall Defense spending (however measured, most often as percentage of GDP) is misguided. What matters is not how much is spent but how money is spent. Canada, for example, spends less (1.3 percent) of GDP than NZ does (1.6 percent) even though it a NATO member with a full range of combat capabilities on air, land and sea. The 2 percent of GDP figure often mentioned by security commentators is no more than a US demand of NATO members that is most often honoured in the breach. Although it is true that Australians complain that NZ rides on their coattails when it comes to defense capabilities, NZ does not have to follow Australia’s decision to become the US sheriff in the Southern Hemisphere and spend over 2.5 percent/GDP on defense. Nor does it have the strategic mineral resource export tax revenues to do so. Moreover, even if it overlaps in places, NZ’s threat environment is not identical to that of Autsralia. Defense priorities cannot be the same by virtue of that fact, which in turn is reflected in how the NZDF is organized, equipped and funded.

NZ needs to do is re-think the distribution of its defense appropriations. It is a maritime nation with a land-centric defense force and limited air and sea power projection capabilities. It spends the bulk of its money on supporting this Army-dominant configuration even though the Long-Term Issue Brief recently issued by the government shows that the NZ public are more concerned about non-traditional “hybrid” threats such as disinformation, foreign influence operations (both State and non-state, ideologically-driven or not), climate change and natural disasters as well as organized crime, espionage and terrorism. More pointedly, the NZDF has a serious recruitment and retention problem at all staffing levels, so no material upgrades to the force can compensate for the lack of people to operate equipment and weapons.

This is not to say that spending on security should completely shift towards non-traditional, non-kinetic concerns, but does give pause to re-consider Defense spending priorities in light of the threat environment in which NZ is located and the political realities of being a liberal democratic State where public attention is focused more on internal rather than external security even if the latter remains a priority concern of security and political elites (for example, with regard to sea lanes of communication in the SW Pacific and beyond). That leads into the following:

Trade.

Trade is an integral component of a nation’s foreign policy, particularly so for a country that is unable to autonomously meet the needs and wants of a early 21st consumer-capitalist society. The usual issue in play when it comes to foreign trade is whether, when or where trade relations with other countries should directly involve the State, and what character should such involvement adopt. Should it be limited to the imposition of tariffs and taxes on private sector export/imports? Should it be direct in the form of investment regulations, export/import controls, and even State involvement in negotiations with other States and private commercial interests? Should the overall trade orientation be towards comparative or competitive value? Most of these questions have been resolved well in NZ, where the government takes a proactive role in promoting private sector NZ export business but has a limited role beyond that other than in regulatory enforcement and taxation.

One change that might help erode NZ foreign policy subordination to trade-focused priorities is to either separate the Trade portfolio from the Foreign Affairs Ministry or to create a Secretariat of Trade within Foreign Affairs. In the first instance “traditional” diplomacy can be conducted in parallel to trade relations, with consultative working groups reconciling their approaches at policy intersection points or critical junctures. In the second instance Trade would be subordinated to the overarching logic of NZ foreign affairs and act as a distinct foreign policy component much like regional and subject-specific branches do now. The intent is to reduce foreign policy dependence on trade logics and thereby better balance trade with other diplomatic priorities.

The larger issue that is less often considered is that of “issue linkage.” Issue linkage refers to tying different threads of foreign policy together, most often those of trade and security. During the Cold War trade and security were closely related by choice: security partners on both sides of the East-West ideological divided traded preferentially with each other, thereby solidifying the bonds of trust and respect between them while benefitting materially and physically from the two dimensional relationship. NZ was one of the first Western countries to break with that tradition, and with its bilateral FTA with the PRC it completely divorced, at least on paper, its trade from its security. That may or may not have been a wise idea.

In wake of events over the last decade, NZ needs to reconsider its position on issue linkage. 

Issue linkage does not have to be bilateral and does not have to involve just trade and security. Here again flexibility and agility come into play across multiple economic, diplomatic and military-security dimensions. For example, NZ prides itself on defending human rights and democracy world-wide. However, in practice it has readily embraced trade relations with a number of dictatorial regimes including the PRC, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, and Singapore (which whatever its veneer of electoral civility remains a one party-dominant authoritarian State). It also provides developmental aid and financial assistance to nobility-ruled countries like Samoa and Tonga. The question is how to reconcile these relationships with the professed championing of democracy and human rights

It is not an easy question to answer and is where the “pragmatic when necessary” perspective clashes with the “principled when possible” approach. It might be the case that human rights and democracy can (some might say should) not be linked to trade. But that would mean ignoring abuses of worker’s rights and other violations like child labour exploitation in trading partners. It is therefore a complicated dilemma that might best be resolved via NZ support for and use of multinational organizations (like the ILO and WTO ) to push for adherence to international standards in any trade pact that it signs.

A potentially more fruitful linkage might be between climate change mitigation measures and sustainable production and trading practices. Each trade negotiation could include provisions about carbon reductions and other prophylactic measures throughout the production cycle, where sharing NZ’s acknowledged expertise in agricultural emissions control and other environmental conserving technologies can become part of NZ’s negotiating package.

Alternatively, in the emerging post-pandemic system of trade a move to replace “off-shoring” of commodity production with “near-shoring” and even “friend-shoring” has acquired momentum. Near-shoring refers to locating production centers closer to home markets, while friend-shoring refers to trading with and investing in countries that share the same values when it comes to upholding trade and after-entry standards, if not human rights and democracy. Combining the post-pandemic need to de-concentrate commodity production and create a broader network of regional production hubs that can overcome the supply chain problems and negative ripple effects associated with the pandemic shutdown of production in the PRC, NZ could engage in what are known as mini-lateral and micro-lateral initiatives involving a small number of like-minded regional partners with reciprocal trading interests.

Australia and the Pacific.

Rather than get into specifics, here a broad appraisal is offered.

Australia is NZ’s most important international partner and in many aspects very similar to it. However, beyond the common British colonial legacy and shared Anglophone war experiences they are very different countries when it comes to culture, economy and military-diplomatic outlook. Likewise, NZ shares many traits with other Pacific island nations, including the seafaring traditions of its indigenus peoples, but is demonstrably distinct in its contemporary manifestation. More broadly, Austalia acts as the big brother on the regional block, NZ acts a middle sister and the smaller island States act as younger siblings with their own preferences, attitudes and dispositions.

To be clear: the family-like characterisation is a recognition of the hierarchical yet interdependent nature of the relationships between these States, nothing more. For NZ, these relationships represent the most proximate and therefore most immediate foreign policy concerns. In particular, the English speaking polynesian world is tied particularly closely to NZ via dispora communities, which in many cases involves NZ-based islanders sending remmitances and goods to family and friends back home. Island nations like Samoa and Tonga are also major recipients of NZ developmental aid and along with the Cook Islands are significant tourist destinations for New Zealanders.

Because of their extensive trade relationship and long-standing diplomatic and military ties, NZ understands that maintaining warm relations with Australia is vital to its national interests. 

Where it can differentiate itself is in its domestic politics, offering a more inclusive and gentler form of liberal democratic competition that avoids the harder edged style displayed by its neighbor. It can include a different approach to immigration, refugee policy, indigenous rights, and the role of lobbyists and foreign influence in domestic politics, especially when it comes to political finance issues. Without being maudlin, NZ can be a “kinder, gentler” version of liberal democracy when compared to Australia, something that allows it to continue to work closely with its Antipodean partner on a range of mutal interests.

The key to maintaining the relationship with Austalia is to quibble on the margins of bilateral policy while avoiding touching “the essential” of the relationship.For example, disputes about the expulsion of Kiwi-born “501” criminal deportees from Australia to NZ can be managed without turning into a diplomatic rift. Conversely, combating foreign influence campaigns on local politics can be closely coordinated without extensive diplomatic negotiation in order to improve the use of preventative measures on both sides of the Tasman Sea.

The key to maintaining good relations with Pacific Island states is to avoid indulging in post-colonial condescension when it comes to their domestic and international affairs. If NZ truly believes in self-determination and non-interference in domestic affairs, then it must hoor that belief in practice as well as rhetorically. Yet, there has been a tendency by NZ and Australia to “talk down” at their Pacific neighbors, presuming to know what is best for them. There are genuine concerns about corruption in the Pacific community and the increased PRC presence in it, which is believed to use checkbook and debt diplomacy as well as bribery to influence Pacific Island state leaders in a pro-Chinese direction. But the traditionally paternalistic approach by the Antipodean neighbors to their smaller brethern is a source of resentment and has backfired when it comes to contanining PRC expansion in the Southwestern Pacific. The reaction to the recently announced Solomon Islands-PRC bilateral security agreement is evidence of that heavy-handedness and has been met with hostility in the Solomons as well as other island States at a time when the regional geopolitical balance is in flux.

To be sure, NZ offers much developmental aid and humanitarian assistance to its island neighbors and is largely viewed with friendly eyes in the region. The best of way of assuring that goodwill is maintained is to speak to island States as equals rather than subordinates and to emphasize the notion of a Pacific community with shared traditions, cultures and values. It is for the Pacific Island states to determine what their individual and collective future holds, and NZ must respect that fact even while trying to promote principles of democracy, human rights and transparency in government region-wide.

Summary.

It is mistaken and counter-productive to label New Zealand’s foreign policy as “independent.” A cursory examination of domestic and international factors clearly demonstrates why it is not. Instead, NZ purses a flexible foreign policygrounded in constrained or limited autonomy when it comes to foreign policy-making and which is operationalized based on agility when it comes to reconciling relationships with other (particularly Great) powers and manuevering between specific subjects. It is soft and smart power reliant, multilateral in orientation and predominantly trade-focussed in scope. It champions ideals tied to Western liberal values such as human rights, democracy, transparency and adherence to a rules based international order that are tempered by an (often cynical) pragmatic assessment of how the national interest, or least those of the foreign policy elites, are served.

Balancing idealism and pragmatism in non-contradictory or hypocritical ways lies at the core of NZ’s foreign policy dilemmas, and on that score the record is very much mixed.

This essay began as notes for a panel discussion hosted by https://www.theinkling.org.nz at the Auckland War Museum, November 3, 2022. My thanks to Alex Penk for inviting me to participate.

Media Link: “AVFA” on electoral politics in Brazil, US and Israel.

This week Selwyn Manning and I do a post-mortem on Brazil’s election and a preview of the US midterms under the general banner of “it is about the movement, not the man,” then turn to the tactical and existential issues surrounding Israel’s latest (and increasingly rightwing-leaning) elections. You can draw your conclusions by linking here.

Media Link: The Era of Restive Politics.

In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I explore what can be called the era of restive politics in national and international affairs. We review recent political dynamics in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, Iran and the PRC to highlight that in the post-pandemic world, public disgruntlement, resentment and frustration has less to do with ideology and more to do with governments failing to deliver on, much less manage popular expectations of what the State should provide to the polity. The issue is one of competence and responsiveness rather than ideological predilection.

This is true for authoritarian regimes as well as liberal democracies (hence the choice of a small-N “most different” comparative survey of case studies), but the remedies are all too often offered by populist demagogues who see political opportunity in the restive moment. You can find the podcast here.

Democratic compromise as the mutual second-best.

For the first ten years of my former academic career I wrote a considerable amount about post-authoritarian democratisation thanks to the mentors that introduced me to the subject and my personal interest in Argentina and the Southern Cone. I alternated this interest with writing about various security related topics like terrorism and comparative civil-military relations, with the natural overlap being that the move from dictatorship to democracy would of necessity entail a move away from state terrorism as practiced by the likes of the Argentine Junta and Pinochet’s regime in Chile and towards civil-military relations that were dominated by civilians, not murderous men in uniforms.

In recent times I have returned to these subjects with some friends and correspondents who share my interest in politics. The erosion of democracy in the US and elsewhere and the rise of national populism, rightwing extremism and various other forms of authoritarianism in places like Brazil, Hungary, Nicaragua, Serbia, Turkey, the Philippines, Venezuela and countries that experienced the “Arab Spring” in the early 2010s has brought the subject of what democracy is and is not back to the forefront of my thought.

Most recently a good friend and I, both Americans by birth but living abroad by choice, have traded views on the rise of Trumpism and the sad turn towards MAGAist politics on the part of the Republican Party. Two areas that emerged as major sources of concern were the GOP stacking of local and state governments with MAGA believers pursuant to a program of gerrymandering and voter suppression that effectively disenfranchises demographic groups considered to be opponents of MAGA policy objectives (say, urban African Americans in Southern states or white liberals in Midwestern states). School boards, country clerk offices, electoral commissions–all of these have been targeted by the GOP as priority areas, something that Steve Bannon consistently advocated more than ten years ago, and in the measure that they have been successful (and they have in many instances) they have guaranteed Republican majorities in those states and localities. That it turn reinforces MAGA dominance over political discourse and practice in those parts of the country.

The second, deeper problem is abandonment of the notion that contingent political and economic compromise is at the heart of the democratic social contract. That causes political competition to be seen in zero-sum terms and opponents as adversary “others” who must be defeated at all costs and hopefully forever. It is this shift that lies at the root of the GOP turn to MAGA and the local take-over strategy.

Here is what I wrote to my friend when we discussed the issue. As friends often do in order to make a point, I began mine with an anecdote (my comment is edited and paraphrased for clarity):

“Two observations. 1) When I lived in Tucson in the late 80s-early 90s Mormons used to try to stack school boards and PTAs by running numerous candidates for every school in the district (in my case, the Amphi district where my kids attended primary and secondary school). This allowed them to shape individual and district-wide school policy wherever they won a majority of seats, but even as minorities they were influential in shaping school direction on things like prayer, the pledge of allegiance etc. This locally-focused “bottom-up” political strategy of organising to elect partisan adherents into grassroots, small-town offices was adopted by the GOP in subsequent decades and became a core strategic tenet in the 2010s. Rather than solely focus on federal-level offices, the Republican National Committee (RNC) also worked hard to stack local political decks with (increasingly MAGA) partisan adherents who then worked in unison to guarantee Republican dominance of state and federal electoral processes in their respective jurisdictions. That has produced permanently Red (GOP) electoral outcomes in states like Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Arkansas.”

“But there is more to this process than the “stacking” strategy, and we might call that 2) democratic socialisation. As (my friend) might recall, I was a student of the great generation of “transitologists” of the late 1970s and early 1980s: Schmitter, O’Donnell, Przeworski (all on my Ph.D. committee), Elster, Garreton, Rouquie, Stepan, Linz, Bobbio, et.al. One of the major points that they made was that democracy was the result of what was known as the mutual second-best game: no one could gain everything that they wanted all of the time in a competitive democracy, so instead everyone pursued “second-best” strategies based on mutual contingent compromise that allowed them to achieve some of their objectives some of the time. This turns out to be a Pareto optimal solution in game-theoretic terms since no one can achieve better individual outcomes without hurting those of others (where each has the ability to do so), and as an extensive form game where preferences and outcomes change based on prior outcomes, it laid the foundation for a durable compromise between class and non-class actors and their political representatives (as agents of sectorial interests).” 

Of course, the democratic compromise only succeeds if it is respected and popular expectations are met with regard to it. If these are not met the compromise is broken, which paves the way for the imposition of zero-sum authoritarian solutions. That appears to be what has happened in, and to, the US.

“What the GOP stacking strategy has done, most negatively, is reject the notion of a political compromise (much less class compromise) grounded in mutual second best approaches to democratic competition. This is, to say the least, a profoundly authoritarian way of pursuing political interests and as such is inimical–and threatening–to democracy as a regime made up of institutions, norms and values. But it is where we are today, although I believe that the GOP may have taken a step too far in the dictatorial direction under Trump and will soon rue the day that it ever chose to go down the MAGA path because it has now become the province of sociopaths and charlatans.”

That is what has been lost in the US: the acceptance that democracy rests on a contingent economic and political compromise between the electorate and elites. Workers agree to accept capitalism in exchange for better wages, job security and living conditions, including educational opportunity and access to affordable housing, drinking water, transportation, power and the like. Elites agree to use a percentage of their pre-tax profits an/or increased corporate and individual taxation to provide the mass of wage-earners with the material conditions required for social peace. Regardless of partisan identity, governments mediate interests and administer the broad terms of the bargain.

That is a central feature. What brings this all together as a workable outcome over time is a regularly refreshed political bargain between agents of elites and workers in all of their guises–lobbies, unions, parties, non-profits, community organisations etc. They all have their specific interests that make for differences in priority and approaches to pursuing them. But they have a larger common interest in seeing the system work because it is the best guarantee that everyone comes away with something now and in the future. All political actors understand this and governments act accordingly.

Democracy may be transactional in practice but it is founded on a common understanding that the mutual-second best approach and contingent compromise are the best way to guarantee social peace. Needless to say, issues such as racism, homophobia, xenophobia and other instances of malicious “othering” are not reducible to game theoretic solutions, but the idea is to inculcate a polity with a political socialisation that places a premium on partisan and sectorial compromise and pursuit of mutual contingent consent as mainstays of both the political as well as social system. That in turn widens space for increased toleration of difference, horizontal solidarity networks between different groups of people, and inter-generational reproduction of political norms and value re-orientation focused on the mutual second best as the preferred collective outcome.

Needless to say this is just a distillation of what democracy is as a political form. It does not address the differences and relationship between procedural (electoral) and substantive (institutional, societal, economic) democracy. But is does reduce the concept to a fundamental core characteristic: contingent compromise.

The US is very far from this ideal at the moment, and even in places like Aotearoa understanding of these core concepts appears to have eroded considerably in recent years (perhaps as a result of the US influence on local political practice). In any event, rather than treat democracy as one means towards a desired partisan end, perhaps it is best for all to reflect on its intrinsic worth as the political aggregator of distinct and heterogenous material and ideological preferences in socially pluralistic societies.

Considering Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

I have said this in other forums, but here is the deal:

PRC military exercises after Pelosi’s visit are akin to silverback male gorillas who run around thrashing branches and beating their chests when annoyed, disturbed or seeking to show dominance. They are certainly dangerous and not to be ignored, but their aggression is about signaling/posturing, not imminent attack. In other words, the behaviour is a demonstration of physical capabilities and general disposition rather than real immediate intent. If and when the PRC assault on Taiwan comes, it will not be telegraphed.

As for why Pelosi, third in the US chain of command, decided to go in spite of PRC threats and bluster. Along with a number of other factors, it was a show of bipartisan, legislative-executive branch resolve in support of Taiwan to allies and the PRC in a midterm election year. SecDef Austin was at her side, so Biden’s earlier claims that the military “did not think that her trip was a good idea” did not result in an institutional rupture over the issue. The show of unity was designed to allay allied concerns and adversary hopes that the US political elite is too divided to act decisively in a foreign crisis while removing a basis for conservative security hawk accusations in an election year that the Biden administration and Democrats are soft on China.

The PRC can threaten/exercise/engage indirect means of retaliation but cannot seriously escalate at this point. It’s launching of intermediate range ballistic missiles over Taiwan and into Japan’s EEZ as part of the response to Pelosi’s visit certainly deserves concerned attention by security elites, as it signals a readiness by the PRC to broaden the conflict into a regional war involving more than the US and Taiwan. But the PRC is too economically invested in Taiwan (especially in microchips and semi-conductors) to risk economic slow downs caused by disruptions of Taiwanese production in the event of war (which likely will be a protracted affair as Taiwan reverts to the “hedgehog” defence strategy common among island nations and facilitated by Formosa’s terrain), and it is not a full peer competitor with the US when it comes to the East Asian regional military balance, especially if US security allies join the conflict on Taiwan’s side.

The PRC must therefore bide its time and wait until its sea-air-land forces are capable of not only invading and occupying Taiwan, but be able to do so in the face of US-led military response across all kinetic and hybrid warfare domains. Pelosi’s visit was a not to subtle reminder of that fact.

So the visit, while provocative and an act of brinkmanship given the CCP is about to hold its 20th National Party Congress in which President Xi Jinping is expected to be re-elected unopposed to another term in office, was at its most basic level simply conveying a message that the US will not be bullied by the PRC on what was a symbolic visit to a disputed territory ruled by an independent democratic government.

For the moment the PRC must content itself with mock charges and thrashing the bush in the form of large-scale military exercises and some non-escalatory retaliation against the US and Taiwan, but it is unlikely to go beyond that at the moment. It remains to be seen if this sits well with nationalists and security hardliners in the CCP who may see what they perceive to be the relatively soft response as a loss of face and evidence of Xi’s lack of will to strike a blow for the Motherland when he has the chance and which could have also served as a good patriotic diversion from domestic woes caused by Covid and the ripple effect economic slowdown associated with it.

In that light, the Party Congress should give us a better idea if the factional undercurrents operating within the CCP will now spill out into the open over the Pelosi’s visit. If so, perhaps there was even more to the calculus behind her trip than what I have outlined above.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on NATO and BRICS Leader’s summits.

Selwyn Manning and I discussed the upcoming NATO Leader’s summit (to which NZ Prime Minister Ardern is invited), the rival BRICS Leader’s summit and what they could mean for the Ruso-Ukrainian Wa and beyond.

Media Link: AVFA on Latin America.

In the latest episode of AVFA Selwyn Manning and I discuss the evolution of Latin American politics and macroeconomic policy since the 1970s as well as US-Latin American relations during that time period. We use recent elections and the 2022 Summit of the Americas as anchor points.

The PRC’s Two-Level Game.

Coming on the heels of the recently signed Solomon Islands-PRC bilateral economic and security agreement, the whirlwind tour of the Southwestern Pacific undertaken by PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi has generated much concern in Canberra, Washington DC and Wellington as well as in other Western capitals. Wang and the PRC delegation came to the Southwestern Pacific bearing gifts in the form of offers of developmental assistance and aid, capacity building (including cyber infrastructure), trade opportunities, economic resource management, scholarships and security assistance, something that, as in the case of the Solomons-PRC bilateral agreement, caught the “traditional” Western patrons by surprise. With multiple stops in Kiribati, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, PNG, Vanuatu and East Timor and video conferencing with other island states, Wang’s visit represents a bold outreach to the Pacific Island Forum community.

A couple of days ago I did a TV interview about the trip and its implications. Although I posted a link to the interview, I thought that I would flesh out was what unsaid in the interview both in terms of broader context as well as some of the specific issues canvassed during the junket. First, in order to understand the backdrop to recent developments, we must address some key concepts. Be forewarned: this is long.

China on the Rise and Transitional Conflict.

For the last three decades the PRC has been a nation on the ascent. Great in size, it is now a Great Power with global ambitions. It has the second largest economy in the world and the largest active duty military, including the largest navy in terms of ships afloat. It has a sophisticated space program and is a high tech world leader. It is the epicenter of consumer non-durable production and one of the largest consumers of raw materials and primary goods in the world. Its GDP growth during that time period has been phenomenal and even after the Covid-induced contraction, it has averaged well over 7 percent yearly growth in the decade since 2011.

The list of measures of its rise are many so will not be elaborated upon here. The hard fact is that the PRC is a Great Power and as such is behaving on the world stage in self-conscious recognition of that fact. In parallel, the US is a former superpower that has now descended to Great Power status. It is divided domestically and diminished when it comes to its influence abroad. Some analysts inside and outside both countries believe that the PRC will eventually supplant the US as the world’s superpower or hegemon. Whether that proves true or not, the period of transition between one international status quo (unipolar, bipolar or multipolar) is characterised by competition and often conflict between ascendent and descendent Great Powers as the contours of the new world order are thrashed out. In fact, conflict is the systems regulator during times of transition. Conflict may be diplomatic, economic or military, including war. As noted in previous posts, wars during moments of international transition are often started by descendent powers clinging or attempting a return to the former status quo. Most recently, Russia fits the pattern of a Great Power in decline starting a war to regain its former glory and, most importantly, stave off its eclipse. We shall see how that turns out.

Spheres of Influence.

More immediate to our concerns, the contest between ascendent and descendent Great Powers is seen in the evolution of their spheres of influence. Spheres of influence are territorially demarcated areas in which a State has dominant political, economic, diplomatic and military sway. That does not mean that the areas in question are as subservient as colonies (although they may include former colonies) or that this influence is not contested by local or external actors. It simply means at any given moment some States—most often Great Powers—have distinct and recognized geopolitical spheres of influence in which they have primacy of interest and operate as the dominant regional actor.

In many instances spheres of influence are the object of conquest by an ascendent power over a descendent power. Historic US dominance of the Western Hemisphere (and the Philippines) came at the direct expense of a Spanish Empire in decline. The rise of the British Empire came at the expense of the French and Portuguese Empires, and was seen in its appropriation of spheres of influence that used to be those of its diminished competitors. The British and Dutch spheres of influence in East Asia and Southeast Asia were supplanted by the Japanese by force, who in turn was forced in defeat to relinquish regional dominance to the US. Now the PRC has made its entrance into the West Pacific region as a direct peer competitor to the US.

Peripheral, Shatter and Contested Zones.

Not all spheres of influence have equal value, depending on the perspective of individual States. In geopolitical terms the world is divided into peripheral zones, shatter zones and zones of contestation. Peripheral zones are areas of the world where Great Power interests are either not in play or are not contested. Examples would be the South Pacific for most of its modern history, North Africa before the discovery of oil, the Andean region before mineral and nitrate extraction became feasible or Sub-Saharan Africa until recently. In the modern era spheres of influence involving peripheral zones tend to involve colonial legacies without signifiant economic value.

Shatter zones are those areas where Great Power interests meet head to head, and where spheres of influence clash. They involve territory that has high economic, cultural or military value. Central Europe is the classic shatter zone because it has always been an arena for Great Power conflict. The Middle East has emerged as a potential shatter zone, as has East Asia. The basic idea is that these areas are zones in which the threat of direct Great Power conflict (rather than via proxies or surrogates) is real and imminent, if not ongoing. Given the threat of escalation into nuclear war, conflict in shatter zones has the potential to become global in nature. That is a main reason why the Ruso-Ukrainian War has many military strategists worried, because the war is not just about Russia and Ukraine or NATO versus Russian spheres of influence.

In between peripheral and shatter zones lie zones of contestation. Contested zones are areas in which States vie for supremacy in terms of wielding influence, but short of direct conflict. They are often former peripheral zones that, because of the discovery of material riches or technological advancements that enhance their geopolitical value, become objects of dispute between previously disinterested parties. Contested zones can eventually become part of a Great Power’s sphere of influence but they can also become shatter zones when Great Power interests are multiple and mutually disputed to the point of war.

Strategic Balancing.

The interplay of States in and between their spheres of influence or as subjects of Great Power influence-mongering is at the core of what is known as strategic balancing. Strategic balancing is not just about relative military power and its distribution, but involves the full measure of a State’s capabilities, including hard, soft, smart and sharp powers, as it is brought to bear on its international relations. 

That is the crux of what is playing out in the South Pacific today. The South Pacific is a former peripheral zone that has long been within Western spheres of influence, be they French, Dutch, British and German in the past and French, US and (as allies and junior partners) Australia and New Zealand today. Japan tried to wrest the West Pacific from Western grasp and ultimately failed. Now the PRC is making its move to do the same, replacing the Western-oriented sphere of influence status quo with a PRC-centric alternative.

The reason for the move is that the Western Pacific, and particularly the Southwestern Pacific has become a contested zone given technological advances and increased geopolitical competition for primary good resource extraction in previously unexploited territories. With small populations dispersed throughout an area ten times the size of the continental US covering major sea lines of communication, trade and exchange and with valuable fisheries and deep water mineral extraction possibilities increasingly accessible, the territory covered by the Pacific Island Forum countries has become a valuable prize for the PRC in its pursuit of regional supremacy. But in order to achieve this objective it must first displace the West as the major extra-regional patron of the Pacific Island community. That is a matter of strategic balancing as a prelude to achieving strategic supremacy.

Three Island Chains and Two Level Games.

The core of the PRC strategy rests in a geopolitical conceptualization known as the “three island chains” This is a power projection perspective based on the PRC eventually gaining control of three imaginary chains of islands off of its East Coast. The first island chain, often referred to those included in the PRC’s “Nine Dash Line” mapping of the region, is bounded by Japan, Northwestern Philippines, Northern Borneo, Malaysia and Vietnam and includes all the waters within it. These are considered to be the PRC’s “inner sea” and its last line of maritime defense. This is a territory that the PRC is now claiming with its island-building projects in the South China Sea and increasingly assertive maritime presence in the East China Sea and the straits connecting them south of Taiwan.

The second island chain extends from Japan to west of Guam and north of New Guinea and Sulawesi in Indonesia, including all of the Philippines, Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo and the island of Palau. The third island chain, more aspirational than achievable at the moment, extends from the Aleutian Islands through Hawaii to New Zealand. It includes all of the Southwestern Pacific island states. It is this territory that is being geopolitically prepared by the PRC as a future sphere of influence, and which turns it into a contested zone.

The PRC approach to the Southwestern Pacific can be seen as a Two Level game. On one level the PRC is attempting to negotiate bilateral economic and security agreements with individual island States that include developmental aid and support, scholarship and cultural exchange programs, resource management and security assistance, including cyber security, police training and emergency security reinforcement in the event of unrest as well as “rest and re-supply” and ”show the flag” port visits by PLAN vessels. The Solomon Island has signed such a deal, and Foreign Minister Wang has made similar proposals to the Samoan and Tongan governments (the PRC already has this type of agreement in place with Fiji). The PRC has signed a number of specific agreements with Kiribati that lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive pact of this type in the future. With visits to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor still to come, the approach has been replicated at every stop on Minister Wang’s itinerary. Each proposal is tailored to individual island State needs and idiosyncrasies, but the general blueprint is oriented towards tying development, trade and security into one comprehensive package.

None of this comes as a surprise. For over two decades the PRC has been using its soft power to cultivate friends and influence policy in Pacific Island states. Whether it is called checkbook or debt diplomacy (depending on whether developmental aid and assistance is gifted or purchased), the PRC has had considerable success in swaying island elite views on issues of foreign policy and international affairs. This has helped prepare the political and diplomatic terrain in Pacific Island capitals for the overtures that have been made most recently. That is the thrust of level one of this strategic game.

That opens the second level play. With a number of bilateral economic and security agreements serving as pillars or pilings, the PRC intends to propose a multinational regional agreement modeled on them. The first attempt at this failed a few days ago, when Pacific Island Forum leaders rejected it. They objected to a lack of detailed attention to specific concerns like climate change mitigation but did not exclude the possibility of a region-wide compact sometime in the future. That is exactly what the PRC wanted, because now that it has the feedback to its initial, purposefully vague offer, it can re-draft a regional pact tailored to the specific shared concerns that animate Pacific Island Forum discussions. Even if its rebuffed on second, third or fourth attempts, the PRC is clearly employing a “rinse, revise and repeat” approach to the second level aspect of the strategic game.

An analogy the captures the PRC approach is that of an off-shore oil rig. The bilateral agreements serve as the pilings or legs of the rig, and once a critical mass of these have been constructed, then an overarching regional platform can be erected on top of them, cementing the component parts into a comprehensive whole. In other words, a sphere of influence.

Vietnamese Oil Rig in a contested zone.

Western Reaction: Knee-Jerk or Nuanced?

The reaction amongst the traditional patrons has been expectedly negative. Washington and Canberra sent off high level emissaries to Honiara once the Solomon Islands-PRC deal was leaked before signature, in a futile attempt to derail it. The newly elected Australian Labor government has sent its foreign minister, sworn into office under urgency, twice to the Pacific in two weeks (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) in the wake of Minister Wang’s visits. The US is considering a State visit for Fijian Prime Minister (and former dictator) Frank Baimimarama. The New Zealand government has warned that a PRC military presence in the region could be seriously destabilising and signed on to a joint US-NZ statement at the end of Prime Minister Ardern’s trade and diplomatic junket to the US re-emphasising (and deepening) the two countries’ security ties in the Pacific pursuant to the Wellington and Washington Agreements of a decade ago. 

The problem with these approaches is two-fold, one general and one specific. If countries like New Zealand and its partners proclaim their respect for national sovereignty and independence, then why are they so perturbed when a country like the Solomon Islands signs agreements with non-traditional patrons like the PRC? Besides the US history of intervening in other countries militarily and otherwise, and some darker history along those lines involving Australian and New Zealand actions in the South Pacific, when does championing of sovereignty and independence in foreign affairs become more than lip service? Since the PRC has no history of imperialist adventurism in the South Pacific and worked hard to cultivate friends in the region with exceptional displays of material largesse, is it not a bit neo-colonial paternalistic of Australia, NZ and the US to warn Pacific Island states against engagement with it? Can Pacific Island states not find out themselves what is in store for them should they decide to play the Two Level Game?

More specifically, NZ, Australia and the US have different security perspectives regarding the South Pacific. The US has a traditional security focus that emphasises great power competition over spheres of influence, including the Western Pacific Rim. It has openly said that the PRC is a threat to the liberal, rules-based international order (again, the irony abounds) and a growing military threat to the region (or at least US military supremacy in it). As a US mini-me or Deputy Sheriff in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia shares the US’s traditional security perspective and emphasis when it comes to threat assessments, so its strategic outlook dove-tails nicely with its larger 5 Eyes partner.

New Zealand, however, has a non-traditional security perspective on the Pacific that emphasises the threats posed by climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, poor governance, criminal enterprise, poverty and involuntary migration. As a small island state, NZ sees itself in a solidarity position with and as a champion of its Pacific Island neighbours when it comes to representing their views in international fora. Yet it is now being pulled by its Anglophone partners into a more traditional security perspective when it comes to the PRC in the Pacific, something that in turn will likely impact on its relations with the Pacific Island community, to say nothing of its delicate relationship with the PRC.

In any event, the Southwestern Pacific is a microcosmic reflection of an international system in transition. The issue is whether the inevitable conflicts that arise as rising and falling Great Powers jockey for position and regional spheres of influence will be resolved via coercive or peaceful means, and how one or the other means of resolution will impact on their allies, partners and strategic objects of attention such as the Pacific Island community.

In the words of the late Donald Rumsfeld, those are the unknown unknowns.