Another Brief on Intelligence Matters.

Although my son is still in hospital he is recovering well and should be sent home soon. We dodged a bullet thanks to the Starship medical staff.

While at the hospital a reporter from one of Argentina’s oldest and most influential papers got in touch with me to discuss the case of the Russian double agent (for the UK) Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were poisoned some years ago by Russian agents but survived and then disappeared. Some time ago they were reported to be hiding in NZ and I was asked about that by various media, and the Argentine reporter had seen some of the news coverage that mentioned me. He was most focused on the details of the case and whether the the Skripals could still be in NZ if they ever were. But before that he wanted a primer on intelligence operations. Here is the Q&A in English.

Why do countries spy and why do they react negatively to being spied upon? What is intelligence collection and what type of people are selected to become intelligence agents?

Espionage and intelligence-gathering is rooted in human nature. Humans fear uncertainty, and a way to diminish uncertainty is to gather information about uncertain subjects, be they economic, military, natural, political or social. It helps determine intentions as well as capabilities or other factors otherwise unknown. From that intelligence-gathering, knowledge is achieved and uncertainty is diminished. And if it is true that knowledge is power, then power is enhanced by intelligence-gathering.

Intelligence collection and analysis comes in three forms: human intelligence, signals/technical intelligence and open-source intelligence. Human intelligence refers to human collectors, i.e. intelligence agents of the State and non-State actors (say, private security firms or investigators) who collect information from personal observation, interactions and exchanges with people in a designated functional areas, regions or countries. State intelligence agents work in two ways. One is under the protection of a diplomatic passport. Known as “official cover” agents, this includes military attaches as well as other diplomatic personnel whose activities are recognised by host countries but which often extend beyond the official remit outlined in their credentials. If caught and accused of espionage, official cover agents are detained and deported as per diplomatic protocol (that is, they received diplomatic immunity).

Non-official cover (NOC) agents are what are traditionally known as spies. They are the stuff of cloak and dagger stories but the reality is a bit more mundane in most instances. They work under the cover of assumed names, aliases and occupations, for example as businesspeople, academics or developmental aid workers, among many other “covers.” If caught, they are subject to the full penalties of the jurisdiction in which their offenses were committed and where they are charged (including being subject to the death penalty in many countries). They receive no diplomatic immunity. The outed US spy Valeri Plane (outed in 2003 by the W. Bush administration as revenge for husband refusing to go along with their lies about Iraq having nuclear weapon precursor yellowcake stockpiles), who used a job as a petroleum executive as cover for her espionage activities in the Middle East, is an example of such a so-called “NOC.”

NOCs tend to work in a highly compartmentalised or “siloed” manner, dealing with one agency liaison up the collection chain and putting degrees of separation between the down-chain primary source contacts (informants who may be conscious or unconsciously helping the NOC and be paid or unpaid depending on who they are) in order to maintain tight operational security. The means of feeding intelligence up the chain are many, involving technical tools as well as personal interactions.

There is a sub-set of human intelligence agents that might be called “hunter-killers.” While all human intelligence agents will be trained in things like surreptitious entry, lock-breaking, concealed observation (static and in motion), eavesdropping and other such tradecraft, the hunter-killer sub-set includes assassination in their repertoire. The lethal means can include a range of tools, to include poison, blades, firearms, explosives or armed unmanned vehicles (for example, the CIA has its own UAV fleet, as does Mossad, among others). The individuals who engage in this type of activity are, at least when tasked to do such things, not true spies in the proper sense of the term since their focus is not on obtaining information but on acting on information previously obtained, although they may work in partnership with official or non-official cover agents because their priority focus is on tracking and eliminating targets. They are essentially assassins, although they may even engage in broader combat activities depending on circumstance. Intelligence agencies maintain paramilitary units for such purposes, and they can be embedded in or along with military forces. Given the threat environment in which a State operates and the nature of the adversaries being confronted, the number of hunter-killer agents, units or teams may be large or small. Israel has a large number of such people. The US has a fair number. New Zealand has none, as far as is known or admitted. In general and as can be expected given the nature of their rule, authoritarian regimes use hunter-killers more than democracies.

The ideal human intelligence agent must have a calm and even temperament, be able to display coolness under pressure, be resourceful, have a keen sense of curiosity and ingenuity when problem-solving, have the ability to think laterally and “out of the box,” and have a capacity to “silo” or compartmentalize their work so that their real work life as intelligence collectors is undetectable in their personal, public and private lives. They must be able to ward off being compromised, be it sexually, financially or socially. They must be able to keep a secret and rationalize their personal morals and ethics with their professional ethos and obligations. They must have a deep sense of and commitment to public service (service to the State on behalf of the Nation).

Selection to become a human intelligence agent varies from country to country. Along with the traits mentioned below, in authoritarian regimes party and personal loyalties to political elites are a significant factor in recruitment and selection. In democracies, they are not. Modern intelligence agencies in democracies maintain professional standards for recruitment and promotion that are neutral when it comes to partisan and personal politics. They use advanced psychological testing to determine a candidate’s fitness to serve. These include cognitive, physical and intellectual testing, often involving real-case scenarios in which a candidate is placed in a pressure situation in order to evaluate their decision-making capabilities. Once a candidate has been accepted into service and learned the tools of the trade (“spycraft”), they are matched with a suitable cover profile and trained in how to maintain that profile in the field (be it as a diplomat, military officer or undercover agent). There are variations to this scenario but the overall thrust is very similar in most developed States, and in fact in some instances (5 Eyes) intelligence agencies have exchange programs for officers from allied States in order to improve professional standards amongst them.

Question Two: It is said that Russia prefers human intelligence collection whereas the US and UK prefer technological means. Is this true and if so, why?

During the Cold War and the first 20 years of the post-Cold War environment, the US had a great advantage in signals and technical intelligence (SIGINT/TECHINT), moving far beyond the early 20th century techniques of eavesdropping on phones and/or in public and private places or using radar, sonar or advanced photographic techniques. It expanded the SIGINT/TECHINT collection domain to include space and submarine collection capabilities as well as sophisticated electronic and technical collection platforms using infrared, acoustic signature detection, computer intercepts and then cyber-hacking. As a result, it placed less emphasis on human intelligence collection, in part because it is a US cultural trait to believe in the superior benefits of advance technologies in everything from kitchens, cars and television to warfare. As a result, as of the 1970s the US diverted intelligence resources and focus towards signals and technical intelligence collection to the detriment of human intelligence collection. Also remember that CIA activities in Chile, Indonesia, and many other places had placed a stain on the reputations of field agents and undercover officers involved in those activities, so the move away from human intelligence collection was an expedient way of getting out of the unwanted limelight.

As a result, human intelligence collection (HUMINT) was maintained  but in diminished numbers. Given the changing priorities of the post-Cold War geopolitical environment, it left an unbalanced focus on post-Soviet dynamics without a shift to emerging threats such as ideologically motivated non-State actors like al-Qaeda.  For that HUMINT work the US increasingly relied on Israel and other allied countries. The emphasis on SIGINT/TECHINT was reproduced and compounded by the 5 Eyes network, which created economies of scale in that form of intelligence gathering that began to dominate the overall information acquisition process in their respective communities even if human intelligence agents were tasked with following up on information obtained and gleaned by SIGINT/TECHINT means by any of the partners.

The problem with over-emphasising signals and technical intelligence collection is that it often cannot discern real intent by separating bluster and idle talk from a commitment to action. Operational security counter-measures can also thwart effective SIGINT/TECHINT collection. In addition, the trouble with relying on partners for human intelligence collection and analysis is that the intelligence comes “filtered” by the interests of the sharing State, not all of which are exactly coterminous or identical to those of the US (and vice versa for its partners). In recent years the US has revived its human intelligence programs, but they are playing catch up when it comes to recruiting people with the appropriate language, social, cultural and personal skills to operate under deep cover (or even officio cover) in foreign environments. People with backgrounds in anthropology and sociology are high value recruits, but the number of them are small when compared to the amounts of subjects/targets that need covering.

As an example, when 9/11 happened the US military intelligence is reported to only have 3 Arabic speaking linguists in their ranks. NZ human intelligence (the SIS) had none, and even with the recruitment of Muslim, Chinese and Polynesian New Zealanders in recent years, it lags far behind when it comes to people with the requisite skills to undertake both official cover and NOC work given the threat environment in which NZ now operates.

As for the Russians, the situation was different. Because the Soviet Union/Russia and the PRC were considerably behind the US when it came to signals and technical intelligence well into the 1990s, they both emphasized and put resources into human intelligence collection. For decades even that form of intelligence collection was limited to internal intelligence and counter-intelligence (for example, against counter-revolutionaries, some of whom had foreign backing) and in their near abroad or against strategic adversaries (the US and its major allies). Over time the human intelligence capabilities of the USSR and later Russia expanded to have a global reach, something that China has emulated today. Other countries such as Israel have developed similar capabilities, using Jews in the diaspora as collection agents (known as “sayanim”). 

However, in the 21st century both Russia and China have put much effort and resources into developing state of the art signals and technical intelligence collection capabilities Although they do not have the economies of scale available to the 5 Eyes Anglophone signals intelligence network, they have developed sophisticated capabilities of their own. The advent of social media has facilitated and accelerated this effort, something seen in the disinformation and misinformation campaigns undertaken by the Russian signals intelligence agency, the GRU, against Western democracies via the work of dedicated units such as the Fancy Bear cyber-hacking group that interfered with and continues to interfere in US and other democratic elections while promoting socio-political discord and right-wing conspiracy theories (including in NZ).

Hence, while it is true that Russia has traditionally favored human intelligence collection methods, to include hunter-killer activities, that is no longer the absolute case. Both it and the PRC have a very expansive and sophisticated signals and technical intelligence capabilities, including in space, in the atmosphere, on land and under the sea.

Examples of technical and signals intelligence collection include photographic and thermal imagery from space, submarine interceptions (“tapping”) of undersea communications cables (such as by the PRISM system used by 5 Eyes), airborne photography, jamming and early-warning detection, metadata targeted and bulk collection of internet communications, and acoustic “reading” of vibrations from interior conversations on exterior surfaces such as windows. Plus all of the old fashioned techniques such as telephone wiretapping, coding and decoding, encryption and decryption, etc. Artificial Intelligence has been used for some years now even if the commercial applications have only become operational in recent times, and is set to become a dominant means of extracting actionable intelligence from vast quantities of data as well as more rapidly recognising, analysing and filtering threat assessments and other intelligence priorities.

Questions 3 and 4: How does UK intelligence operate and why does it treat intelligence gathering differently from espionage?

Before delving into the specifics of the question, allow me to note that oversight and regulation of intelligence operations and agencies differs greatly between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes use intelligence agencies for domestic espionage, paralleling or supplementing the work of police intelligence units that are focused on crime-fighting. In such cases the focus of intelligence agencies is on domestic political dissent, subversion, foreign agents (counter-espionage), and a number of other targets such as environmental activists and other non-conformists who the regime deems to be enemies of the State. Intelligence units are bound by their own internal rules and procedures, which usually are much looser than those in democracies. They also have para-military units of the “hunter-killer” type that are tasked with hunting down and eliminating opponents at home and abroad. The Skripal case is an example, as was the Operacion Condor network operated by the Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s. Authoritarian intelligence agencies and agents are not bound by the rule of law but by the boundaries set by the political (often military) leadership of the regime.

In contrast, intelligence agencies in democratic regimes operate according to the rule of law and constitutional principles. They are more restricted in their freedom or latitude of action. They tend to limit their domestic activities to counter-espionage and transnational crime with State or ideological connections, such as when monitoring and countering Hezbollah activities in the Tri-Corner region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay (where drugs, weapons an extremists congregate for mutually beneficial purposes). In general, however, domestic intelligence collection is a responsibility of the police or gendarmes, not intelligence agencies, who only work with the domestic intelligence units of the police and gendarmes when specifically tasked to do so and within defined legal authority.

Because of that intelligence agencies in democracies have a primary focus on foreign and transnational intelligence gathering and threat identification and analysis as well as counter-espionage. They are bound by numerous legislative and legal restraints on their activities and a system of checks via courts and other oversight mechanisms. Unless the circumstances are exceptional (say, a bomb about to go off in a crowded train station), they must adhere to civil liberties and other democratic rights accorded to the population. And even then they often need the authorization of a special court or judge in order to legally infringe on individual and collective rights and constitutional norms.

To be clear, these norms have been violated in many instances by spy agencies in liberal democracies, including in the US, UK and NZ, but if discovered they are liable under the law and can be held accountable by oversight agencies as well as legislatures (if the Executive will not act against them in such instances). Intelligence agencies do not operate according to the whims of the political leadership, but in accordance with and under penalty of law.

In terms of how the UK approaches intelligence matters, it conforms with the democratic model outlined above. It uses legal frameworks to determine the distinction between intelligence gathering by the British State, its allies and partners and even private parties like corporations, versus espionage by foreign States or British nationals working for foreign states or front entities (such as by and for Chinese firms and “friendship societies” connected to PRC military intelligence via “United Front” entities). Having a legal framework delimiting what is and is not permissible when it comes to intelligence collection and the means used to that end gives the British State (and other States in their own ways), legal cover and authority to disrupt and prosecute (often clandestine) intelligence-gathering activities deemed unlawful and illegal.

Put simply, in the UK and other democracies intelligence collection done under official cover is considered permissible up to a point. Intelligence collection done under non-official cover is considered espionage and punishable by law. If an official cover intelligence officer from a foreign embassy goes beyond his recognized intelligence gathering duties (say, by trying to poison a dissident in England), that person will be charged and a warrant issued for their arrest even if they are deported under rules of diplomatic immunity. If a Russian NOC attempts to poison someone and is caught, s/he is out of luck.

Espionage is what the bad guys do; intelligence collection is what the good guys do, and the legal distinction is there to preserve that fiction.

Question Five: Where are the Skripals?

The Skripal’s are likely in a 5 Eyes country. They need to be in a place where they can go relatively unnoticed, where security can be provided for them and where there are not many other Russians around unless those Russians are sympathetic to the Skripals and have been security vetted. They will be provided with fake identities and documentation and take language lessons to disguise their thick English/Russian accents. They will be coached on how to act under their assumed identities, for example, as a retired Bulgarian businessman and his middle-aged daughter who cares for him as per traditional custom. They could be located in a city without many Russians where they can disappear in the crowds or, contrastingly, in a rural area far from prying eyes. That depends on their personal characteristics. If they are urbanites then they would stick out in a rural setting and probably have difficulties coping, much less assimilating. Many factors will determine where exactly they are re-located and hidden from Russian intelligence.

Of course, they may be relocated to a non-5 Eyes country such as Argentina or South Africa. But Skirpal’s spying was done for the UK and 5 Eyes, not other States, so other States would be reluctant to incur Russia’s wrath in the event they are discovered. Plus, other States may be more susceptible to corruption, leaking and not be able to provide adequate levels of discrete but effective security for them. So it seems to that a 5 Eyes country is the most likely place where they have been relocated.

That could be Australia, which has few Russians, lots of anti-Russian sentiment and both large cities and remote rural areas. Likewise, Canada. Even Wales or Scotland might serve the purpose. New Zealand is too small, in my opinion, and the US, although immense, has large Russian expat communities that are not all opponents of the Putin regime and is over-run with Russian spies in any event. So my guess is that they will be in a medium sized town or city in a rural area of a large or relatively unpopulated country or area of a country with few Russians present. But there are people who are experts in this so I can only speculate as to their exact location.

One final observation. The Skripals were poisoned, like other Russian double agents. Russia reserves poisoning for traitors of some importance, not just anyone. People of lesser status fall out of windows, get run over or die in a variety of crashes and explosions, depending on opportunity (remember the Wagner Group boss Prigozhin’s plane crash last year). Lesser rivals such as journalists and whistleblowers get shot. It will therefore be interesting to find out what killed the dissident and opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who supposedly died of “natural causes” in a Siberian prison camp at age 47. My hunch is that he may have received the ultimate (ironic) honour in the way in which his demise came about.

Or to draw the analogy this way: my Italian grandmother was once discussing with my parents the death of a cousin of hers who had mob ties in New York City. My parents asked her about how he died and she said “from a heart attack.” When challenged because the press had covered the story of a low level mobster getting “hit” in some criminal feud, she replied “yes, he died of a heart attack when a piece of hot lead went through it.”

In Russia the heart attack is induced by poison, but only for the special few.

Article Link. “South America’s Strategic Paradox” in MINGA.

The Latin American multidisciplinary journal MINGA just published my article on “South America’s Strategic Paradox.” I was surprised that they wanted to do so because they have a very clear left-leaning orientation and my article was pretty much a straight-forward geopolitical analysis. This was the article that an editor of the New Zealand International Review felt was too broad in scope to publish. Go figure. Judge for yourself (the article is in English, with translation pending).

A NZ Identity Crisis?

Some time ago a veteran journalist interviewed me about “foundational myths” and why the US and NZ were different in that regard (by “veteran” I mean a journalist who does research on stories and has some background in the fields pertinent to them, which are then used to write in-depth reports). Although I am not an expert on foundational myths, he had seen something that I had written back then and, having just returned from a trip to the US, his interest in the subject was piqued so he decided to give me a call. We did a compare/contrast exercise that he wrote up for a conservative news outlet.

I was reminded of that exercise by recent events involving ACT Party challenges to the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process. It occurred to me that not only does the Treaty (te Tiriti) serve as a foundational charter for NZ, it is also from whence NZ’s foundational myth comes from. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation, and there clearly is much more to a foundational myth than a grounding in a political contract between indigenous peoples and colonialists. I believe that foundational myths, especially those that are subject to different interpretations, are important for national unification and self-identity because the very differences in “reads” offer a broader canvas upon which to paint a picture of a nation’s collective identity. These myths do not have to be completely true or factually based–after all, they are myths–but are justified and considered worthwhile because they serve the larger purpose of speaking to a polity’s common aspirations, collective history and shared ideals.

As a child I was socialised in contexts that included the foundational myths of Argentina and the US. Both were originally crafted by dominant groups that among other things justified the status quo that they benefitted from, and to which over time other groups were assimilated in whole or in part (if at all). Both myths were symbolised in national anthems replete with words of heroism and sacrifice. Both glorified the constitutions to which pledges of allegiance were sworn (yes, even as kids!). Both myths were perpetrated by dominant groups whose positions of power were born out of conquest. The myths became a type of indelible water mark on my psyche even though, as I grew older, I came to see them for what they were: ideological devices designed to promote a unification narrative rather than objectively present actual historical events (for example, in both Argentina and the US. the “conquest of the West” is celebrated as part of their respective foundational myths even though the treatment of indigenous peoples in both was often barbaric and therefore whitewashed in most instances until very recently).

New Zealand has a different historical trajectory because the Treaty is a different type of foundational charter that is closer to a pure social contract between very distinct groups rather than a compact between relatively homogenous elites. Hence the Treaty creates the basis for a different type of foundational myth, one that is arguably closer to the historical truth than those of Argentina and the US. For one thing, it is not born of conquest. Consequently it is different in that it is not one coherent story imposed by dominant group interpretation, but instead includes several (often competing or opposing) takes on a common starting point (including events leading up to it) and its subsequent legacy. Over time the myth behind the Treaty has slowly seeped into the popular as well as the political collective conscience, creating a cultural amalgam that is considered the essence of what it is to be “kiwi,” be it Pakeha or Maori, Pacifika or Asian in genealogy. This has happened over generations of ethnic engagement and intermixing and is a process that is far from complete. Of course people retain their ancestral identities, some more so than others, but the inexorable march of time forges an intergenerational progression towards a common yet flexible identity in which the foundational myth embodied in the Treaty is seen as the “grand unifier” of a heterogenous assortment of distinct ethnographic groups who share a specifically common Antipodian history. The myth is malleable and subject to interpretation by various parties, but its core unifying properties are very much like those of other countries.

It is that unity that David Seymour’s racist attacks on the Treaty are aimed at. Foreign influenced and funded by well-monied rightwing outlets with international reach, Seymour’s is a type of white supremacist revanchism designed to roll back social gains made by traditionally subordinate groups under the guise of promoting “individualism” and freedom of choice. But what it really is, is an attempt to reassert white capitalist cultural, economic, political and social supremacy on everyone else, and to do that it must destroy NZ’s foundational myth by attacking and dismantling the Treaty using the argument that rather than a cooptation device designed to secure intergenerational social peace, it has created a race-based hierarchy in which Maori are granted privileges unavailable to everyone else. It is an odious project at its core, odious because it is hateful in intent and therefore hate-worthy as an approach to social issues.

Seymour is aided in his project by political opportunists in National and NZ First who cater to what used to be the fringes of NZ society–anti-vaccination groups, conspiracy theorists and, most central of all, racists. He is abetted by a clickbait-focused media that, unlike the veteran that interviewed me, ignores or chooses not to explore the deeper background behind the ACT Party manoeuvres, including its funding and logistical ties to various rightwing astroturf organisations. Between them, what should be a subject of alarm–a frontal assault on the foundational charter and the myths that have been ideologically constructed upon it–have become mainstreamed as merely critical reappraisals of rights and responsibilities emanating from the Treaty and the tribunal settlement process.

That is disingenuous in the extreme. The Waitangi Tribunal settlement process is of itself a critical appraisal of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty as well as the modes of redress for past injustices committed. And as mentioned, it is a cooptation mechanism designed to secure and reproduce social peace along lines promoted by the NZ foundational myth.

In his repugnant actions, Seymour and his acolytes are not only attacking the foundational charter and the foundational myth that is its ideological superstructure. They are questioning what it is to be a New Zealander. For them, the preferred Kiwi identity is white capitalist supremacist, rugby-playing and agrarian in its foundations (this, despite taking money from non-European business interests). Others may opt for social democratic indigenous reassertion and still others may prefer the cultural amalgam that I mentioned earlier. As it turns out, this questioning of Kiwi identity may be a good thing because, if a referendum is held and the proposal to review the Treaty is resoundingly rejected, it could serve to marginalise the likes of Seymour and his band of racist pimply-faced incels (even if they have some political cover via ACT’s party vote and its female representatives, and are provided platforms and money by influential patrons). ACT’s heart is dark, and that darkness needs to be exposed.

So perhaps there is some good in undergoing the exercise of questioning what constitutes a “NZ identity” or what it means to be a “kiwi.” On the other hand, if the assault on te Tiriti continues it could fracture the consensus on NZ’s foundational charter and its surrounding foundational myth and thereby open the door to a crisis of identity when it comes to defining what it means to be a child of the land of the long white cloud.

That would not be good, and yet that is what is exactly what Seymour and company are pushing for. Or as Hillary Clinton said when referring to the MAGA Morons, he and his crew are truly deplorable.

War Fever, War Mongering or War Fetish?

The US has for long been known for its societal glorification of the military, a trait that covers popular culture, public and private institutions, sports and even the arts and literature. Manifestations of this include military flyovers at sporting events, military marches at parades, military honour guards at graduation and retirement ceremonies, Hollywood and interactive game productions about US wars and military prowess, active and retired military discounts for many goods and services, a 3 million-odd military troop size, high school and college military training units and rhetorical veneration of veterans on days of national significance. It is also the home of the military-industrial complex, which even if now just one such apparatus in a global network of arms manufactures, merchants, buyers and dealers, remains a centrepiece of the US economy and, as former President and 5 star general Dwight Eisenhower said at his Presidential farewell address in1961, an inherent threat to democracy because of its pervasive influence on public policy. That is as true today as much if not more than it was back then.

I mention this because recent US media coverage of the Ruso-Ukrainian, Hamas-Israel and Houthi-US/UK conflicts appears to show more than the influence of the military-industrial complex or the ideological glorification of the military as a US institution. It appears to depict a case of war fever or worse yet, war fetishism.

US cable news seem fixated on the weapons and support platforms being used against various adversaries. Tomahawk cruise missiles, Bradley fighting vehicles, Predator and Reaper drones, F-18s, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers, air- and surface-to- surface ballistic missiles–these and more are discussed at great length and detail by an assortment of (usually ex military) talking heads. Explosive tonnages are weighed, circular error probables are measured, delivery distances calculated, enemy killed are estimated. it makes for great theatre for those whose idea of entertainment leans that way. It generates eyeballs on screens and clicks on apps. The same is true, albeit in less visceral form, in the so-called “legacy” (print-turned-to digital) media such as newspapers. The logic of US corporate media is consistent: wars showcase US technological product and prowess. They are good for business, employment and US self-esteem.

Two things are notable about this coverage. The first is that much air time and column inches are devoted to the technologies involved in the architecture of death-dealing. Relatively little is devoted to the consequences of what these technologies do because the focus is on the former, not the latter. What attention is paid to human suffering is dwarfed by the focus on complex machines and lethal delivery systems, and even then the attention to human suffering is skewed in sympathetic favour towards what the US considers to be the “good guys” in any armed confrontation. In addition, relatively little attention is paid to second and third-order implications of any given conflict, so that, for example, escalation of the Hamas-Israel and Houthi-US/UK belligerencies is simply mentioned as a possibility rather than mapped out as an increasingly probability given the interests and actors at play. In fact, relatively balanced presentations of why these conflicts have occurred is subordinated to editorialising in favour of one side or another depending on US government positions vis a vis the conflicts in question.

Worse yet, over time the US government and its compliant public just move from one enemy to another. Once it was and now again it is Russian authoritarians. But there have also been Colombian drug cartels, military-nationalist regimes with swarthy-looking leaders in the Middle East (but not repressive Sunni oligarchies), post-revolutionary Iranians, al-Qaeda/ISIS, some but not other Latin American despots, the Taliban, the PRC, various African warlords–there is never a shortage of bad guys to go after. The US public uncritically laps it up because to them the constant re-framing of the enemy does not matter. What matters is the machines, the violent action and that the US kick some a**, somewhere, anywhere.

What is even more interesting is that all this coverage ignores the fact that the US, for all of its technological prowess, has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to war. However glossed over by semi-orderly retreats (“withdrawals” in the US parlance), the US lost in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 50 years of nearly non-stop fighting. It won in Gulf War One (“Shock and Awe”), Grenada and Panama, but lost over 200 Marines, sailors and army soldiers in an ill-fated intervention in Lebanon in 1983, thereby paving the way for the rise of Hezbollah as a significant actor in Lebanese and regional politics. It clashes with Iran regularly and has little to show for it other than rallying Shiites around the world to the Iranian cause. It invaded Iraq on a pretext after 9/11, succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein, but also created the intellectual and operational core of ISIS (which was organised by former Baathist officers in the Sunni Triangle as a resistance force and morphed into a broader ethno-religious movement with the objective of establishing a Caliphate in Mesopotamia and the Levant). Hundreds of US troops have fought and died in all sorts of undeclared “small wars,” from Somalia to Niger, Colombia to the Philippines and very rarely did the outcomes advance US interests or its reputation (both as a international power as well as a war-fighting culture). In the end, technological advantages were not decisive in all instances and did not lead to better diplomatic outcomes or more peace even where they did succeed. Yet the obsession with the machinery of death continues.

Perhaps it is because US society has a technological obsession, one that translates into finding ways for machines to replace humans in every walk of life, including the kinetic kill chain in war. If that is true (that US society prioritizes technological solutions to human as well as natural problems), then the larger question is whether what we see in US media coverage of conflict is evidence of war fever, evidence of war fetishism or just another instance of good ole’ fashioned war-mongering.

War fever can be characterised as a temporary state of individual and collective bloodlust caused by a desire for vengeance, righteous anger, opportunistic greed, genuine or perceived grievance or sociopathic or psychopathic arousal. It can work for good or work for evil depending on its causes, because the motivation is immediate and the objective is to vanquish by force a perceived enemy that is the immediate problem. When the enemy is vanquished, the fever breaks and people return to normal (non-bellicose) lives because, to use another medical analogy, the war boil has been lanced.

War fetishism, on the other hand, is a form of idolatry. It is obsessively fixated on war as an object of adoration. It idolizes soldiers as heroes and weapons as technological marvels. It worships the modalities of combat and the death delivery infrastructure used in them. It reifies the machines and canonizes the “good guys” who use them, even if the good guys are killing civilians in foreign lands where they are unwelcome. It wraps engagement in war in patriotic, ethnic, religious or historical symbolism, often stringing them together in a narrative of heroism and sacrifice, good versus evil, light versus darkness. The narrative in support of war is fluid and endless. Enemies come and go. They are a war-mongering cloak because the obsession is with the machinery of death and its application wherever it can be, not the (often morally, ethically and practically thin) justifications for its use.

Think of it this way. Does the US public, especially in Red States and in the MAGA crowd, really care about or even know what freedom of navigation is? Do they have a notion of what the Houthis are and why they are considered “rebels?” Or is the US public interest more about dealing violence to brown-skinned, non-Christian challengers (“terrorists!”) who defy and resist US directives in their part of the world? Again, the popular focus is on the ways in which organised violence is meted out to designated bad guys, not understanding why they are fighting, much less why the US has chosen them to be the latest in a long procession of bad guys.

(Brief historical aside by way of context: the Houthis are Shiites indigenous to Yemen but long-ruled by Sunni Saudi Arabian-backed clients. Once they rebelled they became pawns in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and were subjected to numerous Saudi Arabian war crimes using US weapons).

In that light, war-mongering is just a sub-set of war fetishism. It is nothing more than (often opportunistic) ideological or practical peddling of justifications for going to war. When the two types of justification combine, say in the advertising of so-called “defense” manufacturers in the US (“defending freedom!”), the result is an effective propaganda blanket for purveyors of death of either stripe. It is a means to an end, but not a cause or effect.

By this criteria, the US is a war fetishist society. Not everyone in the US of course, but certainly the majority, who may not even know that they are because the fact of constant (even if passive) war-worship is an all-encompassing (yet seldom admitted) part of everyday life. This does not excuse the murderous behaviour of any number of armed actors around the world, but it does bring into light how the US has cultivated an authoritarian ethos regarding the use of violence abroad that is antithetical to the very notion of peace and prosperity for all that it was supposedly founded on. Add to that the militarisation of US domestic security forces and the unconstrained gun culture that pervades significant parts of US society, and the dangers to the US as a democratic polity are laid bare.

Houston, we got a problem.

The dirty power of culture wars.

A few decades ago I wrote an essay about the impact of state terror on Argentine society. One of my points was that terrorism was used by the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso” not because it was particularly effective at ferreting out subversives but because it worked as an atomising agent in Argentine society. That is, it used pervasive fear of institutionalised terrorism as a means to “infantilize” people and increasing isolate and alienate them as individuals, which served to destroy the horizontal social bonds that were the basis of collective solidarity among the groups targeted by the dictatorship. That in turn eased the way for the imposition of so-called neoliberal economic policies that redistributed income downwards for the majority, significantly curtailed the State role in economic management and provision of basic public services, destroyed social welfare, health and education safety nets and pauperised the population in general while increasing the material fortunes of the elites associated with the regime.

State terror created a culture of fear that atomised and isolated people in the public space, thereby paving the way for their infantilisation as social subjects and eventual dependency on and subjugation by their dictatorial masters. What is less known is that the so-called “Dirty War” waged by the dictatorship known as the “Proceso” (Process) was justified not on economic but on cultural grounds, as a defense of “traditional (Catholic) values” placed under siege by immoral, degenerate, atheistic Communist subversion in the guise of liberalism, feminism, secularism, homosexuality, youthful rebellion and other depraved foreign ideologies that had no “natural” place in the patriarchal, heteronormative capitalist social status quo that dominated Argentina at the time. Now, in the contemporary era, a variant on this theme has been introduced into socio-political narratives in the liberal democratic West as well as elsewhere: Culture Wars.

In recent years conservative authoritarians have moved to using electoral facades rather than coups as a means of gaining and maintaining government office. Their weapon of choice is no longer terror imposed by or on behalf of the State but a defense of traditional values against attempts by progressives to undermine the moral fabric of society. Similarly, authoritarians out of office no longer seek to use guerrilla war as a main vehicle for conquering power but instead embark on crusades against “wokeness,” “political correctness” and perceived (and mostly imaginary) attacks on “free speech” by liberal-progressive-socialist-communists. In both cases the strategic move has been from a physical war of manoeuvre to a cultural war of position in which the battle is over values and identities, not necessarily (although ultimately involving) government offices, economic policies or physical terrain. In other words, the social backdrop to political competition and conflict is now increasingly dominated by Culture Wars.

That is notable because the Culture Wars approach rejects or replaces the most basic axiom in politics: that people vote with their wallets. Think of it this way. The MAGA crowd voted against its economic interests when it voted for Trump (even if Trump’s “America First” economic pipe dream was sold to them as feasible). More recently, both Vladimir Putin and Recap Erdogan in Russia and Turkey diverted popular attention from their disastrous economic policies and corruption towards a defense of “traditional” values, in Putin’s case “traditional” Christian values (supported by the Russian orthodox hierarchy) and in Erdogan’s case “traditional” Muslim values (again, supported by conservative clerics). They both railed against the depravity of the West and the corrosive impact the importation of Western mores and ideas has had on their respective societies. In fact, Putin went so far as to order the invasion of Ukraine because of its “degenerate” liberal (when not Nazi) leadership’s threat to the ethnic Russian part of the Ukrainian population. The point is that when Culture Wars are used as an electoral strategy in order to outweigh objective economic realities, they often are successful.

The emphasis on Culture Wars is understandable when conservative authoritarians have no economic legs to stand on. That is where the parallel between US and NZ conservatives come in. Neither the GOP in the US or National/Act in NZ have economic platforms that are remotely close to practicable, sustainable or deserving of popular support. They are in fact elitist in construction and elitist in benefit. So, rather than modify their economic policy platforms away from their exhausted and discredited neoliberal/market-driven trickle-down policies, these conservatives turn to inciting Culture Wars as a means of diverting attention towards superstructural and often artificial fault lines in their respective democratic societies. In the US things like gun rights and opposition to racial, gender and sexual equality may be an “organic” product of American Christian repression and its record of historical conquest, but in NZ the notion of unrestricted gun ownership rights and opposition to transgender rights (on the slanderous grounds that the latter are “groomers” and pedophiles) are foreign imports that have no “organic” or native origins in NZ society. However, the attacks on co-governance frameworks in NZ is indeed rooted in deep-seated Pakeha racism against Maori, so the fusion of foreign imported ideologies and local regressive perspectives on race mesh easily into a divide and conquer (so they think) Culture War strategy on the part of the NZ Right.

More broadly, the assault on gender and sexual identity minorities, immigrants and various types of non-traditional non-conformity that defy the traditional narrative about what the “proper” society should look and behave like is rife throughout the Western liberal democratic world even where gun rights are restricted in the interests of public safety (seen, not unreasonably, as a public good rather than an infringement on individual liberty), where racism is not a historical stain or contemporary problem or where economic policies have popular support. It is major a stock in trade of elected authoritarians like Victor Orban in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland and former president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil as well as a host of demagogic political and social figures throughout the world, to say nothing of outright autocrats like Putin, Erdogan and a swathe of Middle Eastern and African oligarchs and strongmen.

The important thing to bear in mind is that like state terror as a social atomising agent, Culture Wars work. Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban rode them to victory in democratic executive branch elections, Putin and Erdogan used them to rally support for their unpopular regimes (with Erdogan likely to win a run-off election next weekend in spite of his disastrous economic policies and Putin holding onto power like a (rat-trapped) rat on cheese despite Russia’s futile war on Ukraine). Wanna-be’s like Luxon, Peters and Seymour in NZ seem to believe that their best bet is to copy at least some aspects of the Culture Wars strategy and adapt them to Aotearoa’s particular circumstances in the run up to this year’s general election. Given the media attention devoted to co-governance, transgender rights (or better said, their mere presence), vaccinations and the use of Te Reo in public discourse, there may in fact be grounds for traction in that angle of approach. That makes it more imperative that people push back at the introduction of retrograde ideological arguments in the NZ context. They are largely not from here and have no place in Aotearoa.

The pushback is necessary for a simple reason. Culture Wars work as a socio-political strategy because they are based on a dirty little secret: that fear is a great perception and behaviour modifier. Culture warriors traffic in the promotion of fear, both real and imagined, rational and irrational. This fear is of targeted “others,” those who can be readily identified and easily scapegoated while also be made into seemingly malevolent Leviathans who must be struck back by common, sensible, “traditional values”-holding people–the silent majority, as it were. Although it is helpful to the Culture Was projects if the “others” look different, worship different Gods, have different customary practices or engage in non-heteronormative sexual behaviour, it matters less what the “others” actually do than that they are identified as threats to traditional values and mores. The use of disinformation and misinformation is helpful in this regard because fear is a tool whether the basis for it is true or not–and it is most often not true or grounded in reality. What matters is achieving the objective, not the truth. The objective, in turn, is to restore a previous societal status quo in the face of pressures to make it more equitable, inclusive and responsive to the needs of those marginalised.and voiceless under the “traditional” scheme of things.

Complacency is the ally of the Culture Warriors because silence allows them to megaphone their messages of fear and hate through corporate and social media unimpeded by fact checkers, truth-speakers or coherent ripostes. Decent people may believe that Culture Wars are just a side-circus show that does not in fact distract from bread and butter and other serious issues of the day when people make their political and social preference choices. But as the likes of Brian Tamaki and various conservative media talking heads have shown, they do in fact have an impact on public perceptions when not challenged by more tolerant and open-minded arguments. Their fear-mongering gains ground in the measure that complacency cedes them rhetorical space in the pubic discourse.

All of which is to say that although there may be considerable distance in practice between Argentine (or Chilean or Guatemalan or Salvadorean, etc.) state terrorism and the Culture Wars in contemporary democracies, they are on a continuum where fear (manufactured or real) is exploited for political and social advantage above and beyond the economic projects that may underpin them. As Bernard de Voto noted (paraphrased here), “a person’s eyes and ears and the fulcrum of his/her judgement supplies his/her capability for action.” The fulcrum of fear is made up of orchestrated “Othering” in which contending perceptions of norms, mores and acceptable behaviours, that is, the conflict between between traditional and “progressive” values, is focused on particular subjects and groups. The purpose of Culture Wars is to warp the ideological fulcrum on which social consensus rests in order to obtain political, social and often material advantage whether it be based in the truth or not.

As a bottom line culture warriors play dirty with the truth just as much as the Argentine Dirty War ignored international norms and strictures against the torture and killing of civilians. Much like the logic of the “Proceso” when defending its actions, the ends of the culture warrior justifiy the means, and in a world in which the value of tradition is increasingly under question and often challenge, warping of the ideological fulcrum in order to promote manipulable fear in the body politic is just as useful as the pliers, branding irons, cow-prods and battery clamps used by the Latin American torturers of yore.

To which I say now as I said back then, mutatis mutandis: “Nunca Mas!”

PS: For those who may be interested in the essay linked to above, please email me (pablo@kiwipolitico.com) and I will send you a copy of the entire essay as an attachment in my reply.

” A View from Afar” returns.

On Thursday May 11, 2023 at 12PM (noon) NZ time/8PM Wed 10th May US East Coast time/1AM Thursday London time/8 AM Thursday Singapore time and 10AM Thursday Sydney time, the A View from Afar podcast will resume broadcasting. Selwyn Manning and I will discuss the AUKUS agreement and its implications for New Zealand and the fallout from the Discord classified material leaks as well as global affairs from a South Pacific perspective.

The show is interactive so tune in and join us!

Countering coercive politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A satisfied customer.

It is in the comments section but I thought that I would highlight this lovely piece of correspondence from an avid reader:

NIB supporter
1 approved
AustrianGod@protonmail.com
185.228.138.240
White Power!Thank God our friends in NZ, the National Interest Battalion, have formed such a strong milita to take all you nigger Jews out!

He seems to be confused as to who/what we are, but why fret the details?

A Note of Caution.

The repeal of Roe vs Wade by the US Supreme Court is part of a broader “New Conservative” agenda financed by reactionary billionaires like Peter Thiel, Elon Mush, the Kochs and Murdochs (and others), organised by agitators like Steve Bannon and Rodger Stone and legally weaponised by Conservative (often Catholic) judges who are Federalist Society members. The agenda, as Clarence Thomas openly (but partially) stated, is to roll back the rights of women, ethnic and sexual minorities as part of an attempt to re-impose a heteronormative patriarchal Judeo-Christian social order in the US.

Worse, the influence of these forces radiates outwards from the US into places like NZ, where the rhetoric, tactics and funding of rightwing groups increasingly mirrors that of their US counterparts. Although NZ is not as institutionally fragile as the US, such foreign influences are corrosive of basic NZ social values because of their illiberal and inegalitarian beliefs. In fact, they are deliberately seditious in nature and subversive in intent. Thus, if we worry about the impact of PRC influence operations in Aotearoa, then we need to worry equally about these.

In fact, of the two types of foreign interference, the New Conservative threat is more immediate and prone to inciting anti-State and sectarian violence. Having now been established in NZ under the mantle of anti-vax/mask/mandate/”free speech” resistance, it is the 5th Column that needs the most scrutiny by our security authorities.

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.

(Source: Yoel Sano, Fitch Solutions)

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.