Category Archives: cultural difference

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.

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.

The incremental shift.

In the build up to the Xmas holidays I was interviewed by two mainstream media outlets about the recently released (December 2021) Defence Assessment Report and last week’s 5 Eyes Communique that included New Zealand as a signatory. The common theme in the two documents was the threat, at least as seen through the eyes of NZ’s security community, that the PRC increasingly poses to international and regional peace and stability. But as always happens, what I tried to explain in hour-long conversations with reporters and producers inevitably was whittled down into truncated pronouncements that skirted over some nuances in my thought about the subject. In the interest of clarification, here is a fuller account of what is now being described as a “shift” in NZ’s stance on the PRC.

Indeed, there has been a shift in NZ diplomatic and security approaches when it comes to the PRC, at least when compared to that which operated when he Labour-led coalition took office in 2017. But rather than sudden, the shift has been signalled incrementally, only hardening (if that is the right term) in the last eighteen months. In July 2020, the the wake of the ill-fated Hong Kong uprising, NZ suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, citing the PRC passage of the Security Law for Hong Kong and its negative impact on judicial independence and the “one country, two systems” principle agreed to in the 1997 Joint UK-PRC Declaration on returning Hong Kong to Chinese control. At the same time NZ changed its sensitive export control regime so that military and “dual use” exports to HK are now treated the same as if they were destined for the mainland. 

In November 2020 NZ co-signed a declaration with its 5 Eyes partners condemning further limits on political voice and rights in HK with the postponment of Legislative elections, arrests of opposition leaders and further extension of provisions of the mainland Security Law to HK. The partners also joined in condemnation of the treatment of Uyghurs in Yinjiang province. In April 2021 Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta gave her “Dragon and Taniwha” speech where she tried to use Maori allegories to describe the bilateral relationship and called for NZ to diversify its trade away from overly concentrated partnerships, using the pandemic supply chain problems as an illustration as to why.

She also said that NZ was uncomfortable with using the 5 Eyes intelligence partnership as a public diplomacy tool. I agree completely with that view, as there are plenty of other diplomatic forums and channels through which to express displeasure or criticism. The speech did not go over well in part because NZ business elites reacted viscerally to a large tattooed Maori woman spinning indigenous yarns to a mainly Chinese and Chinese-friendly audience (and other foreign interlocutors further afield). From a “traditional” (meaning: white male colonial) perspective the speech was a bit odd because it was long on fable and imagery and short on “hard” facts, but if one dug deeper there were plenty of realpolitik nuggets within the fairy dust, with the proper context to the speech being that that Labour has an agenda to introduce Maori governance principles, custom and culture into non-traditional policy areas such as foreign policy. So for me it was the balancing act bookended by the trade diversification and 5 Eyes lines that stood out in that korero.

Less than a month later Prime Minister Ardern spoke to a meeting of the China Business Summit in Auckland and noted that “It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile.” That hardly sounds like appeasement or submission to the PRC’s will. Even so, Mahuta and Ardern were loudly condemned by rightwingers in NZ, Australia, the UK and US, with some going so far as to say that New Zealand had become “New Xiland” and that it would be kicked out the 5 Eyes for being soft on the Chinese. As I said at the time, there was more than a whiff of misogyny in those critiques.

In May 2021 the Labour-led government joined opposition parties in unanimously condemning the PRC for its abuse of Uyghur human rights. The motion can be found here.

In July 2021 NZ Minister of Intelligence and Security Andrew Little publicly blamed China-based, state-backed cyber-aggressors for a large scale hacking attack on Microsoft software vulnerabilities in NZ targets. He pointed to intolerable behaviour of such actors and the fact that their operations were confirmed by multiple Western intelligence agencies. He returned to the theme in a November 2021 speech given at Victoria University, where he reiterated his concerns about foreign interference and hacking activities without mentioning the PRC by name as part of a broad review of his remit. Rhetorical diplomatic niceties aside, it was quite clear who he was referring to when he spoke of state-backed cyber criminals (Russia is the other main culprit, but certainly not the only one). You can find the speech here

In early December 2021 the Ministry of Defense released its Defense Assessment Report for the first time in six years. In it China is repeatedly mentioned as the major threat to regional and global stability (along with climate change). Again, the issue of incompatible values was noted as part of a surprisingly blunt characterisation of NZ’s threat environment. I should point out that security officials are usually more hawkish than their diplomatic counterparts, and it was the Secretary of Defense, not the Minister who made the strongest statements about China (the Secretary is the senior civil servant in the MoD; the Minister, Peeni Henare, spoke of promoting Maori governance principles based on consensus and respect into the NZDF (“people, infrastructure, Pacifika”), something that may be harder to do than say because of the strictly hierarchical nature of military organisation. At the presser where the Secretary and Minister spoke about the Report, the uniformed brass spoke of “capability building” based on a wish list in the Report. Let’s just say that the wish list is focused on platforms that counter external, mostly maritime, physical threats coming from extra regional actors and factors rather than on matters of internal governance.

Then came the joint 5 Eyes statement last week, once again reaffirming opposition to the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its gradual absorption into the Chinese State. Throughout this period NZ has raised the issue of the Uyghurs with the PRC in bilateral and multilateral forums, albeit in a quietly diplomatic way.

I am not sure what exactly led to NZ’s shift on the PRC but, rather than a sudden move, there has been a cooling, if not hardening trend during the last eighteen months when it comes to the bilateral relationship. The decision to move away from the PRC’s “embrace” is clear, but I have a feeling that something unpleasant may have occurred in the relationship (spying? influence operations? diplomatic or personal blackmail?) that forced NZ to tighten its ties to Western trade and security networks. The recently announced UK-NZ bilateral FTA is one step in that direction. AUKUS is another (because if its spill-over effect on NZ defense strategy and operations).

What that all means is that the PRC will likely retaliate sometime soon and NZ will have to buckle up for some material hardship during the transition to a more balanced and diversified trade portfolio. In other words, it seems likely that the PRC will respond by shifting its approach and engage diplomatic and economic sanctions of varying degrees of severity on NZ, if nothing else to demonstrate the costs of defying it and as a warning to those similarly inclined. That may not be overly burdensome on the diplomatic and security fronts given NZ’s partnerships in those fields, but for NZ actors deeply vested/invested in China (and that means those involved in producing about 30 percent of NZ’s GDP), there is a phrase that best describes their positions: “at risk.” They should plan accordingly.

Along with the New Year, there is the real possibility that, whether it arrives incrementally or suddenly, foreign policy darkness lies on the horizon.

Chinese influence and American hate diffusion.

Over the last decade concerns have been raised about Chinese “influence operations” in NZ and elsewhere. Run by CCP-controlled “United Front” organisations, influence operations are designed to promote PRC interests and pro-PRC views within the economic and political elites of the targeted country as well as Chinese diaspora communities. The means of doing so is transactional and convertible by cash. United Front organisations put money and operatives into the local political system exploiting loopholes or laxities in political finance laws and candidate selection processes, and buy majority ownership of or board membership in strategically placed local firms. This greases the skids for more “Chinese-friendly” perspectives in economic and political decision-making circles.

In parallel, local Chinese language media (both Mandarin and Cantonese) are purchased and their editorial orientation turned towards the CCP party line. This ensures that dissenting opinions are eliminated from outlets that cater to newer Chinese language immigrants, something that, for example, is evident in the coverage of Hong Kong over the last few years. Along with outright intimidation campaigns directed at critics, dissidents and so-called malcontents, this ensures that what is presented to local native and expat populations about China is what the CCP wants it to be. With large scale (now temporarily suspended due to Covid restrictions) immigration of CCP-approved or affiliated mainlanders on student and business visas and the emergence of ethnic Chinese lobbying groups, this ensures that pro-PRC narratives come to dominate how it is spoken about in targeted countries.

The practical goal is to present homogenous and uniform pro-CCP views among expat communities and to re-orient local elite perspectives and material interests towards a more China-friendly position, both in terms of international affairs as well as Chinese domestic politics. The broader strategy is to use the “Achilles Heel” of liberal democracy–freedoms of expression, association and movement–to subvert democratic societies from within. The approach is top-down and largely elite-focused, but has trickle down effects throughout the targeted society. Most importantly, it works. One only has to look at the wedding of NZ political and economic elite interests to those of Chinese agents and entities to understand why. Think Don Brash, John Key and Jenny Shipley as poster children for that type of unholy union, but Labour has, shall we say, some baggage of its own in this regard.

However, there is another malign foreign influence operating in NZ as well as places like Brazil and Italy. It arrives as a type of cultural or ideological diffusion and it is propagated by US-based non-state political actors like Steve Bannon and his Counterspin media channel as well as the Qanon conspiracy network, Alex Jones and Infowars plus assorted other alt-Right and neo-fascist outlets channeling anti-government and anti- “Deep State” views of the likes of the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers and Three Percenters. Rather than the top-down and elite-centric approach adopted by Chinese influence operators, US cultural-ideological diffusers use “alternative media,” direct marketing (such as by distributing leaflets and cold calling with false information) and social media (including using political blogs, fake websites, plus trolls and bots on large platforms) to exploit pre-existing social fault lines and amplify newer divisions in a targeted society. In doing so they copy and adapt Russian (and now Chinese) psychological operations models of disinformation, misinformation and false-flagging. They prey on gullibility, ignorance and/or hate and their currency is rage: rage born of frustration with life opportunities or personal grievance; rage against institutions and processes (i.e. the “system”), rage against past injustices and/or modern offences or slights; rage against assorted ‘others” challenging status and privilege; outrage at offences big and small–the sources of rage are both individual and collective and with enough coaching and channeling can be marshalled into a powerful force for good or evil. Cultural-Ideological diffusers such as Bannon travel on the dark side.

The approach is bottom-up and grassroots in orientation, and works along what Gramsci called the trenches of civil society to push a counter-hegemonic notion of “good sense” against the hegemonic conception of “common sense” purveyed by the mainstream (elite-controlled) media. These trenches include social movements as well as social institutions in which historical and contemporary grievances can be combined into a civil resistance front.

In the contemporary NZ context, that means uniting anti-vaccination/mask/lockdown sentiment with anti-tax, anti-environmental, anti-1080, Christian conservative, libertarian, gun-rights and assorted other rightwing views as well as outliers like Maori sovereignty proponents. To cultivate grassroots resistance it uses local activists as well as “Astroturf” entities such as the purportedly farmer-led group known as the “Groundswell Movement,” which in fact is a creation of the urban rightwing (and National Party-aligned) Taxpayers Union. The rhetoric of cultural-ideological diffusion protests is imported to a large extent and at times seemingly at odds with local issues: witness the proliferation of Trump and MAGA-supportive references amongst current anti-government demonstrators. More worryingly, unlike most of the NZ protest movements of the past, the rhetoric and actions of local protestors influenced by cultural-ideological US agitators is tinged with overt hints of violent punishment, retribution and revenge against the government, “liberals,” and even the mainstream media (which if anything has shown itself to be largely uncritical and mild Fourth Estate that is mainly interested in generating clicks or viewership based on controversies-of-the-day and scandal). References to NZ authorities as Nazis deserving of Nuremburg-style trials lend an ominous tone to the recent exercises in civil rights, to which can be added the open displays of racist, misogynist and neo-fascist sentiment among those involved. That may be a more “natural” form of discourse for a deeply polarised country like the US with a long record of political violence, but it has no organic roots in NZ’s otherwise vigorous culture of civil disobedience and public protest.

Less the smorgasbord approach to forming anti-government movements seem hopeless as a political strategy or praxis (and hence dismissible), the key to its success is to use cultural-ideological diffusion tactics to create a temporary coalition of convenience, not a long-term alliance. It’s immediate purpose is to sabotage the government from without, not undermine it from within. It uses contemporary political conflicts such as the debate about pandemic mitigation to sow social and political division while exploring the same Achilles Heel as do the Chinese influence operators (the freedoms of speech and protest in particular). Ultimately, its long-term end is similar: to undermine public faith in the liberal democratic system as given in order to impose a more authoritarian order of some sort. But for the time being, the focus is on the short-term: sow unrest, promote sedition and usurp authority using social media to import US-sourced cultural-ideological framing of “wedge” issues in order to do so.

Gramsci of course wrote thinking about Left political praxis in Mussolini’s Italy, so there is a certain irony in the adoption of his thought by the likes of Steve Bannon. But that is part of why Bannon is an evil genius: he knows what works and does not care from where good strategic ideas come from.

Not surprisingly local security “experts” have jumped up to state the obvious that things might get violent if the anti-government rhetoric continues to escalate along the lines mentioned above. Raising public consciousness of this possibility is a good thing. More helpfully, the NZ intelligence community has warned that a terrorist attack is possible within a year or so and that it will likely come in the form of a “lone wolf” emerging out of the anti-vaxx/mask/lockdown movement (although the process of radicalisation and likely profile of such an individual has not been specified). The media is covering itself as a target of extremists because some of its members have been threatened by anti-government bullies, and politicians, with good reason, are increasingly concerned about their security given the vitriol directed at (some of) them. While it is laudable to focus attention on the security threat angle implicit in recent protests, a deeper understanding of the methodology and mechanics of cross-border non-State cultural-ideological diffusion is in order, especially when it is subversive in intent. Unless one understands what the likes of Bannon want to do when directing their malevolent gaze on Aotearoa and who are the most susceptible to the entreaties of their perverse siren song, then all that can be done is to react to rather than pre-empt whatever harm is headed our way.

Our security authorities need to be cognisant of this fact, but as a stable and largely peaceful society, so do we.

Random Retweets: Pandemic mitigation.

Introduction.

I have recently seen a trend whereby people turn their twitter ruminations into op eds and even semi-scholarly essays such as those featured on Spinoff, Patreon or The Conversation. It makes sense to develop ideas from threads and maximise publication opportunities in the process, especially for academics operating in a clickbait environment that has now crept into scholarly journals. I am not immune from the thread-to-essay temptation, although I have tended to do that on my work page and stick to subjects more pertinent to my work because the twitter account I use is a business rather than personal one.

With that in mind and because I have not posted here for a while, I thought it opportune to edit and repurpose some twitter thoughts that I have shared on the subject of what might be called the security politics of Covid mitigation in New Zealand. Below I have selected, cut and pasted some salient edited tweets along that analytic line.

Security aspects of pandemic politics.

There are traditional national security threats like armed physical attack by external/internal enemies. There are non-traditional national security threats like rising sea levels and disasters. Anti-vaxxers are a non-traditional national security threat that must be confronted.

Social media is where state and non-state actors (criminal organisations, extremist groups) link with local agitators in order to combine resources for common purpose. Viral dis-/misinformation and influence campaigns designed to socially destabilise and politically undermine public faith in and support for liberal democracies like NZ are an example of such hand-in-glove collaboration. If left unchecked it can lead to mass public disorder even when seemingly disorganised (e.g. by using “leaderless resistance” tactics). This growing “intermestic” or “glocal” threat needs to be prioritised by the NZ intel community because otherwise social cohesion is at risk. On-line seditious saboteurs must be identified, uncovered and confronted ASAP. That includes “outing” the foreign-local nexus, to include state and non-state actor connections.

If people are going to complain about Chinese influence operations in NZ, then they would do good to complain about US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations in NZ as well. Especially when the latter is manifested in the streets as anti-vac/anti-mask protests. The difference between them? PRC influence operations attempt to alter the NZ political system from within. US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations seek to subvert it from without. Both are authoritarian threats to NZ’s liberal democracy.

In the war against a mutating virus initially of foreign origin NZ has a 5th column: anti-vax/maskers, religious charlatans, Deep State and other conspiracy theorists, economic maximisers, venal/opportunistic politicians, disinformation peddlers and various selfish/stupid jerks. Their subversion of a remarkably effective pandemic mitigation effort should be repudiated and sanctioned as strongly as the law permits. Zero tolerance of what are basically traitors to the community is now a practical necessity (along with a 90% vaccination rate). Plus, as a US-NZ dual citizen who had his NZ citizenship application opposed by some hater, I would like to know who let in the rightwing Yank nutters now fomenting unrest over masks/vaxes/lockdowns/mandates etc. They clearly do not meet the good character test.

A counter-terrorism axiom is that the more remote the chances of achieving an ideological goal, the more heinous will be the terrorist act. Anti-vax and conspiracy theorists using Nazi/holocaust analogies to subvert democratic pandemic mitigation strategies are akin to that.

Long-term community well-being requires commitment to collective responsibility and acceptance of individual inconvenience in the face of a serious public health threat. It is part of the democratic social contract and should not be usurped for partisan or personal gain. Elephant in the room: when cultural mores contradict and undermine public health scientific advice but for political reasons cannot be identified as such. If true, partisan-focused approaches to Covid is not just an Opposition sin. The virus does not see culture or tradition. Anti-vax/mask views are no excuse to violate public health orders. Likewise economic interest, leisure pursuits, religious or secular beliefs no matter how deeply held. Ergo, cultural practice cannot override the public good. Collective responsibility is a democratic obligation.

Those that set the terms of debate tend to win the debate. In politics, those that frame the narrative on a subject, tend to win the debates about it. By announcing a “Freedom Day” the govt has conceded the debate about pandemic mitigation. The issue is not about human freedom. It is about managing public health risk in pursuit of the common good. Using “freedom” rhetoric injects ideology into what should be an objective debate about prudent lockdown levels given uneven vaccination rates, compliance concerns, mental health and economic issues. Bad move.

9/11, forever wars and the end of liberal internationalism.

In the years that followed the post 9/11 US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I wrote several essays about how, wittingly or wittingly, Osama bin Laden had successfully employed the well-known guerrilla tactic known as the “sucker ploy” on a grand scale. The sucker ploy is a tactic by which guerrillas commit an outrage or stage a provocation of some sort that draws a disproportionate response from the military that they are fighting, thereby shifting popular support from the latter to the former. A classic example is for guerrillas to shoot at passing military vehicles or aircraft with small arms fire from a village, then retreat into the surrounding countryside while the military responds by annihilating the village and its occupants. 

When the US stayed in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted from government and al-Qaeda was eliminated from its territory (end of 2002), and then invaded and occupied Iraq under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda and was going to use weapons of mass destruction on the West or allow al-Qaeda to do so, it took the sucker’s bait. It embarked on a global “war on terrorism” that saw the US and others expend much blood and treasure in places like the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Libya, Mesopotamia down to Mali, Kenya and many more places in between and beyond, stretching to Europe and Australasia. The US expended trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on these “forever” or “endless” wars, feeding a relentless military-industrial complex while spinning off the militarisation of US policing and some sectors of civil society that is creating the conditions for civil war, hints of which have already been seen over the last couple of years.

Whatever goodwill existed towards the US in the immediate wake of 9/11, it gradually dissipated as a result of US foreign policy recklessness and arrogance over the next twenty years. Yet partisan logics of saving face by “staying the course” or, if that is not enough, patriotically respecting the sunk costs invested rather than simply “cutting and running” locked the US into continuing the folly of pursuing forever wars in far-off places with little strategic value or which posed no existential risk to the country. Those wars have not resulted in any significant change favorable to the geopolitical position of US but have contributed to the polarisation of its internal politics.

Meanwhile US adversaries like the PRC and Russia built and rebuilt their military forces into peer competitors of the US and expanded their spheres of influence. Mostly as a result of US bungling, Russia is now the most important extra-regional power in the Levant and North Africa and is poised, however ironically, to become a major interlocutor between the Taliban and the global community. Chinese economic and diplomatic influence is world-wide in scope and its aggressive military presence is now a constant in East and Southeast Asia as well as along its land borders. Other actors such as North Korea, Iran and Turkey have been emboldened by perceived US weakness while traditional US allies fret about the stability of the international order without its central presence as a stabilizing force.

The Great Satan has seemingly turned into a Paper Tiger.

It gets worse. Across the world authoritarianism has replaced democracy as the dominant political form. Rather than embrace democracy as an antidote to the hatreds that produced 9/11, autocrats of all types have taken advantage of the post 9/11 moment to impose their rule. In another irony, this includes the US, which nurtured the conditions that led to the election of a bigoted sociopathic narcissist to the presidency and the unleashing of long pent-up hatreds within the body politic. “America First” in reality means “America in Retreat” into neo-isolationism and xenophobic defenses of borders, Anglo-Saxon Christians within those borders, economic nationalism and, when it comes to foreign relations, coddling of foreign dictators who shared the former president’s biases and/or his transactional view of how politics should be conducted. The Obama interregnum notwithstanding (and even he seriously compromised on the original idealism of his foreign policy perspective, which won him a Nobel Prize), the US continued to cast a blind eye on the misdeeds of “friendly” dictatorships like the Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis or Emiratis while barking about those in Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela (and even there, with relatively little bite).

US political/diplomatic leadership is on the wane at home and abroad. The truth is inescapable: since 9/11 the US has been in decline, for the most part due to its own ignorance and excesses.

Needless to say, there were other intervening factors and variables that contributed to the slow-moving, partial success of bin-Laden’s strategy. Sure, he was not around to see it come to fruition. Sure, there has not been a global awakening of Islamicism that threatens the socio-economic and political parameters of most established nation-states. Wahhabism and Salafism are not the dominant sects in the Muslim world. So bin-Laden’s strategy failed in that it did not produce the specific results that he desired. But 9/11 did set into action a chain of events that has left the international community very different that what was before, with the US diminished and divided and no longer the undisputed global “hegemon.” That must be acknowledged.

A key result of this decline is the collapse of the concept of liberal internationalism as a guiding foreign policy principle in the US. This principle, which long enjoyed bipartisan support in US foreign policy circles and which is premised on the notion that the combination of market economies and democratic governance is the best political-economic form (regime), was thought to be imposable by external actors—meaning the US and its democratic capitalist allies—on unstable or failed underdeveloped states where extremism was believed to breed and prosper. From that belief came the pursuit of nation-building and regime change as foreign policy objectives, even if the targets of such ambition had no history with democracy, maintained pre-modern economic, cultural and social structures in which notions of consent and compromise (two hallmarks of all democratic social interaction) were absent, and were ill-disposed to have an occupying force impose anything on them other than temporary physical security and material aid.

The futility of military and civilian “capacity-building” in such contexts is summed up by an essay written by a former US Army Green Beret about his time in Afghanistan titled “Throwing Rocks at a Fire.” The essay recounts the story of a fire in an Afghan commando barracks at an outpost outside the capital. The fire was started by a gas burner used to make morning tea, which was set on the floor of the barracks and surrounded by blankets pulled from beds for the commandos to sit on (the preferred to have their tea on the floor rather than on tables when inside due to the cold weather, much as they did in their home villages). One of them inadvertently knocked the gas burner over, which set fire to a blanket. Rather than smother the fire with dirt or water or toss the burner out a window or door, the commandos–the best of the best Afghan soldiers–threw more loose blankets on the fire, which then rapidly spread to the barracks beds and wooden floor and walls (which unlike village huts, were not made from earthen and clay materials). They then ran out of the building. When the SF trooper arrived, he found the commandos throwing rocks at the fire through the front door of the now fully engaged building. It burnt to the ground.

Rather than chalk it up to the actions of ignorant primitives, my reading is that for the Green Beret the moral of the story was the futility of attempting to impose modernity, to include modern concepts of rationality and logic, on deeply rooted pre-modern cultures and societies that were uninterested in the social aspects of so-called modern democratic living. Learning to fight better with modern weapons was one thing, but re-learning basic forms of social engagement was quite another. Their traditions worked fine for them and imposition of other forms of social organization only complicated things and turned out bad in the end. In hindsight, the Green Beret came to understand their view, but by then he was physically, psychologically, occupationally and temporally far away from that outpost.

As it turns out, for all the lip service paid to promoting democracy, the world is now governed by more authoritarians that democrats, and many of the places in which authoritarianism has flourished are those in which the US intervened the most heavily. As for the promotion of market economics, the major consequence has been greater global income inequality within a context of increased concentration of commodity production, demand and exchange. Contrary to what its adherents and proponents claim, market capitalism does not lead to a “rising tide raising all boats” phenomenon and trickle down (supply side) economics does not lead to a watering of the seeds of a budding middle class emerging out of poverty world-wide. Instead, it has baked in a socio-economic landscape of structural disparity and deprivation juxtaposed against and subordinate to a parallel world of opulence and waste.

In sum, there is very little that is politically or economically “liberal” about the world today.

More can be added to this litany of unhappiness but for the moment the point is this: the era of liberal internationalism has come to an end as both a practical objective and a foreign policy theory. It remains to be seen what will emerge in its stead once the repercussions of the pandemic and US decline fully filter throughout the global community. But therein lies a basis for hope, because in a multipolar world in which no one actor can impose its vision of the “proper” order of things and yet the need for international cooperation is more apparent than ever, perhaps the makings of more equitable and balanced global society can be made organically rather than by imposition even in the face of cultural and social difference.

The price of neo-imperialist hubris.

One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.

The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.

The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.

That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.

That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.

Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.

The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.

In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.

Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”

In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.

The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”

Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.

The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.

This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.

All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?

As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.

The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.

In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?

This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.

Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.

At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.

This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.

Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.

In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.

In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.

What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).

This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.

Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/

Values, interests and security.

I recently attended a discussion about NZ national security that revolved around the relationship between core national values, national interests and national security. That was unusual because, while the interests-security nexus is well-established as an axiom of international relations (“nations have interests, not friends;” “States defend the national interest”), the role of values in defining national interests, and hence national security perspectives and priorities, is much less common. For foreign policy analysts values are problematic because they are subjective: one nation may value something as a priority that another nation does not. The anarchic “state of nature” that Hobbes said was the foundation of international relations is grounded in the absence of shared universal values, on the one hand, and the absence of a superordinate imposition and enforcement entity (the Leviathan) on the other. Moreover, adding values to foreign policy and national security policy-making can bring emotion to what otherwise should be an objective, dispassionate and rational process of assessment and implementation. Even basic costs/benefits analysis struggle when burdened by the weight of values, so for most foreign and security policy makers it is best to avoid adding value judgement to strategic outlooks.

It was therefore interesting to consider values, interests and security as component parts of a whole rather than as distinct albeit related issues. It was also interesting to try and address specific questions that flowed from that holistic conceptualisation, which essentially is premised on the belief that national security is in large part defined by national interests, which in turn are at least in part determined by core values.

Values<——->Interests<——->Security

So what are NZ’s core values and interests? Can they be and if so how are they incorporated into the concept of “national security?” Should values even factor into security policy?

More specifically, given the fact that NZ’s threat environment is increasingly “intermestic” or “glocal” in nature (where the line between domestic and international, local and global threats are blurred), should national security be considered in a holistic sense that covers non-traditional (aka human) security concerns (climate change, pandemics) that overlap domestic and foreign boundaries but distinguish between existential and peripheral dangers (as opposed to a stricter foreign versus domestic, physical versus non-physical threat dichotomy)? Should “threats” be classified according to their impact on core values as well as interests (since by definition threats are determined by the danger that they pose to strategic interests)? If so and again, what are NZ’s “core” values and interests? Are they distinguishable from each other? Should we separate values from interests in principle or when assessing and responding to threats (as realist international relations theory would have us do)? Or do we prioritise values when determining interests, and hence threats, in some instances but not others?

As a start, we can divide values and interests into what might be called “generic” and “specific” categories. Generic values and interests are those shared by all political communities regardless of geopolitical orientation, ideological persuasion or regime type. These are social peace and economic stability, physical security and territorial integrity. How these are achieved are defined by specific core values: ethno-religious, cultural-historical, secular humanist or born of other ideological conceptualisations of the proper order of things.

Think of the debate between “Asian” and “Western” values that animated discussions about political development at the turn of the past century and which continue to this day. The argument distills into the relative value placed on order versus voice: Asians are claimed to value social order and stability over representation and equality, which are supposedly the preferred values of the West. Needless to say this vulgarises the perspectives of both sides but the point is that values are different because they are subjective and they are subjective because they are culturally grounded.

This is the heart of the “clash of civilisations” thesis. The clash is one of competing value systems. For some countries, preservation of racial or ethnic heritage is a core value. For others it is maintenance of a particular social hierarchy involving a distinctive social division of labour rooted in an ideologically defined conceptualisation of the “proper” society, say, Christian heteronormative patriarchy. Some countries put a premium on their forms of governance or foundational myths. Some place value on individual and collective liberties while others reify social harmony and consensus. The list of specific values is long and broad, and when they come into contact and are juxtaposed, conflict is possible and then security is threatened.

But if national values are different and in conflict, does that means that core interests are at stake? Realists would say no and separate values from interests in security policy formation. Idealists will say yes and mesh values into the definition of national interests and security. Constructivists advocate for the building of supranational institutions that merge national interests (say, via rules-based trade networks) in ways conducive to value harmonization. Organizations like the WTO and WHO were founded on such assumptions but recent history has shown that they were and are wrong, perhaps because they do not account for different value structures, especially if these involve quests for power in pursuit of geopolitical strategies resultant from desires to maintain or achieve international dominance.

In any event, values must be considered when contemplating what is known as the “Second Image:” the domestic determinants of foreign policy (the First Image is the international system as presented to a State actor). Although obvious for understanding comparative foreign policy and strategic perspectives, the question remains whether core values define interests and therefore determine national security perspectives and requirements. A country with a history of violent secession, social division, civil war or imperial subjugation is likely to have a value structure that sees the world through a different lens than a country with homogenous demographics marked by social, economic and political consensus–if indeed the former can see the world through a unified lens. The larger question is whether the Second Image (domestic) factors influencing foreign and national security policy need to be left “at the door” when stepping through the transom into the First Image environment, or whether they can be successfully carried through the transition from the domestic into international space.

Returning to the discussion that I attended. what might be core values that influence interests and security in a small island liberal democracy like New Zealand? Democracy as a social (as opposed to strictly political) construct? Market Capitalism? Welfare statism? Free Trade? Equal rights for all? Freedom of belief and expression? Toleration of difference? Minority representation and voice? Universal suffrage? Governmental transparency and accountability? Where do Maori values, if distinct from those of Pakeha, come in, and if at least some of these are considered to be “core” values, how do they relate to interests and national security?

Given NZ’s colonial and post-colonial history, the question is not straight-forward. It is even harder to answer in larger democracies. For all its pontificating about democracy and freedom at home and abroad, the US has a historical record when it comes to interests and security that belies the often hypocritical hollowness of those words. For all the talk about égalité and fraternité, France has a less than stellar record when it comes to incorporating such values in its approach to the interest-security nexus. The UK–same. And dare we mention Australia?

Then there are the values of other democracies such as the Nordic tier. Do they incorporate values into their definitions of national interest and security? What about assorted authoritarian controlled countries, many of whom have little or no experience with democratic norms and values at the political much less social or economic levels. What might their core values be and do they factor into the construction of national interest and security?

That is why working values into the interests-security nexus is complicated and often problematic. But it is also important for understanding what goes into different foreign and security policy perspectives.

I would be interested to hear from readers on this matter. My interest is two-fold: 1) whether they can be defined and if so what are core values and interests in NZ? and, if they exist, 2) whether those values should be incorporated into conceptualisations of NZ national interests and national security perspectives?

What is certain is that the values-interests-security cloth is a complex weave.