The Latin American multidisciplinary journal MINGA just published my article on “South America’s Strategic Paradox.” I was surprised that they wanted to do so because they have a very clear left-leaning orientation and my article was pretty much a straight-forward geopolitical analysis. This was the article that an editor of the New Zealand International Review felt was too broad in scope to publish. Go figure. Judge for yourself (the article is in English, with translation pending).
Realism is a school of thought in the field of international relations (IR). It provides a theoretical framework for analysing the behaviour of States in the world political system. Like other theories (which in the IR literature include idealism, liberalism, constructivism and systems theory), it is supposed to be holistic, i.e., comprehensive yet parsimonious–it says everything that there is to say about the subject in the least possible amount of words. The utility of realism, as with all empirical theories, is that it serves as an organising device for understanding events and behaviours over time, in this case in the field of international relations. As such, it has descriptive and predictive aspects to it–it explains what was and is, and based on that understanding, explains what should come.
Taking from Thomas Hobbe’s writings in Leviathan, realists posit that because there is no superordinate Sovereign governing the international system, what exists is a state of nature, or as some refer to it international anarchy (non-IR theorists have taken exception to this use of the term “anarchy” because in classical theory anarchy is not equal to chaos and in fact leads to voluntary cooperation between self-interested as well as altruistic parties). Be that as it may, even though there exist international organisations (like the UN) as well as rules and norms (like the Convention against Genocide and Laws of the Sea), there is no superior enforcement power beyond what States can or choose to do for themselves (including cooperation if deemed preferable on self-interested terms). As a result, use of power is the ultimate arbiter of a State’s success in the international system and the quest and maintenance of relative power is therefore a State’s ultimate objective. Power is the product of a State’s human and natural resources and geopolitical position and it is relative to that of other States, but for realists it is the attribute sought after by all because it gives some (even if limited) autonomy and flexibility to their foreign relations.
Although there may be times of relative international stability when rules and norms are adhered to in most cases because States believe that it is in their self interest to do so, and where international institutions serve as arbiters and mediators of inter-state conflicts, they are not permanent in nature and therefore not universally binding over time. Remember that international treaties, institutions, partnerships, alliances and the like are not like contracts, which have defined time frames and are enforceable by neutral third parties (which again, would be the Leviathan is a perfect world). Instead, they are a type of flexible compact or agreement that, rather than be exogenously enforced by a third party, are endogenously enforced by the parties themselves. This is what makes international institutions and norms so fragile: they depend on self-adherence and self-enforcement by member or signatory States when it comes to upholding their guidelines, mandates and principles. Unfortunately, uniform and constant State adherence to institutions and norms is not guaranteed over the long term, especially when a State’s self-perceived interests clash with those of the international community and its agents and agencies.
International relations is a state of flux, marked by moments between periods of stasis when instability and conflict are the norm and rules are routinely ignored. As has been mentioned here before, these are transitional moments between global status quos–unipolar, bipolar, multipolar, or as has recently been mentioned as a future alternative, “non-polar” (where no country or set of countries serve as anchor points for the system as a whole). After a period in which the bipolar and unipolar-led “liberal internationalist” order served as the basic framework governing international affairs and realist prescriptions took a back seat to more multilateral oriented theories (say, circa 1980-2005), the current world time is one such transitional moment leading to systemic realignment.
As a result, realism has again become the theory d’jour amongst international relations theorists. I am happy to see that because I studied realism at Georgetown University (when Henry Kissinger was first there) and the University of Chicago, where I was in “father of US realism” Hans Monrgenthau’s last class and on the recruiting committee that brought John Mearsheimer (current leader of US realism) in as his replacement (Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations is still considered the seminal work in this field). Without getting into the nuances of what is a fairly sophisticated theory, the key points to consider in this revival is that relative power is still seen as the ultimate arbiter between states, that power should be used judiciously rather than expediently, that other measures of power should be exhausted before the ultimate measure, war-fighting, is engaged, and non-existential threats should be treated accordingly. If the threat is not immediate and aimed at the core interests of a State, then it should not be confronted with military force.
Note that for realists “values” are synonymous with “interests.” For realists values are not normative in nature, that is, moral or ethical. Realists are normatively agnostic. Instead, for them values are objective and measurable in that they relate to the value placed on core interests of the State: peace, stability, self-preservation, prosperity, and above all security. Value lies is in defending core interests, not in pursuing ideological preferences or universal ideals (in part because realists do not see normative values as universal. For example, in some societies gender equality and sexual freedom are valued. In others they are not). What some realists will indulge is a bit of prescription when it comes to foreign policy praxis: advising what States should do given context and circumstance.
This is a major part of the reason that realism is now back in vogue. Mearsheimer and others have argued against US support for Ukraine in its defensive war against the Russian invaders. They have argued against unconditional US military support for Israel in its increasingly genocidal war against Hamas and the Palestinian people. For these realists, neither conflict is an existential threat to the US and therefore is not essential to support. Both are considered to be regional affairs best resolved by regional balancing of power (via the use of force or otherwise). If NATO and the EU feel threatened by Russia’s aggression, then it is up to them to confront it because it is they who are immediately affected. If Israel truly believes that Hamas and Palestinians are existential threats, then it alone should confront the threat. US support is not required in either instance because neither involves core US interests and both risk dragging it into conflicts not of its making and not resolvable by force alone. Because of this and much like the case against US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (which Mearsheimer also opposed on similar grounds), the current US approach to the two conflicts will leave it diminished and exposed, creating a power vacuum that adversaries will exploit to their advantage.
In this distilled interpretation, realists like Mearsheimer advise that the US give Israel and the Ukraine a hard pass when it comes to weapons supplies, economic support and diplomatic cover. It is for them to use their relative power to defend their core interests against those who wish to confront them, not the US, which has bigger fish to fry in the form of a rising PRC as the new “hegemonic” rival. In fact, Western realists see Russia as more of a diversionary threat than an existential one, focusing instead on an aggressive PRC making its move to superpower status at the US expense.
This is by no means a polished or deep analysis of realism in its current incarnation. But as I pondered the re-emergence of realism in US foreign policy debates (with thanks to Jon Stephenson for drawing my attention to some of them), I began to think of realism’s assumptions and limitations. I had not really given much thought to realism’s limited utility in the past because until I moved to NZ in 1997 I was raised, socialised, worked in and wrote about large States, including but not exclusively the US. Now, as I reflected upon the realist revival, I found myself focusing on two analytic aspects of International affairs that realism may not be able to address with any degree of accuracy, much less parsimony.
The first is the behaviour of small States. Small States have little power relative to medium and large States because of differentials in power variables–population, natural resources, education levels, economic advancement, socio-cultural uniformity, ideological unity, shared historical memories, etc. Because they have relatively little power to exercise vis a vis larger States, small States like NZ, Costa Rica, Fiji, Namibia or Uruguay usually adopt one of three foreign policy positions. One is isolationism, based on the belief that larger States will ignore them because there is nothing in the smaller State that larger States want, and little or nothing in the world of larger States that smaller States need to pursue. The second is non-alignment, where small States try to straddle the fence when it comes to navigating in international contexts defined by competition between larger States. Third is alignment, where smaller States seek an umbrella of protection provided by a larger State or States (protection involving economic as well as physical security). There are variations to these alternative approaches based on specific geopolitical position (let’s just say that Namibia and Uruguay are not like Fiji), but the core point is that power maximisation and use is not a major part of calculations in small States beyond recognition that they have little to no power to exercise relative to larger States even if they have relative power over micro-States that may be within their spheres of “influence” (such as the case with NZ, which has in fact historically used its relative power advantages in the South Pacific for and to mixed ends and results).
So it seems that realism is a theory for large and medium States, not for small States even if small States make pragmatic foreign policy decisions based on an understanding of their relative power disadvantages and consequent dependency on others. In turn, this puts paid to claims that small States can have “independent” foreign policies. Isolationism may grant them some independence but it is the freedom to be excluded from world affairs. Non-alignment may seem to be a way to be independent in foreign affairs, but the very act of balancing competition between larger State interests demonstrates that such an approach is not born of independence but of centrifugal dependency (which may be the current case with NZ’s foreign policy stance involving balancing between rival large State economic and security partners). As for alignment, it is just a way of recognising the obvious and maximising the benefits of junior partner status with a larger State or States without sacrificing too much sovereign autonomy or provoking punishing backlash from competing large States with which a small State may have significant ties (which NZ may be in the process of trying to do).
Interesting, recent discussion of NZ sharing democratic “values” and seeking to support a rules-based international order when it comes to its foreign policy disregards the basic realist premise of core interests determining value. In fact, beyond the rhetoric, the way in which NZ trades and pursues its physical security seems to be very much of a “material interests determine value” school of thought, but is contradictory in that it juxtaposes trade and security relations rather than reconcile them (which speaks to the difficulties MFAT has in aligning domestic interests with foreign policy coherence). No realist would suffer that contradiction, which is more reason why realism may be best left to the big kids on the block while NZ pursues hybrid foreign policy strategies in its regional sandbox and further abroad.
The second limitation of realism as it applies to current world conflicts is that it does not seem to understand the existential nature of systemic problems. If unilateral acts of aggression against smaller neighbouring States is not met with a robust and united response in kind, will that not encourage further aggression and erosion of international rules? If large States can take other State’s territory with impunity, can they then not use the conquered State’s resources to launch further acts of aggression on more States? (I shall leave aside the hypocritical irony of the US having to consider such a thing). If a medium sized State can commit ethnic cleansing at the least and genocide at the most in a diplomatically non-recognized but very real small State, does that not open the door for others to follow suit? Since Leviathan is not around to impose order, one would think that realists would understand that it is in all State’s interests for large States to step in to confront existential systemic threats as well as threats to their specific core interests. It is not just about a large State’s power versus that of other States. It is about exercising large State power in a system of States in which the system itself is under grave threat.
The point is that if we accept that international relations is by definition made up of interlocked engagements between multiple State and non-State actors, then threats to some part of that latticework has the potential to become an existential threat to the arrangement as a whole. For large States that lead the status quo sustained by the international system, systemic threats such as unpunished wars of aggression and ethnic cleansing/genocide are in fact existential threats because they undermine the system upon which the status quo is grounded.
I will not get into other areas where realism is deficient, such as the role and behaviour of non-State actors like technology firms and other private global actors, the amplifying and spill-over effects of primordial conflicts re-emerging in the post-modern world, etc. Much of this has been covered in the pertinent literature already. What I simply wanted to do here is to point our that realism is a less useful tool for small State analysis than it is for large State analysis because of its emphasis on State power capabilities and use, and that it does not adequately handle the issue of systemic threats because of its large State-centred focus.
I hope that this came through by the end.
The decision to send six NZDF personnel to join the US-led anti-Houthi maritime picket line has a number of interesting facets to it. I made a few posts about the decision on a social media platform but will elaborate a bit more here.
It was obvious that a conservative pro-American government coalition would not only sign a US-drafted declaration defending freedom of navigation and denouncing Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, but would offer some symbolic material support (even if token) to the maritime picket line that the US and its main allies (all 5 Eyes partners) were putting together under the already extant joint task force CTF-153 headquartered at the US 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain. The task force is led by a US admiral and operates under US Rules of Engagement (ROE). Prime Minister Luxon is an admitted “Americaphile” due to his time spent in the US as a corporate executive. Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Winston Peters was involved in negotiating the Wellington and Washington Agreements establishing US-NZ bilateral security ties and has long voiced his support for US leadership in global affairs. The third coalition party leader, David Seymour, takes his policy prescriptions (and money) from US rightwing think-tanks and conservative lobbies.
Defense Minister Judith Collins (among many other portfolios, including intelligence and security) was the odd person out at the press conference announcing the deployment (Seymour did not attend) because she has previously attempted to use her status as an MP and minister to advance her husband’s business interests in China, and remains as one of the more Sinophilic (yes, said on purpose) members of the new government. Moreover, as Minister of Intelligence and Security and Attorney General, she is now the Keeper of the Secrets of Defense, Intelligence and the Courts, which is only of concern if you worry about a corrupt politician who also is now back scheming with the bankrupt (in every sense of the word) rightwing attack blogger whose miserable antics were outlined in that chronicle of political depravity, Dirty Politics. In any event, with the Collins anomaly excepted, it should be no surprise that the government made a move in support of its security patrons.
The government argues that its contribution is done to protect freedom of navigation, making specious arguments about the impact of the Houthi attacks leading to a rise in commodity prices on NZ consumers (NZ being a trade-dependent country etc.). It rejects the notion that its actions are in any way connected to the Hamas-Israel War even though the Houthis are invoking Article 2 of the 1949 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide to justify their attempts to stop war materials from reaching Israel. It chides those who differ with their justification by saying that it is wrong to “conflate” the Hamas-Israel War with the Houthi attacks even though the Houthis have explicitly done so.
As many scholars have noted, NZ joining the coalition of the pro-Israeli military bloc runs counter to NZ support for UN demands for a ceasefire and its supposed neutrality on the larger context behind the current conflict. Whatever the pretense, the hard truth is that with the NZDF deployment NZ has openly joined the Western coalition backing Israel in its war on Palestinians, eschewing bold support for enduring humanitarian principle in favor of short-term diplomatic realpolitik. Moreover, NZ has now been suckered into, via the US request for a contribution to the anti-Houthi effort, an expanding regional conflict that involves Iran and its proxies, on one side, and Israel and its (mostly Western) supporters on the other. With Russia and PRC (among others) supporting Iran and its proxies, the conflict has the potential to become drawn out as well as involve a larger number of actors.
Mission creep for the NZDF is therefore a distinct possibility, and the claim of NZ foreign policy independence rings hypocritically hollow since it is now clear that when the US asks NZ to take a pro-US/Israel stand on a controversial international issue, NZ bows and obeys.
So what does NZ’s flag-planting entail?
Not much at first glance. Its two frigates are in maintenance or on sea trials. It would do no good to send non-combat ships even if they were available (they would just become targets), and its in-and offshore patrol vessels are not suited to the task even if they could find crews to man them and get them to the theatre of operations. The Air Force could have sent one of its new P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which would be suited to some picket line duties such as electronic surveillance, but chose to not do so. What was left was finding a way to send ground-based assets to the theatre, and that is what the government and NZDF brass opted to do.
They have ordered the deployment of a six person “highly specialised” team to serve as “targeters” for allied forces using “precision weapons” against Houthi targets. From that description the soldiers could be a military communications/signals intelligence team or could come from the NZSAS, who specialise in long range patrol and reconnaissance and who routinely serve close to or behind enemy lines as forward target spotters (including Mosul during the fight against ISIS, if reports are correct). The NZSAS is believed to already have assets in the Middle East, perhaps stationed in Djibouti or Bahrain, likely in partnership with or as a secondment to the intelligence fusion “cells” or joint SPECOPS units that are located at US bases in those countries. Defense Minister Collins said that they would operate from “HQ and other places,” which suggests that be they military communications/signals intelligence specialists or NZSAS, they may be stationed on allied ships as well as land facilities. Because of their focus on mobility and stealth, if the team is indeed an NZSAS team, then it is doubtful that they will be spending much time behind desks or shining their medals at HQ.
Even so, a six person “targeting” team is a very thin deployment even for military intelligence or the NZSAS, which tend to deploy in platoon sized units. Unless the announced six-person team has larger backup in theatre behind it, there are no redundancies in the deployment, say, if a trooper breaks an ankle while playing paddleboard at the HQ. As things stand, the NZDF as a whole has severe retention problems that include the NZSAS, especially among non-commissioned officers, aka corporals ad sergeants (NCOs) that are the backbone of the regiment. Similar problems afflict other specialist units. In other words, the thinness of the deployment may be symptomatic of much larger problems within the NZDF.
The government says that there will been NZDF boots on the ground in Yemen. Not only do I take the government and NZDF word on this with a big grain of salt, but I will note that Yemen is contested space, the Houthis do not control all of it, and Saudi Arabia shares a border with it. Since the Saudis have conducted a murderous military campaign against the Houthis in the ongoing civil war between the Saudi-backed Republic of Yemen government and Houthi movement “rebels,” it is not far-fetched to think that it or the Republic of Yemen might welcome some anti-Houthi Western specialist forces on their soil.
(As an aside, PM Luxon has a certain form when it comes to the Red Sea conflict. He was the CEO of Air New Zealand during the Key government when an Air New Zealand subsidiary engineering firm sold maritime turbines to the Saudi Navy. Around that same time MFAT approved sale of military support equipment like range finders and fire control systems to the UAE knowing that they could be used against the Houthis (since the UAE is part of the Saudi led coalition against the Houthis), in contravention of voluntary international sanctions imposed because the Saudi coalition was committing war crimes against the Houthi population in the (still ongoing) civil war in Yemen. MFAT signed off on both deals, reflecting the Key government’s approach to such things. When confronted after the turbine sale was completed, Luxon said that he was not involved and had no responsibility for the decision, saying that it was made below his pay grade. That is a bit rich for a guy who pontificates about how he used to run an airline, but more importantly is symptomatic of how National selectively approaches relations with powerful authoritarian human rights-abusing regimes).
The government also insist that the team will not be involved in combat roles. This is an obfuscation as well as a distinction without a difference. The reason is that “targeters” are part of what is known as the “kill chain.” The “kill chain” starts with intelligence-gathering, moves through target identification and selection, then weapons and delivery platform designation, and ends with a trigger pull or launch command. The NZDF just joined the anti-Houthi kill chain. How is that so?
The NZDF “targeting” team will analyse intelligence feeds from technical (TECHNT), signals (SIGINT) and human (HUMINT) sources, including satellite and drone imagery in real time. They will evaluate the legitimacy of the intelligence by confirming the targets using a variety of means, of which getting proximate eyes on potential targets using their core skills is one possibility. In some cases targeting teams get close enough to electronically “paint” designated targets prior to air strikes (think along the lines of extremely sophisticated laser pointers). Once the target identity is confirmed and deemed actionable under the ROE, the team will pass its confirmation of the target to commanders who operate weapons platforms and who designate what sort of weapons should be used given the nature of the target (say, a sea-launched cruise missile from a destroyer or submarine or an air-launched Hellfire missile from land or carrier-based aircraft).
So what are its targeting constraints? That is unknown and the government and NZDF have not said anything about them. What is known is that the NZDF team will be operating under US command within the structure of CTC-153 operating under the name Operation Prosperity Guardian, which means they will not have autonomous say in what ultimately its designated as an “actionable” target. But the problems with the deployment go beyond the flexibility of US ROEs. It has to do with the kill chain itself.
That is why speaking of “precision” munitions is an easy way to whitewash their effects. They are precise only if the intelligence and targeting guiding them is accurate in real-time and the ROE is strictly defined. A precision guided weapon aimed at the wrong target or without regard for collateral damage is just another dumb bomb with guidance sensors and a camera. Plus, warhead throw weights matter. It is hard to be surgical with a 500lb. or1000 lb. warhead if the intelligence and target designations are not precise (they can be but not always are given the command pressures to deliver results in terms of enemies and equipment destroyed), which is why the intelligence/targeting part of the kill chain must be systems redundant before a trigger is pulled.
Again, none of this has been made public. No parliamentary consultation was undertaken before the decision to deploy the team was made. The irony is that the deployment, especially if my assumption is correct in that it involves the NZSAS, could have been done discretely and without fanfare. NZSAS deployments are done in secret all of the time and the public and politicians are none the wiser. Yet here the government chose to go public and grandstand with its announcement, which even if designed to offer public affirmation that NZ is part of the “club” John Key once talked about with regard to the NZDF presence in Iraq, also exposes the targeting team to increased physical risk and NZ to increased reputational harm given that most of the international community do not share the view that Houthi’s actions are unrelated to the Hamas-Israel war or that Israel is the good actor in it. But Israel is a close intelligence partner of the 5 Eyes network, so perhaps NZ’s choice of expediency over principle has something to do with that (rather than freedom of navigation per se).
Whatever the rationale behind the government’s decision, it seems that it is sticking a toe into a fire that may grow hotter rather than cooler. Then the question becomes one of whether the government has contingency plans ready to prevent NZ from being drawn further in and burned in the service of, to quote another Nicky Hager book title, Other People’s Wars.
The announcement that NZ has joined with 13 other maritime trade-dependent states in warning Houthis in Yemen to cease their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea (particularly in the Bad-el-Mandeb Strait) got me to thinking of about some finer points embedded in the confrontation (beyond wondering if NZ will send a warship to join the US-led task force being assembled to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea. After all, joining group communiques is cheap. Putting grey hulls into remote conflict zones is not)).
First, even though they are also maritime trade dependent, India, Indonesia and the PRC, among other Asian states, have not joined the coalition. This suggests that protection of freedom of navigation is not the sole criteria behind the decision to join or not, something confirmed by the fact that other than Bahrain, all of the signatories to the statement are 5 Eyes partners, NATO members or NATO partners (like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea). Bahrain is the location of the US Navy Central Command, the US Fifth Fleet and the combined task force (CTF-153) responsible for overseeing “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” the name given to the anti-Houthi maritime defense campaign. It has a strained relationship with Iran due to its suspicion that Iran foments unrest among it’s Shia majority (which is ruled by a Sunni aristocracy). Like many Sunni oligarchies, it sees the Houthis as Iranian proxies.
Some Muslim majority states may have declined to join Operation Prosperity Guardian out of caution rather than solidarity with the Palestinians. Anti-Israel demonstrations have broken out throughout the Islamic world, so reasons of domestic stability and elite preservation may be as much behind the calculus to decline as are sympathies with Gazans or Houthis. Conversely, nations that are not as dependent on Red Sea maritime routes (say, in the Western Hemisphere) may see little to be gained by taking sides in a conflict that does not involve their core national interests (matters of principle aside).
The name of the Operation suggests that is focused on maritime security and freedom of navigation. Twelve percent of the world’s trade passes through Bad-el-Mandeb. There is an average of 400 ships in the Red Sea at any one time. The Houthis have launched dozens of attacks on Red Sea shipping since the Gaza-Israel War began using a variety of delivery platforms. The situation has the potential for expansion into regional war, and even if it is not, it is adding transportation time delays and billions in additional costs to the global supply chain, something that will sooner or later be reflected in the cost of commodities, goods and services.
But there is a twist to this tale. The Houthis claim that they are only targeting ships that are suspected of being in- or outward-bound from Israel as well as the warships that seek to protect them. They argue that they are not targeting shipping randomly or recklessly but instead trying to impede Israel’s war re-supply efforts (this claim is disputed by shipping firms, Israel, the US, UK and various ship-flagging states, but the exact provenance of cargoes is not subject to independent verification). They claim that their actions are justified under international conventions designed to prevent genocide, specifically Article One of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (given the wholesale slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza since October 7) and point to UN statements supporting the claim that what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank, if not a “complete” genocide, certainly has the look and feel of ethnic cleansing. The South Africa application to the International Court of Justice charging Israel with genocide in Gaza, now supported by Turkey, Malaysia, Jordan, Bolivia, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and hundreds of civil rights organisations around the world, is also being used by the Houthi rebel regime (and alternate sovereign) in Yemen as justification for their attacks.
In essence, what has been set up here is a moral-ethical dilemma in the form of a clash of international principles–guaranteeing freedom of navigation, on the one hand, or upholding the duty to protect against genocide on the other.
Needless to say, geopolitics colours all approaches to the conundrum. The Houthis (who are Shia) are clients of Iran (home to Shia Islam), who are also patrons of anti-Israel actors such as the Shia Alawite regime in Syria, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and numerous Iraqi Shiite militias. Iran (and through it its various regional clients and proxies), has strong military ties to Russia and the PRC (for example remember that Russia is using Iranian-made attack drones in the Ukraine). For their part, the NATO alliance and its partners are all major intelligence partners of Israel, as is Bahrain. So the confrontation in the Red Sea may not be so much about the moral-ethical obligations in defending freedom of navigation or resisting genocide per se, but instead is part of larger balance-of-power jousting in which the principles are extra-regional but the agents are in the Middle East.
New Zealand has already chosen a rhetorical side based, presumably, on its support for the principles of freedom of navigation and its rejection of the argument that the Houthis are doing the little that they can to resist genocide in Gaza. Should NZ send a warship to join the CTF-153 naval picket fence protecting commercial ships running the gauntlet at Bad-el-Mandeb, then it will have further staked its position on the side of its Western security partners as well as put its sailors in harm’s way. Some will say that it has placed more value on containers than the lives of Gazan children.
That may be a pragmatic decision based on sincere belief in the “freedom of the seas” principle, disbelief in the Houthi’s sincerity when it comes to resisting genocide (or the argument itself), concern about Iranian machinations and the presence of Russia and the PRC in the regional balance of power contest, indirect support for Israel or simply paying, as former PM John Key once said, “the price for being in the club.” Whatever the reason or combination thereof, it appears to the neutral eye that once again NZ has put facilitation of trade ahead of upholding universal human rights in its foreign policy calculations.
Perhaps the best way to characterise this approach is to call it a matter of prioritising conflicting principles in strategically pragmatic ways. Whether that puts NZ on the right side of history given the larger context at play remains to be seen.
I was asked to write a commissioned essay for a special issue on Latin America of a NZ international affairs magazine. I was told by the editor I could write on a specific subject of my choice. I decided to write about what I see as South America’s “Strategic Paradox:” increased overall (macroeconomic) regional prosperity largely brought about by the growth in trade with the PRC (rather than with the US or EU) did not translate into increased domestic social equality, security and stability (as most Western developmental economists and sociologists would believe). Instead, increasing income inequalities caused by limited domestic job growth, few wage improvements and negligible distribution of tax revenues from the expanding import-export sector exacerbated social tensions, leading to more domestic insecurity. To this is added an assortment of pathologies such as public and private sector corruption and negative collaterals like environmental degradation in the emerging primary goods sector (such as in lithium extraction). All of this is set against the backdrop of increasing US hostility to the PRC presence in the region, which it sees as a growing security threat that must be countered.
The result is that South America may be more prosperous than ever in aggregate terms (say, GDP per capita), but it is not more peaceful, stable or secure as a result. My conclusion is that with a few notable exceptions it is a lack of good corporate and public governance that explains the paradox. Meanwhile the great power rivalry in the region has taken on a pernicious dynamic of its own that if left unmitigated will only add fuel to the fire.
Unfortunately, the editor, who is not a political scientist or international relations specialist (she says that she specialises in propaganda and authoritarianism, although from her limited bibliography she shows little knowledge of the extensive literature on each!) decided that the essay was too generalised and lacking in data to be publishable as is (after asking me to limit the essay to 3500 words and write it for a general, not specialist audience). She challenged my mention of the ongoing use of the Monroe Doctrine by US security officials, even though I provided citations for both data and comments when pertinent (15 in all, including Congressional testimony from US military officials and data from the Economic Commission Latin America (ECLA)). I got the distinct impression that she wanted a puff piece, got a critical analysis instead, and decided to condescendingly ask for unreasonable revisions in order to reject the piece without seriously reading it. In other words, she did not like it, but not because of its lack of scholarship but because it did meet her expected editorial slant. In fact. from her tone it appears that she had no idea who I am before she commissioned the essay and then assumed that I am some ignoramus when it comes to discussing South American politics, geopolitics and social dynamics. Y bueno, que le vas a hacer?
The good part of this story is that since I am not paid for the work, am not an academic who needs it on my c.v. for promotion purposes, and have a couple of social media platforms on which to publish and disseminate it without editorial interference from uninformed non-specialists, I told her that I would not do as told, would not do the demanded revisions and instead would publish the piece elsewhere.
KP is one such elsewhere: https://36th-parallel.com/2024/01/05/south-americas-strategic-paradox/
Tell me what you think about it.
My son is back home recovering well. There are some more serious sequels to come, but for the moment we will enjoy the end of year respite and welcome in what we hope is a better 2024 even with the knowledge that he is not out of the woods yet.
I remain unhappy with much of the coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict in NZ, so threw some thoughts together on the consultancy social media account. They are just sketches designed as food for thought rather than deep analysis. I have fleshed them out a bit here.
First. What does it take for Israel to be labelled a “pariah State” and subjected to international sanctions? North Korea, Iran and Myanmar have all been branded as such and sanctioned because of their behavior (seeking nukes, human rights abuses). So what is the threshold for Israel? Or is it because it is “of” or backed by the West (specifically, the US) that it gets a longer definitional rope? I realise that there is not specific criteria for why and when a State is designated as a pariah and sanctions invoked (which themselves are not uniform or standard in nature), but surely Israel has moved into that territory. Or not?
On the other side, when it comes to those who attacked Israel on October 7, note their differences. Islamic Jihad is a religious extremist movement that pursues holy war against non-believers, Jews in particular. Hamas are an ethno-nationalist movement with some religious extremist elements that seeks to reclaim traditional lands lost to Israel. Their alliance is tactical more than strategic because their objectives overlap over the short-term but differ over the long term. They have common patrons (Iran/Russia), allies (Hezbollah/Houthis/Iraqi militias/Syria) and enemies (Israel/US/ West/Sunni oligarchies) but should not be seen as being a single entity.
The difference is important because Western corporate media tend to treat islamic Jihad and Hamas as a single organization, which implies a unified command, control, communications and intelligence-gathering (C3I) hierarchy. Although there is certainly a degree of coordination of weapons and intelligence transfers between them and their allies and integration of operational units such as what occurred on October 7, the leadership structures of the organisations differ as well as their long term objectives. More specifically, it is my read that Islamic Jihad desires a holy war and the establishment of a Caliphate in the Levant and larger Middle East, whereas Hamas wishes to reclaim what has historically been known as Palestine (hence the phrase “from the river to the sea,” demarcating the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean from the Lebanese/Israel/Syria border to the Red Sea). This well-known map shows the area of claim and what has happened to it since 1946.
The fact that Islamic Jihad and Hamas have different long-term objectives means that they are potentially divisible when it comes to both military approaches as well as diplomatic negotiating strategies.They and their patrons will resist the latter as a divide and conquer approach, and they will be correct in interpreting the situation as such. But for the larger set of interlocutors trying to achieve a solution to the current status quo impasse and endless cycle of violence, separating the approach to Islamic Jihad from that towards Hamas makes sense. Remember that Hamas wants to replace the Palestinian Authority as the main agent of the Palestinian people and has strong support in the West Bank in that regard (the Palestinian Authority is headquartered in the West Bank but is totally subject to Israeli edicts and controls). Islamic Jihad would prefer to see the current conflict broaden into a regional war out of which a new Caliphate will emerge from the ashes. The Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Shiite militia attacks on US bases in Iraq are part of that effort.
Remember that Islamic Jihad and its allies do not need to win any major war in order to prevail (they militarily cannot). But their efforts have already caught the attention of the Arab “street,” where restive populations see the indifference or complicity of their oligarchical leaders when it comes to Israel as further proof that they are Western puppets. The idea is to expose who the real Masters are, undermine their Arab servants and promote jihad on a regional, grassroots level. it may seem like a pipe dream to those of us far from the streets of places like Cairo, Amman, Tangiers or Riyadh, but if and when anger takes to the streets of such places, then the outcomes are by no means certain when it comes to regime status quo stability.
It does not appear that Islamic Jihad will accept territorial concessions in order to achieve peace, as its project is larger than removing Israel and Jews from the Levant. Hamas, on the other hand, is arguably more nationalist than religious in nature, which means that the ideological focus is on specific ancestral territory rather than on religious orientation (even if Jews make for convenient historical scapegoats). It is also something that is obliquely seen in the fact that although Palestinians are largely Sunni Muslim in religious identification, Hamas’s main support come from Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite Iran and the Shiite Alawite (Assad) regime in Syria. These patrons and allies well understand that the Palestinians are much like the Kurds further to the East, claiming ancestral homelands that have long since been carved up by foreign occupiers (not just European colonialists) and who for many historical reasons are reviled by their co-religious neighbours (hence the refusal to grant or cede territory for either a Kurdish or Palestinian homeland by Sunni-majority regional neighbours or the acceptance of Palestinian refugee flows from the current conflict by these same States).
We must also factor in that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have factions within them, including political and military wings, (comparatively) moderates and militants, pragmatists versus “idealists” in their ranks. Islamic Jihad has a more unified political-military command (which makes it vulnerable) even when using a decentralised guerrilla military strategy), while Hamas has separated its political and military wings while trying to professionalize its fighters. In any case, harder or easier, these divides can be exploited if the will is there. Conversely, if the divisions are self-recognised and there is a unity of spirit against an immediate foe n face of the odds, they can be mitigated even under the stresses of overwhelming kinetic assault.
In the end, Islamic Jihad is an existential threat to the Middle Eastern status quo because it, like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, want to overthrow the established order even if its current capability to do so is minimal and dependent on the help of others. Hamas is a stronger irregular warfare actor as well as an ideological movement in the local and international imagination because of its territorial focus, so does not pose as much a threat to the broader regional order other than the fact that it’s success could encourage similar insurrectionary movements in the near elsewhere.
Many difficulties exist on the other side of the road to elusive peace in Palestine. Israel will have to cede occupied territory for Hamas to even be approachable regarding negotiations, but what with the combination of recent orthodox Jewish immigrants from the US, Russia and elsewhere fuelling the settler movement, and with the Netanyahu government leaning hard right as a result of the conservative religious extremists in his cabinet, leading to the Israeli government arming of settlers and protecting them with military units, that is clearly not an option any time soon if ever. Israelis are hinting at the Sinai Peninsula as a place to re-settle Palestinians, but Egypt wants no part of that, nor for that matter do the Palestinians themselves. So the first thing that will need to happen is for the Israeli government to change and for it to abandon its settler policies. Again, this seems like a very high mountain to climb.
Another obstacle is that Netanyahu and his supporters may see the situation as a window of opportunity. They may liken the move to eradicate Hamas from Gaza and drive its population out of the Strip as being akin to the Six Day 1967 War in which Israel stripped Jordan of the West Bank, Syria of the Golan Heights and Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Moreover, given the surprise of the October 7 Hamas attack this year, it is clear that Netanyahu does not want to be seen as Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur (or Ramandan) War of 1973, when Israel was caught unprepared for an attack on October 6 by Egypt and Syria, leading to large early losses for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Even though Israel ultimately won that war in 20 days, Prime Minister Meir was castigated for the lack of preparedness or forewarning and her coalition lost a majority in the legislative election the next year, resulting in her resignation. Netanyahu is acutely aware of her fate as well of the actions he took that helped facilitate Hamas launching its attack (like ignoring intelligence warnings and re-deploying active duty troops from the Gaza border to protect illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank). He knows that politically he is a dead man walking unless he comes up with something spectacular.
In his mind and that of his supporters and colleagues, seizing Gaza may be just that. Since there is no credible international deterrent levelled against Israel and a lack of enforcement capacity to stop its prosecution of the war even if there was a consensus that it has gone too far with its collective punishment/ethnic cleansing campaign in Gaza, Netanyahu makes the plight of the Gazans a UN refugee problem while the IDF consolidates its physical control of the territory. That allows him to “eliminate” Hamas (and many innocents) as a physical entity in the Strip, opening the door for Israeli occupation and settlement. If that is the case, he may well overcome domestic anger at his pre-war actions and seeming disregard for Israeli hostages and instead ride a wave of nationalist sentiment to another term in office.
Should that happen, the shrinking map of Palestine shown above will have to updated yet again.
I have opined regularly about the Hamas-Israel war over on the social media platform owned by that reactionary billionaire, but other than the preceding post have opted to not address the subject directly here at KP. However, the amount of misunderstanding, disinformation and misinformation circulating around that unhappy state of affairs prompts me to write here to offer some clarifications.
First: Asymmetric warfare is not just military conflict between unequally matched armed belligerents. It involves ideological, political, economic and cultural asymmetries as well. Stronger actors emphasise their immediate “hard” advantages, weaker actors emphasise soft long-term tools.Stronger actors focus on the immediate battlefield impact of kinetic mass in order to set the stage for favourable conflict resolution. Weaker actors focus on attrition of the enemy’s will and its broader support base in order to shape public opinion about a prolonged stalemate.
Second: War crimes and crimes against humanity are not defined by method of injury (knife, gun, missile, bomb, rape, torture) or the proximity of perpetrators to victims at the moment those crimes are committed. They are defined by who is targeted, collectively and individually. After that, the scope and scale of the crimes are measured by the amount of victims involved, remembering that war crimes and crimes against humanity can be committed against individuals and small groups.
Third: Seeing fault on both sides of the Hamas-Israel conflict means not excusing criminal behaviour by either. Nor does it ignore historical grievances and injustices involving each side that led to the current conflict. Focus on the comparative scale of atrocities does not alter the underlying reality of crimes against humanity committed by both sides. We must recognise historical and current wrongs before conflict resolution can be achieved, and compromises from each party will be required for a durable peace to be secured.
Fourth: Stating the obvious yet again. One can support Israel without being a Zionist. One can support Palestinians without supporting Hamas. One can see merit in the arguments of both sides with regard to the historical record. But one can never justify or condone the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by either side for any reason. Doing so is morally bankrupt. Doing so to score political points against partisan rivals in places like NZ, US, UK or OZ is reprehensible.
Fifth: The Hamas-Israel conflict ripped a scab and the pus of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia has oozed out on global scale. Bigots and racists on both sides see it as an opportunity to vent primordial hatreds in order to widen the divide between communities instead of pursuing peace.
Sixth: Proposing that the Palestinian Authority (PA) take control of Gaza once the IDF “cleansing” has ended is unrealistic. The PA (and its dominant Fatah Party) is a corrupt lapdog of the Israelis and their Western patrons that lost a fair election to Hamas in 2006 and then refused to accept the results. Hamas has ruled Gaza since ousting Fatah in an armed conflict after the 2006 elections. Both Hamas and Fatah have political and military wings. Fatah is secular and Hamas is Islamicist. Hamas is authoritarian but provides public goods and services to Gazans in exchange for public acceptance of their rule. The PA is a semi-authoritarian gerontocracy that is not supported by many Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. Making it the replacement for Hamas will just prolong the conflict, not end it. For that to happen Hamas must be accepted as a legitimate representative of Palestinian interests, upon which a focus on its political wing can help bring them to a bargaining table with the PA and other interested parties. Refusing to acknowledge Hamas is short-sighted and plays to their militant armed wing, not peace. This is called “dealing with reality.” Hamas may be unpleasant, just like the Kim regime in North Korea or the Netanyahu govt in Israel, but it is a participant in Palestinian politics and beyond. It will not go away even if its armed wing is decimated. The PA cannot replace it.
Seventh: Hamas’s tactics have so far worked: Sucker the IDF into over-reacting to the initial Hamas attacks by collectively punishing all Gazans, thereby swaying global opinion against Israel; establish itself as the primary defender of Palestinian interests rather than the toothless Palestinian Authority; broaden the conflict into multiple fronts involving a number of supportive actors (eg. Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria) that will test the will of Israeli allies to escalate further; foment unrest on the Arab street. None of this justifies its crimes against humanity, but speaks to how the framing of the conflict has moved from a largely pro-Israel to a pro-Palestinian response even in countries with strong official ties to Israel. Whatever the immediate military outcome, there appears to be a potential for a redrawing of geopolitical fault lines as a result, something that Israel, the US and other Western states may see as being in their favour but which in reality could well be not. In particular, the post-colonial Global South is not following the Western lead. That opens space for other actors–the PRC, Russia, Iran and other anti-Western govts–to exercise influence and leverage on the South as a result. Israel and its patrons need to look at the bigger long term play as they calculate their short-term responses.
Eighth: Given the role of armed guerrilla group Irgun and its then leader Menachem Begin (later Israeli Prime Minister) in the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (91 dead), the killing of 254 Palestinians in the village of Dir Yassin and establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (where the Irgun was integrated into the Israeli Defense Forces), it is rich of Israel to label Hamas as an illegal “terrorist organization” when it knows that Hamas has political and military wings that copy what Irgun did 75 years ago. No moral superiority here. To be clear: this is about hypocrisy when framing the conflict. It does not absolve Hamas or Israel for war crime/crimes against humanity, but it does point to the commonalities between their origins as political movements that use terrorism as a tactic in sectarian war.
Ninth: In exchange for Hamas’s release of 50 women and children hostages, Israel will release 150 women and children prisoners from detention centres (under the 1:3 exchange ratio). Most of these women and children have been arrested and detained without charge in the West Bank after October 7 while resisting Israeli security forces and settler efforts to displace them from their homes and lands. That shows cynical deliberation on Israel’s part. The exchange, in other words, it is a straight hostage swap.
There are more comments along these lines on that social media platform but these seem to be the ones that, in my mind at least, help frame the objective reality of what is going on. readers are welcome to (politely) disagree or add to the discussion.
Readers will recall that I have been writing about the transition from unipolarity to multipolarity in international affairs since the inception of this blog. Although still in progress, that realignment has pretty much proven true but not in the way I and others assumed that it would. Rather than a move to a system dominated by several Great Powers balancing each other on specific policy issues within a common institutional framework, what is emerging is two competing constellations of States joined by non-State actors such as high technology firms and various ideological proxies and surrogates. These blocs are not formal alliances but instead are loose networks of actors that share perspectives and values on the world order. One defends the current status quo, the other does not.
The one that does not represents the post-colonial Global “South.” The one that does represents the liberal internationalist order created by and for imperialist/colonial and neo-imperialist/post-colonial Northern powers beginning in the 17th and continuing well into the late 20th century. The Global South bloc is led by Russia and China, who beyond their Northern locations trade on their revolutionary legacies of the 1950s through to the 1990s, when they supported resistance and liberation movements against colonialism and imperialism across the globe. The Global South bloc includes other members of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, India and South Africa), to which will be added Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen next year.
The intention of this emerging constellation, which also has North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia and several Sub-Saharan African States as potential members, is not so much to push a Southern Hemisphere outlook on world affairs but to create a parallel institutional edifice that will eventually replace liberal internationalist institutions as the main conduits of international exchange. Things like the Belt and Road Initiative, growth of the China Development Bank as a rival to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the move to use the Chinese Yuan as a reserve international currency rather than the US dollar when providing loans to infrastructure development projects, as well as the proposed move to create a BRICS currency that will rival the Euro and US dollar, all are part of replacing the Western-centric institutional framework with a more “South”-centric organisational apparatus.
In this week’s “A View from Afar“ podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss how the Hamas-Israel war is a precipitant for the consolidation of this new type of bipolarism–two multipolar constellations competing with each other on numerous geopolitical fronts. Although it is still too early to see the final configurations of these blocs and whether they will translate into rival security alliances down the road (with all the dangers that entails), we try to explain how shifting perceptions on the global “street” (as opposed to between governments) are laying the foundations for a fundamental shift to the new systemic alignment.
In International relations, realism refers to the view that States have interests and use relative power capabilities to pursue those interests in an anarchic world order lacking a superordinate power or Leviathan (that is, a condition that Hobbes referred to as the “state of nature’). Conversely, idealism refers to the better angels and perfectibility of humankind, seeing a desire for cooperation as being equally as strong as the urge to enter into conflict with others. Constructivism tries to bridge the gap between realism and idealism by positing that the creation and expansion of international institutions designed to foster cooperation and diminish conflict is a means to constrain anarchy in world affairs. International systems analysis serves as a meta-theory that sees the world order in quasi-organic terms, as an evolving entity that is more than the sum of its aggregate parts and which has an unconscious logic and process of its own that is a collective response to the machinations of individual States and other non-State actors, thereby mirroring the invisible hand of the economic market when it comes to determining efficiency at a systemic level.
Classic realism dates back to Otto von Bismarck and has it most recent exponents in Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Idealism draws its inspiration from Woodrow Wilson, and constructivism owes its reputation to Alexander Wendt. International systems theory is the brainchild of Morton Kaplan. The works of these authors and others such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz continue to be the guideposts for current practitioners throughout the West (the list is illustrative only, as the number of authors involved in International relations theorising is great).
Realism posits that States have core and secondary interests; that threats are existential, imminent, or incidental; that States may have allies and enemies but do not have friends because interest, not affection is what defines their relationships; that wars are defensive or offensive in nature and are fought for existential and imminent reasons that can lead to pre-emptive strikes against existential and imminent threats as well as preventative attacks to reduce the possibility of an adversary reaching imminent threat status. Wars of opportunity are discouraged because they can lead to uncertain and unexpected outcomes and do not involve existential or imminent threats or core interests; wars of necessity are fought because they have to be, as they involve core interests and are fought against existential or imminent threats.
The current world moment has seen another development, one that is less salubrious in part because it originates from within authoritarian regimes like those governing Russia, the PRC, DPRK, Turkey, Iran and other contemporary dictatorships. The basic premise of this school of thought, which I will call “authoritarian realism” is that a new world order must be created that replaces the Western-centric liberal international order that has been present in world affairs for the last sixty or so years and which has dominated the landscape of international relations since the end of the Cold War. The latter is the system that we see in the form of the UN and other international organisations like the ILO, WTO, WHO, IMF, EU, OAS, OAU, PIF, SPC, NATO, SEATO, UNITAS, ASEAN, IADB, World Bank and a word salad of other regional and multilateral organisations.
For authoritarian realists, these organisations constitute an institutional straitjacket that constrains their freedom of manoeuvre on the global stage as well as that of most of what is now known as the “Global South:” post-colonial societies locked into subordinate positions as a consequence of Western imperialism and neo-imperialism. For authoritarian realists, the supposed ideals that liberal international institutions espouse and what they were constructed to pursue were done for and by Western colonial and neo-colonial powers seeking to establish an undisputed hierarchical status quo when it comes to how international affairs and foreign policy is conducted. More pointedly, in authoritarian realist eyes now is the time for that hierarchy to be challenged because the balance of power between the liberal democratic West and emerging non-Western contenders has shifted away from the former and towards the latter.
That is due to the fact that in the transitional period after the US lost its status as sole superpower “hegemon” in world affairs (stemming from 9/11, its ill-advised invasion of Iraq, long-term and futile engagement in Afghanistan and other conflict zones as well as it mounting internal divisions), the world has been moving to a new order in which other Great Powers compete for prominence, and in which the norms and rules-based liberal internationalist system has been replaced by norm erosion, norm violations and conflict on the part of uncooperative nation-States and non-State actors pursuing their goals outside of established institutional parameters.
This is, in other words, the state of nature or anarchy that Hobbes wrote about on which realists are most focused upon. Liberal rules and norms are no longer universally binding so the default option is to use national power capabilities to pursue individual and collective interests unfettered by self-binding adherence to dysfunctional and biased global institutions.
In realist views power is relative rather than absolute and covers a host of material and ideological dimensions–economic base, diplomatic acumen, military might, internal political and social stability and ideological consensus, and so forth. Adversaries must calibrate their responses to others based on their assessments of relative aggregate power vis a vis each other as well as other States and international actors. For authoritarian realists it is clear that the West is in decline on most power dimensions, especially morally, culturally and politically as exemplified by the US in the last decade. The West still has economic, military and diplomatic power, but the rise of the PRC, India (nominally democratic but increasingly authoritarian in practice), Russia, Turkey, Iran and lesser dictatorships, coupled with an rightwing authoritarian shift in places like Hungary, the US, Italy and France, demonstrates that the halcyon days of liberal democracy are now past. All talk of climate change, work-life balance, LBGTQ rights and indigenous voice notwithstanding, progressivism (either class-or identity-based) is not making significant gains on the world stage, at least in the eyes of realists in both the West as well as the South and East.
Most fundamentally, what separates the democratic and authoritarian realists is not power per se, but values. For authoritarian realists the liberal democratic West is in decline, overcome by its own excesses, degeneracy, corruption, inefficiencies, vacilliatory leaders and other affronts to the “natural” or “traditional” order of things. In contrast, modern authoritarians (including those in the West) value hierarchy, efficiency, unity of purpose, the demographic superiority of their dominant in-groups, decisive leadership and strength of resolve. Freedoms of speech, association and features such as judicial independence from political authority are seen by authoritarians as easily exploitable Achilles Heels through which division and disunity can be fomented in liberal democracies using disinformation, misinformation, graft and other influence campaigns. Liberal democrats are egalitarian “betas.” Authoritarian realists are self-identified “Alphas.” Consequently, the current word moment is seen as a window of opportunity for authoritarian realists to press their relative (Alpha) advantage in order to re-draw the global geopolitical map and its institutional superstructure. This redrawing project can be considered the authoritarian (neo) version of constructivism on the world stage.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas attack on Israel are examples of how Russia practices authoritarian realism directly and indirectly. The idea in the first instance was to redraw the map of Europe via direct aggression on a former vassal state, assuming that NATO and the EU were too divided and weak after BREXIT and Trump when it came to a collective response. That would impede military support for Ukraine, thereby facilitating a Russian victory on Europe’s southeaster flank, something that would further divide and weaken European resolve to confront Russia, leading in turn to more Russian “assertiveness” along its Western Front. Although that assumption proved false and in fact has backfired at least for the moment, the original concept of exploiting perceived Western weakness was and is clearly at play given ongoing divisions within Western nations about if and how to continue supporting the Ukrainian military effort. The end game of that conflict has yet to be written and could well play into Russia’s favour if extended indefinitely until Western electorates tire of supporting governments that continue to direct resources towards someone else’s war.
Hamas’s attack on Israel came after long-term planning, training and equipping involving its two major sponsors: Iran and Russia (who are military partners). Here the goal is to use the attack and the expected Israeli over-reaction (collective punishment of Gazan civilians for Hamas’s crimes) to sow discord within the Arab world and beyond. Although the official response from most Western governments and corporate media is (at times jingoistically) pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the world have laid bare the broader social-political divisions aggregated around the conflict. Moreover, other than the US and UK, no major power is offering military support to Israel, and China and Russia have both condemned the Israeli response without mentioning Hamas in their pronouncements (and in fact are silent partners with Iran in supplying war materiel to Shiite militias like Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis and the al-Sadr brigades in Iraq, even while both maintain strong economic ties to Israel). Although a NATO member and a quiet security partner of Israel’s, Turkey has been silent on the matter and allows Hamas to maintain a presence on its territory. Normally a strong supporter of Israel, India has gone very muted in its response to the violent tit-for-tat now taking place. It is as if authoritarian realists see the broader realignment taking shape before them and do not want to be caught off-side.
Sunni Arab governments such as those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have worked to normalise relations with Israel, have now had to backtrack in the face of unrest emanating from the Arab street, and the prospects of the conflict expanding to several fronts in Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights and West Bank and even spilling over into a major regional war involving Syria, Iran and their patrons cannot be discounted. All of which will help redefine the geopolitics of the Middle East as well as its relationship to extra-regional interlocutors regardless of the specific outcome of this latest iteration of what has become a perpetual war.
In the South and East China Seas, the Sino-Indian border and the borderlands of Tibet and Bhutan, the PRC has engaged in aggressive military diplomacy, using force to annex foreign territories and present a new territorial status quo to its neighbours. As with the Russian interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, these usurpations have been declared unlawful by international courts and condemned by international organisations like the UN. And yet, because of alack of enforcement power–and will–on the part of the International community as currently represented by its institutional edifice of regional bodies and international organisations, these moves have been only lightly challenged, gone largely unpunished and certainly have not been reversed. The result is a new status quo in East Asia in which PRC sovereignty is claimed and de facto accepted well to the West of its recognised interior land borders and far to the South of its littoral seas.
In the authoritarian realist mindset, moves to take advantage of the current moment in order to redraw the international geopolitical order, including its institutional foundations, are critical to their survival as independent powers. The PRC is driven by a desire to finally achieve its rightful place as a Great Power after centuries of humiliation by foreign powers. For Russia it is about re-claiming its place as an Empire. For lesser dictatorships it is about using national power to move unconstrained in the global arena, unencumbered by the protocols, norms and niceties of the liberal internationalist order. For all of these authoritarians, marshalling their resources in a common effort to undermine and replace Western institutions is a giant step towards real freedom of action in which relative power is the sole determinant of what a nation-State can and cannot do when it comes to foreign relations. If one is charitable, there might even be a bit of idealism attached to these various projects, as authoritarian realists use soft power applications in order to help the Global South out from under the yoke of Western post-colonial imperialism once and for all even as they empower themselves by doing so.
Some of this is evident in projects like the PRC Belt and Road Initiative, which is a global developmental project that is designed to challenge and replace Western developmental assistance and cement the PRC’s position as the foremost provider of infrastructure investment and financial aid to the Global South. In parallel, both Russia and China have expanded their military alliance networks in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa while courting more engagement with Latin American and Central Asia countries (India and Pakistan, respectively). Russia and the PRC have quietly revived and assumed stewardship of the so-called BRICS bloc of nations, including expanding its membership to include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2024. On both economic and military fronts, authoritarian realists are constructing an alternative to the liberal international order.
All of this manoeuvring has added a new twist to the long transitional moment that the international system is undergoing and in fact has altered the way in which the emerging systemic realignment is being shaped. Rather than the anticipated move from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a multipolar world in which the US shared space as a Great Power with emerging and re-emerging Great Powers like the PRC, India, Russia, Japan and perhaps Brazil and/or others, what is coming into shape is a new bipolar world made up of competing constellations or networks of like-minded nation-States, to which are being added non-State technology actors looking for economic opportunity in increasingly loose regulatory environments brought about by the erosion of international rules and norms in the field of transnational commerce.
There is some time to go before the full shape of the new bipolar “constellation” order is confirmed. Authoritarian realists will retain their own nation-centric views even if their interests overlap in the bipolar constellation format. Western nations will need to revise their approaches to world affairs and in particular their positions vis a vis the post-colonial Global South given the competition for the South’s attention provided by the authoritarian realists. All of this makes for uncertain and fluid times in which the best hedge is multi-level power multiplication with focused application by the emerging constellations of competing States and associated non-State actors. How the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza turn out will give us a relatively short-term glimpse into what the geopolitical order will look like by the end of the decade because technology, will and multinational commitment are now being put to the test in both new and old ways in those arenas.
Two things are worth noting. At this critical juncture it is by no means assured which side of the emergent bipolar constellation balance of power will be favoured over the long term. What is certain is that only one side is actively working to re-make the world order in that image, Those are the authoritarian realists.
After the hiatus that also forced me to suspend KP posts for a while, Selwyn Manning and I have resumed the “AVFA” podcast series. In the restart episode we dip our toes into turbulent waters by talking about the first order dynamics and potential second and third order consequences/repercussions of the Hamas/Israel conflict.
It is an emotion-laden subject but we do our best to be dispassionate. You can find the show here.