Media Link: AVFA on the implications of US elections.

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and spoke about the upcoming US elections and what the possibility of another Trump presidency means for the US role in world affairs. We also spoke about the problems Joe Biden has in dominating the presidential race against a demonstrably unbalanced opponent, shifting voter demographics, how US allies and adversaries engage in strategic hedging depending on whether they view Trump as an asset or as a threat, and how the US increasingly looks like an unstable polity, to the point that US foreign interlocutors must factor in its growing unreliability as an international partner. And much more. The link is here.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on the moment of friction, and more.

After a hiatus of over four months Selwyn Manning and I finally got it together to re-start the “A View from Afar” podcast series. We shall see how we go but aim to do 2 episodes per month if possible.

Here we start of with a catch up on events since the last podcast of 2023. Selwyn liked the KP moment of friction post from April 1, and so we used it as the stepping stone into a discussion that incorporates material from several recent KP posts and other news. I hope that you find the podcast of interest. You can find it here.

The Israel/Palestinian metastasis.

In the weeks after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Southern Israel I wrote about the possible 2nd, 3rd and even 4th order effects of the conflict. These included the possibility of new fronts being opened in the West Bank (with Hamas), Golan Heights (with Syria), Northern Israel/Southern Lebanon (with Hezbollah), with the Yemeni Houthis (at sea and in the air) and with Iran (now directly) all of which seemed a fair possibility back then and most of which have indeed eventuated. Israel has needed allies to help fend off some of the widening attacks, while Palestinians have had to place themselves at the mercy of the international community for humanitarian aid because Israel will spare them little of it while prosecuting what for all intents and purposes is a scorched earth war policy in Gaza. Other than Iran and its proxies/allies, no one is coming to the military rescue of Hamas or Palestinians in general. In other words, it is now a one-sided meting out of punishment on a largely defenseless population.

What I did not envision is what is happening on campuses in the US and around the world nearly seven months after the Hamas attack. The ensuring conflict has become a lightening rod and trigger not just for those disgusted by the events in Gaza but also for those who espouse a number of other grievances, including climate change, racism, global inequality, imperialism and colonialism, political corruption and even capitalism itself. In response, the Right labels them all “radicalised” commies and terrorist lovers because that is an easy way to introduce culture war themes into the mix rather than debate the complexities of what is happening in the Eastern Mediterranean. Apparently the war on Gaza is less about Israel and Palestine and more about a host of other (not all unrelated) things. The moment of friction that I wrote about recently has now come to American academe.

This has turned campus protests (and the coverage of them) into partisan events, with rightwing entities backing pro-Israeli demonstrators and leftwing and progressive forces, including those in the Democratic Party in the US, siding with the pro-Palestinian side. The protests include non-students as well as students, confirming what I wrote in the last post about outside agitators and infiltrators using the opportunity to advance their own agendas (which often go beyond the Israel/Palestine conflict). This includes Antifa and the old Occupy Wall Street crowd, now resurrecting old peeves (some well justified then and now) on the back of the Palestinian cause. For the US Right it is another way of showing how Democrats are soft on crime and Joe Biden is a doddering old fool while demonstrating that, like Republican Governors Abbot of Texas and DeSantis of Florida have done, you show strength by ordering cops to bash in heads of people wearing masks and keffiyeh–but not those waving Israel flags.

Unfortunately, this has lifted the scab on long-festering hatreds in many societies, including the US. Long dormant anti-semitism has been inflamed by Israel’s actions in Gaza, which however heinous the October 7 Hamas attacks were, are grossly disproportionate to them (including using starvation as a weapon), and are therefore a form of collective punishment that, if not genocidal in the strictest sense of the term, certainly seems to have ethnic cleansing as a purpose. Conversely, Islamophobia has been resurrected by the Political Right, including conservative Christians and Jews and an assortment of rightwing media outlets and political organisations. In the pro-Palestine protests there are now people who believe that the main problem are Jews rather than Zionists or the the State of Israel’s actions. In the pro-Israel camp there are people who believe the root cause of the conflict is Islam, Arabs or the both combined. Primordial hatreds have been resurrected and brought to the fray, which now encompasses pre-modern, modern and post-modern fault lines covering a broad spectrum of divisive issues.

Then there are those who are not quite sure who to hate more. Take for example representative Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA), who believes that all Muslims are potential terrorists and therefore should be deported from the US and Europe, but who on the other hand, when it comes to “the” Jews, well, there is that problem of their space lasers causing forest fires….

This is why I refer to this evolution as a metastasis of the conflict. It is malign in nature and it is spreading well beyond the original boundaries of the conflict qua disease. The pro-Palestinian protestors have degenerated in some places into glorification of Hamas’s atrocities and a Holocaust denying Jew hate fest. Likewise but in mirror fashion, pro-Israeli demonstrations rejoice at the civilian death toll in Gaza, paint all Muslims/Arabs as savages and call for their extermination as such. Neither is really interested in a legitimate “debate,” and both are using protests to stake antithetical claims. That is not good and does nothing to change minds, much less advance any peaceful resolution or long-term solution to the impasse in the Levant.

My alma mater, the University of Chicago, appears to have struck a good balance by allowing an encampment to be established on the central university mall but not on footpaths or in front of buildings. The university makes a distinction between free expression versus disruption, drawing the line when the former is used to justify the latter. It seems to be working so far, as the protests are loud but constrained when compared to other universities. That being said, MAGA frat boys have tried to storm the encampment, only to be repelled by the U Chicago police (as a private university U Chicago has its own accredited police force dating back to the 1960s). The rightwing frat guys have a history of racist antics and in this case appear to be less interested in supporting Israel than in scoring physical points against woke “commies.”

Other places that I have taught at, including the University of Arizona and University of South Florida, have descended into chaos, including the use of rubber bullets and tear gas to roust pro-Palestinian crowds. As for the University of Auckland, where I also taught, Students for Justice in Palestine (they dropped the “Peace” from their name a while ago) abandoned their attempts to set up an encampment when the University informed them that as a registered university club they would be in violation of university policy regarding club rules if they did so and therefore become liable for suspension, etc. They still have the freedom to conduct peaceful protests outside the main library on a daily basis, which is what they have agreed to do.

That is somewhat ironic– student protesters accepting the orders of their institutional masters when it comes to how to behave. Ah, the kiwi way! But where are the old “Minto” types of direct action these days? (Minto himself was down in Christchurch yesterday protesting National’s support for Israel, so at least that old dog still has some bark left in him). Is it true that today’s generation of NZ leftist activists have gone a bit soft? It is not for me to say since I am just a Trotteresque keyboarding observer these days, but the starch seems to have gone out of the current protester’s shirts when it comes to Israel and Palestine. On the other hand, when it comes to vaccinations, government mandates, Qanon and the Deep State, those on the NZ Right have shown in March 2022 how far they are willing to go in order to prove their points (and mettle). In fact now that I have mentioned them, given the attitudes of many on the NZ Right when it comes to Jews and Muslims, where might they stand when it comes to the Middle East? Perhaps Kyle Chapman or one of the Counterspin or Action Zealandia weirdos can enlighten us.

Let’s be clear on this. The Right demonstrate over matters that they feel affects them personally (like vaccines and mandates), but not over matters of solidarity with or concern for others. Their protests are about infringements on themselves, not on infringements not he rights of others. The Left, such as those involved in the student protests, demonstrate out of humanitarian concern for people that they do not even know, but whose basic humanity is under lethal siege. To be sure, there are the bad-intentioned actors among them who bring other agendas into the mix, but the motivations for Right versus Left protests are often quite different in origin.

That brings up a larger issue. Are not protests supposed to be disruptive? Much is said about the Vietnam War protests but what about the freedom marches in the US South that brought about the civil rights movement and eventually the Civil Rights Act? Were they not disruptive? What about the Springbok Tour protests? Did no good came from their disruptions? How about the Stonewall protests, which opened the way for gay rights in the US? What about general strikes? Are they not disruptive but have served to improve wage and working conditions for a multitude of employees? This the fundamental question that needs to be asked.

Instead, riot porn is the clickbait of the day.

That makes the coverage of the student protests pretty shabby. More emphasis is placed on the protection of property and supposed public order (even though the violence that has occurred has been confined to campuses) rather than on the original cause and the motivations of others now involved in the unfolding events. More time is spent on political blame-gaming than on considering whether divestment from companies doing business, especially military business, in or with Israel is a reasonable demand given what is unfolding in Gaza. In fact, few Western media outlets appear to have asked the basic question as to whether it is ethical for corporations, and the US and other governments for that matter, to do business with and sell weapons to Israel while it reduces the Gaza Strip to rubble. And when they do, the answer is always the same–“but what about Iran and the terrorists?”

In any event, I use the US examples as illustrative of the fact that the Israel/Palestine conflict has galvanised as well as polarised world opinion, creating an ideological vortex into which a number of causes and actors have been sucked into. This may well have a tornado-like effect on several political landscapes, including in Israel but especially in the US this election year, where not only the presidency and Congress undergo elections but also a multitude of State and local governments as well. How the protests evolve and end–if they do before November–may be critical to those election outcomes.

More broadly, the Israel/Palestine conflict is a malignant scabrous wound that may not be cauterised any time soon. In fact, regardless of the outcome of the war on the ground, it is doubtful that Israel will recover much diplomatic goodwill other than from its Western backers and the Arab oligarchies that side with it against Iran. Much like Russia with its invasion of Ukraine, the question Israelis have to ask themselves is “will we be better off for having prosecuted this war they way that we have?” If the answer is anything other than “yes” (and that would be delusional), then they have already lost. Israel’s supporters abroad need to understand this basic fact.

As I have written before, hypocrisy is the currency of diplomacy. But when governments like those of NZ, Australia, the UK and US mute their criticism of Israel with their “whataboutism” comparisons with Hamas and Iran, they lose all moral ground for chastising other States for their treatment of subject populations. Because in some liberal democracies, for all the talk about supporting a “rules-based” international order, when it comes to Israel the rules are made to be broken.

The student protests are a reminder of that.

Arguing about a moot point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A moment of friction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it will.

Forget the date. This is no April Fools joke.

Reminder: “Frenemies” are not friends.

News that the Chinese ATP 40 cyber-hacking unit penetrated parliamentary internet networks in 2021 has renewed concerns about the PRC’s malign intentions in Aotearoa. But is the hack that significant given the length of time that has passed since its discovery and the lack of sensitivity of the information that was accessed?  I was asked to write about this for a corporate news outlet but since it is my work I have added some details and posted it here.

The hack is unsurprising given that NZ is a 5 Eyes partner and parliamentary services and the parliament counsel’s office handle sensitive information as a matter of course. NZ may be a trading partner of the PRC but is in essence a security adversary given its membership in 5 Eyes and its close military alignment with the US, Australia and other Western states that are (whether rightly or wrongly) hostile to PRC power-projection world wide. Since the PRC is a main focus of 5 Eyes signals and technical intelligence collection, it would be remiss for ATP 40 to ignore potential avenues of exploitation when it comes to obtaining political or security-related intelligence in NZ. That is part of their mission, and complements the well-known presence of numerous PRC human intelligence agents in this country.

It is therefore reassuring that the GCSB National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) discovered the hack and found that no strategically important or sensitive information was breached. We shall have to trust them on that. However, that does not mean that this will be the last time ATP 40 or some other PRC cyber-hacking unit will attempt to breach NZ government and private cyber defences. That is what they do, and because NZ has in the past been seen as the Achilles heel of the 5 Eyes network due to traditionally poor cyber security practices, it will likely do so again. This is an ongoing problem that the NCSC was created to address, but the offence versus defence dynamic inherent in (cyber) espionage and warfare is still in play and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Some have suggested that NZ impose sanctions on the PRC in response to the parliamentary cyber intrusion. The US and UK have announced such measures due to similar PRC behaviour with regard to them (more on this below). However, for NZ that would be a mistake because sanctions at this point would be counter-productive. First, because it would be akin to poking a tiger and invite disproportionate retaliation over what is a relatively minor transgression in the broader scheme of things. Since NZ has yet to wean itself off of its self-made PRC trade dependency, it cannot afford to alienate it just yet, if ever, over an intrusion of this order.

Secondly, these type of breaches are usually handled quietly so that the offending party is not completely sure of how and why they were thwarted or countered. In other words, the GCSB does not want to show its hand when it comes to its counter-hacking capabilities. That the breach occurred in 2021 and only has been acknowledged now indicates that the GCSB feels that enough time has elapsed for operational security concerns to be ameliorated and a “fair warning” issued to the hackers that they are being identified, traced and countered. So there is no need to cause an inevitably damaging public spat with a much more powerful interlocutor. For all the coziness of the 5 Eyes members, no one will come to NZ’s economic rescue if the PRC decides to take punitive economic measures against NZ in the event that NZ tries to impose sanctions of some sort on its largest trade partner.

The timing of the GCSB announcement about the 2021 hack is also coincident with the US publishing the identities of ATP 40 hackers targetting US infrastructure and Australia and the UK warning of their and other Chinese political interference efforts in strong terms, with particular focus in the UK and US on PRC hacker compromises to voting systems in election years in both. The timing of the announcements about PRC hacking efforts therefore seems to be a 5 Eyes-coordinated “shot across the bow” that gives warning to ATP 40 and their counterparts that the times of easy access to critical data infrastructure, even if indirectly and even in NZ, are over. 

But that may be all that it is and not, at least in NZ’s case, a reason for NZ to escalate the matter beyond what it already has said and done. Chinese diplomats have been summoned to MFAT for a “please explain” and scolded for ATP 40’s misbehaviour. The PRC Foreign Ministry has rejected the accusations and warned about scurrilous attempts to besmirch the PRC’s good name. Perhaps it is time to let the dogs go back to sleep.

It remains to be seen if this type of State-backed cyber-probing ends because if nothing else the PRC hacking community is ingenious, well resourced and persistent. For them, this is part of the PRC’s ascent to having a multi-dimensional (voice and cyber encrypted communication intercept, physical and infrared (thermal) imagery aquisition, submarine fiberoptic cable “tapping,” capabilities, etc.), broad specturm, multi-domain (air, land, sea, space, cyber) warfare infrastructure on its way to achieving superpower status. As part of 5 Eyes, NZ is standing in the (albeit in a small) way of that goal. It was and is bound to be an ongoing target of Chinese espionage efforts, including in the cyber domain.

Ultimately the revelations about ATP 40s operations in NZ are a reminder against cyber complacency at home and at work, be in the public or private sectors. This is very true when dealing with so-called “frenemies,” that is, States with which NZ has cordial, even friendly relations on the public surface but with which underlying value systems and security relations are incompatible, strained or even hostile. So long as NZ is a member of the 5 Eyes network and the PRC is an adversary and target of that network even if it is NZ’s largest trade partner, ATP 40 and other PRC intelligence units will be hard at work seeking to discover and exploit any potential avenues of opportunity in NZ cyber-space as well as in other domains. It may be in that in the past “loose lips sunk ships,” but in the contemporary era all keystrokes, phone calls, encrypted messages, Tik Toks and Instas are also grist for the intelligence mill—and exploitable as such.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on March 27, 2024 in the NZ Dominion Post (the-post.co.nz, p.19) and affiliated media outlets.

Another Brief on Intelligence Matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question Five: Where are the Skripals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

NZ on Hamas and Zionist Settlers.

Here is one for the road before I shut down for a while due to the previously mentioned family medical issues. It is about NZ designating Hamas as a terrorist entity, adding its political wing to the 2010 decision to call its armed wing a terrorist entity under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act. I believe that the decision is mistaken. Here is why.

The move is more about tightening NZ’s alignment with its Western security partners with regard to the Israel-Hamas war and broader Middle East conflicts than about hindering Hamas’s ability to sustain itself. Hamas is supported by Iran and other states, so the move to sanction it under the TSA is more symbolic than substantive. It will have little discernible impact on Hamas’s operations other than to prevent it from hiding assets in NZ or receiving funding from it, be it by individuals or groups, under penalty of law. What it does allow is NZ to more fully commit to the anti-Houthi coalition now ring-fencing the Red Sea maritime channels because it can argue that the Houthis are supporters of a terrorist entity and therefore punishable as such (since the Houthis say that they support Hamas in its struggle with Israel and argue that their attacks on shipping are justified by Article 2 of the Convention on Preventing Genocide and are limited to Israel-bound or departing vessels and their naval support convoys).

However, most of the international community recognizes the difference between Hamas’s political and military wings, so NZ, its 5 Eyes partners and the EU (all of whom have designated both Hamas wings as terrorist entities) are at odds with the majority view. That view understands that resistance, revolutionary, nationalist and independence movements have armed and political wings that share broad objectives but behave according to principles of operational autonomy. Under those principles, armed wings provide coercive leverage that creates space for political wings to negotiate favorable settlements on disputed matters with adversaries. This is also a type of “moderate-militant” strategy that is a mainstay of collective action, but with armed force as the sharp end of the stick. Examples include the IRA and Sinn Fein (with whom the UK signed the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreements and the IRA laid down its weapons), the Taliban during the ISAF occupation (where its political wing based in Qatar negotiated the withdrawal of US and ISAF forces with the Trump administration, paving the way for the calamitous allied retreat and Taliban return in 2022), Kurdish separatists in Iraq (who fought to secure political autonomy from the central government in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein and US troop departure) and more. The point is that armed and political wings are, within the limits of operational autonomy, the yin and yang of many mass movements and enjoy a symbiotic relationship as a result. The relationship between political and armed wings may be akin to that of glove and fist, but the glove is a deliberate loose fit.

Under the principle of operational autonomy armed wings do not share information about real-time military details and planning with their political wings because that risks leaks and intentional or inadvertent disclosures that can be exploited by enemies. In turn, political wings do not share information about negotiating strategies that may involve compromises because that can risk backlash, division and fracture with militants in the armed wings, which are also exploitable by adversaries and often are lethal.

It is important to note that in the exercise of operational autonomy the armed and political wings of a mass movement aim to influence each other. The armed side wishes to present a fait accompli on the ground that backs the political wing into a bottom line negotiating corner when it comes to common enemies. That was the case with October 7. The political wing attempts to restrain the use of force and use the threat posed by the armed wing as a bargaining chip in order to extract concessions from its adversaries. That makes for a two-level game, one internal and one external. It is the internal dialectic between the two sides that ultimately determines the external strategy employed by the movement as a whole.

In other words, the two wings share broad strategic goals but not tactical approaches. Operational autonomy promotes operational security. That is why lumping the Hamas political wing (based in Qatar, as were the Taliban) with its military wing (based in Iran and Gaza) is a case of specious logic on the part of the NZ government. For security reasons the political wing was uninvolved in planning the October 7 attacks for which it is now blamed as a co-conspirator by NZ. It is still needed as a Palestinian agent if any negotiated settlement is to be achieved because like it or not, it will not be fully eliminated as a political entity even if the armed wing is destroyed (and even then, only temporarily). Denying that reality is misguided, especially since the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and discredited at home and abroad even if recognized by Western nations as a puppet Palestinian “government” in the occupied West Bank. With its foreign backers behind it, Hamas is here to stay regardless of how it is “designated” by NZ and others. (As an aside, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are currently in talks in Moscow about a post-war Palestinian government, which shows that at least the PA understands the reality of the situation).

Put another way: For those who think that cutting off recognition of Hamas is a good idea, remember that there must be someone to talk to if a resolution to the war is to be had. They will not be destroyed because they are more than an army–they are an ideological movement that will outlive its militant fighters. You may not like them, and in fact hate them, but like Israel itself, they will not go away. Best then to talk to their political wing even as part of a divide and conquer strategy because the ultimate resolution is political, not military.

The NZ decision on Hamas also demonstrates the lie that is the claim that NZ enjoys foreign policy independence, since NZ has simply bowed to the wishes of its 5 Eyes and other Western security partners against a rising tide of global public opinion about the Hamas-Israel war. That, in the words of a former NZ PM, is the price for being in the Anglo-centric big boys “club.” But there is more costs involved–that of the impact on NZ’s international reputation as a good global citizen and honest interlocutor.

The NZ government also declared that it was imposing travel bans on about a dozen Israeli settlers know to have committed violent acts against Arabs in the West Bank. But let’s be clear: that is just trying to have a diplomatic bob each way when it comes to Israel and Hamas, since the chances of Zionist extremists seeking to travel to NZ is about the same as finding a nun in a brothel. That makes it an empty symbolic gesture rather than an effective diplomatic tool.

It is said that the currency of diplomacy is forged by hypocrisy. NZ’s behaviour with regard to Israel and Hamas is a case in point.

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

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

Some limits to realism.

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.