Democratic compromise as the mutual second-best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on China, Taiwan and future implications.

The “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning and I resumed after a months hiatus. We discussed the PRC-Taiwan tensions in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit and what pathways, good and bad, may emerge from the escalation of hostilities between the mainland and island. You can find it here.

A Note of Caution.

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

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

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

The unshackled straitjacket.

In the 1980s the political scientist Jon Elster wrote a book titled Ulysses and the Sirens where he uses the Homeric epic The Odyssey to illustrate the essence of democracy. In book 12 of The Odyssey, the enchantress Circe warns Ulysses of the dangers posed by the mythical Sirens, purportedly half women and half bird but in reality monsters, whose songs were irresistible to men and who endeavored to lure wayfarers to their deaths on the rocky cliff faces of the Siren’s island. Circe advised that only Ulysses should listen to their “honeyed song,” and that his men should plug their ears with beeswax while he be lashed to the mast of his ship after his men plugged their ears, and that even though he cried and begged them to untie him once he came to hear the Siren’s alluring tones, that he only be freed once his ship was far our of reach of the Siren’s voices. So it was, as Ulysses heeded her advice, made safe passage in spite of the temptress’s calls, and he and his crew proceeded on their decade-long voyage home from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca. As it turns out, it did not end well for all, which is a story for another day. (Thanks to Larry Rocke for correcting my initial mistaken read about their fate).

Elster’s use of the story is designed to highlight three related things. First (the minor point, about the false promise of ethereal options), that, as with the Sirens, while there may be many seemingly attractive alternatives to the inefficiencies of democratic governance, the perils imbedded in purported alternatives outweigh the (mythical) rewards that they claim to confer. Second, that a good leader prizes wise counsel and heeds their advice. Third (the major point), that democracy at its essence is a self-limiting (self-binding) form of governance in which incumbents of political decision-making positions deliberately refrain from making full or untrammeled use of the powers vested in them by virtue of the popular vote. The underpinning belief is that political decision-makers will adhere in principle to self-limitation because they understand and share Elster’s view of democratic governance: it is not just about the means of power acquisition and subsequent use once it public office; it is about (self) restraint in the exercise of power in pursuit of the common good. Power is exercised not for personal or partisan again. It is exercised for the benefit of all. And for that to happen, self-restraint is necessary.

Unfortunately, humans are not those most righteous of creatures so in recognition of human fallibility in practice limits are placed on public authority not by voluntary adherence to principle but by institutional mores, norms, laws and conventions. Constitutions are the highest expression of that enforced restraint in the exercise of power, and systems of checks and balances between different branches of government are the means by which self-restraint is imposed and enforced. The key to adherence is that all actors accept the importance of self-limitation in the first place and understand that the constitutional/institutional rules are designed to encourage collective compliance in the face of temptations to pursue individual or partisan agendas and policies inimical to the common good.

I call this the “straitjacket” theory of democratic politics. Politicians voluntarily accept the limitations on their powers imposed by systems of checks and balances when assuming public office. The understand why self-restraint is the essence of democracy, along with consent and compromise in the pursuit of second-best solutions that, if not satisfying everyone all of the time, satisfy enough people most pf the time so that the political system because self-reproducing (and re-generating!) on its own terms. There is a material as well as social-cultural component to this grand contingent compromise (i.e. expectations have to be met in order for collective consent to continue to be given), but the combination of universal laws and institutional norms and mores promote a type of political socialization in which self-restraint is seen and promoted as a civic virtue, not a weakness, because it promotes exactly that type of compromise when it comes to policy outcomes.

The rule of self-restraint applies to all political actors in a democracy, local and national, in government or in Opposition. The temporal boundaries of electoral cycles means that all actors get to compete again at some pre-determined and relatively short-term date. That means that losers today can become winners in the near future, and that current winners need to deliver on their promises if they are to win again. The implicit bargain is clear: governments do not press full advantage even if widely popular and Oppositions do not go full contrarian on every government initiative. That encourages moderation in debate and policy outcomes because adopting extreme, polarized positions violates the law of self-restraint and in so doing inhibits compromise on collective outcomes. If sides go for broke today when it comes to policy, they may find themselves on the receiving end of equally extreme counter-measures down the road, with the vicious cycle continuing from there. Recognition of this fact–that today’s political behavior casts a shadow on the future for better or worse–is another contributor to the adoption of self-limiting strategies by political actors. This is not just a matter of principle. It is a matter of pragmatism for those committed to operating under democratic governance paradigms.

From a cynically Marxist perspective, the need for political self-restraint in pursuit of contingent compromises rests on the fact that otherwise the rapacious and undemocratic nature of capitalism would be exposed by the zero-sum politics of its political puppets. Over the long term that augers poorly for capitalist political control and the social and institutional advantages that go along with it, so moderation and self-restraint under democratic institutions are, as Lenin noted, the best “political shell” for capitalism. The idea is to not get too greedy or partisan when it comes to profit-taking and political competition and to macro-manage the economy consensually so that profit-driven or partisan avarice is constrained. That way capitalist hegemony can be disguised and maintained rather than exposed and challenged. Someone who appreciated this fact in a non-Marxist way was John Maynard Keynes, and the phrase “Keynesian compromise” is often used describe his approach to political economy.

Whatever the interpretation, for today’s liberal democracies and a few of the newer experiments in that political form, this has been the unwritten political understanding that overlaps the social compact between governed and governors. There are always exception to the rule and moments in which principle falls hard on the sword of hypocrisy, opportunism and privilege, but in the main the enduring feature of democracy has been that those in positions of power do not take full advantage of the authority vested in them. In may not always be a matter of voluntary choice for them, but they understand why the straitjacket must be worn.

Those days are over. In the US but also in other parts of the world where US-style politics has leached like a cancer onto local democratic politics (think Brazil, but even places like Chile, the UK or Italy), politicians not only do not adhere to self-binding strategies but no longer accept the straitjacket premise. Whether a matter of principle or pragmatism, the shadow of the democratic future holds no sway over them and so self-restraint or limitation in the use of their authority is no longer considered a virtue. Instead, they work hard to use procedural, institutional and legal maneuver, aided and abetted by external forces such as direct pressure and gaslighting campaigns channeled via lobbyists, partisan and social media, to undermine and subvert the system from within—in other words, to unshackle the straitjacket, political Houdini-style in order to impose their partisan and personal preferences on society.

Hence the rise of a phenomenon known as the “constitutional coup” whereby disloyal Oppositions attempt to impeach government incumbents on false or flimsy grounds (again, Brazil is a sad example). Now there has appeared something known as the “procedural coup” where one (or two) branches of government attempt to usurp and override the decisions of another, effectively voiding the balance-of-power premise inherent in constitutional systems such as the US. And it was exactly that goal that motivated Trump and his supporters on January 6—to usurp the power of Congress to declare a winner in last year’s presidential race.

That has been laid out in gory detail by the investigations into the January 6 insurrection-turned-coup attempt in the US, where it has been revealed that there were orchestrated links between the White House, Republicans in Congress and insurrectionists to violently impede the certification of the Biden presidential victory. It is seen in Republican attempts to stack state election offices with partisans and to gerrymander and engage in voter suppression programs that skew elections in their favor. It is seen in GOP and rightwing activist groups coercively attempting to gain control of local government offices and school boards via impeachment and recall campaigns waged against serving incumbents. It is seen in the insanity of GOP House members spouting Qanon and other MAGA extremist beliefs in and outside the debating chamber, including threats of physical harm to Democrat colleagues. None of this is an exercise in self-restraint and clearly is an attempt to loosen the fetters of institutional noms and practices.

The US is the exemplar of democratic corrosion but it is not alone. Already the same type of tactics—cries of election fraud before elections are held in places like Brazil and Chile; instigation of civil, including militia resistance to duly constituted government mandates such as in Australia; attempts to delegitimize government with calls to arrest, try, imprison or execute public officials because of their use of public health orders to impose pandemic control measures, all with a wink and nod from opposition politicians, such as in Aotearoa–the very edifice of global democratic governance is being shaken from without and within.

It is the latter threat that is the concern here because a stable democracy is impervious to seditious conspiracies. In contrast, unstable or fragile democracies whose political leadership is ridden with ideological extremists, charlatans, grifters, profiteers and other unscrupulous self-interested maximizers of egotistic opportunities, in which the fundamental law of self-restraint no longer applies, is fertile ground for authoritarian usurpation from within or without.

It is quite possible that the US is too far gone down this path to avoid a civil war. But if democracy is going to be saved there as well as elsewhere, then we must return to the foundational principles upon which that political edifice rests: that those in public office practice self-restraint in the use of their authority and abide by the the imposed limits placed upon that authority by the system of checks and balances inherent in the tripartite division of government powers. Only then can we return to the type of horizontal as well as vertical accountability that a political system built on self- or imposed restraint can uniquely offer the society that it governs.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” year-end review.

Selwyn Manning and I wrapped up this year’s “A View from Afar” podcasts with a review of the past year and some speculation about what is to come. We meander a bit but the themes are clear. You can find the show here.

Chinese influence and American hate diffusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on PRC-Taiwan tensions.

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the upsurge in tensions between the PRC and Taiwan and what are the backgrounds to and implications of them. You can check the conversation out here.

Ideational and ideological in the construction of “isms.”

A lot has been made in recent times about the dark and pernicious side of ideology, particularly its ability to incite hate or dispute obvious fact. In that regard there has been much discussion of political ideologies, particularly national populism such as that practiced by the likes of Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Dutarte, Jose Bolsonaro and Donald Tump. In fact, “Trumpism” is synonymous with a combination of ignorance, arrogance and bullsh*tting bluster all rolled into one racist, bigoted, xenophobic, ball-of-hate worldview. However, although the subject of national populism is topical, the discussion about ideology extends into fields other than the political, even reaching into debate about what properly constitutes “scientific” reasoning and discourse. As a way of framing how to understand what ideology is as an intellectual construct rather than just a set of ideas about the organization of particular things, please humour me this indulgence.

Ideology is a product of the imagination, a construction of the mind. Unlike flights of fancy and other ideational inventions and to be specific, an ideology is a coherent set of value principles that organises reality over time and specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real. The imaginary is what is ideal, preferred, unknown, inexplicable and/or fantastic. Reality is the material, physical and social conditions in which we exist. Ideology is the glue that binds them together in human consciousness. It is not just some random assortment of ideas and opinions. It is an intellectual framework for interpreting the world around us.

We come into the world hard-wired but  tabula rasa, and over time we are conditioned, schooled, instructed and otherwise taught about the ways things are either by direct experience or imparted knowledge. In that light ideology serves as an interpretative device that explains the connection between lived or actual experience and how things can, were and should be. Taken over time and as Gramsci once noted, passing through a “complex tissue of vulgarisations to emerge as common sense,” ideology defines how we see the world around us and our position and role in it.

Think of it this way. What is considered “unimaginable” is so only because of what we are. What makes science fiction creatures and worlds “alien” and “fantastic” is that they are not materially like us or anything in our collective existence. Our imagination not only processes what is materially and physically real in our world but also frames how we imagine that which is not observable in our reality. To paraphrase something that Rod Sterling of “Twilight Zone” TV show fame said in the mid 60s, “fantasy is translating the impossible into the improbable; science fiction is the improbable translated into the possible.” We address what is real and unreal based on mental constructs, not on immutable laws even if we render homage to divinity or the mysterious workings of Mother Nature and the Universe in general. 

There is a difference between ideational and ideological. Ideational refers to how we perceive the world we know and what lies beyond. Ideological refers to how we interpret that which is around and ahead of us.

Ideology explains realities to ourselves as well as the infinite possibilities that may exist beyond us. It is ideational in origin and its practical result is organisational: it serves to explain, categorise and regulate human society and the physical world in which it exists, and separates what can be known in human terms from that which is imaginable but unknowable. Broadly speaking, I refer here to ideologies that primarily address the physical and material world in which we live as scientific; and those that address the human condition as social.

In Carl Sagan’s (1996) words, “(s)cience is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility,” For the physical world, scientific ideology is the belief in employing a particular type of methodology for achieving observable, reproducible, objective and therefore predictable results, which in turn lead to classifications of physical phenomena based on their shared and unique characteristics. That allows humans to comprehend the world in and around them. 

Taxonomies are one such means of doing so. They identify, separate and classify natural phenomena based on reproducible facts. This is generally considered the realm of so-called “Western” science although the appellation is a misnomer given the scientific observations of pre-modern Arabs, Chinese and Persians and a range of indigenous peoples as well as Greeks and Romans and their European successors. The “scientific method” employed by these cultures varied in their specifics but sought to produce the same thing: value neutral organising, explaining and predicting when possible the nature of things. 

This has led to some interesting ways of thinking. For example, “Borges proposed a very peculiar animal classification system. He attributed it to a certain unknown, apocryphal Chinese encyclopedia, entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. It divides animals into: “(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that look like flies from a long way off” (Cited here).

While undoubtably true in whole or in part, the trouble for Borges is that while his zoology may have elements of scientific fact, his classification is not reproducible and in some cases, not observable or predictable. In is therefore invalid as a Western scientific ideology even though it provides a good study in contrasting approaches to ways of thinking involving scientific observation. And, if one is agnostic about such things, it can be considered as valid as any other way in which to classify the animal world. I mean, what animal does not look like a fly when seen from a long way off?

Given the possibility of variance in observable classification, many taxonomies developed by scientific indigenous cultures are founded on ideologies based on reproducible facts. These are different than myths and legends derived from, tangental to or substitutive of observable natural phenomena. The methods used to develop indigenous science ideologies may not be exactly those of the “West,” but in the measure that explain and in some cases predict the physical world they can be considered to be a type of scientific ideology. They originate in the mind in order to explain material reality and therefore share the same ideational origins of those in the West. This shared value can be called positivism or objectivism—the grounding of explanation in concrete material facts. Everything after that is a question of which approach is more accurate or best explains a given phenomenon.

Social ideologies are less precise than scientific ideologies when it comes to methodological foundations. The emphasis of social ideologies is not on categorising observable, reproducible and predictable phenomena over time (even if some so-called social sciences attempt to do so by replicating quasi-scientific methodologies). Social ideologies seek to explain the connection between actual and preferred human society. The posit the relationship between the real and the ideal, what is and what should be, and the penalties for transgression. They are, in other words, normative in nature.

They can be religious (to include atheism as a belief in the negation of divinity) or secular. Since religious ideologies reduce human agency to subordination to Divine will, they will be not be elaborated upon here. Suffice to say that like all social ideologies they are a means of imposing social conformity and control, ostensibly under Godly direction. I shall leave it at that.

Secular social ideologies can be divided into political ideologies like Fascism, Marxism, Leninism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Maoism, Communism, Social Democracy, National Populism and anarchism; economic ideologies such as socialism, capitalism and variants such as neoliberalism, welfare statism, market capitalism or state capitalism; managerial ideologies like Fordism and Taylorism and their sub-groups; cultural ideologies like feminism, vegetarianism, racism, (whatever its particular manifestation), speciesism, communitarianism, ecologism and environmentalism; artistic such as cubism, surrealism, impressionism and many other variants to “plastic” expression—the list of approaches to interpreting social reality is not meant to be exhaustive as to type of human endeavour or approaches to them but to illustrate that all “schools of thought” are just that—someone thought them up in order to explain (at least some aspects of) human behaviour.

Think about how we conceive of work, play, sports, commodification (which itself is ideational derived from larger ideas), the calendar versus 40 hour week, etc. This is not given by nature. It is thought up by people trying to understand and gain some measure of control over the world around them.

This may all seem like high school philosophy 101 or David Seymour regaling members of the Lindsay Perigo appreciation society during a circle group-grip youth session about the finer points of Ann Rand’s thought, but the point here is to reinforce the fact that how we view the world is a product of the imagination. It is in a sense a subjective interpretation—even if scientific–of the world around us given the constraints of human physiology, intellect and consciousness. The subjective assessment of objective phenomena is especially true for social ideologies. What differentiates between the latter is not their origins (in the human mind) but in the consequences of their application.

For example, consider collectivist versus individualist conceptualizations of the preferred social order. One starts with the assumption that the individual matters more than the collective or vice versa, and everything that follows originates with that idea. These ideological starting points are value neutral. It is in their application in real life where they acquire positive or negative worth. In other words, the idea(s) behind a given “ism” may be all be equally good in intent or neutral in principle, but it is in their implementation and outcomes where their differences are most heavily felt.

That is what make social ideologies “good” or “bad” in the subjective eye. The more holistic they are, the more prescriptive they are, the more comprehensive and certain that they claim to be, the more controlling that they will be. The more controlling they are, the more dictatorial their implementation given the variety of human opinion on any given subject. The more controlling and authoritarian that ideologies are in practice, the more restrictive of human freedoms they become.

Conversely, the less organizational and prescriptive in focus, the more an ideology becomes a license to excess, disorder and chaos. Again, that is a subjective interpretation based on the value preferences of this author, not any immutable law.

Once we accept the fact that all of how we interpret the world and beyond is rooted in the depths of the imagination, the easier it is to understand that truth is subjective rather than objective. The process is two-fold: first, in the assumptions and methods imagined in order to interpret reality; and second, the prescriptions and conclusions drawn from those interpretations. The assumptions and methods used are pre-modern, modern or post-modern in nature because they are born of the moment in which they are imagined by real people living in real time, even when looking to the future or past. So are their prescriptions and conclusions.

This is what makes me a relativist rather than an absolutist when it comes to social thought. Not that I believe that all ideologies are to be considered intellectually relative to each other or that there are no absolutes in life. I simply understand that when it comes to ideation and ideology, what is relative is the absolute value that we put into any given “ism.”

Values, interests and security.

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

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

Values<——->Interests<——->Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facing facts.

The critical reaction of some conservative commentators and politicians about Nanaia Mahuta’s “Taniwha and Dragons” speech is focused on the double premise that NZ is “sucking up” to the PRC while it abandons its obligations to its 5 Eyes intelligence partners. Some have suggested that NZ is going to be kicked out of 5 Eyes because of its transgressions, and that the CCP is pulling the strings of the Labour government.

These views are unwarranted and seemingly born of partisan cynicism mixed with Sinophobia, racism and misogyny (because Mahuta is Maori and both Mahuta and PM Ardern are female and therefore singled out for specific types of derision and insult). Beyond the misinterpretations about what was contained in the speech, objections to Mahuta’s invocation of deities and mythological beasts misses the point. Metaphors are intrinsic to Pasifika identity (of which Maori are part) and serve to illustrate basic truths about the human condition, including those involved in international relations. As a wise friend said to me, imagine if a US Secretary of State was an indigenous person (such as Apache, Cherokee, Hopi, Mohican, Navaho, Sioux or Tohono O’odham). It is very possible that s/he would invoke ancestral myths in order to make a point on delicate foreign policy issues.

In any event, this post will clarify a few facts. First, on military and security issues covering the last two decades.

New Zealand has twin bilateral strategic and military agreements with the US, the first signed in 2010 (Wellington Declaration) and the second in 20012 (Washington Declaration). These committed the two countries to partnership in areas of mutual interest, particularly but not exclusively in the South Pacific. New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan as part of the US-led and UN-mandated occupation after 9/11, a commitment that included NZSAS combat units as well as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan Province that mixed humanitarian projects with infantry patrols. More than 3500 NZDF troops were deployed in Afghanistan, at a cost of ten lives and $300 million.

Similarly, NZ sent troops to Iraq after the US invasion, serving in Basra as combat engineers in the early phase of the occupation, then later as infantry trainers for Iraqi security forces at Camp Taji. More than 1000 NZDF personnel were involved in these deployments, to which can be aded the SAS operators who deployed to fight Saddam Hussein’s forces and then ISIS in Iraq and Syria after its emergence. There are a small number of NZDF personnel serving in various liaison roles in the region as well, to which can be added 26 NZDF serving as peacekeepers in on the Sinai Penninsula (there are slightly more than 200 NZDF personnel serving overseas at the moment). In all of these deployments the NZDF worked with and now serves closely with US, UK and Australian military units. The costs of these deployments are estimated to be well over $150 million.

The NZDF exercises regularly with US, Australian and other allied partners, including the US-led RimPac naval exercises and Australian-led bi- and multilateral air/land/sea exercises such as Talisman Saber. It regularly hosts contingents of allied troops for training in NZ and sends NZDF personnel for field as well as command and general staff training in the US, Australia and UK. RNZN frigates are being upgraded in Canada and have contributed to US-led freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea (against PRC maritime territory extension projects) and anti-piracy and international sanctions enforcement missions in the Persian Gulf. Among the equipment purchases undertaken during the last two decades, the NZDF has bought Light Armoured Vehicles, the infamous “LAVs” (or Strykers, as they are known in the US), Bushmaster armoured personnel carriers, C-130J “Hercules” transport aircraft, P-8 “Poseidon” anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft, Javelin anti-tank portable missiles and a range of other weapons from 5 Eyes defence contractors. In fact, the majority of the platforms and equipment used by the NZDF are 5 Eyes country in origin, and in return NZ suppliers (controversially) sell MFAT-approved weapons components to Australia, the US, UK , NATO members, regional partners and some unsavoury Western-leaning regimes in the Middle East.

After the estrangement caused by the dissolution of the ANZUS defence alliance as a result of NZ’s non-nuclear decision in the mid-1980s, a rapprochement with the US began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The 5th Labour government sought to capitalise on the moment and sent troops into Afghanistan and later Iraq using the cover of UN resolutions to deflect political attacks. That led to improved military-to-military relations between the US and NZ, something that has been deepened over the years by successive NZ governments. The intelligence relationship embodied in the Echelon/5 Eyes agreement was slightly curtailed but never ended even when ANZUS died, and gradually was restored as the main security partnership to which NZ was affiliated. Now the NZDF is considered a small but valued military and intelligence partner of the US and other 5 Eyes states, with the main complaints being (mostly from the Australians) that NZ does not spend enough on “defence’ (currently around 1.5 percent of GDP, up from 1.1 percent under the last National government, as opposed to 2.1 percent in Australia, up from 1.9 percent in 2019) or provide enough of its own strategic lift capability. The purchase of the C-130J’s will help on that score, and current plans are to replace the RNZAF 757 multirole aircraft in or around 2028.

The dispute over US warships visiting NZ because of the “neither confirm or deny” US policy regarding nuclear weapons on board in the face on NZ’s non-nuclear stance was put to rest when the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Sampson (DDG-102) participated in the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations in November 2016 after an agreement between the then National government and US Department of Defense on assurances that it was not carrying or using nukes as weapons or for propulsion. As if to prove the point of bilateral reconciliation, on the way to the celebrations in Auckland DDG-102 diverted to provide humanitarian support to Kaikura earthquake relief efforts after the tremor of November 14th (the week-long anniversary fleet review involving foreign naval vessels began on on November 17th). A Chinese PLAN warship also participated in the anniversary Fleet Review, so the message conveyed by the first official NZ port visit by a US warship in 30 years was made explicitly clear to the PRC.

The fact is this: the relations between NZ and its 5 Eyes partners in the broader field of military security is excellent, stable and ongoing. That will not change anytime soon.

As for intelligence gathering, NZ is a core part of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and analysis network. Over the years it has moved into the field of military signals intelligence gathering as well as technical and electronic intelligence-gathering more broadly defined. More recently, in light of the emergence of non-state terrorism and cyber warfare/espionage threats, the role of 5 Eyes has been upgraded and expanded to counter them. To that end, in the last decade NZ has received multiple visits from high-ranking intelligence officials from its partners that have dovetailed with technological upgrades across the spectrum of technical and electronic signals intelligence gathering. This includes addressing issues that have commercial and diplomatic sensitivities attached to them, such as the NZ decision to not proceed with Huawei involvement in its 5G broadband rollout after high level consultations with its 5 Eyes partners. More recently, NZ has been integrated into latest generation space-based intelligence collection efforts while the focus of the network returns to more traditional inter-state espionage with great power rivals like China and Russia (we shall leave aside for the moment the benefits that the GCSB and NZDF receive from Rocket Lab launches of US military payloads but we can assume that they are significant).

As routine practice, NZSIS and GCSB officers rotate through the headquarters of 5 Eyes sister agencies for training and to serve as liaison agents. Officers from those agencies do the same in NZ, and signals engineers and technicians from 5 Eyes partners are stationed at the collection stations at Waihopa and Tangimoana. GCSB and SIS personnel also serve overseas alongside 5 Eyes employees in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. While less standardised then the regular rotations between headquarters, these type of deployments are ongoing.

5 Eyes also maintains a concentric ring of intelligence partners that include France, Germany, Japan, Israel, and Singapore. These first-tier partners in turn use their respective capabilities to direct tactical and strategic intelligence towards 5 Eyes, thereby serving as the intelligence version of a “force multiplier” in areas of common interest. One such area is the PRC, which is now a primary focus of Western intelligence agencies in and outside of the Anglophone world. This common threat perception and futures forecasting orientation is shared by the NZ intelligence community and is not going to change anytime soon unless the PRC changes its behaviour in significant ways.

For its part, the PRC has no such complex and sophisticated intelligence networks with which to avail itself. It has intelligence partners in North Korea, Russia, Iran and other small states, but nothing on the order of 5 Eyes. As a result, it is much more reliant on human intelligence collection than its rivals in the 5 Eyes, something that has become a source of concern for the 5 Eyes community and NZ in particular (as the supposed weak link in the network and because of its economic reliance on China, of which more below). While the PRC (and Russia, Israel and Iran, to name some others) are developing their cyber warfare and espionage capabilities, the fact is that the PRC continues to rely most heavily on old-fashioned covert espionage and influence operations as well as relatively low tech signals intercepts for most of its foreign intelligence gathering. If I read intelligence reports correctly, NZ’s counter-espionage and intelligence efforts are focused on this threat.

In a word: NZ is committed to the 5 Eyes and has a largely Western-centric world view when it comes to intelligence matters even when it professes foreign policy independence on a range of issues. That is accepted by its intelligence partners, so transmission (of intelligence) will continue uninterrupted. It is in this light that Mahuta’s comments about NZ’s reluctance to expand 5 Eyes original remit (as an intelligence network) into a diplomatic coalition must be understood. There are other avenues, multilateral and bilateral, public and private, through which diplomatic signaling and posturing can occur.

That brings up the issue of trade. Rather than “sucking up” to China, the foreign minister was doing the reverse–she was calling for increased economic distance from it. That is because New Zealand is now essentially trade dependent on the PRC. Approximately 30 percent of NZ’s trade is with China, with the value and percentage of trade between the two countries more than tripling since the signing of the bilateral Free Trade Agreement in 2008. In some export industries like logging and crayfish fisheries, more than 75 percent of all exports go to the PRC, while in others (dairy) the figure hovers around 40 percent. The top four types of export from NZ to the PRC are dairy, wood and meat products (primary goods), followed by travel services. To that can be added the international education industry (considered part of the export sector), where Chinese students represent 47 percent of total enrollees (and who are a suspected source of human intelligence gathering along with some PRC business visa holders).

In return, the PRC exports industrial machinery, electronics (cellphones and computers), textiles and plastics to NZ. China accounts for one in five dollars spent on NZ exports and the total amount of NZ exports to China more than doubles that of the next largest recipient (Australia) and is more than the total amount in value exported to the next five countries (Australia, US, Japan, UK and Indonesia) combined. Even with the emergence of the Covid pandemic, the trend of increased Chinese share of NZ’s export markets has continued to date and is expected to do so in the foreseeable future.

Although NZ has attempted to diversify its exports to China and elsewhere, it remains dependent on primary good production for the bulk of export revenues. This commodity concentration, especially when some of the demand for export commodities are for all intents and purposes monopolised by the Chinese market, makes the NZ economy particularly vulnerable to a loss of demand, blockages or supply chain bottlenecks involving these products. Although NZ generates surpluses from the balance of trade with the PRC, its reliance on highly elastic primary export commodities that are dependent on foreign income-led demand (say, for proteins and housing for a growing Chinese middle class) makes it a subordinate player in a global commodity chain dominated by value-added production. That exposes it to political-diplomatic as well as economic shocks not always tied to market competition. Given the reliance of the entire economy on primary good exports (which are destined mainly for Asia and within that region, the PRC), the negative flow-on effects of any disruption to the primary good export sector will have seriously damaging consequences for the entire NZ economy.

That is why the Foreign Minister spoke of diversifying NZ’s exports away from any single market. The only difference from previous governments is that the lip service paid to the “eggs in several baskets” trade mantra has now taken on urgency in light of the realities exposed by the pandemic within the larger geopolitical context.

Nothing that the Labour government has done since it assumed office has either increased subservience to China or distanced NZ from its “traditional” partners. In fact, the first Ardern government had an overtly pro-Western (and US) slant when coalition partners Winston Peters and Ron Mark of NZ First were Foreign Affairs and Defence ministers, respectively. Now that Labour governs alone and NZ First are out of parliament, it has reemphasised its Pacific small state multilateralist approach to international affairs, but without altering its specific approach to Great Power (US-PRC) competition.

The situation addressed by Mahuta’s speech is therefore as follows. NZ has not abandoned its security allies just because it refuses to accept the Trumpian premise that the 5 Eyes be used as a diplomatic blunt instrument rather than a discreet intelligence network (especially on the issue of human rights); and it is heavily dependent on China for its economic well-being, so needs to move away from that position of vulnerability by increasingly diversifying its trade partners as well as the nature of exports originating in Aotearoa. The issue is how to maintain present and future foreign policy independence given these factors.

With those facts in mind, the Taniwha and Dragon speech was neither an abandonment of allies or a genuflection to the Chinese. It was a diplomatic re-equilibration phrased in metaphorical and practical terms.