Policing protests.

Images of US students (and others) protesting and setting up tent cities on US university campuses have been broadcast worldwide and clearly demonstrate the growing rifts in US society caused by US policy toward Israel and Israel’s prosecution of its war against Palestinians in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli-occupied territory along the Gaza Strip on October 7 of last year. The police behaviour appears to be a bit over the top, to say the least, given that the protests are purportedly peaceful for the most part, or at least until the cops arrive. It would seem that the police do not care for freedoms of speech or assembly, so there appears to be an anti-democratic bias at play in the suppression of these protests. But there are some angles to the subject that need further discussion, so let’s dig in on them.

Assuming that protesters are not harassing, intimidating or assaulting people or damaging public or private property, then the police response in place like Emory University, University of Southern California and the University of Texas (to name a few), is in fact excessive. Even if trespass orders are given, there is no need to manhandle, use tear gas, rubber bullets or generally hurt protestors in order to get them to leave a designated area unless they are being violent. If they block roads and physically impede public movements in and around the demonstration, then protesters can be arrested and cited under law for a subsequent court appearances. But unless they actively (as opposed to passively) resist, then violence should not be used against them and even then, all care should be made by law enforcement to consider the physical well-being of those arrested. Marching people out by the elbows is one thing. Throwing them to the ground and cuffing them behind their backs is another. Breaking arms or legs and pepper-spraying people people is a step too far. Again, this assumes that protesters are not behaving in a threatening or violent manner.

Private schools can issue trespass notices for any reason and have the police enforce them. Likewise, public institutions can do much the same although here the space being occupied is owned by taxpayers and therefore not as easily subject to tresspass orders unless people start damaging things or other folk. This was the case with the 2022 Wellington parliamentary protest, which was held on parliament grounds but eventually spilled into adjacent streets (and beyond), all of which are public spaces. Given that public institutions are thought of as “the people’s places,” authorities must exercise extra caution when attempting to end protests on and in them. Unlike the centralised nature of law enforcement decision-making in NZ (due to the unitary nature of government), as a federal republic that means that in the US State and/or local authorities must make the decision to move against a protest, usually at the request of university administrators. There are plenty of regulations in place that give State and local governments authority over public spaces, so the right for public authorities to enforce trespass notices is there. It is how they do so that is the issue.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about “free” versus “hate” speech, which is at the crux of the protests and how they are handled. Waving banners and yelling “long live Hamas” is an example of protected free speech. Given Hamas’s record, it may offend many people but no harm is invited and no violence is incited. On-lookers can walk away if they object. It is therefore a case of protected “offensive” speech at worst. However, yelling or waving banners saying “kill the Jews” or “nuke Gaza” is not. It is an incitement to violence against a specific group of people. As such it needs to be treated as a precursor to a hate crime as it invites and incites violence against a designated target. Law enforcement authorities need to understand the difference and formulate their responses accordingly.

Think of it this way: Kyle Chapman and other NZ neo-Nazis can play dressup and march around yelling “Sieg Heil” and “white power” all they want, so long as they do not cross the line into advocating violence or committing acts of violence against others. The police need to know what is protected (anti-social racist incel boorishness) and what is not (advocating harm to others). Unfortunately, the police in Christchurch have a history of downplaying the issue when Kyle and his fellow creeps cross that line, something that may have been a factor in the events of March 15, 2019.

The same logic holds true for pro-Palestinian demonstrators. They cross the line if they call for the eradication of Jews anywhere. “Death to Zionism” is not the same as “Death to Jews” no matter how much some would like to conflate the two. Zionism is an ideology. Jews are people. One is a belief, the other are living humans. Although some Jews are Zionists, not all are and even then they do not deserve to be targeted for being Jews (there are non-Jewish Zionists as well, especially in US fundamentalist Christian communities).

The matter of how to end protests is complicated by the fact that infiltrators with other agendas often join sincere people participating in legitimate protests who are exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The agitators may act as agent provocateurs in order to turn otherwise peaceful protests into something nasty, in order to expose the contradictions of the Deep State, capitalism, Big Pharma, the government or any number of other nefarious agencies who are believed to usurp and act contrary to the popular will. I witnessed this phenomena close up during my youthful protest days, where a group called the Spartacus Youth League, of Trotskyite persuasion, in Chicago and Washington DC, used a tactic where masked “Spart” columns moved to the front of crowds facing off with police and proceeded to assault the cops at close range with projectiles and blunt objects (but from behind the frontline of peaceful protesters). That usually caused a police riot where cops began to beat on everyone in front them while the “Sparts” slunk away to the back of the crowd and started looting and vandalising on the sidelines. The original reason for the protest often got lost in the mayhem, which of course is what the media focused on.

Although I do not know if the “Sparts” or other groups have engaged in this sort of action in the recent student protests, there are reports of non-students joining the student protesters, which in of itself is not a bad thing. But if they come with other agendas, say, turning a pro-Palestine or anti-genocide protest into a “Kill the Jews” hate fest, then the usual protections of speech and assembly no longer apply. Again, that is because the latter is a type of hate speech, inciting violence against a specific group of people because of who they are (as opposed to what the State of Israel does), and as such is no longer afforded the protections available to offensive “free” speech.

Not to belabour the point, but consider this: One can vociferously call Netanyahu a murderer and Israel a genocidal regime without personalising and inciting violence against Jews as an ethno-religious group. One can voice support for Palestinians and call for university divestiture of investments in companies that do business with the State of Israel without hating all Jews. Although holding and voicing these views may be offensive to some, it is not anti-Semitic to do so. After all, not all Jews are Israeli or support Netanyahu or Israel’s polices towards Palestine. The line is drawn when support for Palestinians or criticism of Israel turns into calling for violence against Jews. That moves what some may consider offensive speech into the realm of hate speech, which does not deserve the protections of law. Likewise, defence of Israel cannot extend to advocating the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their ancestral lands. If so, the line between free speech and hate speech is then crossed.

For police in liberal democracies (I shall not bother writing about how authoritarians handle protests since they do not concern themselves with the niceties of free speech and assembly), the conundrum is this: do they come in hard from the onset and disperse the crowds with overwhelming force? Or do they adopt a passive containment strategy that allows people to blow off steam before they decide to end their action either voluntarily or with non-violent encouragement by or disincentives from the authorities (say, by threatening suspension or dismissal from universities if students do not disperse by a specific time)?

In the Wellington protests the police adopted the passive approach. For a month they dealt with the crowds in a largely peaceful manner even though agitators and extremists joined the ranks of the original anti-vaccination/anti-mandate crowd. The police even overlooked the fact that there were public health restrictions (specifically, social distancing requirements) still in place when the protest caravans began to arrive in Wellington in early February, something that contributed to an upsurge in Covid cases in the crowd. Over time the infiltrators began to dominate the protest discourse, to include voicing MAGA support, waving confederate flags, railing against the “Deep State,” echoing QAnon weirdness, voicing violent threats against “Jabcinda” (including her execution and that of other officials) and otherwise behaving like aggressive a-holes. As days turned into weeks the public health and public order downsides of the protest grew larger and more uninvolved people were negatively impacted by it. Many of the original protest leaders, like the so-called Voices for Freedom, retreated back to their home keyboards rather than staunch things out to the bitter and inevitable end. Eventually, after a month of paralysis in central Wellington and at high cost in resources and injury, the cops moved in to disperse the encampment. A riot ensured.

Perhaps it did not help for the then Speaker of the House to order that the parliamentary lawn sprinklers be turned on and that awful pop music be played over loudspeakers above the encampment. Presumably he thought that would weaken the resolve of the protesters and they would all go home. Instead, that just turned the parliament lawn into a cow paddock and irritated the aesthetic sensitivities of the conspiracy theorists, who simply added bad pop music and involuntary cold water showers to their list of Deep State machinations. More importantly, the Speaker clearly did not consult with the Police Commissioner before he made his moves, or if he did, they must have concocted that genius plan after sharing a few pints at The Backbencher. In retrospect it was not a good decision.

So for the police the question is what to do? Go in hard early or adopt a passive containment/defusion strategy? (I will leave aside the idea that the police would chose not to enforce anti-demonstration laws and let people gather as they please simply because in a place like NZ or the US, the cops are mostly anything but progressive or anti-status quo in mindset even if individual members may be sympathetic to a specific cause. Having said that, the Washington DC police refused to move against pro-Palestinian protestors at George Washington University, a private school, after university administrators requested that they clear the student encampment. The cops said that the group was small and peaceful, so the “optics” would not look good. Make of that what you will.).

A different approach might have been to identify infiltrators and extremists via undercover and technological observation and use more selective techniques to isolate and separate them from the crowd. After all, the police are part of a repressive apparatus that not only has a monopoly over organised violence within a given territory but which has the authority of the State behind it. Of all actors, they should know–in fact be schooled in–the art of subtle extirpation of troublemakers as well as in the well-known goon squad tactics usually associated with riot control. That did not happened in Wellington and the goon squad approach eventually had to be used.

(I cannot go into the details here but in Greece there are two types of riot police, one dressed in green gear and the other in blue gear. The different colours signals to protesters the different levels of repression that is about to be meted out so that people can chose whether to stay or leave before the blue goons make their entrance. That serves to separate the protest wheat from the chaff once the blue squad arrives. For their part protesters in Athens had Loukanikos the riot dog on their side during my time in Athens as well as his “son” Kanellos, who is said to still be part of the resistance).

In the US things are different. The police doing the repressing represent state and local (municipal and county) authorities. Consequently, their training and approach to protest varies widely. From what I have seen, the cops at Emory (which is in Atlanta, Georgia) and the University of Texas have very little time for protestors. Their governors, both reactionary Republicans, have joined in the smear that the protestors are anti-semitic and pro-terrorist, thereby opening the door to a heavy-handed approach to dispersing the crowds. It should be noted that Emory University is a private school and its administrators requested that the Atlanta police break up the demonstration. At UT-Austin it was the governor who ordered the troops in (I do not know if that was done at the request of university administrators or of his own volition, but given his remarks the latter appears to have been the case).

Conversely, at Colombia, Yale, Harvard, New York University and USC (all private schools outside of the Deep South), the police initially exercised a bit more restraint but nevertheless resorted after just a few days to forcibly removing people in handcuffs or bodily if they refused to move. Perhaps that is reflective of the US police mindset when it comes to this particular cause and the people doing the protesting. If the protests were reversed (pro-Israel rather than pro-Palestine), it would be interesting to see if the police tactics changed. From the standpoint of equality under the law, one would hope not, but a realistic appraisal of the situation suggests to me that pro-Israeli demonstrations in the US would be met very differently by law enforcement and in fact may have to be “protected” from counter-demonstrators (as has happened in Australia).

Then there is the issue of disinformation. Most of the word about the protests is spread by social media, and various platforms are used by protest organisers to spread the action beyond its origins. This opens a window of opportunity for state and non-state actors to introduce disinformation into protest campaigns in order to advance other, hidden agendas. For example, it would seem to be a professional imperative for Russian and Chinese disinformation units to target the protests in order to further undermine the historic public consensus in support of Israel in the US (born of political elite and media bias in favour of Israel), in order to advance their respective adversarial interests vis a vis the US in the Middle East and beyond. From a strategic perspective it would be derelict of them not to exploit this window of opportunity, as undermining an enemy from within using non-military means is far more resource efficient that waiting until open conflict with that enemy has begun. Both the PRC and Russia have prior form in this regard (including in NZ), so it is not a stretch to speculate that they may be doing so with regard to the student protests. Police and other intelligence agencies need to be aware of this possibility and approach the cyber realm accordingly.

Of course, the root cause of this situation of discord and dissent in the US is the Israeli elite’s psychopathic behaviour both before and after October 7 and the willing blindness of US foreign policy elites to the fact that Israel is not only the tail that wags the US foreign policy dog in the Middle East but has now become a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset (which derives from its importance when it comes to intelligence gathering on and sharing of Middle Eastern affairs). It has taken young adults–students–to bring critical attention to that fact, but for US adversaries they are just pawns in a larger game.

In the end how to police protests has much to do with the cause, the culture (both in civil society as well as in policing), who is doing the protesting and who is in government at the time. Some causes may be purer than others. The students are protesting about terrible events in a far-off place based on the ideal that collective punishment leading to genocide is wrong and that casting a blind on it is complicit. Besides the cookers and nutters, the anti-vaxx crowd in Wellington were more about their personal inconvenience and material losses rather than protection of the commonweal or public good. In an odd way that suggests that the latter should have been dealt with in stronger terms from the onset while the student protests need to be handled in a less repressive way. But that is where culture and governments come in. In the US the police are more about kicking a** and taking names, whereas in NZ the approach is more to play community cop rather than Judge Dread. Likewise, US governments at every level always want to be seen as upholding “law an order” even if the laws are retrograde and the order is rigged, whereas the Labour government in place at the time of the protests was determined to try and play things softly-softly in the hope that cooler heads would prevail in the protesting crowd and things would end quietly, in the Kiwi way.

They did not.

There are lessons to be learned from both of these protest episodes, mostly about what not to do rather than what to do.

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.

Unnoticed guests.

The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) recently released a report in which he exposes the existence of a foreign intelligence partner-controlled technological “capability” inside the headquarters of the GCSB, NZ’s 5 Eyes-affiliated signals intelligence collection and analysis agency. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) governing the way in which this “capability” was used was negotiated from 2008 through to 2012, and the system went operational in early 2013. It continued to do so until 2020, when it supposedly suffered a systems failure and the equipment was removed.

The IGIS became aware of its existence while investigating an unrelated, different foreign partner-operated “capability” in the GCSB in recent years. What he found about the 2013-2020 “capability” was troublesome on several levels.

At a broad level, the IGIS appears to have indirectly confirmed what Edward Snowden revealed when he defected and leaked thousands of classified documents to investigative journalists in 2013. Those documents included descriptions of signals intercept programs such as XKeyscore, Speargun, Cortex and Prism, all of which were unknown to the public or most political leaders at the time and one of which may be the “capability” in question.

Negotiations over the MOU and entering into service of the “capability” occurred during the first two National-led Key governments. Key was the Minister for Intelligence and Security as well as PM at the time. The MOU assumed that the Minister of the day and perhaps cabinet would be informed of the “capability” following the “no surprises” policy in the Cabinet Manual regarding sensitive, controversial or security-related matters. The MOU specified that the GCSB would be informed of what the “capability” was doing in real time, what its end products/outputs were and to what purposes it was being used. The MOU was also supposed to be reviewed on a regular basis, but in fact it never was.

The “capability” was not a collection technology but an analytic mechanism to which the GCSB delivered collected inputs (intercepts) from a variety of sources. From time to time the foreign partner agency would send emails requesting “feed” settings changes on the “capability” that were done by GCSB personnel. The IGIS found evidence of 45 of these but believes there were more that went unrecorded due to faulty or patchy record keeping and, most troubling, the foreign partner agency unilaterally changing the “feed” settings on the “capability” from a remote location without notifying the GCSB.

That is just part of the problem. Whatever was intended to happen according to the MOU, in practice the Minister responsible for the GCSB–John Key in the first instance–was apparently never informed of the “capability’s” existence. Nor were any other members of the political leadership, even after the Intelligence and Security Ministerial position was divided into two (one responsible for day-to-day oversight and the other a a more general steering role). Worse yet, the senior GCSB leadership after 2013 were also kept in the dark about the “capability’s” existence. Some of that may have been due to the revolving door nature of the Director General’s (DGGCSB) position after the Kim Dotcom illegal spying fiasco of the early 2010s, where general “authorisations” were rubber-stamped by incoming DGGCSBs without paying attention to the details of what was being authorised. It is also possible that lower level technicians with hands-on roles regarding the “capability” assumed that middle management kept their superiors in the chain of command informed about the “capability” and its operational status when in fact no senior leader was the wiser about the system after in came on line. In addition, hosting of the foreign partner’s “capability” was within the law according to the 2003 GCSB Act regarding foreign intelligence sharing even if the GCSB leadership and political decision-makers were not informed about its presence. Everything was lawful and yet in violation of the MOU regarding the duty to keep Ministers and senior agency leaders informed.

Beyond that, problems remained. No legal framework or organisational protocols were developed regarding the “capability’s” usage. In fact, unlike another NZ intelligence partner country that had a similar technology installed on its soil, there was no institutional and legal frameworks developed by the GCSB and Crown Law to specifically govern the operation of the “capability.’ That meant that the “capability” was used without regard to NZ law and international legal commitments.

As an illustration of what could go wrong with this arrangement consider the following. The IGIS repeatedly mentions in his report the possibility of data from the “capability” being used for military purposes, targeting in particular. Even though “targeting” can refer to a number of intelligence-related activities beyond kinetic strikes against physical objects, the possibility remains that NZ hosted a technology that in fact may have been used to do so. Imagine a drone strike in Afghanistan using GCSB-collected data that was analysed and “packaged” by the foreign intelligence partner-operated capability located on NZ soil. Imagine that the drone strike wound up killing innocents as well as intended targets. That makes NZ culpable as an accomplice of war crimes because it was part of the kill chain even if it was not aware of being so.

That brings in the second troublesome aspect of the issue. Whatever the MOU intended, in practice the GCSB had no operational control over how the “capability” was used or what its end products were. Instead, it served as a type of maintenance engineer, maintaining the platform and changing “feed” settings on it upon request (and sometimes not even being aware that the settings were changed remotely). Evidence of the latter only became apparent when GCSB personnel noticed unexplained data outflows at odd times in which there were no setting change requests. Although this was discussed internally by those involved with the “capability,” it was never brought to the attention of the agency’s senior leadership, much less the Minister. It was only discovered by the IGIS during the course of his post-2020 investigations.

In effect, the problem with the arrangement governing the “capability” installed within GCSB headquarters in 2012 was two-fold: on an internal level there was no vertical accountability to their superiors inside and outside of the GCSB from those responsible for handling the technology. This is a gross violation of basic principles of democratic oversight of intelligence operations, where senior intelligence professionals and the decision-making politicians elected by the public are supposed to take responsibility for whatever choices are made regarding intelligence matters. In this instance both the political and civil service leaderships were ignored by their GCSB subordinates, who ran what could be called a type of “dark” operation within an already opaque agency when it comes to revealing or acknowledging its activities.

The second problem is one of sovereignty. The GCSB hosted a foreign espionage platform operated by an intelligence partner country without any meaningful level of scrutiny or control, legal or practical, over what that platform did. The GCSB knew about its technological attributes but little more, and certainly knew nothing about its uses and end products until, at best, after the fact (in just one instance as far as the IGIS could determine). Although the IGIS report does not mention the possibility, it is known that US personnel are regularly stationed at GCSB facilities and, according to the report, were involved in training GCSB personnel in the operation and maintenance of the “capability.” If US (presumably NSA) officers were inside the GCSB and involved in running the “capability” without the knowledge of GCSB leaders and the Intelligence and Security Minister, then the infringement on NZ sovereignty was great.

Think of it this way. Imagine that the CIA sent an undercover officer to work from within the SIS on a project tasked by the CIA. Although the MOU governing his/her work stated that the SIS would know about his/her activities and regularly review them, the SIS had no idea what the CIA officer did although it regularly provided him/her with various spycraft tools of the trade. The CIA officer answered and provided human intelligence to the CIA, which did not share with the SIS how the intelligence was used or what its end product or output was. The SIS “handlers” of the CIA officer did not inform their superiors about his/her presence and no one told the responsible Minister that s/he was even in NZ. How would people react to such news? Well, that is what has been revealed about the GCSB foreign “capability” program from 2013-20.

The irony is that had the “capability” been revealed to the responsible Ministers and GCSB leadership it would have most likely been approved given the nature of the NZ governments during that period and importance of NZ’s relationship with its 5 Eyes partners. Or, given how he governed, perhaps John Key told the GCSB that he did not want to know about sensitive operational matters because it gave him plausible deniability when asked about them. Maybe there was a bit of truth in both possibilities. Who knows?

Another interesting aspect to this story is that it is very possible that the “capability” was installed at the GCSB headquarters in Wellington because NZ’s looser intelligence and security laws at the time made it easier for the foreign intelligence partner to circumvent its own laws regarding certain types of signals intercept collection and analysis. The Snowden leaks detail instances of “bulk collection” and other types of whole-scale metadata gathering that much like some types of mass surveillance violate the right to privacy and presumption of innocence in most democracies. The IGIS report actually mentions metadata collection, albeit without specifics. It is therefore possible that the foreign intelligence partner took advantage of NZ’s looser oversight and legal control regime in order to do what it could not do at home.

One positive discovery by the ISIG was that as far as he could tell the “capability” was not used on NZ citizens or permanent residents. That reinforces the notion that the targets of the “capability” were foreign as well, military or not. Again, Snowden’s leaks alluded to this.

When the 2017 Intelligence and Security Act was promulgated, which superseded previous legislation like the 2003 GCSB Act and brought various legal artefacts into one body of legislation, things appear to have begun to tighten when it comes to internal oversight mechanisms within the GCSB and the SIS. Former GCSB Acting Associate Director General (and later SIS Director General) Rebecca Kitteridge and former Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwynn were instrumental in this regard and met concerted resistance from the “old boys” ranks within both agencies. Although they resisted so-called “bureaucratic capture” by spy agency “old boys” institutional inertia was great and it ran against them. They made significant inroads when it came to reforming institutional culture and practices, but much more remains to be done.

Here the troubling aspect is also double-sided. One the one hand the culture of impunity within these agencies continues to exist, even if in diluted form. The IGIS had great difficulty obtaining records, documents and truthful statements about and from those involved with the 2013-20 “capability.” Even after leaving the GCSB, some claimed to not recall its existence even though they were directly involved with it. This indicates that they are more loyal to each other and their foreign partners than to the governments of the day and the people who paid their salaries when in government service. Wellington, there is a problem.

The second difficulty is that for all the tightening of internal oversight mechanisms, there still is no effective external oversight of the NZ intelligence community, and particularly of operational agencies like the GCSB and SIS. The parliamentary committee on Intelligence and Security remains a toothless gab-fest with no powers of compulsion under oath or any other other form of disciplinary enforcement powers levied on intelligence agencies for a lack of institutional candor or cooperation. Legal punishments for these agencies for breaking the law are limited to small fines and no personal punishments. That means that the bureaucratic culture of impunity within some elements of the intelligence community is rewarded rather than constrained because, quite frankly, agency personnel can get way with things that the rest of us cannot because they are the so-called “keepers of the secrets.”

As things stand, as far as the IGIS report mentions none of those responsible for managing the “capability” have been held to account or disciplined in any way. The suggested agency reforms proposed by the IGIS, all accepted by the GCSB, do not address the issue of individuals discipline or accountability. It seems that impunity is its own reward.

This extends to their incompetence. One of the provisions of the Royal Commission on the Christchurch terrorist attacks was that no one within the intelligence and security communities would be held responsible for failures of a personal or institutional nature. This was supposedly done to encourage people to talk freely about what was and was not known in the lead-up to the attacks, but instead what resulted was a highly sanitised whitewash of bureaucratic and personal responsibility for the intelligence failures that facilitated the carrying out of one of NZ’s worse mass killings in modern times.

In effect, the story about this foreign intelligence “capability” secretly operated from within the GCSB is one about violation of basic principles of democratic oversight of intelligence agencies, of an abdication of sovereignty to a foreign power when it comes to intelligence collection and analysis, and above all, of an ongoing culture of impunity within NZ intelligence agencies that do not appear to have learned the right lessons from the Zaoui, Dotcom or March 15 cases when it comes to behaving ethically and taking responsibility for the actions or inactions taken on their watch.

Which begs the question: in spite of all the post 2017 tightening of internal oversight mechanisms, will it be a matter of when not if before history repeats when it comes to an intelligence agency scandal?

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.

A toe in the fire.

The decision to send six NZDF personnel to join the US-led anti-Houthi maritime picket line has a number of interesting facets to it. I made a few posts about the decision on a social media platform but will elaborate a bit more here.

It was obvious that a conservative pro-American government coalition would not only sign a US-drafted declaration defending freedom of navigation and denouncing Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, but would offer some symbolic material support (even if token) to the maritime picket line that the US and its main allies (all 5 Eyes partners) were putting together under the already extant joint task force CTF-153 headquartered at the US 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain. The task force is led by a US admiral and operates under US Rules of Engagement (ROE). Prime Minister Luxon is an admitted “Americaphile” due to his time spent in the US as a corporate executive. Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Winston Peters was involved in negotiating the Wellington and Washington Agreements establishing US-NZ bilateral security ties and has long voiced his support for US leadership in global affairs. The third coalition party leader, David Seymour, takes his policy prescriptions (and money) from US rightwing think-tanks and conservative lobbies.

Defense Minister Judith Collins (among many other portfolios, including intelligence and security) was the odd person out at the press conference announcing the deployment (Seymour did not attend) because she has previously attempted to use her status as an MP and minister to advance her husband’s business interests in China, and remains as one of the more Sinophilic (yes, said on purpose) members of the new government. Moreover, as Minister of Intelligence and Security and Attorney General, she is now the Keeper of the Secrets of Defense, Intelligence and the Courts, which is only of concern if you worry about a corrupt politician who also is now back scheming with the bankrupt (in every sense of the word) rightwing attack blogger whose miserable antics were outlined in that chronicle of political depravity, Dirty Politics. In any event, with the Collins anomaly excepted, it should be no surprise that the government made a move in support of its security patrons.

The government argues that its contribution is done to protect freedom of navigation, making specious arguments about the impact of the Houthi attacks leading to a rise in commodity prices on NZ consumers (NZ being a trade-dependent country etc.). It rejects the notion that its actions are in any way connected to the Hamas-Israel War even though the Houthis are invoking Article 2 of the 1949 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide to justify their attempts to stop war materials from reaching Israel. It chides those who differ with their justification by saying that it is wrong to “conflate” the Hamas-Israel War with the Houthi attacks even though the Houthis have explicitly done so.

As many scholars have noted, NZ joining the coalition of the pro-Israeli military bloc runs counter to NZ support for UN demands for a ceasefire and its supposed neutrality on the larger context behind the current conflict. Whatever the pretense, the hard truth is that with the NZDF deployment NZ has openly joined the Western coalition backing Israel in its war on Palestinians, eschewing bold support for enduring humanitarian principle in favor of short-term diplomatic realpolitik. Moreover, NZ has now been suckered into, via the US request for a contribution to the anti-Houthi effort, an expanding regional conflict that involves Iran and its proxies, on one side, and Israel and its (mostly Western) supporters on the other. With Russia and PRC (among others) supporting Iran and its proxies, the conflict has the potential to become drawn out as well as involve a larger number of actors.

Mission creep for the NZDF is therefore a distinct possibility, and the claim of NZ foreign policy independence rings hypocritically hollow since it is now clear that when the US asks NZ to take a pro-US/Israel stand on a controversial international issue, NZ bows and obeys.

So what does NZ’s flag-planting entail?

Not much at first glance. Its two frigates are in maintenance or on sea trials. It would do no good to send non-combat ships even if they were available (they would just become targets), and its in-and offshore patrol vessels are not suited to the task even if they could find crews to man them and get them to the theatre of operations. The Air Force could have sent one of its new P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which would be suited to some picket line duties such as electronic surveillance, but chose to not do so. What was left was finding a way to send ground-based assets to the theatre, and that is what the government and NZDF brass opted to do.

They have ordered the deployment of a six person “highly specialised” team to serve as “targeters” for allied forces using “precision weapons” against Houthi targets. From that description the soldiers could be a military communications/signals intelligence team or could come from the NZSAS, who specialise in long range patrol and reconnaissance and who routinely serve close to or behind enemy lines as forward target spotters (including Mosul during the fight against ISIS, if reports are correct). The NZSAS is believed to already have assets in the Middle East, perhaps stationed in Djibouti or Bahrain, likely in partnership with or as a secondment to the intelligence fusion “cells” or joint SPECOPS units that are located at US bases in those countries. Defense Minister Collins said that they would operate from “HQ and other places,” which suggests that be they military communications/signals intelligence specialists or NZSAS, they may be stationed on allied ships as well as land facilities. Because of their focus on mobility and stealth, if the team is indeed an NZSAS team, then it is doubtful that they will be spending much time behind desks or shining their medals at HQ.

Even so, a six person “targeting” team is a very thin deployment even for military intelligence or the NZSAS, which tend to deploy in platoon sized units. Unless the announced six-person team has larger backup in theatre behind it, there are no redundancies in the deployment, say, if a trooper breaks an ankle while playing paddleboard at the HQ. As things stand, the NZDF as a whole has severe retention problems that include the NZSAS, especially among non-commissioned officers, aka corporals ad sergeants (NCOs) that are the backbone of the regiment. Similar problems afflict other specialist units. In other words, the thinness of the deployment may be symptomatic of much larger problems within the NZDF.

The government says that there will been NZDF boots on the ground in Yemen. Not only do I take the government and NZDF word on this with a big grain of salt, but I will note that Yemen is contested space, the Houthis do not control all of it, and Saudi Arabia shares a border with it. Since the Saudis have conducted a murderous military campaign against the Houthis in the ongoing civil war between the Saudi-backed Republic of Yemen government and Houthi movement “rebels,” it is not far-fetched to think that it or the Republic of Yemen might welcome some anti-Houthi Western specialist forces on their soil.

(As an aside, PM Luxon has a certain form when it comes to the Red Sea conflict. He was the CEO of Air New Zealand during the Key government when an Air New Zealand subsidiary engineering firm sold maritime turbines to the Saudi Navy. Around that same time MFAT approved sale of military support equipment like range finders and fire control systems to the UAE knowing that they could be used against the Houthis (since the UAE is part of the Saudi led coalition against the Houthis), in contravention of voluntary international sanctions imposed because the Saudi coalition was committing war crimes against the Houthi population in the (still ongoing) civil war in Yemen. MFAT signed off on both deals, reflecting the Key government’s approach to such things. When confronted after the turbine sale was completed, Luxon said that he was not involved and had no responsibility for the decision, saying that it was made below his pay grade. That is a bit rich for a guy who pontificates about how he used to run an airline, but more importantly is symptomatic of how National selectively approaches relations with powerful authoritarian human rights-abusing regimes).

The government also insist that the team will not be involved in combat roles. This is an obfuscation as well as a distinction without a difference. The reason is that “targeters” are part of what is known as the “kill chain.” The “kill chain” starts with intelligence-gathering, moves through target identification and selection, then weapons and delivery platform designation, and ends with a trigger pull or launch command. The NZDF just joined the anti-Houthi kill chain. How is that so?

The NZDF “targeting” team will analyse intelligence feeds from technical (TECHNT), signals (SIGINT) and human (HUMINT) sources, including satellite and drone imagery in real time. They will evaluate the legitimacy of the intelligence by confirming the targets using a variety of means, of which getting proximate eyes on potential targets using their core skills is one possibility. In some cases targeting teams get close enough to electronically “paint” designated targets prior to air strikes (think along the lines of extremely sophisticated laser pointers). Once the target identity is confirmed and deemed actionable under the ROE, the team will pass its confirmation of the target to commanders who operate weapons platforms and who designate what sort of weapons should be used given the nature of the target (say, a sea-launched cruise missile from a destroyer or submarine or an air-launched Hellfire missile from land or carrier-based aircraft).

So what are its targeting constraints? That is unknown and the government and NZDF have not said anything about them. What is known is that the NZDF team will be operating under US command within the structure of CTC-153 operating under the name Operation Prosperity Guardian, which means they will not have autonomous say in what ultimately its designated as an “actionable” target. But the problems with the deployment go beyond the flexibility of US ROEs. It has to do with the kill chain itself.

That is why speaking of “precision” munitions is an easy way to whitewash their effects. They are precise only if the intelligence and targeting guiding them is accurate in real-time and the ROE is strictly defined. A precision guided weapon aimed at the wrong target or without regard for collateral damage is just another dumb bomb with guidance sensors and a camera. Plus, warhead throw weights matter. It is hard to be surgical with a 500lb. or1000 lb. warhead if the intelligence and target designations are not precise (they can be but not always are given the command pressures to deliver results in terms of enemies and equipment destroyed), which is why the intelligence/targeting part of the kill chain must be systems redundant before a trigger is pulled.

Again, none of this has been made public. No parliamentary consultation was undertaken before the decision to deploy the team was made. The irony is that the deployment, especially if my assumption is correct in that it involves the NZSAS, could have been done discretely and without fanfare. NZSAS deployments are done in secret all of the time and the public and politicians are none the wiser. Yet here the government chose to go public and grandstand with its announcement, which even if designed to offer public affirmation that NZ is part of the “club” John Key once talked about with regard to the NZDF presence in Iraq, also exposes the targeting team to increased physical risk and NZ to increased reputational harm given that most of the international community do not share the view that Houthi’s actions are unrelated to the Hamas-Israel war or that Israel is the good actor in it. But Israel is a close intelligence partner of the 5 Eyes network, so perhaps NZ’s choice of expediency over principle has something to do with that (rather than freedom of navigation per se).

Whatever the rationale behind the government’s decision, it seems that it is sticking a toe into a fire that may grow hotter rather than cooler. Then the question becomes one of whether the government has contingency plans ready to prevent NZ from being drawn further in and burned in the service of, to quote another Nicky Hager book title, Other People’s Wars.

About the Houthi Red Sea blockage.

The announcement that NZ has joined with 13 other maritime trade-dependent states in warning Houthis in Yemen to cease their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea (particularly in the Bad-el-Mandeb Strait) got me to thinking of about some finer points embedded in the confrontation (beyond wondering if NZ will send a warship to join the US-led task force being assembled to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea. After all, joining group communiques is cheap. Putting grey hulls into remote conflict zones is not)).

First, even though they are also maritime trade dependent, India, Indonesia and the PRC, among other Asian states, have not joined the coalition. This suggests that protection of freedom of navigation is not the sole criteria behind the decision to join or not, something confirmed by the fact that other than Bahrain, all of the signatories to the statement are 5 Eyes partners, NATO members or NATO partners (like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea). Bahrain is the location of the US Navy Central Command, the US Fifth Fleet and the combined task force (CTF-153) responsible for overseeing “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” the name given to the anti-Houthi maritime defense campaign. It has a strained relationship with Iran due to its suspicion that Iran foments unrest among it’s Shia majority (which is ruled by a Sunni aristocracy). Like many Sunni oligarchies, it sees the Houthis as Iranian proxies.

Some Muslim majority states may have declined to join Operation Prosperity Guardian out of caution rather than solidarity with the Palestinians. Anti-Israel demonstrations have broken out throughout the Islamic world, so reasons of domestic stability and elite preservation may be as much behind the calculus to decline as are sympathies with Gazans or Houthis. Conversely, nations that are not as dependent on Red Sea maritime routes (say, in the Western Hemisphere) may see little to be gained by taking sides in a conflict that does not involve their core national interests (matters of principle aside).

The name of the Operation suggests that is focused on maritime security and freedom of navigation. Twelve percent of the world’s trade passes through Bad-el-Mandeb. There is an average of 400 ships in the Red Sea at any one time. The Houthis have launched dozens of attacks on Red Sea shipping since the Gaza-Israel War began using a variety of delivery platforms. The situation has the potential for expansion into regional war, and even if it is not, it is adding transportation time delays and billions in additional costs to the global supply chain, something that will sooner or later be reflected in the cost of commodities, goods and services.

But there is a twist to this tale. The Houthis claim that they are only targeting ships that are suspected of being in- or outward-bound from Israel as well as the warships that seek to protect them. They argue that they are not targeting shipping randomly or recklessly but instead trying to impede Israel’s war re-supply efforts (this claim is disputed by shipping firms, Israel, the US, UK and various ship-flagging states, but the exact provenance of cargoes is not subject to independent verification). They claim that their actions are justified under international conventions designed to prevent genocide, specifically Article One of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (given the wholesale slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza since October 7) and point to UN statements supporting the claim that what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank, if not a “complete” genocide, certainly has the look and feel of ethnic cleansing. The South Africa application to the International Court of Justice charging Israel with genocide in Gaza, now supported by Turkey, Malaysia, Jordan, Bolivia, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and hundreds of civil rights organisations around the world, is also being used by the Houthi rebel regime (and alternate sovereign) in Yemen as justification for their attacks.

In essence, what has been set up here is a moral-ethical dilemma in the form of a clash of international principles–guaranteeing freedom of navigation, on the one hand, or upholding the duty to protect against genocide on the other.

Needless to say, geopolitics colours all approaches to the conundrum. The Houthis (who are Shia) are clients of Iran (home to Shia Islam), who are also patrons of anti-Israel actors such as the Shia Alawite regime in Syria, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and numerous Iraqi Shiite militias. Iran (and through it its various regional clients and proxies), has strong military ties to Russia and the PRC (for example remember that Russia is using Iranian-made attack drones in the Ukraine). For their part, the NATO alliance and its partners are all major intelligence partners of Israel, as is Bahrain. So the confrontation in the Red Sea may not be so much about the moral-ethical obligations in defending freedom of navigation or resisting genocide per se, but instead is part of larger balance-of-power jousting in which the principles are extra-regional but the agents are in the Middle East.

New Zealand has already chosen a rhetorical side based, presumably, on its support for the principles of freedom of navigation and its rejection of the argument that the Houthis are doing the little that they can to resist genocide in Gaza. Should NZ send a warship to join the CTF-153 naval picket fence protecting commercial ships running the gauntlet at Bad-el-Mandeb, then it will have further staked its position on the side of its Western security partners as well as put its sailors in harm’s way. Some will say that it has placed more value on containers than the lives of Gazan children.

That may be a pragmatic decision based on sincere belief in the “freedom of the seas” principle, disbelief in the Houthi’s sincerity when it comes to resisting genocide (or the argument itself), concern about Iranian machinations and the presence of Russia and the PRC in the regional balance of power contest, indirect support for Israel or simply paying, as former PM John Key once said, “the price for being in the club.” Whatever the reason or combination thereof, it appears to the neutral eye that once again NZ has put facilitation of trade ahead of upholding universal human rights in its foreign policy calculations.

Perhaps the best way to characterise this approach is to call it a matter of prioritising conflicting principles in strategically pragmatic ways. Whether that puts NZ on the right side of history given the larger context at play remains to be seen.

“Second image” issues in NZ foreign policy.

The term “second image” in international relations theory refers to an argument about the domestic sources of a nation-state’s foreign policy. The argument posits that it is the nature of those domestic sources that determines the way in which nation-states perceive and approach foreign policy. Conversely, the phrase “second image reversed” refers to the international/foreign influences on domestic politics in individual nation-states, arguing that the type and extent of foreign influence in a nation-state has a strong impact on the nature of its domestic politics. These notions have been offered in order to explain the differences between authoritarian versus democratic foreign policy-making as well as the impact of power differentials, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation on public perceptions of foreign events as well as on the very nature of political life in targeted countries (such as is claimed to be the case with Chinese influence campaigns in places like NZ). One side sees domestic politics shaping the broad contours of foreign policy; the other sees international events and influences framing the nature and conduct of domestic politics and local approaches to foreign policy.

Both views can be true and co-exist at the same time. The way in which domestic politics influences foreign policy-making can in turn be informed by foreign influence and intervention in domestic politics. Again, the way Chinese interests have influenced political and economic elites in NZ (covertly or overtly) has had a clear impact on the way NZ has approached the PRC as a foreign interlocutor. Academic Anne-Marie Brady has written extensively about PRC use of “magic weapons” such as influence campaigns in NZ and elsewhere, but one only need think of former politicians like Jenny Shipley, Don Brash and John Key sitting on the boards of a Chinese bank and companies with NZ interests to understand how reversed second imagery works.

The second image aspect of foreign policy-making is particularly noteworthy in NZ because of its one-sidedness. As mentioned above, there is plenty to suggest that there are numerous foreign influences helping shape NZ foreign policy-making. Some are legitimate and open in their presence, such as NZ membership in various NGOs, treaties and conventions with binding rules governing standards of behaviour by members, as well as in NZ’s abiding by international norms and conventions when it comes to things like domestic labour laws, environmental regulations, intellectual property and patent rights, emissions trading schemes, various health, welfare and safety standards and the like. Others, such as PRC “sharp power” direct influence campaigns, are more opaque in nature and often unrecognised or unacknowledged by those on the receiving end of them. Whatever form it may take, it is widely recognised that in NZ the reversed second image is very present when it comes to foreign policy-making.

Less so is the second image itself. The NZ foreign policy community is small, with a select number of academic and private sector actors joining government officials in shaping the country’s approach to the outside world. Public involvement in foreign policy is minimal and the political class treat it as if it was rare earth. Not surprisingly, in this year’s election campaigns discussion of foreign policy has been conspicuous by its absence. With some exceptions noted in outlets like Newsroom, the Spinoff, 36th-Parallel.com and the works of people like Matt Nippert, Gordon Campbell, Selwyn Manning and David Fisher, much of this is due to the corporate media’s focus on controversy and gotcha moments rather than on in-depth analysis of substantive issues of any sort, much less those involving foreign relations. NZ based academics like Robert Patman, Rueben Steff and Van Jackson all write thoughtfully about foreign policy matters, to include aspects of NZ foreign policy, but their contributions in the media are (often self-) limited and do not inform campaign or political party policy coverage (as far as I know).

Political parties are not saying much either. Except National, parties have offered short–sometimes very short-– manifestos (thanks to The Spinoff for collating them), and interestingly the Greens have the must robust policy platform, even if in a touchy-feely, tree-hugging, climate-centric sort of way. For its part ACT just wants to increase defense spending and buy more ships, planes and guns because that is what the BIG BOY ALLIES DO, while NZ First as well as ACT want to ignore/withdraw from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ACT says ignore, NZ First says withdraw, so it is a matter of conjecture as to whether ignoring is better than withdrawing from a legally non-binding Declaration that NZ initially opposed but eventually signed up to).

Te Pati Maori are all about increasing support for Pacifika leaders and not much else, while Labour is pretty much all about trade, trade, more trade, more trade involving Maori and the derivative issues from trade (such a patent and intellectual property rights). Focusing on the blue rinse plate special, Winston and his motley crew of racists (increasingly shared with ACT), anti-vaxxers and QAnon believers want to move the Naval base from Devonport to Marsden Point. The Greens oppose AUKUS, South Pacific militarisation and support using the military for climate change mitigation purposes. Te Pati Maori have nothing much to say about Defence, nor for that matter does Labour in its campaign documents (as much as I have seen of them). Interestingly, no party speaks about intelligence issues in spite of the recently released reports advocating for intelligence community reform in the wake of March 15 and the rise of domestic white supremacist and other forms of seditious extremism. National is especially distinguished because it has nothing much to say on any foreign policy position, but if I was to hazard a guess as to what it may be, I reckon that it would be “more of the same” with a “please be nicer to the PRC” spin added to it. (NOTE: I stand to be corrected if Labour and National have put out comprehensive foreign policy platforms but so far I have not found any when doing cursory searches).

To recap: foreign policy is woefully underrepresented in the current election campaign, much as it was in previous elections. While NZ gets the second image reversed treatment in spades, the domestic sources of foreign policy are limited to a handful of foreign policy elites who in large measure appear to be unchecked by and do not receive significant policy directives from the government and political class of the day. Instead, it is the other way around.

Although foreign policy has always been the province of elites in most countries due to the requirements of educational backgrounds, international knowledge and experience, added to the necessities of maintaining consistent diplomatic relations across home and foreign governments over time, in NZ this is worrisome because the public has virtually no input, via civil society organisations, lobbies or political parties themselves, into foreign policy perspectives and decision-making processes. For example, much is said about (and I have argued against) the notion that NZ has an ‘independent” foreign policy. But how is that informed by domestic agents and interests? Certainly not by public referenda or informed consent voiced in elections. Certainly not by academic debates about the theoretical and practical meanings of the term “independence” in foreign policy. Certainly not by community public hall forums. Certainly not by journalistic challenges to the official line.

Economic elites may have an inside track in foreign policy-making and even work hand-in-glove with Foreign Ministry officials to ensure that trade-centric policies are the core of NZ’s international position regardless of who is in government and what NZ proclaims on other matters, but who else gets a look in? Academics? Perhaps a chosen few (certainly not this ex-professor). Consultants? (Likely more than a few, usually retired diplomats or military officials, and again, certainly not this one). Lobbies (certainly, but in very limited and exclusive numbers). Religious organisations? Unions? Environmental Groups? Human Rights Organisations? Sadly, although these latter groups may have a presence on the home front, their input into the foreign policy process can be considered to be largely negligible.

The hard truth is that foreign policy making in NZ is made by a relatively small group of bureaucrats and well-connected, self-interested private sector insiders and interest groups largely unchecked by the political elite, much less public opinion. They have little accountability of a vertical sort, and even less on a horizontal level (i.e. accountability to their political overseers’ and the public, on the one hand, and to other State bureaucracies on the other). That poses a problem because horizontal and vertical accountability of public agencies is considered a hallmark of liberal democracies. They answer to the public, to politicians and to each other. Unfortunately, in NZ the foreign policy elite largely do not.

This is problematic because of the syllogism involved. If we accept a) that in NZ the second image reversed phenomenon is very real, with foreign influences having a significant impact on foreign policy elite perspectives and decision-making; and b) that little second image input goes into NZ foreign policy-making outside of a small group of overlapped and interconnected elites that are largely unaccountable to anyone but themselves; then c) NZ’s foreign policy is shaped more by foreign-influenced elite perceptions and interests than those of the voting public at large. In an autocracy this would be the normal state of affairs, but for a liberal democracy it is a concerning issue, to say the least.

Perhaps as the election campaign moves closer to decision day there will be more robust discussion of foreign policy issues, including those related to intelligence, defense and international security. Perhaps there will be debate on whether NZ is truly independent or not, whether the trade-centric focus is still fit for purpose, and what NZ’s approach to Great Power competition should be in an era of increased multipolarity and broadening of areas of contestation in regions such as the South Pacific that were once thought to be “benign” strategic environments. But as things stand that seems unlikely, and instead we will be treated to an endless series of stories and debates about which party and candidate sent out the meanest tweet, who got caught out telling porkies and who dog-whistled the most in order get media click-bait coverage.

If so, that is not good enough.