Media Link: The Hamas-Israel War as a Global Catalyst.

Readers will recall that I have been writing about the transition from unipolarity to multipolarity in international affairs since the inception of this blog. Although still in progress, that realignment has pretty much proven true but not in the way I and others assumed that it would. Rather than a move to a system dominated by several Great Powers balancing each other on specific policy issues within a common institutional framework, what is emerging is two competing constellations of States joined by non-State actors such as high technology firms and various ideological proxies and surrogates. These blocs are not formal alliances but instead are loose networks of actors that share perspectives and values on the world order. One defends the current status quo, the other does not.

The one that does not represents the post-colonial Global “South.” The one that does represents the liberal internationalist order created by and for imperialist/colonial and neo-imperialist/post-colonial Northern powers beginning in the 17th and continuing well into the late 20th century. The Global South bloc is led by Russia and China, who beyond their Northern locations trade on their revolutionary legacies of the 1950s through to the 1990s, when they supported resistance and liberation movements against colonialism and imperialism across the globe. The Global South bloc includes other members of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, India and South Africa), to which will be added Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen next year.

The intention of this emerging constellation, which also has North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia and several Sub-Saharan African States as potential members, is not so much to push a Southern Hemisphere outlook on world affairs but to create a parallel institutional edifice that will eventually replace liberal internationalist institutions as the main conduits of international exchange. Things like the Belt and Road Initiative, growth of the China Development Bank as a rival to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the move to use the Chinese Yuan as a reserve international currency rather than the US dollar when providing loans to infrastructure development projects, as well as the proposed move to create a BRICS currency that will rival the Euro and US dollar, all are part of replacing the Western-centric institutional framework with a more “South”-centric organisational apparatus.

In this week’s A View from Afar podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss how the Hamas-Israel war is a precipitant for the consolidation of this new type of bipolarism–two multipolar constellations competing with each other on numerous geopolitical fronts. Although it is still too early to see the final configurations of these blocs and whether they will translate into rival security alliances down the road (with all the dangers that entails), we try to explain how shifting perceptions on the global “street” (as opposed to between governments) are laying the foundations for a fundamental shift to the new systemic alignment.

Media Link: “AVFA” on regional realignment in the Sahel.

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss regional realignment in the Sahel region of Africa. Subjects include the Nigerian coup, the new dictatorship belt stretching from Sudan to Guinea (Red Sea to the Atlantic) through Chad, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, Russian influence and historical legacies, the decline of Western influence and the emergence of the Wagner PMC as the new East India Trading Company with military, diplomatic and economic roles to play in the pro-Russian tilt currently underway in that geographic transition zone between Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa. There was much ground to cover so have a look/listen here.

Media Link: “AVFA” on Oppenheimer’s Nightmare.

Last week former President and Prime Minister, now Deputy Chair of the Russian Security Council Dimtry Medvedev warned that Russia would use nuclear weapons if its forces in Southeastern Ukraine were on the verge of defeat, using the argument that the region was Russian and the use of nuclear weapons was a justified act of self-defence. Meanwhile, in the coming few days we shall witness the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the dawn of the nuclear (weapons) era. And coincidentally or not, in recent weeks the movie “Oppenheimer,” about the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” was released to popular and critical acclaim. That got me to thinking about where the world stood today when it came to the potential use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The situation is not good.

As it turns out I have an indirect connection to the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project that Oppenheimer directed and which led to the devastation of the two Japanese cities. Using that as a potential “hook,” I pitched the idea of doing a podcast on the subject of nuclear and other arms control efforts to my “A View from Afar” co-host Selwyn Manning. He asked that we also consider potential solution sets to the currently sad state of affairs when it comes to nuclear, chemical and biological arms control agreements, where the conventions that have been agreed upon are now either suspended, have lapsed or are being ignored. It seems that, as I have written about previously, in times of global systemic realignment, norms erosion and violation is a defining feature of the transitional moment. As things stand, solutions are hard to come by because although technical fixes are available, decisions about the use of WMDs are ultimately political. That was true for the Manhattan Project in 1945 and it is true today, and in today’s world the political will to renew and enforce arms control and non-proliferation agreements is not a universal value. It is a sobering realisation, one that drove Oppenheimer into anti-nuclear activism back then and one that we are confronted with now.

Your can catch the podcast here.

Media Link: “AVFA” on NZ-PRC trade and Prigozhin’s “pronouncement.”

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I decided to do a “near-far” sequence and look at the recent NZ trade mission to the PRC in broader context before turning our attention a discussion of what the Wagner Group incursion into Russia means in the short and medium terms. Short answer: Who knows? You can find the podcast here.

When a “coup” is not a coup.

In the wake of the short-lived Wagner Group incursion into Russia I decided to tweet some basic definitions of various irregular collective action taken against political regimes and ruling elites. That was in due in no small measure to my frustration with mindless media in NZ and elsewhere originally labelling the event as a “coup” (as in coup d’├ętat) before settling on “mutiny” after the fact. I figured that I would flesh out the tweets and publish them here.

A coup d’├ętat (French, a strike against the State) or “golpe” (Spanish, golpe de Estado or blow to or against the State) is an armed intervention by the military and other elites against a civilian regime. A putsch (German, a violent attempt to overthrow) is a failed armed intervention by the military and civilian factions in order to produce a coup (I am indebted to Ian Morrison for correcting my initial characterisation). A mutiny is an armed protest by elements in the military against other units and/or their superiors.It does not involve civilians and tends to focus on internal, institutional grievances. A Rebellion/Revolt is an armed uprising by sectors of society against political elites, sometimes with military support. The difference between the two terms is due to the size and scale of the armed collective action–rebellions are larger than revolts and span a broader set of grievances. An insurrection is an armed uprising by elements of civil society against the ruling regime, sometimes with military support. A revolution is a grassroots act of mass collective violence against a regime followed by parametric (political, economic and social) change of that regime and in society. A pronunciamento Spanish, a pronouncement or declaration) is an armed ultimatum or statement of intent and claim by elements of the military, paramilitary militias or armed elements of civil society. It is designed to convey a message and a seriousness of purpose to targeted elites regarding their handling of certain grievances held by those making the pronouncement. It is not designed to provoke regime change per se but instead seeks to force an outcome favourable to those making the demands (my thanks to Adam Przeworski for bringing this to my attention).

Note that under certain conditions one type of event can lead to another in a cascade effect, e.g. a pronouncement leading to a rebellion leading to an insurrection that results in revolution. We also must distinguish between armed inter-elite quarrels (coups, putsches, some pronouncements), mutinies and civil society uprisings.

As for the Wagner foray into Southwestern Russia and the outer Moscow region, my impression is that it was a testing of the waters taken in order to gauge what support Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has within the Russian military and public. Remember that Prigozhin did not target Putin himself, just his High Command. In fact, for a year now Prigozhin has used his media platforms to call for the removal of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He has labeled them cowardly and corrupt, noted that their children live the lives of pampered princelings and princesses in places like Dubai, and holds them responsible for command failures and the needless deaths of thousands of ordinary Russian soldiers. He has even called for their execution. But he has said nothing about Putin, who grew up in his hometown of Saint Petersburg.

In my opinion, Prigozhin wants to lead the MoD, not remove Putin. In fact, allowing Putin to remain as president might make it easier for Prigozhin to exercise real power from the Ministry of Defense as well as direct the prosecution of the war. We also must remember that there are other private military corporation (PMCs) operating in Russia, the largest being the one controlled by GASPROM, the state oil and gas monopoly. Prigozhin is well aware of their capabilities and presumably would like to consolidate them under an umbrella organization with global reach. Wagner fits that bill.

Having seen the lukewarm military/public response to his pronouncement, he decided that now was not the time to storm Moscow. Instead, he cut a deal with Putin that allowed he and his men to re-locate to Belarus and eventually elsewhere (since Wagner has a significant presence in many places a bit more hospitable than Belarus and where he would be less vulnerable to Russian retaliation). Even if he did not enter Moscow Prigozhin damaged Putin’s strongman image and may have fatally weakened Shoigu and Gerasimov’s positions. After all, Russian oligarchs and attendant economic elites may now see a reason to hedge their bets when it comes to the possibility of victory in the Ukraine and the durability in power of Putin and his coterie.That means exploring post-Putin options (which to be fair are as of yet invisible and which are likely to be just as authoritarian as the current ruling crowd). The Russian public is also more aware of elite fractures within the regime, so this move may be just the first salvo in a more prolonged power struggle within Russia. In fact, Prigoshin has made comparisons between the current situation in Russia and the 1917 Bolshevic Revolution, so even if he is not conceptually clear on what the purpose of his move was (other than the preposterous “march for justice” he claimed it was), he clearly sees Russia in a pre-revolutionary light.

Anglophone media bobbleheads and opinionators went to their stock analogies of poisoned teas and open high rise windows to characterise Prigoshin’s future. I disagree with them because Prigozhin has an insurance policy. Prigozhin’s insurance policy is, most immediately, that Putin needs Wagner if he is going to get any positive military result in Ukraine. If he kills Prigozhin, Wagner will quit the fight or suffer big defections and Russia will lose in Ukraine. That would likely spell the end of Putin. More broadly in terms of insurance against retaliation, Wagner also serves as a foreign ambassador and liaison between the Russian government and a number of state and non-state entities in the rougher parts of the world. It makes billions of dollars by offering protection to Chinese and other diamond and gold mining investors in Africa (a percentage of which goes to Russian state coffers), and provides military advice and personal protection to a rogues gallery of despots in Africa and the Middle East. It is a de facto (grey area) arm of the Russian state in many places where official relations are lacking or where the Russians believe that there is a need for them to be hidden from public view. Heck, Wagner are even rumoured to have some sort of operation in the Chatham Islands!

The Wagner Group may be known for its use of conscripts and brutality but in true mercenary fashion it has a senior cadre of hardened, smart and cunning military strategists drawn from around the world, including several Western countries. They are paid well and their families are well looked after. They are loyal to Prigozhin, so if he goes (one way or the other) then they go, And because Wagner operates in many different places, has its hands in many pies and delves into a broad array of endeavours (including signals intelligence, psychological operations and cyber crime), it has leverage on Putin. That is why Putin must allow Prigozhin to live, as least for the moment or until the war with Ukraine comes to an end. He needs Wagner in the fight (which makes Prigozhin’s current decision to withdraw his troops from Ukraine an additional pressure point on Putin and his military command).

In any event what Prigozhin did with his advance on Moscow was not a coup, or a putsch, or even a mutiny (since his troops are not part of the Russian military even while fighting alongside it). It might plausibly been called a revolt or a rebellion if it had garnered more popular support, but it did not reach the level of insurrection or revolution–at least not yet. So I am left with “pronouncement” as the best way of characterising the move because if nothing else, this pronouncement could well be a prelude of things to come.

Media Link: “AVFA” on disinformation and Global South perspectives on the Ruso-Ukrainian war.

In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about how to approach disinformation in the contemporary media landscape and Global South neutrality or support for Russia in the Ruso-Ukrainian war. The discussion takes a few turns.

Media Link: Disinformation at RNZ.

I was fighting a head cold when I did this interview so was not as lucid as I would have liked to be, but credit to RNZ for giving me the airtime. It has to do with the placing of Russian disinformation talking points in stories on Radio New Zealand’s digital platform. Knowing about Russian disinformation campaigns in the US dating back to at least 2016 as well as similar campaigns in various European states since that time, and watching the spread of foreign sourced disinformation during the pandemic and afterwards here in NZ, I have been trying to call attention to the insidious nature of these types of psychological warfare. After all, if you can subversively undermine trust and confidence in liberal democratic governance from within, then there is no need to confront it from without. The Russians are not the only ones who play this game.

The good news is that Western intelligence agencies, including those in NZ, are belatedly focused on countering the phenomenon.

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018894129/buchanan-says-he-sounded-alarm-over-disinformation-in-nz

Gamers, terrorists and spies.

For the better part of the last decade analysts have warned about the use of online interactive action games as a recruiting ground for white supremacists and neo-nazis (and to a lesser extent jihadists). The use of Crusader and modern Western military imagery in battles with dark skinned enemies facilitated the recruitment pitch, which given the subject material is mostly targeted at teenaged and young adult men. The policy implication of these warnings is that intelligence agencies, specifically signals and technical intelligence agencies such as those grouped in the Anglophone 5 Eyes network, need to devote resources to monitoring online gaming communities for signs of extremists and their attempts at expanding their ranks via the internet as well as formulating actual online plots to commit acts of violence.

Unfortunately most of these warnings went unheeded and continue to largely be ignored. Government intelligence agencies such as those grouped in the 5 Eyes have myriad threats and many other priorities to address besides online extremists using gaming as a recruitment portal. This has left a gap in their coverage of what is now a full fledged digital community of hate. This community does not just have gaming as a vehicle. It also includes chat and noticeboards like 4Chan and 8Chan, Reddit, Discord and other on-line communities that under the mantle of “free speech” cater to extremist viewpoints. Sadly, that attracts advertising revenue from those seeking to profit from hate and violence, be it via the sale of “hunting” weapons, uniforms, military insignia, survival gear and other para-military outfitters or publications and entities that promote ideological agendas that dovetail with the views of these types of online communities (think Voice for Freedom or Counterspin Media as NZ examples). Equally sadly, in spite of the efforts of the Christchurch Call and various advocacy groups, a majority of technology companies are loathe to self-police when it comes to issues of “free speech,” much less provide client data to security agencies in all but the most dire and pressing of circumstances.

This brings us to the subject of the recent leaks of highly classified US intelligence reports by a Massachusetts Air National Guard service member serving as an enlisted cyber transport system journeyman. In that capacity, 21 year old Airman First Class (E-3) Jack Teixeira of the 102nd Intelligence Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard headquartered at Joint Base Cape Cod on the site of Otis Air Field was responsible for maintaining cyber security for the Wing. In order to discharge his duties Airman Teixeira very likely was granted a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) security clearance that allowed him untrammelled access to what is known as a “SCIF,” a tightly secured room or building in which both paper and digital records are stored. He also had authority to visit off-station secure sites such as the Special Operations Command and other military intelligence units as part of his official duties. The US government refuses to comment on the matter of his clearances and how he obtained them pending his trial.

Using his access, as early as February 2022 Airman Teixeira began to transcribe and leak information from highly classified documents to a group of about 50 online gaming enthusiasts that were grouped in a Discord channel called “Thug Shaker Central.” He also is reported to have leaked to a larger Discord group and to forums on 4Chan and Reddit. Among these groups were a number of foreign nationals, including Russians. Two common aspects of the channels he leaked to is that they had weapons, uniform and military paraphernalia fetishes and trafficked in white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, racist and misogynist narratives, with Teixeira himself now being exposed as adhering to those beliefs. The only thing missing from the profile of the gamer guys Teixeira consorted with is the label “Incel,” as in iInvoluntarily celibate. I am not sure about the others but Teixeira certainly seems to fit that bill.

At first his transcribed leaks received a lukewarm response from his (mostly younger) audience because they were pages long and covered a broad range of subjects, from details on the Russian-Ukranian War, Chinese satellite warfare plans, Taiwanese defence preparedness, Egypt’s flirtation with selling arms to the Russians, US eavesdropping on South Korean communications and much, much more. After a while, when he realised that many of the group members he was trying to impress were simply not reading his “nuggets,” he began to photograph and download the documents themselves. The would prove to be his undoing.

Transcribing the documents gave him plausible deniability because the decontextualised words (i.e., no identifying markings) could have been sourced by many people from many SCIFS. But his associates were all young male gamers who are highly visual in their information-processing, so paragraphs of words without pictures soon turned boring for them. Hence, in order to keep their attention spans focused on his “nuggets” and therefore affirm his status as leader of the Thug Shaker Central group, Teixeira needed to go digital. Once he did and the documents appeared on-line with official markings like TS/SCI and NOFORN (“No Foreign” distribution), then the counter-espionage crowd in military intelligence, the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) could get to work tracking him down. However, there was a twist to his uncovering. As it turns out it was the New York Times digital investigations team that first saw the documents online. Then the Washington Post was alerted to their presence. After tracing their IP addresses and social media accounts linked to them, these outlets contacted members of the Thug Shaker Command, who confirmed the legitimacy of the documents and how they came to be online. At that point the journalists contacted the US government for comment and the hunt was on. Teixeira was captured within a couple of weeks and is now awaiting trial. He faces a lengthy prison sentence and possibly a death sentence under federal espionage and treason laws. Others might find themselves arrested as well. As it stands, two commanders of the 102nd Intelligence Wing have been stood down over the breach.

Several questions have been raised as to how and why he could have been granted a high level security clearance and given so much access to sensitive information. There are also questions raised about why the chat rooms he was involved with were not being monitored by the relevant authorities and why a seemingly obscure Joint Base at an otherwise relatively quiet tourist destination be a place where deep secrets of all sorts are stored. Allow me to answer at least some of them and draw some comparisons with my own experience.

Because of the nature of his job, Teixeira required high level clearances. He comes from a Portuguese-American military family and was two years out of high school when he joined the Guard. This mitigated in his favour because it appears that he was security vetted by a contractor working for but not by a US government agency. Edward Snowden underwent the same process and we have seen how that turned out. In this case the Discord leaks are far more serious both in terms of the breadth of the subjects covered–there are more than 500 documents in the tranche realised so far- and the depth of the exposure, which includes revelation of “sources and methods.” It is not surprising that the US government has gotten rigorously quiet on the matter. Moreover, Snowden gave his purloined data files to investigative journalists and perhaps the Russian government. Teixeira put them online, where they spread from closed groups to open forums.

His family background growing up in a well-established middle class Portuguese-American community (many of the people in that part of Massachusetts and Rhode Island are descendants of Cape Verdean whalers) and his young age would have suggested to his security vettors that he had no “baggage” that could compromise national security. If they were contractors as I believe they were, he likely wouldn’t have undergone the background checks that I underwent in the 1990s by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which included polygraphs, interviews with family, friends from Argentina all the way to that current moment, work colleagues, undergraduate and graduate student peers, even my ex-wife (not surprisingly, she had little good to say about me). I was asked about my sexual preferences, political beliefs (especially whether I had ever been a member of a Communist Party), vices (gambling, alcohol, drugs, prostitutes), financial situation (especially debt) and numerous other deeply personal matters. The main concern then was two-fold: whether I could be trusted with sensitive material, and whether I could be blackmailed. My ex-wife’s opinion notwithstanding, it turns out I was pretty milquetoast as far as applicants go.

It is unlikely that a contractor would go to such lengths to establish Teixeira’s background given his age and personal life, although the apparent ignorance of his gaming activity and the fraternity of gamers that he associated with was a major lapse on the part of both the vettors as well as US signals and military intelligence agencies. However, even if he had undergone the more rigorous DIA background checks (which still exist), it would have been unlikely that, other than the gaming angle, there would have been anything alarming on his record unless he had been arrested on felony charges. He had not been. From the contractor’s point of view it made sense to go lightly on his background check, using police and FBI records and perhaps some interviews with family and friends. Since neither US intelligence agencies or the military looked into his social media and gaming profiles, there were no red flags to which the vettors could have been alerted, and they clearly did not do that sort of due diligence themselves.

The use of security vetting contractors became common place after 9/11 as the US sought to expand its intelligence networks and analyses against non-State global irregular warfare actors as well as “traditional” adversaries (and friends!). The DIA and smaller intelligence and security vetting units simply could not handle the volume of security checks required by the thousands of new hires in the intelligence-security field. There are now over 1.5 million people in the US with “Top Secret” security clearance and another 3 million with “Secret’ clearances. The solution to the overwhelming demand for background checks was to farm out the vetting to private firms with experience in the field, such as private investigation agencies or firms specifically set up by former security officials to do security vetting as their bread and butter. However, the profit motive often leads to cost-cutting when it comes to the more laborious features of the vetting process, so many firms took the cheaper way and cut corners in that regards. Investigation into the Snowden leaks uncovered that the process by which he was granted high level clearances was flawed and incomplete. It looks like the same may have happened with Airman Teixeira.

Remember that the military is a young person’s business. They do most of the killing and they are the ones who mostly die. Gaining security clearances at a young age is quite common in the US military, especially for specialised units and more so for intelligence units. Teixeira’s age was therefore not a disqualifying factor per se and again, was likely seen as a good justification for quick granting of his clearances.

What about the unit to which he was assigned? Why would it have access to such a broad array of highly classified information? The answer is that the 102nd Intelligence Wing is a renown unit with many important responsibilities. Among them, Teixera’s assigned subordinate unit, the 102nd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, processes signals and technical intelligence from U-2 spy planes, RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper drones and supports the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (from which satellite data is collected). These platforms conduct operations all over the world but specifically over Ukraine in support of the Kiev regime. Some are reported to deploy from Otis Air Field. That means that the SCIF at Joint Base Cape Cod is an integral component of US global intelligence collection activities and the US effort to support Ukraine, which justifies the presence of highly sensitive intelligence in it.

Teixeira also travelled to other SCIF sites and had opportunity to copy classified intelligence from them as well as from his home base. If he did it obviously violates his secrecy oath and sets him up for a number of serious charges. The question is whether he did so just to impress his gamer friends, or for money, or for some ideological reason. The answer is as of yet unclear. The dominant train of thought is that he is an immature young man trying to impress other younger immature men with his “insider” status as one of those who know secrets. He clearly did not do so for money. But his darker comments about race, aspects of US government policy and Russia, much of it in line with the MAGA/QAnon narrative, could point to an ideological motive. Whether that be hatred of the Deep State and Democrats or support for Russia has yet to seen.

I should point out that in my case I was sworn to not only never divulge the TS/SCI material that I handled, but also to not talking or writing without prior authorisation about the classified aspects of my government jobs for twenty years after I left public service. Anything that I did want to write or talk about in my post-government career needed to be cleared by the Defense Department, DIA or intelligence agencies that I worked with, and I was informed that anything that involved ongoing operations or assets still alive or in service would be redacted from any material I wanted to use. There were serious penalties for removing classified material from the SCIFs that I worked in (Unauthorised removal of Classified Material), and much worse, for deliberately removing classified materials in order to hand them to a third party, whomever that may be (Espionage). It will be hard for Airman Teixeira to argue that his actions were unintentional rather than deliberate, and given who were among the groups that he leaked to, it might find him facing espionage charges. The situation does not look good for him.

Whereas what attention has been brought to the online gaming community by the security agencies has focused on rightwing extremism and terrorism, it is clear that the espionage and counter-espionage aspects of interactive digital forums needs to be factored in as well. To that expansion in the scope of cyber-intelligence operations must come a thorough re-appraisal of how security background checks are conducted on people applying for high-level security clearances. This is not just a US problem. There have been enough lapses in NZ security background checks to warrant a review of current SIS procedures and processes for vetting applicants, with or without the help of consultants. Currently non-citizens can get a high level clearance if they pass the SIS checks, but here too at least some of the vetting has been contracted out to private firms (including one that was led by Michelle Boag, of all people). The issue of citizenship aside, there is enough historical evidence to suggest that the SIS (as the lead agency when it comes to security clearance vetting and background checks) might be wise to commission an independent review of its vetting procedures and operations.

Some may remember the case of the Walter Mitty-type fraudster named Stephen Wilce, the guy who claimed to have been a member of the British Olympic bobsledding team and a former SAS trooper who served as Head of the NZ Defence Technology Agency and Chief Defence Scientist from 2005 until he was exposed in 2010. He held very high level security clearances, handled very sensitive defence information and yet was vetted by an outside firm hired by the SIS. One would have thought that they might have looked up the roster of the British bobsledding team in the 1980s when he claimed to be on it, but apparently that was too much to ask. Makes one wonder where Mr. Wilce is now.

I mention this anecdote because the cyber world has opened up a whole new frontier when it comes to security and intelligence. Preventing breaches and leaks has become both easier and more difficult. Easier because the technological means to detect early online threats is greater than in previous decades. Harder because security threats have multiplied along with advancing technologies. What is needed is a proactive strategy of cyber-vigilance in conjunction with tightened requirements for background checks on those handling classified information, including monitoring social media for evidence of online extremism. Although much has been said about how the NZ Police and intelligence community are dedicating significant resources to doing so, it is telling that the Police Commissioner admitted that his agency was caught off-guard by the online planning of the Parliamentary protests last year, and in fact were unaware of the convoys that were organised via various well-known messaging applications to descend on Wellington. By the time the Police realised the size of the protest, the protestors were already setting up camp on the lawns and streets surrounding the Beehive.

Meanwhile, with that note of caution out of the way, can we all say “AI?”

The return to Big Wars.

After the Cold War the consensus among Western military strategists was that the era of Big Wars, defined as peer conflict between large states with full spectrum military technologies, was at an end, at least for the foreseeable future. The strategic emphasis shifted to so-called “small wars” and low-intensity conflicts where asymmetric warfare would be increasingly carried out by Western special forces against state and non-state actors who used irregular warfare tactics in order to compensate for and mask their comparative military weakness vis a vis large Western states. Think of the likes of Somalian militias, Indian Ocean pirates, narco-guerrillas like the Colombian FARC, ELN and Mexican cartels, al-Qaeda, ISIS/DAESH, Boko Haram, al-Shabbab, Abu Sayyaf and Hezbollah as the adversaries of that moment

Although individual Western states configured their specific interpretations of the broader strategic shift to their individual geopolitical circumstances, the broader rationale of SOLIC (Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict) made sense. The former Soviet Union was in disarray, with Russia militarily weakened, diplomatically shrunken, economically plundered and political crippled. Its former Republics were yet unable to independently exploit their material resources, and some of its former vassal states in the Warsaw Pact were seeking NATO membership. NATO itself had lost it main purpose for being, since the threat of major war with the USSR (the original rationale for its creation) no longer existed. The PRC had yet to enjoy the economic fruits of fully embracing capitalism in order to buy, borrow and steal its way to great power status and thereby shift away from its defensive land-based strategic posture. In a swathe of regions “failed states” awash in local armed disputes replaced proxy regimes and propped up despots. In other words, there were no “big” threats that required “big” wars because there were no “peers” to fight. The strategic emphasis shifted accordingly to countering these types of threats, often under the guise of “peace-keeping” and nation-building multinational missions such as the ill-fated ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

More broadly, the strategic shift seemed right because the world had moved from a tight bipolar system during the Cold War, where the US and USSR led military blocs armed with nuclear weapons, to a unipolar system in which the US was the military, economic and political “hegemon” dominating global affairs. At the time US strategists believed that they could single-handedly prevail in 2.5 major regional wars against any adversary or combination of adversaries.That turned out to be a pipe dream but it was the order of the day until the sequels to 9/11. Even then, the so-called “war against terrorism” was asymmetric and largely low-intensity in comparative terms. Other than the initial phases of the invasion of Iraq, all other conflicts of the early 2000s have been asymmetric, with coalitions of Western actors fighting much weaker assortments of irregulars who use guerrilla tactics on land and who did not contest the air and maritime spaces around them. As has happened in the past, the longer these conflicts went on the better the chances of an “insurgent” victory. Afghanistan is the best modern example of that truism but the persistence of al-Shabbab in Northern Africa or emergence of ISIS/DAESH from the Sunni Triangle in Iraq’s Anbar Province in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime demonstrates the validity of the notion that guerrilla wars are best fought by insurgents as protracted wars on home terrain. In other words, apply a death by a thousand cuts strategy to foreign invaders until their will to prolong the fight is sapped.

When I was in the Pentagon in the early 1990s the joke was that bomber pilots and tank operators would need to update the resumes in order to become commercial pilots and bus or truck drivers. Money moved away from big ticket items and into the SOLIC community, with a rapid expansion of SEAL, Green Beret, Ranger and Marine Recon units designed to operate in small group formations behind or within enemy lines for extended periods of time. If the Big War moment culminated in “Shock and Awe,” the SOLIC strategy was two pronged when it came to counter-insurgency (COIN) objectives: either decapitation strikes against “high value targets” or a hearts and minds campaign in which cultural operations (such as building schools, bridges and toilets) supplemented kinetic operations led by allied indigenous forces using the elements of military superiority provided by Western forces. This required familiarisation with local cultures and indigenous terrain, so investment in language training and anthropological and sociological studies of societies in which the SOLIC units operated was undertaken, something that was not a priority under Big War strategies because the objective there is to kill enemies and incapacitate their war effort as efficiently as possible, not to understand their culture or their motivations.

SOLIC turned out to be a mixed bag. The US and its allies found out, yet again, that much as like in Viet Nam, indigenous guerrilla forces were often ingenious, inspired and persistent. They learned to get out of the way when Western forces were massed against them, and they knew how to utilise hit and run tactics to frustrate their enemies. It was only when they made mistakes, like ISIS/DAESH’s attempt to create a territorially based Caliphate in Northern Irag and Northern Syria, and then engaged in a protracted defence of its base city Mosul, that they were decisively defeated. Even then remnants of this group and others continue to regroup and return to the fight even after suffering tremendous setbacks on the battlefields. As the saying goes, it is not who suffers the least losses that wins the fight, but instead it is those who can sustain the most losses and keep on fighting that ultimately prevail in a protracted irregular warfare scenario. Again, the Taliban prove the point.

During the time that the West was engaged in its SOLIC adventures, the PRC, Russia and emerging powers like India invested heavily in military modernisation and expansion programs. While the US and its allies expended blood and treasure on futile efforts to bring democracy to deeply entrenched authoritarian societies from the barrel of a gun, emerging great powers concentrated their efforts on developing military power commensurate with their ambitions. Neither the PRC, Russia or India did anything to support the UN mandates authorising armed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in fact Russia and the PRC funnelled small arms to the Taliban via Pakistan, another yet nuclear armed but unstable state whose utility lies in its strategic ambiguity when it comes to big power conflicts. That fence-straddling posture will eventually be called.

However the future specifics unfold, that move to new or renewed militarisation was an early sign that the unipolar moment was coming to an end and that a multipolar order was in the making. Meanwhile, politics in the West turned inwards and rightwards, the US withdrew from Iraq and ten years later from Afghanistan without making an appreciable difference on local culture and society, with the entire liberal democratic world responding weakly to the PRC’s neo-imperialist behaviour in its near abroad and increasing Russian bellicosity with regards to former Soviet states, Georgia and Ukraine in particular (to say nothing of their direct influence operations and political interference in places like the US, UK, Germany and Australia). The challenges to US “hegemony” were well underway long before Donald Trump dealt US prestige and power a terminal blow.

Things on the strategic front came to a head when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The West and NATO had responded weakly to the annexation of the Donbas region and Crimea by pro-Russian separatists and Russian “Green Men” ( professional soldiers in green informs without distinctive insignia) in 2014. The same had occurred in Georgia in 2008, when Russian forces successfully backed pro-Russian irredentist groups in the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Vladimir Putin read the West’s response to these two incursions as a sign of weakness and division within NATO and the liberal democratic world in general. He figured that an invasion of Ukraine would be quick and relatively painless because many Ukrainians are of Russian descent and would welcome his troops and prefer to be part of Mother Russia rather than a Ukrainian government presided over by a comedian. NATO and the US would dither and divide over how to respond and Russia would prevail with its land grab. And then, of course, Russia has a legion of hackers dedicated to subverting Western democracy in cyberspace and on social media (including in NZ) and better yet, has acolytes and supporters in high places, particularly in the US Republican Party and conservative political movements the world over.

In spite of all of these points of leverage, none of the Kremlin’s assumptions about the invasion turned out to be true. Russian intelligence was faulty, framed to suit Putin’s vainglorious desires rather than objectively inform him of what was awaiting his forces. Instead of a walk-over, the invasion stiffened Ukrainian resolve, ethnic Russians in Ukraine did not overwhelmingly welcome his troops and instead of dividing, NATO reunified and even has begin to expand with the upcoming addition of Finland and Sweden now that the original threat of the Russian Bear (and the spectre of the USSR) is back as the unifying agent.

Meanwhile the PRC has increased its threats against Taiwan, completely militarised significant parts of the South China Sea, encroached on the territorial waters and some island possessions of neighbouring littoral states, engaged in stealthy territorial expansion in places like Bhutan, clashed with Indian forces in disputed Himalayan territory and cast a blind eye on the provocative antics of its client state, North Korea. It has used soft power and direct influence campaigns, including wide use of bribery, to accrue influence in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific. It arms Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua in spite of their less than splendid regime characteristics. It violates international treaties and conventions such as the Law of the Sea, the sovereignty of airspace over other nation’s territories and various fishery protection compacts. It uses its state-backed companies for espionage purposes, engages in industrial espionage and intellectual property theft on grand scale and acts like an environmental vandal in its quest for raw material imports from other parts of the world (admittedly, it is not alone in this). It does not behave, in other words as a responsible, law-abiding international citizen. And it is now armed to the teeth, including a modernised missile fleet that is clearly designed to be used against US forces in the Western Pacific and beyond, including the US mainland if nuclear war becomes a possibility.

All of this sabre rattling and actual war-mongering by the PRC, Russia and allies like Iran and North Korea were reason enough for Western strategists to reconsider the Big War thesis. But it is the actual fighting in Ukraine that has jolted analysts to re-valuing full spectrum warfare from the seabed to outer space.

Since 2016 the US Defense Department has begin to shift its strategic gaze towards fighting Big Wars. In its 2022 National Defense Strategy and related documents, this orientation is explicit, mentioning north the PRC and Russia as main threats.For its part, the PRC has responded in kind and warns that US “interventionism” will pay a heavy price should it interfere with China’s rightful claims on its near abroad (which on Chinese maps extend well into the Pacific). The DPRK is accelerating its ballistic missile tests and openly talking about resuming nuclear warhead testing. India is going full bore with aircraft carrier and submarine fleet expansion. Germany is re-arming as its supplies Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated battle systems while the UK and Australia are raising their defense spending above 2 percent of GDP (the much vaunted but until recently ignored NATO standard). France has withdrawn from its SOLIC operations in North and Central Africa in order to prepare for larger conflicts involving its core interests. Japan has revised its long-standing pacifist constitution and has begun to add offensive weapons into its inventory as well as more closely integrating with the 5 Eyes Anglophone signals intelligence network.

The arms race is on and the question now is whether a security dilemma is being created that will lead to a devastating miscalculation causing a major war (security dilemmas are a situation where one State, seeing that a rival State is arming itself seemingly out of proportion to its threat environment, begins to arm itself in response, thereby prompting the rival State to increase its military expenditures even more, leading to a spiralling escalation of armament purchases and deployments that at some point can lead to a misreading of a situation and an armed clash that in turn escalates into war).

The race to the Big War is also being fuelled by middle powers like those of the Middle East (Israel included) and even Southeast Asia, where States threatened by Chinese expansionism are doubling down on military modernisation programs. A number of new security agreements such as the Quad and AUKUS have been signed into force, exacerbating PRC concerns that its being ring-fenced by hostile Western adversaries and their Asian allies. As another saying goes, “perception is everything.”

None of this means that large States will abandon SOLIC anytime soon. Special forces will be used against armed irregular groups throughout the world as the occasion requires. But in terms of military strategic doctrines, all of the major powers are now preparing for the next Big War. That is precisely why alliances are being renewed or created, because allied firepower is a force multiplier that can prove decisive in the battle theater.

One thing needs to be understood about Big Wars. The objective is that they be short and to the point. That is, overwhelming force is applied in the most efficient way in order to break the enemy’s physical capabilities and will to fight in the shortest amount of time. Then a political outcome is imposed. What military leaders do not want is what is happening to the Russians in Ukraine: bogged down by a much smaller force fighting on home soil with the support of other large States that see the conflict as a proxy for the real thing. The idea is get the fight over with as soon as possible, which means bringing life back to the notion of “overwhelming force,” but this time against a peer competitor.

The trickle down effects of this strategic shift are being felt in Australasia. Singapore has agreed to hosting forward basing facilities for a US littoral combat ship and its shore-based complement as well as regular port calls by US Navy capital ships such as aircraft carriers. The Philippines have renewed a bilateral defense pact with the US after years of estrangement. Australia has aligned its strategic policy with that of the US and with the signing of the AUKUS agreement on nuclear-powered submarines and adjacent military technologies has become a full fledged US military ally across the leading edges of military force (Australia will now become only the second nation that the US shares nuclear submarine technologies with, after the UK). Even New Zealand is making the shift, with recent Defense White Papers and other command announcements all framing the upcoming strategic environment as one involving great power competition (in which the PRC is seen as the regional disruptor) with the potential for conflict in the South and Western Pacific (with a little concern about the adverse impact of climate change of Pacific communities thrown in). In other words, the times they are a’changin’ in New Zealand’s strategic landscape. For NZ, comfort of being in a benign strategic environment no longer applies.

It remains to be seen how long New Zealand’s foreign policy elite fully comprehend what their military commanders are telling them about what is on the strategic horizon. They may well still cling to the idea that they can trade preferentially with the PRC, stay out of Russian inspired conflicts and yet receive full security guarantees from its Anglophone partners. But if they indeed think that way, they are in for an unpleasant surprise because one way or another NZ will be pulled into the next Big War whether it likes it or not.