In the second episode of our podcast this year, Selwyn Manning and I discuss the stability and near-term future prospects for Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. All is not well.
Category Archives: Russia
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.
Media Link: It’s a wrap.
The last episode of season 3 of “A View from Afar” aired yesterday. It discusses the concept of hostage diplomacy and how it applies to the recent US-Russia prisoner exchange as well as the collective punishment involved in the Russian’s holding of Ukrainian cities hostage, and a few other things. In short: it is all about creating negotiating space and opening backdoor channels via the use of coercive diplomacy as leverage.
Brutality as a Russian fighting characteristic–and a mistake.
One of my intellectual interests is the study of fighting cultures—Asian (in all of its varieties), Arab (same), European (same), North American, Israeli and, more broadly, Maori, Zulu, Greek, Roman and Persian back in the day. I do not consider myself a warfare expert but I have garnered enough knowledge on a range of conventional, unconventional, regular, irregular, nuclear and hybrid warfare to be more or less conversant in them. The “warrior culture” is wide-spread and yet varied and distinctive in many societies.
In a recent exchange with my friend, journalist Jon Stephenson, we traded views on why the Russians are torturing, murdering, raping and pillaging in occupied areas of the Ukraine. This is what I wrote him, which I have fleshed out in light of our back and forth:
Many fighting cultures incorporate brutality into the warfare mix and the Russians are one of them. Their attitude is that “if we cannot have it, then no one can,” and they destroy everything that they can as they retreat. Part of that is literally destroying people and communities as a warning and reminder of what they are capable of. If we remember that Russia invaded Ukraine under the pretext of “de-Nazification” but which in fact was an attempt at cultural genocide (removing vestiges of indigenous Ukrainian culture and replacing them with Russian culture, something that includes forced repatriation of civilians from the Ukraine into Russia) and regime change (which failed), then the destruction left behind retreating Russian forces becomes more understandable even if utterly indefensible.
Add into this dark alchemy the Russian use of non-Slavic troops from Central and East Asia to prosecute a large part of the war (exploiting age-old ethnic hatreds), to which have been added convicts, poorly trained conscripts, Chechens and mercenaries such as those from the Wagner Group (run by a close ally of Putin), and the genocidal revenge impulse is strong amongst the retreating Russians. Absent strong command and control discipline and worse yet if their behavior is condoned by Russian military commanders, then atrocities against Ukranian civilians will continue and even increase as the defeat approaches.
Trouble is, brutalization is a losing strategy. It does not achieve military strategic objectives either on the offensive or when in retreat. It reveals a military organization to be an ill-disciplined criminal mob. Moreover, prosecution for atrocities is more likely today than ever before because, for example, war crimes investigations are better today than before. There is more video evidence and scientific forensics. Accused perpetrators in lower ranks can cut deals in order to blame superiors. As atrocities and the futility of pursuing victory in a losing war of opportunity are revealed, even homeland support for the war wanes.
The proof of this in Russia is in the reaction of potential conscripts to Putin’s recent call up (who voted with their feet by crossing borders into neighboring states in droves) and in the increasingly angry debates in the government controlled media (and behind the scenes in Putin’s political circles). Saddling (at least some units in) the Russian military with the title “war criminals” does not auger well for force cohesion and domestic political-military relations the longer the conflict drags on. Those not implicated in atrocities and war crimes will want to distance themselves from those who are. Finger-pointing and blame-gaming will increase as the futility and foolishness of the invasion is fully revealed.
Plus, the morale of the Ukrainians only hardens in the wake of atrocities, which is especially important in Russian speaking parts of Ukraine where the Russians thought that they would find support, only to find out that being an ethnic Russian or Russian speaking Ukrainian does not mean that one wants to be Russian. In turn, that realization has made Russian occupiers all the more prone to atrocities because they believe that they have been betrayed by what should have been ethnic kin. In a sense, the Russians are treating large parts of the non-supportive Russian speaking population in Eastern and Southern Ukraine as if they were opponents in a civil war (which have often been described as the “dirtiest” of wars because they involve relatives pitted against each other for material or political reasons).
That, and the counterproductive nature of the Russian air campaign targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, is almost ensuring eventual Russian retreat, if not defeat. As the strategist Robert Pape has noted, air campaigns that seek to terrorize civilian populations such as the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo did not result in German or Japanese military surrender. Air raids on London during the Blitz just annoyed Britons, emboldened Churchill and steeled their collective resistance to German aggression.
In fact, successful “punishment” air campaigns that seek to destroy civilian morale and support for continuing war efforts are the exception to the rule. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “successful” not in that they killed many civilians and undermined the Japanese population’s will to fight, but because they demonstrated that there was no strategic defense against them, especially when a US ground invasion force was being assembled over the horizon that could follow up on the nuclear air-based “hammer” with the conventional “anvil” of ground assaults. The logic behind the Japanese surrender was a military calculus, not a result of a loss of civilian moral support.
In the Ukraine, the Ukrainians have the advantage on the ground and Russian air strikes on their civilian infrastructure have had some physical effect (including a loss of 30 percent of its electricity generation capacity) but have not undermined the morale of the population. There Russian anvil is in retreat, and its hammer has a ball-pean rather than a sledge effect.
For now the strategic race is into winter: can the Ukrainians roll back the Russians sufficiently by January or can the Russians hold on until then in order to see if energy shortages cause domestic unrest in the EU that fractures the anti-Russian coalition? There have already been anti-energy price demonstrations in the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium and France; the new Italian government is full of pro-Russian right-wingers (including Silvio Berlusconi) who want to side with Putin; Hungary refuses to cooperate with NATO; Serbia is just another version of Belarus; and various motley crews of lefties and righties throughout Europe want NATO out of the Ukraine support business.
Putin is relying on those deepening fractures for long-term strategic success. He and his advisors believe that Western democracy is a weak and dying form of socio-political organization, irreversibly softened by material comforts (such as cheap energy from Russia) and post-modern debates about gender and sexual identity, racism, indigenous rights and other “woke” divisions that undermine consensus and homogeneity in national outlook (this belief is shared by many Right-thinking Westerners, which explains their support for Putin’s project). He and his advisors believe that if they can hold the line in Ukraine until the deepest days of the European winter, then resolve within the EU and NATO will crack as politicians see electoral dangers in public discomfort and increased civil society resistance to ongoing sacrifices tied to supporting Ukraine’s war effort.
He may or may not be right. He has miscalculated along these lines before, during the planning for an initial days of the invasion when he thought that NATO would prove to be a paper tiger and succumb to his threats by not intervening on behalf of Ukraine even in a support role. He was wrong then and he could well be wrong now, but that is the logic that is underlining the Russian strategic outlook at the moment.
We shall see what scenario pans out. Ukraine needs to press its advantages while it can, which means now. If it cannot push the Russians back to their borders in the next couple of months, then it must demonstrate to its NATO PLUS support base that it has the will and wherewithal to engage in a protracted conflict that will result in the destruction of the Russian military—or at least its ground forces—as an effective fighting force against a peer competitor. That includes being able to lay siege to Crimea as well as recover occupied territory in the East.
Such a demonstration will have as much if not more of an impact in Moscow as it will in Brussels and Washington because Putin’s generals fully understand that they have a lot of motherland territory to defend, especially in the Far East where tactical alliances today may not mean much in the future if Russian forces are too debilitated to offer effective defense against opposing land forces seeking resource-focused territorial gains. Add to that the range of ethnic groups represented in Russia’s Far East and their cross-border ties to people in the “Stans” and even China, and the cohesiveness of Russian land forces in the event of a military conflict in that theatre is seriously open to question. Brutality will not solve the confrontation in their favour.
In summation. Brutality is an integral part of Russian fighting culture. It may work against opposing forces when defending the motherland but, even if conducted by air and on the ground, it does not work as an intimidation, warning and/or deterrent tactic when pursuing an expeditionary war of opportunity against a smaller but determined adversary fighting on its own territory with the support of other great and medium powers. In fact, it could well hasten defeat.
Advantage (today): Ukraine.
Systemic Realignment and the Long Transition.
The last few decades have seen a world in increasing turmoil. Technological advances, climate deterioration, sharpening domestic and international political conflict and global pandemics are just some of the hallmarks of the contemporary world moment. In this essay I hope to outline some of the dynamics of this time by conceptually framing its recent historical underpinnings.
Think of international relations as a complex system. Because it involves living creatures (humans), rather than inanimate objects, we can think of it as an ecosystem made up of people and their institutions, norms, rules and the behaviours (confirmative or transgressive) that flow from them. The world order is comprised of various subsystems, including regional (meso) and national (micro) systems that encompass economic, political/diplomatic and socio-cultural features linked to but distinct from the global (macro) system.They key is to understand international relations and world politics as a malleable human enterprise.
International systems are dynamic, not static. Although they may enjoy long periods of relative stability or stasis, they are fluid in nature and therefore prone to change over time. In the last century stable world order cycles have become shorter and transitional cycles have become longer due to a number of factors, including technological advances in areas such as transportation and telecommunications, demographic shifts, the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange, ideological diffusion, cultural transfer and increased permeability of national borders. Status quos are more short-lived and transitional moments–moments leading to systemic realignment–are decades in length.
We are currently in the midst of such a long transitional moment.
In fact, the post-Cold War era is a period of long transition. After the fall of the USSR in 1990, the international order moved away from a tight bi-polar system where two nuclear-armed superpowers and their respective alliance systems deterred and balanced each other through credible counter-force based on second-strike capabilities in the event of strategic nuclear war. The bipolar alliance systems were “tight” in the dual sense that their diplomatic and military perspectives were closely bound to those of their respective superpowers (think NATO and the Warsaw Pact), and States in each security bloc tended to trade preferentially with each other (known as trade and security issue linkage).
The geopolitical map of the Cold War was divided into shatter and peripheral zones, with the former being places where direct superpower confrontation was probable and therefore to be avoided (such as Central Europe and East Asia), and the latter being places where the probability of escalation was low and therefore conflicts could be “managed” at the sub-nuclear level because no existential threats to the superpowers were involved (SE Asia, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the South Pacific come to mind). Here proxy wars, guerrilla conflicts and direct superpower interventions could flourish as trialing grounds for great power weaponry and ideological supremacy, but the nature of the conflicts were opportunistic or expedient, not existential for the superpowers and their major allies. Escalation was dangerous in shatter zones; escalation was limited in the periphery.
With the demise of the USSR the bipolar world was replaced by a unipolar world where the US was the sole superpower and therefore considered the “hegemon” (in international relations jargon) where its economic, military and political power was unmatched by any one country or group of countries. This is noteworthy because “hegemonic” superpowers intervene in the international system for systemic reasons. That is, they approach the international system in ways that preserve an institutional and regulatory status quo that supports and reaffirms their position of dominance. In contrast, great and middle powers intervene in the international system in order to pursue national interests rather than systemic values. Absent a hegemon to act as systems regulator, this may or may not lead to disorder.
The hegemonic premise is the conceptual foundation of the liberal international foreign policy approach adopted by US administration and many of its allies (including NZ) during the post -Cold War period and which persists to this day. For the West, the combination of market economics and liberal democracy is the preferred political-economic form because it is seen as the best way to achieve peace and prosperity for its subjects. As a result, it needs to be expanded globally and supported by a “rules-based” international institutional order crafted in its image. Although this belief was honoured most often in the breach (as any number of US-backed military coups d’état demonstrate), it constituted the ideological foundation for post-Cold War international relations because there was no global alternative to it.
US dominance as the sole superpower and global “hegemon” lasted little more than a decade. After the 9/11 attacks (which were not, in spite of their horrifying spectacle, an existential threat to the US unless it over-reacted), the US engaged in a series of military adventures under the umbrella justification of fighting the (sic) “war on terror.” In doing so it engaged in what may be called neo-imperial hubris, which in turn led to neo-imperial overreach. By invading Iraq and extending the (arguably legitimate) original irregular warfare mission against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan into an open-ended nation-building exercise, then invading Iraq on a pretext that it was involved in the 9/11 plot while conducting counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and even in the wider European Rim, the US expended vast amounts of blood and treasure in pursuit of the unachievable goal of redrawing the map of the Middle East in an US-centred image.
That is because although terrorists can be physically eliminated, the ideas that propel them cannot, and unless there is an ideological project that can counter the ideological beliefs of the “extremists,” then the physical wars are a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The US (and the West in general) lacked an ideological counter to Wahabism and Salafism, so the roots of Islamic extremism remain even if its human materiel has been depleted. In addition, pursuing a war of opportunity (rather than of necessity) in Iraq only generated concern and resentment in the Arab world and laid the foundations of the emergence of ISIS as an irregular Sunni fighting force, prompted Iran to pursue its nuclear deterrence option, and diverted resources from the fight in Afghanistan. That in turn allowed the latter to turn into a tar baby for the ISAF coalition fighting the Taliban and various Sunni irregular groups, which eventually produced the graveyard of Empire scenes at Kabul and Bagram airports in 2022.
More importantly for our purposes, despite its surface appearances and the claims of some scholars that a unipolar international hierarchy is the most stable systemic arrangement, a unipolar world is inherently an unstable world. As the hegemon attempts to maintain its dominance in the international order by engaging in wars of conquest, military interventions in peripheral areas or by attempting to be the world’s “policeman” in parallel with economic and diplomatic efforts across the globe, it expends its power on several dimensions. At the same time, pretenders to the throne build their power while avoiding direct confrontations with the superpower until the balance shifts in their favour and the time becomes ripe for a challenge. That is the time when the knives come out. That time could well have arrived and the moment of long transition may be coming to a head.
The move from a unipolar to a multipolar world still in the making began on 9/11 and continues to this day. There is good and bad news in this transition. The good news is that multipolar systems characterised by competition and cooperation among a small odd number (3-7) of great powers is arguably the most stable of international orders because it allows each State to form alliances on specific issues and balance or counter-balance the ambitions of others. The preferred configuration is an odd number because that avoids deadlocks and facilitates cross-cutting alliance formation on specific issues. This leads to a situation where balancing becomes a primary feature and objective of the international system as a whole. In a sense, it is the geopolitical equivalent of the invisible hand of the market: actors act in pursuit of their preferred interests and with a desire to secure preferred outcomes, but it is the aggregate of their actions that leads to balancing and realignment. Actors may wish to steer outcomes in their favour but what eventuates is seldom in line with their individual preferences. Instead, multipolar “market” clearance rests on a dynamic balance of great power national interests..
The bad news is that in the period of transition between unipolar and multipolar orders, consensus on the rules governing State behaviour and adherence to institutional edicts and mores breaks down. International norm erosion becomes widespread, uncertainty becomes generalised and conflict becomes the systems regulator. A lack of enforcement capability by international organisations and States themselves allows norm violations to proceed unchecked and perpetrators to act with impunity (as see, for example, in Syria, the South China Sea or the Ukraine). While geopolitical shatter and peripheral zones continue to exist (albeit not as they existed during the Cold War), the majority of the world becomes contested space in which State, multinational and non-state actors vie for influence using a mix of power variables (say, for instance, chequebook and debt diplomacy, direct influence operations or trade and security agreements). This includes cyber- and outer space, which are increasingly at the forefront of hostile great power contestation.
In a sense, the transitional moment marks a return to a Hobbesian “state of nature” where, absent a Leviathan (the hegemonic power), States and non-state international actors use their power to achieve self-interested goals rather than communitarian ideals.
Transitional conflicts may be economic, cultural, political, military or some combination thereof. In the present moment conflicts are increasingly hybrid in nature, with mixes of persuasive and dissuasive (using mixtures of soft, hard, smart and sharp) power operating on multiple dimensions that, due to technological advancements, do not respect national sovereignty. States and non-state actors now appeal to and influence the predilections of foreign audiences in direct ways that might be called “intermestic” or “glocalized:” what is foreign is also domestic, what is local is global. For hostile actors, the objective of hybrid warfare campaigns that use direct influence tactics is to undermine the enemy from within rather than attack it from without.
There is little governmental filter or defence against such penetrations (say, on social media) and the responses are usually reactive rather than proactive in any event. This is a major problem for liberal democracies that value freedoms of speech and association because often the aim of recent adversarial sharp power campaigns (commonly labeled as disinformation campaigns) is to corrode domestic support for democracy as a form of governance. Because of their repressive nature, authoritarian regimes do not have quite the same problem when confronted by foreign direct influence operations. In that sense, as China and Russia have understood, freedoms of speech, movement and association in liberal democracies constitute Achilles heels that can be exploited by hybrid power direct influence campaigns.
Norm erosion, increased uncertainty and the rise of hybrid conflict as the systems regulator have encouraged the emergence of more authoritarian (here defined as command-oriented rather than consultative in approaches to governance and policy-making), less Western-centric approaches to international relations. The liberal international consensus failed to deliver on its promises in most of the post-colonial world as well as in many advanced democracies, so alternatives began to appear that challenged its basic premise. Many of these have a regressive character to them, characterised by a shift to economic nationalism, anti-immigration policies, and a focus on restoring “traditional” values. After decades of promoting free trade, multilateralism and open borders, the last decade has seen a turn inwards that has encouraged nationalistic authoritarian solutions to domestic and international problems.
National populism is one manifestation of the rejection of the liberal democratic order, and the Asian Values school of thought converged with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist sentiment to reject liberal internationalism on the global plane. Instead, the emphasis is on efficiency under strong centralised leadership grounded in nationalist principles rather than on transparency, multilateralism, inclusion and representativeness. Throughout the world democracy (both as a form of governance as well as a social characteristic) is in decline and authoritarianism is on the rise, with their attendant influence on the conduct of foreign policy and international relations.
This brings up one more aspect of transitional moments leading to systemic realignment: competition between rising and declining powers.
The shift between international systems is at its core the result of competition between ascendent and descend great powers. Ascendency and decline can be the result of economic, military, social or ideological factors. States in decline will attempt to maintain their positions against the challenges of new or resurgent rivals. The competition between them can theoretically be managed peacefully if States accept their fate and trust each other to engage with mutual respect. In reality, transitional competition between rising and declining powers is often existential in nature (at least in the eye of those involved), and if multidimensional conflict turns to war it is usually the declining power that starts it. World War I can be seen in this light, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a contemporary case in point. Although the US is also in decline, it is undergoing a gradual rather than a rapid loss of power and status. Instead of being a new form of politics, Trump and MAGA are the product of a deep long-term malaise that is as socio-cultural as it is political. Trumpism may act as an accelerant in hastening the US decline but it is not, as of yet, immediately terminal.
Russia, on the other hand, is faced with a societal decline (low birthrates, ageing population, pervasive corruption, export commodity dependence, severely distorted income distribution and social anomaly) that is immediate and likely irreversible. It has an economy equivalent in size to that of Spain or the US state of Texas rather than those of Japan, Germany, China or the US. The invasion of Ukraine, phrased in revisionist “return-to-Empire” language, is a last ditch effort to gain both people and land in order to arrest the decline (because annexing Eastern and Southern Ukraine would provide a younger population of Russian speakers, fertile agricultural lands, a non-extractive manufacturing base and warm water trading ports for Russian goods and imports).
Given Ukraine’s and the NATO response, this is akin to the last gasp of a drowning person. No matter whether it “wins” or loses, Russia will be permanently diminished by having undertaken this war. As it turns out, rather than the US, Russia is the great power whose decline motivated the march to war and which will precipitate the emergence of a new multipolar world order.
What might this new multipolar international system look like? A decade ago there was agreement that Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) would emerge as great powers and vie with the US on the global stage. India and China clearly remain as emerging great powers. However, Brazil and South Africa have failed to achieve that status due to internal dysfunctions exacerbated by poor political leadership. Rather than restore some of its Empire, Russia is committing an act of national Hara kiri in Ukraine and has lost its chance at genuine great power status in the post-war future .
So who might emerge if not the BRICs? Germany and Japan clearly have the resources and means to join the new multipolar constellation. Beyond that, the picture is cloudy. The UK is in obvious long-term decline and France is unable to elevate beyond its regional power status. No Middle Eastern, Latin American, SE Asia, Central Asian or African country can do more than become a regional power. Nordic and Mediterranean Europe States can complement but not replace powers like Germany in a multipolar world. Australia and Indonesia may someday emerge as rightful contenders for great power status but that day is a ways off. The US will remain as great rather than a superpower, so perhaps the making of a new multipolar order will involve it, China, India and restored Axis powers finally emerging from the ashes of WW2.
On interesting prospect is that both during the transition to a new multipolar world and once it has consolidated, small and medium States may have increased flexibility nd room to manoeuvre between the great powers. This is due to balancing focus of the new constellation, which its a premium on forging alliances on specific issues. That can encourage smaller states to get more involved in negotiations between the great powers, thereby augmenting their diplomatic influence in ways not seen before. On the other hand, if the opportunity is not recognised by the great powers or seized by smaller States, then the broadening of the multipolar constellation to include satellite alliances around specific great power positions will have been lost.
Hybridity as a transitional hallmark extends beyond warfare and traditional conflict and into the world of so-called “grey area phenomena.” It now refers to the the merging of criminal and State organisations in pursuit of a common purpose that serves their mutual interests. Cyber-hacking is the clearest case in point, where state actors like the Russian GRU signals intelligence unit collude with criminal organisations in cyber theft or cyber disruption campaigns. This hand-in-glove arrangement allows them to share technologies in pursuit of particular rewards: money for the criminals and intellectual property theft, security breaches or backdoor vulnerabilities in foreign networks for the state actor. China. Israel, North Korea and Iran are considered prime suspects of ending in such hybrid activities.
Externalities have been magnified during the long transitional moment. In particular, the Covid pandemic has revealed the crisis of contemporary capitalism and the relative levels of government incompetence around the world. The need to secure national borders and curtail the movement of people and goods across entire regions demonstrated that features like commodity concentration, “just-in-time” production, debt-leveraged financing and other late capitalist features exacerbated the costs of and impeded effective response to the pandemic. In turn, the pandemic exposed government corruption and incompetence on a global scale, where the Peter Principle (a person or agency rises to its own level of incompetence) separated efficient from failed pandemic mitigation policy. Where partisan politics interfered with the application of scientific health policy, the situation was made worse. The US, UK, Russia and Brazil are examples of the latter; NZ, Uruguay, Singapore and Taiwan are generally considered to be examples of the former.
What all of this means is that in the post-pandemic future multipolarity will emerge as the new global alignment under conditions of great uncertainty that produce different rules, prompt institutional reform and which promote different international behaviours. Capitalism will have to adapt and change (such as through near-shoring and friend-shoring investment strategies and a decentralisation of commodity production, perhaps including a return to national self-sufficiency in some productive areas and an embrace of competitive rather than comparative advantage economic strategies). “Living within our means” based on sustainability will become an increasingly common policy approach for those who understand the gravity of the moment.
The most change, however, is in the field of post-pandemic governance. The frailties of liberal democracy have been glaringly exposed, including corruption, lack of transparency, sclerotic systems of representation and voice, and pervasive nepotism and patronage in the linkage between constituents and elected officials. Authoritarians have emerged as alternatives in both historically democratic as well as traditionally undemocratic political systems, with that trend set to continue for the near future. That may or not be a salve rather than a solution to the deep seated problems afflicting global society but what it does demonstrate is that not only is the multipolar future uncertain to discern, but the systemic realignment may not necessarily lead to a more peaceful, egalitarian and representative constellation than what we have seen before.
Only time will tell what our future holds.
*This essay is written as a think piece that will serve as the basis for a public lecture the author will deliver to the World Affairs Forum in Auckland on October 10, 2022.
Media Link: AVFA on the Ruso-Ukrainian conflict and what is to come.
I have not been up to blogging that much as of late for various reasons but continue to do the “A View from Afar” podcast series with Selwyn Manning. This week we reviewed the current status of the Ruso-Ukrainian conflict and explore the broader (economic, diplomatic and longer-term) aspects of it. In short: time is on the Russian side when non-military considerations are factored in, so the Ukrainians have to make the most of the current strategic moment.
Countering coercive politics
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s two week foreign mission to Europe and Australia was by all accounts a success. She met with business and government leaders, signed and co-signed several commercial and diplomatic agreements including a EU-NZ trade pact, conferred with NATO officials as an invited participant of this year’s NATO’s Leader’s Summit, gave several keynote speeches on foreign policy and international affairs, and in general flew the Aotearoa flag with grace and a considerable dose of celebrity. As she wraps up her visit to Australia, it is worth noting that she gave different takes on foreign policy to different audiences. These may appear incongruous at first glance but in fact display a fair degree of strategic and diplomatic finesse.
In Europe she emphasized the commonality of shared values among liberal democracies across a range of subjects: approaches to trade, security, human rights, representative governance, the rule of law within and across borders, transparency and rejection of corruption, and the common threat posed to all of these values by authoritarian great powers that are trying to usurp the international order via persistent challenges and encroachments on international norms and institutions.
Towards the end of her trip while in Australia, she shifted tack and emphasized NZ’s “independent” foreign policy while dropping the value-based view of a global geostrategic contest marshalled along ideological lines.
Instead, she publicly decoupled the Ruso-Ukrainian war from broader geostrategic competition between democratic and authoritarian-led powers, treating Russian behavior as idiosyncratic rather than as a result of regime type. That framing of the conflict avoids messy arguments about domestic political legitimacy and its impact on great power rivalries. In doing so Ardern reaffirmed the independence of NZ’s foreign policy approach from those of larger Western allies while reducing the possibility of retaliation by the PRC on trade and other diplomatic fronts. The PRC is well aware of the reality of NZ’s recent strategic shift towards the West, but a public position that pointedly refuses to lump together PRC behavior with Russian aggression based on the authoritarian nature of their respective regimes gives NZ some time and diplomatic space in which to maneuver as it charts a course in the international transitional moment that it is currently navigating. That is a prudent position to take and hence a good diplomatic move assuming that the PRC reads the statement as NZ intends it to be read.
The strategy behind this approach–one that recognizes the larger ideological divide at play in international affairs but treats State actions as unique to individual national history and circumstances–might be called a “confronting coercive politics” approach. Allow me to explain.
Politics ultimately is about the acquisition, accumulation, administration, distribution, maintenance and loss of power. Power is the ability to make others bend to one’s will. It can be persuasive or coercive in nature, i.e., it can induce others to act in certain ways or it can compell them to act under (threat of) duress .
Power is relative and variable across several dimensions, including economic, political, military, personal, class, social (including gender and reputational/”influencer” in this day and age), cultural, intellectual and physical. Power is wielded directly or indirectly as a mixed bag of “hard” and “soft” attributes, a dichotomy that is well mentioned in the international relations and foreign policy literatures. Hybrid combinations of soft and hard power have led to “smart” and “sharp” power subsets depending on the emphasis given to one or the other basic trait.
The harder the exercise of power, the more coercive it is. Conversely, the more persuasive the way in which power is welded, the “softer” it is. Moreover, soft power can give way to hard power if the former is unsuccessful in accomplishing desired objectives, and soft power can be used as a follow up to the exercise of hard power. For example, “dollar diplomacy,” whereby large states fund development projects in small states on generous terms, is a form of soft power that can turn into hard power leverage once it becomes debt diplomacy in the form repayment conditions for those projects.
The exercise of State power has been institutionalized, codified and regulated over the years in a variety of contexts, including international relations and foreign policy. That is designed to strip inter-state relations of more overtly coercive approaches in favor of more consensus or compromise-oriented forms of engagement. However, in recent years the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world-in-the-making has led to international norm erosion and a diminishing of international rule and law enforcement. That has produced a “back to the future” scenario where the international context has regressed to a modern version of the anarchic state of nature that Hobbes warned about in Leviathan. Emerging or restored great powers, particularly but not exclusively the PRC and Russia, have rejected international norms and laws in favor of a “might makes right” approach to international differences. Geopolitical coercion is at the heart of their international perspectives, which challenges the basic rules, norms and institutions of the liberal international order.
The turn towards more coercive forms of international politics is mirrored in the domestic politics of many States, including those led by democratic regimes. It is this–the emergence of coercive politics as a core feature of domestic and international governance–that is the focus of Ardern’s bifurcated foreign policy pronouncements in recent days. Her government understands that “liberal” governance is more than free and fair elections and respect for human rights. It is based on tolerance, compromise and mutual contingent consent between individuals, factions, parties and States.
Being unable to control the domestic regimes that govern States, Ardern’s bifurcated approach to NZ foreign policy (I would not call it a doctrine or anywhere close to one), is focused on countering coercive politics in international affairs. The general value principles of liberalism are upheld, but individual relations with other states, particularly important trade and security partners, are treated with a mix of value-based and pragmatic considerations, with pragmatism prevailing when strategic interests are at stake.
This approach allows NZ to broadly critique a trade partner’s human rights record while increasing or maintaining its trade with that partner in specific commodities under the argument that engagement with NZ’s values is better than isolation from them.
In other words, adherence in principle to liberal international values cloaks realistic assessments of where Aotearoa’s material interests are woven into the global institutional fabric. That may be cynical, hypocritical or short-sighted in its read of how the global order is evolving, but as a short-term diplomatic stance, it splits the difference between adherence to principle and amoral commitment to self-interested practice.
Media Link: “A View from Afar” on NATO and BRICS Leader’s summits.
Selwyn Manning and I discussed the upcoming NATO Leader’s summit (to which NZ Prime Minister Ardern is invited), the rival BRICS Leader’s summit and what they could mean for the Ruso-Ukrainian Wa and beyond.
Media Link: ” A View from Afar” podcast on post-conflict regional security architecture.
In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I speculate on how the Ruso-Ukrainian War will shape future regional security dynamics. We start with NATO and work our way East to the Northern Pacific. It is not comprehensive but we outline some potential ramifications with regard to Western, Russian and even Chinese responses to the war. Bottom line is that no matter what the outcome, Russia comes out of the war diminished on the diplomatic, economic and military fronts, which in turn changes the regional security landscape moving forward. The episode is here.