The Latin American multidisciplinary journal MINGA just published my article on “South America’s Strategic Paradox.” I was surprised that they wanted to do so because they have a very clear left-leaning orientation and my article was pretty much a straight-forward geopolitical analysis. This was the article that an editor of the New Zealand International Review felt was too broad in scope to publish. Go figure. Judge for yourself (the article is in English, with translation pending).
Much attention has been directed at Joe Biden’s mental lapses and physical frailty. Less attention has been spent on Donald Trump’s cognitive difficulties and physical limitations, with most focus being devoted to his insults and exaggerated claims (as if they were not indicative of his mental state). Biden is 82 and Trump is 77, so one would expect that the passage of time has taken some toll on them, both physically and cognitively. It would seem that the difference, as Mickey Savage of The Standard phrased it, is that Biden is well-intentioned but hapless, whereas Trump is evil and dangerous.
I agree with the characterisation of Trump but not that of Biden, who I believe has far more mental acuity than the orange toned weasel. People forget that Biden has a life-long stutter, which from time to time shows up in his speech. And yes, he occasionally forgets or confuses a name or date, but then again so does the malignant narcissist serial liar. Biden rides bicycles and exercises regularly at the White House and home gyms. Trump rides a golf cart from tee to wherever his ball lands, off the designated paths and onto fairways and greens. He is not exactly a fine physical specimen, despite his corrupt doctor’s claims to the contrary.
Be that as it may, the mental and physical fitness of either of these men is not what matters when to comes to their suitability for office. Instead, as a starter, it is their temperament that matters. Biden is measured, calculated and calibrated in his actions, even if prone to the occasional profanity (as befits a guy from a blue collar background). Trump is impulsive, vindictive and petulant. Biden has 50 years of public service as his background, including terms as a US Congressman and Senator, Vice President and now POTUS. Trump first ran for office in 2016, and that was for the presidency that he won. We know what happened next, which should serve as a warning of things to come–and worse–should he get back into office. In any case it should be clear to impartial observers that Biden is the better qualified candidate in this year’s presidential election, above and beyond the elderly foibles of he and his rival.
Temperment and public service experience are not just what differentiates the two likely presidential candidates. The biggest difference is in the teams that surround them. The importance of the governmental team was driven home to me by a colleague at a Brazilian research institute in the late 1980s after George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan as president. I was lamenting the fact that a Vice President who claimed to have seen or heard nothing about Iran-Contra and other Reagan administration scandals had won the presidential election of 1988, and my colleague said to me “but that is why, unlike here in Brazil where we struggle to find someone who can lead us out of darkness and into the modern world, in the US you can have a monkey as president and the machine will still keep on running without missing a beat.”
By “the machine” he was presumably referring to the US economy and institutional architecture, including the government of the day. It was more than one person and although the presidency is a vital cog in the machine, it is not the only one. Trump stretched the limits of institutional resiliency, to be sure, but it bent without breaking and Trump was thwarted in many of his most inane or perilous initiatives by a mixture of constitutional features (separation of powers, state’s rights, government regulations and civil service protections) and the interventions of cooler heads in his administration (the so-called “adults in the room” who acted as guardrails against his more thoughtless, spiteful or ignorant impulses). All along, in spite of the incompetent, incoherent partisan and polarised response to the Covid pandemic, the machinery of the US rolled on with that combed-over monkey at the wheel.
That is the important thing to consider. Biden has assembled a first class team that has steered the US out of the economic doldrums and into a period of sustained growth. He has expanded Obamacare, bringing in millions of people into affordable health insurance schemes, has capped the price of essential prescription drugs, and has funded a slew of infrastructure projects that have brought employment and modernisation to many localities, including in red (MAGA) states. In fact, US employment is at 50 year lows, and wages have started to catch up to inflation. He has passed student debt relief bills and increased social security benefits for the first time in 35 years. To be sure, there are challenges ahead, including getting some measure of control over the Southern border (which has just seen an all-time record of undocumented migrants, creating friction with the reactionary state government in Texas and fuelling Trump’s xenophobic and racist attacks on recent arrivals), and stabilising energy prices (which if low by international standards are an economic benchmark in the US). But by most objective standards, including its international image in spite of its ill-considered support for Israel in its war on Palestinians, the US is generally better off under Biden than his predecessor. Just ask NATO and the EU as well as US Asian allies (on this and. the broader context of US decline, see https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/14/opinion/republicans-isolationsim-ukraine-russia-congress.html).
Biden’s team has a coherent programmatic agenda that addresses the damage done by Trump’s reckless and self-serving policies but also more longer term and not exclusively partisan goals when it comes to the US domestic and international position. The US has a malaise, and they want to remedy it. Trump’s team, on the other hand, are all about paybacks for grievances caused by an assortment of non-supplicants, and even then they are divided about who to punish first. The Trump team is incompetent and incoherent at its core because everything depends on the day to day whims of the would be czar.
Biden does not sweat the details of his administration’s initiatives. He leaves that to his cabinet and senior managers who have expertise in the areas covered by their portfolios. These are technocrats and political operators who know the ins and outs of the federal bureaucracy and Congress and therefore know how things work. Even with a divided and dysfunctional GOP majority in the House, they have gotten things done. In other words, if passing legislation and implementing policy is like making sausage (and old aphorism of US politics), then Biden’s team knows how to do so, the institutional way.
In contrast, Trump has vowed to come back into office with a revenge agenda against his opponents. He has announced that we will use the Justice Department as his instrument of retribution. He and his aides have drawn up a list of 400-500 loyalists who will take control of the apex agencies in the federal bureaucracy and who will re-write civil service legislation in order to engage in whole-scale purges of the “Deep State” apparatus. He aims to kill off entire departments (ministries, In NZ terms), especially those that cater to “woke” sentiments such as the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, the Civil Rights Commission, etc. One only has to look at the writing of Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s leading political advisors who was responsible for his border policy that included family separations and incarceration without charge upon arrival and detention (in spite of many migrants claiming refugee status from violence prone societies like El Salvador, Colombia or Honduras, to say nothing of left authoritarian regimes like those in Venezuela and Nicaragua) to understand the extent of Trump’s dark plans for his next term. His loyalists will swear allegiance to him before the constitution, and his judicial appointments will confirm his authority to undertake the overhaul of the federal government. His Vice President will be a brown-nosing lap dog, and his cabinet will be a collection of misfits and misers keeping what is left of the public trough to themselves and their private sector cronies. There will be no “adults in the room” and institutional counters to put up guardrails around him, and he will introduce fickle criteria to his micromanaging of pet policy projects. The US reputation will resume its nosedive.
And then of course there are the sycophantic opportunists and grifters who always travel in his political circles and who see his return to power as a means to advancing their personal ideological and material agendas.
I will leave aside for the moment the impact these two very different teams will have on things like US-PRC relations, the Ruso-Ukranian War, the Middle East meltdown, rise of techno-sovereignty challenge to the Nation-State, climate change mitigation, and more policy areas ad infinitum. The differentiation line is stark not because of which monkey is driving the machine, but because of who else is along for the ride as navigators and mechanics.
That is why the focus on Biden and Trump’s age and mental acuity is more of a side-show than a critical issue. Temperment is more important, especially when one guy has senior moments of forgetfulness or confusion and the other is an incoherent raving lunatic. Most important of all are the teams that will surround them, and on that score I think that the difference is clear.
Razor sharp clear.
The decision to send six NZDF personnel to join the US-led anti-Houthi maritime picket line has a number of interesting facets to it. I made a few posts about the decision on a social media platform but will elaborate a bit more here.
It was obvious that a conservative pro-American government coalition would not only sign a US-drafted declaration defending freedom of navigation and denouncing Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, but would offer some symbolic material support (even if token) to the maritime picket line that the US and its main allies (all 5 Eyes partners) were putting together under the already extant joint task force CTF-153 headquartered at the US 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain. The task force is led by a US admiral and operates under US Rules of Engagement (ROE). Prime Minister Luxon is an admitted “Americaphile” due to his time spent in the US as a corporate executive. Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Winston Peters was involved in negotiating the Wellington and Washington Agreements establishing US-NZ bilateral security ties and has long voiced his support for US leadership in global affairs. The third coalition party leader, David Seymour, takes his policy prescriptions (and money) from US rightwing think-tanks and conservative lobbies.
Defense Minister Judith Collins (among many other portfolios, including intelligence and security) was the odd person out at the press conference announcing the deployment (Seymour did not attend) because she has previously attempted to use her status as an MP and minister to advance her husband’s business interests in China, and remains as one of the more Sinophilic (yes, said on purpose) members of the new government. Moreover, as Minister of Intelligence and Security and Attorney General, she is now the Keeper of the Secrets of Defense, Intelligence and the Courts, which is only of concern if you worry about a corrupt politician who also is now back scheming with the bankrupt (in every sense of the word) rightwing attack blogger whose miserable antics were outlined in that chronicle of political depravity, Dirty Politics. In any event, with the Collins anomaly excepted, it should be no surprise that the government made a move in support of its security patrons.
The government argues that its contribution is done to protect freedom of navigation, making specious arguments about the impact of the Houthi attacks leading to a rise in commodity prices on NZ consumers (NZ being a trade-dependent country etc.). It rejects the notion that its actions are in any way connected to the Hamas-Israel War even though the Houthis are invoking Article 2 of the 1949 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide to justify their attempts to stop war materials from reaching Israel. It chides those who differ with their justification by saying that it is wrong to “conflate” the Hamas-Israel War with the Houthi attacks even though the Houthis have explicitly done so.
As many scholars have noted, NZ joining the coalition of the pro-Israeli military bloc runs counter to NZ support for UN demands for a ceasefire and its supposed neutrality on the larger context behind the current conflict. Whatever the pretense, the hard truth is that with the NZDF deployment NZ has openly joined the Western coalition backing Israel in its war on Palestinians, eschewing bold support for enduring humanitarian principle in favor of short-term diplomatic realpolitik. Moreover, NZ has now been suckered into, via the US request for a contribution to the anti-Houthi effort, an expanding regional conflict that involves Iran and its proxies, on one side, and Israel and its (mostly Western) supporters on the other. With Russia and PRC (among others) supporting Iran and its proxies, the conflict has the potential to become drawn out as well as involve a larger number of actors.
Mission creep for the NZDF is therefore a distinct possibility, and the claim of NZ foreign policy independence rings hypocritically hollow since it is now clear that when the US asks NZ to take a pro-US/Israel stand on a controversial international issue, NZ bows and obeys.
So what does NZ’s flag-planting entail?
Not much at first glance. Its two frigates are in maintenance or on sea trials. It would do no good to send non-combat ships even if they were available (they would just become targets), and its in-and offshore patrol vessels are not suited to the task even if they could find crews to man them and get them to the theatre of operations. The Air Force could have sent one of its new P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which would be suited to some picket line duties such as electronic surveillance, but chose to not do so. What was left was finding a way to send ground-based assets to the theatre, and that is what the government and NZDF brass opted to do.
They have ordered the deployment of a six person “highly specialised” team to serve as “targeters” for allied forces using “precision weapons” against Houthi targets. From that description the soldiers could be a military communications/signals intelligence team or could come from the NZSAS, who specialise in long range patrol and reconnaissance and who routinely serve close to or behind enemy lines as forward target spotters (including Mosul during the fight against ISIS, if reports are correct). The NZSAS is believed to already have assets in the Middle East, perhaps stationed in Djibouti or Bahrain, likely in partnership with or as a secondment to the intelligence fusion “cells” or joint SPECOPS units that are located at US bases in those countries. Defense Minister Collins said that they would operate from “HQ and other places,” which suggests that be they military communications/signals intelligence specialists or NZSAS, they may be stationed on allied ships as well as land facilities. Because of their focus on mobility and stealth, if the team is indeed an NZSAS team, then it is doubtful that they will be spending much time behind desks or shining their medals at HQ.
Even so, a six person “targeting” team is a very thin deployment even for military intelligence or the NZSAS, which tend to deploy in platoon sized units. Unless the announced six-person team has larger backup in theatre behind it, there are no redundancies in the deployment, say, if a trooper breaks an ankle while playing paddleboard at the HQ. As things stand, the NZDF as a whole has severe retention problems that include the NZSAS, especially among non-commissioned officers, aka corporals ad sergeants (NCOs) that are the backbone of the regiment. Similar problems afflict other specialist units. In other words, the thinness of the deployment may be symptomatic of much larger problems within the NZDF.
The government says that there will been NZDF boots on the ground in Yemen. Not only do I take the government and NZDF word on this with a big grain of salt, but I will note that Yemen is contested space, the Houthis do not control all of it, and Saudi Arabia shares a border with it. Since the Saudis have conducted a murderous military campaign against the Houthis in the ongoing civil war between the Saudi-backed Republic of Yemen government and Houthi movement “rebels,” it is not far-fetched to think that it or the Republic of Yemen might welcome some anti-Houthi Western specialist forces on their soil.
(As an aside, PM Luxon has a certain form when it comes to the Red Sea conflict. He was the CEO of Air New Zealand during the Key government when an Air New Zealand subsidiary engineering firm sold maritime turbines to the Saudi Navy. Around that same time MFAT approved sale of military support equipment like range finders and fire control systems to the UAE knowing that they could be used against the Houthis (since the UAE is part of the Saudi led coalition against the Houthis), in contravention of voluntary international sanctions imposed because the Saudi coalition was committing war crimes against the Houthi population in the (still ongoing) civil war in Yemen. MFAT signed off on both deals, reflecting the Key government’s approach to such things. When confronted after the turbine sale was completed, Luxon said that he was not involved and had no responsibility for the decision, saying that it was made below his pay grade. That is a bit rich for a guy who pontificates about how he used to run an airline, but more importantly is symptomatic of how National selectively approaches relations with powerful authoritarian human rights-abusing regimes).
The government also insist that the team will not be involved in combat roles. This is an obfuscation as well as a distinction without a difference. The reason is that “targeters” are part of what is known as the “kill chain.” The “kill chain” starts with intelligence-gathering, moves through target identification and selection, then weapons and delivery platform designation, and ends with a trigger pull or launch command. The NZDF just joined the anti-Houthi kill chain. How is that so?
The NZDF “targeting” team will analyse intelligence feeds from technical (TECHNT), signals (SIGINT) and human (HUMINT) sources, including satellite and drone imagery in real time. They will evaluate the legitimacy of the intelligence by confirming the targets using a variety of means, of which getting proximate eyes on potential targets using their core skills is one possibility. In some cases targeting teams get close enough to electronically “paint” designated targets prior to air strikes (think along the lines of extremely sophisticated laser pointers). Once the target identity is confirmed and deemed actionable under the ROE, the team will pass its confirmation of the target to commanders who operate weapons platforms and who designate what sort of weapons should be used given the nature of the target (say, a sea-launched cruise missile from a destroyer or submarine or an air-launched Hellfire missile from land or carrier-based aircraft).
So what are its targeting constraints? That is unknown and the government and NZDF have not said anything about them. What is known is that the NZDF team will be operating under US command within the structure of CTC-153 operating under the name Operation Prosperity Guardian, which means they will not have autonomous say in what ultimately its designated as an “actionable” target. But the problems with the deployment go beyond the flexibility of US ROEs. It has to do with the kill chain itself.
That is why speaking of “precision” munitions is an easy way to whitewash their effects. They are precise only if the intelligence and targeting guiding them is accurate in real-time and the ROE is strictly defined. A precision guided weapon aimed at the wrong target or without regard for collateral damage is just another dumb bomb with guidance sensors and a camera. Plus, warhead throw weights matter. It is hard to be surgical with a 500lb. or1000 lb. warhead if the intelligence and target designations are not precise (they can be but not always are given the command pressures to deliver results in terms of enemies and equipment destroyed), which is why the intelligence/targeting part of the kill chain must be systems redundant before a trigger is pulled.
Again, none of this has been made public. No parliamentary consultation was undertaken before the decision to deploy the team was made. The irony is that the deployment, especially if my assumption is correct in that it involves the NZSAS, could have been done discretely and without fanfare. NZSAS deployments are done in secret all of the time and the public and politicians are none the wiser. Yet here the government chose to go public and grandstand with its announcement, which even if designed to offer public affirmation that NZ is part of the “club” John Key once talked about with regard to the NZDF presence in Iraq, also exposes the targeting team to increased physical risk and NZ to increased reputational harm given that most of the international community do not share the view that Houthi’s actions are unrelated to the Hamas-Israel war or that Israel is the good actor in it. But Israel is a close intelligence partner of the 5 Eyes network, so perhaps NZ’s choice of expediency over principle has something to do with that (rather than freedom of navigation per se).
Whatever the rationale behind the government’s decision, it seems that it is sticking a toe into a fire that may grow hotter rather than cooler. Then the question becomes one of whether the government has contingency plans ready to prevent NZ from being drawn further in and burned in the service of, to quote another Nicky Hager book title, Other People’s Wars.
The US has for long been known for its societal glorification of the military, a trait that covers popular culture, public and private institutions, sports and even the arts and literature. Manifestations of this include military flyovers at sporting events, military marches at parades, military honour guards at graduation and retirement ceremonies, Hollywood and interactive game productions about US wars and military prowess, active and retired military discounts for many goods and services, a 3 million-odd military troop size, high school and college military training units and rhetorical veneration of veterans on days of national significance. It is also the home of the military-industrial complex, which even if now just one such apparatus in a global network of arms manufactures, merchants, buyers and dealers, remains a centrepiece of the US economy and, as former President and 5 star general Dwight Eisenhower said at his Presidential farewell address in1961, an inherent threat to democracy because of its pervasive influence on public policy. That is as true today as much if not more than it was back then.
I mention this because recent US media coverage of the Ruso-Ukrainian, Hamas-Israel and Houthi-US/UK conflicts appears to show more than the influence of the military-industrial complex or the ideological glorification of the military as a US institution. It appears to depict a case of war fever or worse yet, war fetishism.
US cable news seem fixated on the weapons and support platforms being used against various adversaries. Tomahawk cruise missiles, Bradley fighting vehicles, Predator and Reaper drones, F-18s, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers, air- and surface-to- surface ballistic missiles–these and more are discussed at great length and detail by an assortment of (usually ex military) talking heads. Explosive tonnages are weighed, circular error probables are measured, delivery distances calculated, enemy killed are estimated. it makes for great theatre for those whose idea of entertainment leans that way. It generates eyeballs on screens and clicks on apps. The same is true, albeit in less visceral form, in the so-called “legacy” (print-turned-to digital) media such as newspapers. The logic of US corporate media is consistent: wars showcase US technological product and prowess. They are good for business, employment and US self-esteem.
Two things are notable about this coverage. The first is that much air time and column inches are devoted to the technologies involved in the architecture of death-dealing. Relatively little is devoted to the consequences of what these technologies do because the focus is on the former, not the latter. What attention is paid to human suffering is dwarfed by the focus on complex machines and lethal delivery systems, and even then the attention to human suffering is skewed in sympathetic favour towards what the US considers to be the “good guys” in any armed confrontation. In addition, relatively little attention is paid to second and third-order implications of any given conflict, so that, for example, escalation of the Hamas-Israel and Houthi-US/UK belligerencies is simply mentioned as a possibility rather than mapped out as an increasingly probability given the interests and actors at play. In fact, relatively balanced presentations of why these conflicts have occurred is subordinated to editorialising in favour of one side or another depending on US government positions vis a vis the conflicts in question.
Worse yet, over time the US government and its compliant public just move from one enemy to another. Once it was and now again it is Russian authoritarians. But there have also been Colombian drug cartels, military-nationalist regimes with swarthy-looking leaders in the Middle East (but not repressive Sunni oligarchies), post-revolutionary Iranians, al-Qaeda/ISIS, some but not other Latin American despots, the Taliban, the PRC, various African warlords–there is never a shortage of bad guys to go after. The US public uncritically laps it up because to them the constant re-framing of the enemy does not matter. What matters is the machines, the violent action and that the US kick some a**, somewhere, anywhere.
What is even more interesting is that all this coverage ignores the fact that the US, for all of its technological prowess, has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to war. However glossed over by semi-orderly retreats (“withdrawals” in the US parlance), the US lost in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 50 years of nearly non-stop fighting. It won in Gulf War One (“Shock and Awe”), Grenada and Panama, but lost over 200 Marines, sailors and army soldiers in an ill-fated intervention in Lebanon in 1983, thereby paving the way for the rise of Hezbollah as a significant actor in Lebanese and regional politics. It clashes with Iran regularly and has little to show for it other than rallying Shiites around the world to the Iranian cause. It invaded Iraq on a pretext after 9/11, succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein, but also created the intellectual and operational core of ISIS (which was organised by former Baathist officers in the Sunni Triangle as a resistance force and morphed into a broader ethno-religious movement with the objective of establishing a Caliphate in Mesopotamia and the Levant). Hundreds of US troops have fought and died in all sorts of undeclared “small wars,” from Somalia to Niger, Colombia to the Philippines and very rarely did the outcomes advance US interests or its reputation (both as a international power as well as a war-fighting culture). In the end, technological advantages were not decisive in all instances and did not lead to better diplomatic outcomes or more peace even where they did succeed. Yet the obsession with the machinery of death continues.
Perhaps it is because US society has a technological obsession, one that translates into finding ways for machines to replace humans in every walk of life, including the kinetic kill chain in war. If that is true (that US society prioritizes technological solutions to human as well as natural problems), then the larger question is whether what we see in US media coverage of conflict is evidence of war fever, evidence of war fetishism or just another instance of good ole’ fashioned war-mongering.
War fever can be characterised as a temporary state of individual and collective bloodlust caused by a desire for vengeance, righteous anger, opportunistic greed, genuine or perceived grievance or sociopathic or psychopathic arousal. It can work for good or work for evil depending on its causes, because the motivation is immediate and the objective is to vanquish by force a perceived enemy that is the immediate problem. When the enemy is vanquished, the fever breaks and people return to normal (non-bellicose) lives because, to use another medical analogy, the war boil has been lanced.
War fetishism, on the other hand, is a form of idolatry. It is obsessively fixated on war as an object of adoration. It idolizes soldiers as heroes and weapons as technological marvels. It worships the modalities of combat and the death delivery infrastructure used in them. It reifies the machines and canonizes the “good guys” who use them, even if the good guys are killing civilians in foreign lands where they are unwelcome. It wraps engagement in war in patriotic, ethnic, religious or historical symbolism, often stringing them together in a narrative of heroism and sacrifice, good versus evil, light versus darkness. The narrative in support of war is fluid and endless. Enemies come and go. They are a war-mongering cloak because the obsession is with the machinery of death and its application wherever it can be, not the (often morally, ethically and practically thin) justifications for its use.
Think of it this way. Does the US public, especially in Red States and in the MAGA crowd, really care about or even know what freedom of navigation is? Do they have a notion of what the Houthis are and why they are considered “rebels?” Or is the US public interest more about dealing violence to brown-skinned, non-Christian challengers (“terrorists!”) who defy and resist US directives in their part of the world? Again, the popular focus is on the ways in which organised violence is meted out to designated bad guys, not understanding why they are fighting, much less why the US has chosen them to be the latest in a long procession of bad guys.
(Brief historical aside by way of context: the Houthis are Shiites indigenous to Yemen but long-ruled by Sunni Saudi Arabian-backed clients. Once they rebelled they became pawns in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and were subjected to numerous Saudi Arabian war crimes using US weapons).
In that light, war-mongering is just a sub-set of war fetishism. It is nothing more than (often opportunistic) ideological or practical peddling of justifications for going to war. When the two types of justification combine, say in the advertising of so-called “defense” manufacturers in the US (“defending freedom!”), the result is an effective propaganda blanket for purveyors of death of either stripe. It is a means to an end, but not a cause or effect.
By this criteria, the US is a war fetishist society. Not everyone in the US of course, but certainly the majority, who may not even know that they are because the fact of constant (even if passive) war-worship is an all-encompassing (yet seldom admitted) part of everyday life. This does not excuse the murderous behaviour of any number of armed actors around the world, but it does bring into light how the US has cultivated an authoritarian ethos regarding the use of violence abroad that is antithetical to the very notion of peace and prosperity for all that it was supposedly founded on. Add to that the militarisation of US domestic security forces and the unconstrained gun culture that pervades significant parts of US society, and the dangers to the US as a democratic polity are laid bare.
Houston, we got a problem.
I was asked to write a commissioned essay for a special issue on Latin America of a NZ international affairs magazine. I was told by the editor I could write on a specific subject of my choice. I decided to write about what I see as South America’s “Strategic Paradox:” increased overall (macroeconomic) regional prosperity largely brought about by the growth in trade with the PRC (rather than with the US or EU) did not translate into increased domestic social equality, security and stability (as most Western developmental economists and sociologists would believe). Instead, increasing income inequalities caused by limited domestic job growth, few wage improvements and negligible distribution of tax revenues from the expanding import-export sector exacerbated social tensions, leading to more domestic insecurity. To this is added an assortment of pathologies such as public and private sector corruption and negative collaterals like environmental degradation in the emerging primary goods sector (such as in lithium extraction). All of this is set against the backdrop of increasing US hostility to the PRC presence in the region, which it sees as a growing security threat that must be countered.
The result is that South America may be more prosperous than ever in aggregate terms (say, GDP per capita), but it is not more peaceful, stable or secure as a result. My conclusion is that with a few notable exceptions it is a lack of good corporate and public governance that explains the paradox. Meanwhile the great power rivalry in the region has taken on a pernicious dynamic of its own that if left unmitigated will only add fuel to the fire.
Unfortunately, the editor, who is not a political scientist or international relations specialist (she says that she specialises in propaganda and authoritarianism, although from her limited bibliography she shows little knowledge of the extensive literature on each!) decided that the essay was too generalised and lacking in data to be publishable as is (after asking me to limit the essay to 3500 words and write it for a general, not specialist audience). She challenged my mention of the ongoing use of the Monroe Doctrine by US security officials, even though I provided citations for both data and comments when pertinent (15 in all, including Congressional testimony from US military officials and data from the Economic Commission Latin America (ECLA)). I got the distinct impression that she wanted a puff piece, got a critical analysis instead, and decided to condescendingly ask for unreasonable revisions in order to reject the piece without seriously reading it. In other words, she did not like it, but not because of its lack of scholarship but because it did meet her expected editorial slant. In fact. from her tone it appears that she had no idea who I am before she commissioned the essay and then assumed that I am some ignoramus when it comes to discussing South American politics, geopolitics and social dynamics. Y bueno, que le vas a hacer?
The good part of this story is that since I am not paid for the work, am not an academic who needs it on my c.v. for promotion purposes, and have a couple of social media platforms on which to publish and disseminate it without editorial interference from uninformed non-specialists, I told her that I would not do as told, would not do the demanded revisions and instead would publish the piece elsewhere.
KP is one such elsewhere: https://36th-parallel.com/2024/01/05/south-americas-strategic-paradox/
Tell me what you think about it.
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.
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.
Last year the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Solomon Islands signed a bilateral security agreement that includes police training and port visits by Chinese security advisors and naval vessels. This includes training in “crowd control” and protection of Chinese investments in the Solomons and opens the door to the possibility of forward basing of Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) assets in the archipelago. Needless to say, Western governments, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, reacted negatively to the deal (whose terms have not been entirely released), as have some members of the Pacific Island Forum community.
This year, the Australia, the UK and the US formally signed the AUKUS nuclear submarine agreement whereby Australia would first acquire, then manufacture nuclear powered submarines based on US and British attack submarine designs. The PRC and several Pacific Island Forum (PIF) states reacted negatively to the agreement (which may violate the 1997 Treaty of Rarotonga establishing a South Pacific nuclear free zone), although other Western Pacific Rim nations were either muted or supportive in their responses.
Also this year the US and Papua New Guinea (PNG) signed a bilateral security agreement that will allow US forces to operate on and from PNG soil and which includes a significant economic development component as part of the package. More recently, Japan and New Zealand signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement that is focused on joint operations in the South Pacific, initially for humanitarian reasons (such as the recent disaster relief efforts after the volcanic eruption in Tonga, where Japan participated) but opening the possibility of future joint military training and exercises in kinetic operations, especially in the West and SW Pacific maritime security environment. This follows on an intelligence-sharing agreement between Japan and NZ signed last year that allows better Japanese access to the 5 Eyes signals and technical intelligence collection alliance involving the US, UK, Australia and Canada as well as NZ, and which may pave the way for eventual Japanese integration into the alliance. Since intelligence sharing is part of military synergies and interoperability between different armed forces, this sequence of bilateral agreements would seem to be a natural progression in the NZ-Japanese security relationship.
What does all of this have in common? it is part of what might be seen as balance of power gamesmanship between the PRC and various rival powers in the SW Pacific region. Balances of power are, as the name implies, about balancing the power of one or more states against that of other states. These balances involve military, economic and diplomatic power and/or influence projection. Some so-called balances of power are actually not balanced at all and involve the domination by one state of a given strategic arena. This was the case for the US in the greater Pacific basin from WW2 up until recently. Now, with the decline of the US as a unipolar international “hegemon” and the rise of an emerging multipolar world that includes the PRC as a Great Power contender, the Western reaches of the Pacific basin have become a zone of contestation in which US and Chinese influence and power projection compete.
Other balances of power may be between two or more states sometimes operating as partners against common rivals and sometimes operating as sub-sets of a larger arrangement. Most balance of power subsets involve regional subsets of global rivalries.For example, NATO and the Warsaw Pact were European regional balancing vehicles contained within the larger bi-polar balance of power between the US and USSR during the Cold War. The contemporary rivalry between the Sunni Arab oligarchies and the Persian theocratic regime in Iran is a Middle East example of a regional balance of power in which competition for influence and support for armed proxies is part of the balancing game.
In East and Southeast Asia, several states have joined US-led coalitions in order to balance out the increasing PRC military presence in that part of the world. The Philippines, Singapore, Malyasia, Vietnam and Thailand, to say nothing of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, all have bilateral military-security agreements with the US that are specifically designed to help counter Chinese power projection in Western Pacific Rim area of operations (AOR).
A way to think about this multi-tiered/multi-faceted geopolitical balancing is to envision as what economists call a “nested” game, i.e. a game or games played within a larger game or games. The largest game sets the broad contours of what happens within it, with smaller games or subsets focused on specific meso- or micro-aspects of the larger (macro) game and with each level of games reinforcing balancing plays on the others. A less academic way is to think of balance of power games as being akin to a Matryoshka Doll with the largest game holding within it a number of smaller subsets that give internal substance to the overall representation.
The action/reaction dynamic between the PRC and rival powers involves a) the attempt to ring-fence the PRC in terms of its power projection in order to limit its capability to influence, via the threat of coercion or otherwise, regional politics; and b) the attempts by the PRC to break out of the corralling project erected against it. Arguments aside about whether the breakout move or the ring-fencing project came first, that is now a fait accompli. The dynamic is out in the open in the South China Sea, where the PRC has abandoned its insular, land-based strategic perspective and announced its maritime presence with its island-building project in international waters and its increased deployments of armed vessels off the coasts of its littoral neighbours as well as out into the blue waters of the West and Southwestern Pacific.
In return, the US has shifted sixty percent of its naval assets to the Pacific (rather its traditional focus on the Atlantic), and moved significant contingents of long-range bombers and fighter aircraft to bases in Guam, Okinawa and in the near future Australia. It has bolstered troop numbers and rotations in places like the Philippines, South Korea and Australia and increased the tempo of joint exercises with a host of regional partners. Likewise, the French have increased the size of their Pacific army and naval fleets (headquartered in Noumea and Papeete, respectively), as well as the number of exercises with Australian and US forces in the SW Pacific. The ring-fencing versus breakout balancing project, in other words, is well underway.
For a podcast discussion based on this post, please head to “A View from Afar.”
This begs a larger question. Does the PRC have legitimate interests in the Pacific and as a Great Power should those interests be understood and respected? Think of the Belt and Road Initiative and other large Chinese investments in foreign infrastructure development and resource extraction and the great risks that they carry. Accordingly, the PRC has an interest in maintaining access to major sea lanes and potential resource opportunities in the Pacific region. The question is whether it wants to work in accordance with international norms and in concert with the international community on things like freedom of navigation and regulation of seabed mining or does it wish to control sea lanes and set its own rules when it comes to exploiting natural resources in the Western Pacific.
The issue seems to be not about the legitimacy of PRC interests but the way it behaves in pursuit of them. The South China Sea is an example: bullying of neighbors, violating international norms with its island-building projects, the illegitimate extension of sovereignty claims over the whole South China Sea basin, the attempt to claim and control key choke points in international waters like the Taiwan Straits. All of these moves would seem to set a bad precedent for PRC power projection aspirations further South and are therefore the basis for regional concern about its growing presence. Then there is the issue of governance and PRC checkbook/debt diplomacy reinforcing corruption in the PIF states.
All of this suggests that, contrary to expectations two decades ago, the PRC behaves like a bad global/regional “citizen.” It violates norms and the rules based order and ignores established codes of conduct regarding the pursuit of national interests when projecting power and influence abroad. It is militarily and diplomatically aggressive when asserting its claims abroad, and as the pandemic response demonstrates, it is less than transparent and truthful when dealing with the motivations for and consequences of its actions.
To be sure, it is equally true that the “rules-based international order” was made for and by Western Great Powers before and after WW2, and the PRC is correct in noting that when calling for a new global regime that is not dominated by Western interests. Western colonialism and neo-imperialism has much to answer for. But it should also be understood that the setting of international rules by Western powers was as much a form of self-limiting strategy o themselves as it was an imposed (Western dominated) status quo.
That is, the Western great powers agreed to set rules that limited their relative freedom of action in the international sphere as much as it consolidated their dominant positions within it. The reason for this was that by establishing mutually accepted self-limiting rules as codes of conduct in various arenas (say, trade), Western powers reduced the chances that competition could turn into conflict because mediation and arbitration clauses are part of the rules-based order. More than dominate the global South, they wanted to reduce the risk of unfettered competition on any front leading to conflict among them.
One of the assumptions that underpinned inviting the PRC into the WTO and World Bank was that the PRC would understand and accept the self-limiting strategy that was the conceptual basis of the rules-based order. It was assumed that by playing by the rules the PRC could be integrated peacefully as an emerging Great Power into the community of nations. The trouble is that those assumptions proved false and under Xi Jinping the PRC has embarked on a project of individual aggrandizement rather than multinational cooperation. In its military posturing and wolf warrior diplomacy, violation of things like intellectual property and patent rights, use of telecommunication technologies for espionage, violation of resource protection regulations etc., the PRC’s behaviour shows its contempt for the self-limiting premise of the rules-based order.
That could well be what alarms the West as much as any specific instance of Chinese aggression. If the rules-based order can be successfully ignored or challenged, then a turn to a Hobbesian state of nature or international state of anarchy becomes potential reality. Russia has already signalled its rejection of the rules-based order and is in a strategic alliance with the PRC that explicitly claims a need for the establishment of a new world order. Many in the global South, tired of Western imperialism, interventionism and rigging of the trade and diplomatic rules and mores of the current “liberal” internationalist system., have indicated support for a new global regime led by Russia and the PRC. Thus the concern in the West and allied nations is not about any specific action on the part of the PRC but about said actions being a trigger point that not only could lead to military conflict but to a collapse of the international consensus in support of the rules-based order (and of liberal internationalism in general).
The West-led ring-fencing coalition will argue that the matter is not about thwarting PRC ambitions but about getting it to accept the mutual self-limiting logic of the li, rules-based liberal international order. The Chinese will argue that the issue is precisely about thwarting PRC breakout ambitions to national greatness on the world stage.
In the end the argument will be made in Western security circles and amongst their allies that the regional balancing acts going on in the Western Pacific are due to the need for a defensive response to contemporary PRC military-diplomatic belligerency that, along with other authoritarian challenges, attempt to usurp the rules-based liberal international order. The PRC will counter that its breakout policies are designed to overcome years of Western-imposed containment pursuant to claiming its rightful place as a global Great Power leading a revamped multipolar international system. The arguments one way or the other are themselves evidence of geopolitical balancing at work, but the consequences should miscalculations occur or mistakes happen have the potential to make for much more than an imbalance in or rebalancing of relative power projection capabilities in the West and Southwest Pacific. At that point mutual self-limitation as a foreign policy consensus may become a thing of the past.
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.
After considerable delays related to the impact on Cyclone Gabrielle on both North Island coasts, the “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning and I has resumed. After a brief introduction talking about the storm aftermath, we follow up the previous KP post about AUKUS, then briefly talk about the Discord classified material leaks and the power struggle in Russia. You can find the podcast here.