Media Link: AVFA on the implications of US elections.

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and spoke about the upcoming US elections and what the possibility of another Trump presidency means for the US role in world affairs. We also spoke about the problems Joe Biden has in dominating the presidential race against a demonstrably unbalanced opponent, shifting voter demographics, how US allies and adversaries engage in strategic hedging depending on whether they view Trump as an asset or as a threat, and how the US increasingly looks like an unstable polity, to the point that US foreign interlocutors must factor in its growing unreliability as an international partner. And much more. The link is here.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on the moment of friction, and more.

After a hiatus of over four months Selwyn Manning and I finally got it together to re-start the “A View from Afar” podcast series. We shall see how we go but aim to do 2 episodes per month if possible.

Here we start of with a catch up on events since the last podcast of 2023. Selwyn liked the KP moment of friction post from April 1, and so we used it as the stepping stone into a discussion that incorporates material from several recent KP posts and other news. I hope that you find the podcast of interest. You can find it here.

Policing protests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did not.

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

Arguing about a moot point.

I have been following recent debates in the corporate and social media about whether it is a good idea for NZ to join what is known as “AUKUS Pillar Two.” AUKUS is the Australian-UK-US nuclear submarine building agreement in which the US and UK will provide Australia with the know-how and training on how to build and operate a small nuclear submarine fleet beginning in the 2030s. It has two components.

Pillar One involves the submarines themselves, which will be home ported at HMAS Stirling outside of Perth. Beginning in 2027 US Virginia-class and UK Astute-class attack subs (from which the future AUKUS-class Australian submarines will incorporate design features) will start rotating through HMAS Stirling so that Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and civilian personnel at HMAS Stirling can become familiar with nuclear submarine technologies and home port surface operations. The US will sell Australia up to three Virginia-class Block IV and Block VII subs beginning in the early 2030s and delivery of five new AUKUS submarines (designated as SSN-A’s) will begin in the mid 2040s. RAN crews are already attending the US Navy nuclear propulsion school in South Carolina and they will also join UK and US Astute- and Virginia-class boats on deployments as a part of their training. The project envisions the Royal Navy receiving SSN-A boats to replace their Asute-class fleet beginning in the early 2030s, and for the RAN to have a nuclear fleet of eight boats by 2050. Although nuclear propelled, they will not be nuclear armed. They are attack submarines whose main roles are to kill other submarines, surface vessels and land-based targets with conventionally armed torpedoes and cruise missiles. They are also tasked with intelligence-gathering missions involving technical, signals and even human collection methods.

Pillar Two of the AUKUS agreement involves complex technology research, development and transfers. The primary areas of focus will be on computer and cyber technology (including Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and classified undersea technologies), hypersonic and counter-hypersonic platforms (already in progress), and Radar Capability, including the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) that will see tracking stations built in the Pillar One Countries. Pillar Two is designed to move beyond basic systems interoperability between the military allies, which is already in place, and integrate the military-industrial complexes of the three partners in ways that will not only lead to more seamless integration of complex technologies but also help create and expand high tech development hubs in each country, but especially in Australia and the UK. This is seen as having tremendous “trickle down” benefits for the civilian economies of each country as the flow-on effects of Pillar Two ripple into related industries up and down the supply, service, and delivery chains and their associated labour markets.

In March 2023 then Defense Minister Andrew Little of the Labour Party said that NZ was interested in discussing potential involvement in the non-nuclear aspects of Pillar 2, and in July 2023 US Secretary of State said that the “door was open” for countries like NZ to join the agreement. In December 2023 new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon reiterated his government’s interest in potentially joining in the non-nuclear aspects of Pillar Two, something that was followed by an announcement in February 2024 by Australia that it would begin to brief NZ officials on developments with regard to Pillar Two. However, after losing the October 2023 election the Labour Party reversed course and announced its opposition to participating in Pillar Two, and even the Grande Dame of the Labour Party, former NZ Prime Minister and UNDP chief Helen Clark, came out strongly against it. She has been joined in her opposition by a number of prominent NZ academics, peace, non-proliferation and disarmament campaigners, human rights and environmental activists, civil society organisations and left political movements as well as former diplomats.

Their concerns range from not wanting to jeopardise NZ’s trade relationship with the PRC, which has strongly denounced AUKUS as a provocative attempt to militarily counter and encircle it in the Western Pacific (and there is truth to that), which has a history of using trade as a retaliatory weapon in order to show its displeasure with other State’s behaviour, and upon which NZ is significantly trade-dependent, to fears of a nuclear arms race and/or great power conflict in the Southwestern Pacific that would have a disastrous impact on Pacific Island societies, economies and environments.

That latter point is significant because the permanent basing of nuclear submarines at HMAS Stirling appears to be in violation of the 1997 Treaty of Rarotonga declaring the South Pacific to be a nuclear-free zone.The maps of the South Pacific nuclear-free zone attached to the Treaty include the Australian West Coast fronting the Indian Ocean, and the Treaty prohibits the storage of significant quantities of fissile material or nuclear-processing facilities within the Zone. So the AUKUS agreement is seemingly in violation of the Treaty, which if so sets a dangerous precedent (AUKUS supporters claim that at worst the signatories exploited loopholes in the Treaty that make the agreement compliant with it). This can now open the door for other States to station nuclear powered submarines in the region, say for example, the French in New Caledonia or French Polynesia or the PRC in the Solomon Islands (thanks to the recently signed bilateral security agreement between the two countries). That would not be good from a strategic or arms control standpoint and would fulfil the darkest dreams of the non-proliferation community.

These opposition voices are countered by security experts and conservative political observers who see closer relations with AUKUS as enhancing NZ’s security in a rapidly deteriorating international security environment (in which militarily aggressive Russia and the PRC are seen as leaders of an authoritarian, anti-democratic, anti-Western bloc emerging from the Global South), and which also has great economic benefits for NZ should it join Pillar Two.

That is the foundation of the debate I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Put crudely, Lefties do not want NZ involvement in Pillar Two. Righties do.

All of this seems to me to be a bit of a moot point. I hopped on the consultancy social media account to outline two reasons why, and I have expended them below.

First: the NZDF and GCSB (as part of 5 Eyes) will share AUKUS-related military technology and signals and technical intelligence collection advances because of their ongoing integration with Australian and US maritime operations and 5 Eyes partnership, especially when it comes to Western Pacific Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) roles. The incorporation of new P-8 long range patrol and ASW aircraft into the RNZAF and upgrades to the RNZN frigates have been done with that complex interoperability in mind. The NZDF already uses the principle of interoperability when working alongside its military partners–the US, UK and Australia being foremost among them– so whatever systems integration upgrades that result from AUKUS will be shared with NZ in any event. As it is, the NZDF already communicates with US and Australian submarines as a matter of course, so it will continue to do so once the nuclear-propelled ships come on board (remember that submarine hunters and surface patrol platforms need to distinguish friend from foe, and the best thing to do in that case is to ask upon contact or be alerted in advance by friendly forces). So as far as non-nuclear military technology sharing with the NZDF goes, it is a done deal. NZ does nothing (at least publicly) and yet it still gets to play with the military “big dogs.”

Also keep in mind that submarines are excellent signals intelligence collection or intercept platforms, particularly when it comes to undersea fiberoptic telecommunications cables. So upgrading to nuclear powered subs by the RAN will expand the range and operational capabilities of its maritime signals intelligence collection platforms as well as improve its ability to monitor hostile naval movements above and below the water line. The NZDF and GCSB will benefit from that, again, without having to do anything different than what they are doing already but with improved intelligence-gathering capabilities as a result.

Secondly, Australia, the UK and the US high technology sectors will not gift NZ firms a slice of the Pillar 2 pie for competitive and political reasons. Why allow the small high technology sector of a non-nuke “freeloading” country to benefit when AUKUS firms can benefit instead? Plus, AUKUS high technology sectors employ voters, have entrepreneurial lobbies and involve established economies of scale, so why share the Pillar Two market with what essentially would be a start-up upstart that has no political influence and electoral impact in the AUKUS countries themselves?

In effect, for operational as well as economic and political reasons, NZ involvement in Pillar Two is improbable. It will be briefed about Pillar Two as announced, but an invitation to join the endeavour faces opposition both from within and from without NZ. It therefore seems that the current government is engaging more in political and diplomatic posturing when it speaks of NZ’s involvement in Pillar Two rather than realistically assessing the prospects of that ever happening.

In that light, perhaps the fears of Pillar Two opponents are overblown?

A moment of friction.

In strategic studies “friction” is a term that it is used to describe the moment when military action encounters adversary resistance. “Friction” is one of four (along with an unofficial fifth) “F’s” in military strategy, which includes force (kinetic mass), fluidity (of manoeuvre), fog (of battle) as well as uncertainty (of outcomes, which is usually referred to in military circles as the “oh F**k” factor)). Friction comes from many causes, including terrain, countervailing force, psychological factors, the adversary’s broader capabilities and more. As German strategist Karl von Clausewitz noted, friction can be encountered at the three levels of warfare: strategic, operational and tactical.In other words, “Clausewitzian friction” is not just confined to the battlefield.

The notion of friction is drawn from the physical world and has many permutations. It is not confined to one particular element or dimension. It is about opposition, even if of similar elements or forces, including the element of will. For example, when they meet, fluids and air of different weights create turbulence. Fire on different fire extinguishes or expands. Earth on earth leads to crumbling or inertial momentum. The product of the combination of these physical forces, say fluid on air or earth or fire, depends on the relative weight of each. The same goes for psychological factors in human contests. Mutatis mutandis (i.e., with the necessary changes having been made), this is applicable to international relations. It may seem like a conceptual stretch but I see the use of the notion of friction in terms of international relations more as an example of conceptual transfer, using Clausewitz as a bridge between the physical and the political/diplomatic worlds (more on this later).

In the past I have written at length about the systemic realignment and long transition in post Cold War international relations. The phrase refers to the transition from a unipolar post-Cold War international system dominated by the US (as the “hegemon” of the liberal internationalist world order) to a multipolar system that includes rising Great Powers like the PRC and India and constellations of middle powers such as the other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, South Africa and recently added members like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ethiopia and perhaps Argentina (if it ratifies its accession)) as representatives of the rising “Global South.” In spite of their differences, these rising power blocs are counterpoised against what remains of the liberal institutionalist order, including the EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia. I have noted that the long moment of transition is characterised by international norm erosion and increased rule violations and the consequent emergence of conflict as the systems regulator until a new status quo is established (and from which that new status quo emerges). That conflict may come in many guises–economic, diplomatic, cultural and, perhaps inevitably, military or some combination thereof. When conflicts turn military, the moment of force has arrived. And when force is met by opposing force, then friction is inevitable.

Here I extend the notion of friction to include the international moment that we are currently living in. That is, I have conceptually transferred the notion of friction to the international arena because “transfer” in this instance means applying the notion of friction to a wider environment beyond the physical plane without distorting its original meaning. That allows me to avoid the methodologically dubious practice of conceptual stretching (where a term is stretched and distorted from its original meaning in order to analytically fit a different type of thing).

The long transitional moment is what has taken us to this point and allowed me to undertake the transfer, and it is here in the transitional trajectory from unipolar to multipolar international systems where the future global status quo will be defined. It is a decisive moment because it is the period where force has become the major arbiter of who rises and who falls in the systemic transitional shuffle. Given that there are many competitors in the international arena who are capable and willing to use force as well as other means to advance their interests, I suggest that the global community has reached its moment of friction, that is, the turning point in the long transitional process. Everything that has come before was the lead-in. Everything that comes after will be the result of this conflict-defined moment.

It is no exaggeration to write this. Besides the Ruso-Ukrainian war and the Israel-Hamas war, there is the armed stand-off in the Red Sea between Iran-backed Houthis and a naval coalition led but he US, the ongoing skirmishes between PRC naval forces and those of the Philippines, Vietnam and Western naval forces as well as the PRC military threats to Taiwan, the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict along the Israel-Lebanon border, Islamist violence in the Sahel and Eastern Africa as well as in Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other other parts of Central Asia, ongoing conflict in Syria between Assad’s Russian-backed forces, the remnants of ISIS and Western-backed rebels, the Turkish-Kurd conflict along the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi borders, the civil war in Libya, escalating fighting between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda over mineral rich areas in and around the eastern Congolese city of Goma (in which private military companies and irredentist militias are also involved), narco-violence in Latin America that has reached the level of challenging state monopolies over organised violence in places like Ecuador and parts of Mexico, piracy in the Indian Ocean and in the Malacca Straits, cross-border ethno-religious conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the PRC and Gaza, tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea and more. Norms and rules governing interstate as well as domestic forms of collective behaviour are honoured in the breach, not as a matter of course. Individuals, groups and States are increasingly atomised in their perspectives and interactions and resort to the ultimate default option–conflict–to pursue their interests in the face of other’s opposition..

Friction extends to economics. The era of globalisation of free trade has ended as nations revert to post-pandemic protectionism or focus on “near-“and “friend-shoring” in order to avoid supply chain bottlenecks resultant from commodity production concentration in a small number of countries. Although not a trade pact strictly speaking, the PRC Belt and Road Initiative undermines Western trade agreements like the TPPA and lesser regional arrangements because it ties developmental assistance and financing to Chinese industries and markets. Intellectual property and technology theft is wide-spread despite International conventions against them (endnote just by the PRC). The era of Bretton Woods is over and the agencies that were its institutional pillars (like the World Bank, IMF and regional agencies such as the IADB and ADB) are now increasingly challenged by entities emerging from the Global South like the China Development Bank and BRICS common market initiatives.

In addition, as part of international norms erosion and rules violations, many diplomatic agreements and treaties such as those prohibiting the use of chemical weapons and even genocide are also now largely ignored because, in the end, there is no international enforcement capability to reinforce what is written. The International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court can impose sanctions and issue arrest warrants but have no enforcement authority of their own. The UN can authorise peace-keeping missions and issue resolutions but is subject to Security Council vetoes on the one hand and belligerent non-compliance in the other (besides Israel ignoring UN demands for a cease-fire and humanitarian pauses in Gaza, people may forget that there are UN peace keeping missions in the Sinai, Golan Heights and Israel-Lebanon border, including NZDF personnel among them, because these “blue helmet” missions have had no ameliorating impact on the behaviour of the participants in the Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah-Syria conflict). Adverse rulings in international courts have not stopped the PRC island-building and aggressive military diplomacy in the South China Sea. The examples are many. Given that state of affairs, States and other actors increasingly turn to force to pursue their interests.

Whatever restraint was promoted by the laws of war and international conflict-resolution institutions during the post-Cold War interregnum has been abandoned or become exceptions to the new anarchic rule. One might even say that the international community is increasingly living in a state of nature, even if the terms “anarchy” and “state of nature” are loose interpretations of what Hobbes wrote about when he considered the Leviathan of international politics. But the basic idea should be clear: the liberal internationalist system has broken down and a new order is emerging from the conflict landscape that characterises the contemporary international arena.

Again, the friction is not just things like the military confrontations between Russia, Russian and Iranian-backed proxies in the Middle East and the PRC against a range of Western and Western-oriented nations in the Western Pacific. The BRICS have proposed to develop a single unitary currency to rival the Euro and are openly calling for a major overhaul of international organizations and institutions that they (rightfully so), see as made by and for post-colonial Western interests. But the question is whether what they have in mind as a replacement will be any better in addressing the needs of the Global South while respecting the autonomy of the Global North. My hunch is that it will not, and will just add another front to the moment of friction.

I shall not continue enunciating the reasons why I believe that we have arrived at an international moment of friction (e.g. cultural degradation and social vulgarisation, etc.). That is because I cannot specify what will be come given that push has now led to shove, nor can I offer a solution set to the problems embedded in and underwriting this sorry moment. What I can say is, just like the fact that we need to learn to embrace uncertainty in the transitional process since outcomes are not assured and guarantees cannot be offered (although some industries like tobacco, liquor, weapons and insurance all profit during times of uncertainty and market hedging strategies become the common response of risk-adverse actors to uncertain economic times, so can be calculated or anticipated), so too we must, if not embrace, then learn to prepare for an era in which friction will be the dominant mode of international transaction for some time to come.

For small countries like NZ, repeating empty mantras about foreign policy “independence” no longer cuts it even as a slogan. The moment of international friction poses some existential questions about where NZ stands in the transitional process, how it will balance competing international interests when it comes to NZ foreign and security policy, and about who to side with when conflict comes.

Because it will.

Forget the date. This is no April Fools joke.

Another Brief on Intelligence Matters.

Although my son is still in hospital he is recovering well and should be sent home soon. We dodged a bullet thanks to the Starship medical staff.

While at the hospital a reporter from one of Argentina’s oldest and most influential papers got in touch with me to discuss the case of the Russian double agent (for the UK) Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were poisoned some years ago by Russian agents but survived and then disappeared. Some time ago they were reported to be hiding in NZ and I was asked about that by various media, and the Argentine reporter had seen some of the news coverage that mentioned me. He was most focused on the details of the case and whether the the Skripals could still be in NZ if they ever were. But before that he wanted a primer on intelligence operations. Here is the Q&A in English.

Why do countries spy and why do they react negatively to being spied upon? What is intelligence collection and what type of people are selected to become intelligence agents?

Espionage and intelligence-gathering is rooted in human nature. Humans fear uncertainty, and a way to diminish uncertainty is to gather information about uncertain subjects, be they economic, military, natural, political or social. It helps determine intentions as well as capabilities or other factors otherwise unknown. From that intelligence-gathering, knowledge is achieved and uncertainty is diminished. And if it is true that knowledge is power, then power is enhanced by intelligence-gathering.

Intelligence collection and analysis comes in three forms: human intelligence, signals/technical intelligence and open-source intelligence. Human intelligence refers to human collectors, i.e. intelligence agents of the State and non-State actors (say, private security firms or investigators) who collect information from personal observation, interactions and exchanges with people in a designated functional areas, regions or countries. State intelligence agents work in two ways. One is under the protection of a diplomatic passport. Known as “official cover” agents, this includes military attaches as well as other diplomatic personnel whose activities are recognised by host countries but which often extend beyond the official remit outlined in their credentials. If caught and accused of espionage, official cover agents are detained and deported as per diplomatic protocol (that is, they received diplomatic immunity).

Non-official cover (NOC) agents are what are traditionally known as spies. They are the stuff of cloak and dagger stories but the reality is a bit more mundane in most instances. They work under the cover of assumed names, aliases and occupations, for example as businesspeople, academics or developmental aid workers, among many other “covers.” If caught, they are subject to the full penalties of the jurisdiction in which their offenses were committed and where they are charged (including being subject to the death penalty in many countries). They receive no diplomatic immunity. The outed US spy Valeri Plane (outed in 2003 by the W. Bush administration as revenge for husband refusing to go along with their lies about Iraq having nuclear weapon precursor yellowcake stockpiles), who used a job as a petroleum executive as cover for her espionage activities in the Middle East, is an example of such a so-called “NOC.”

NOCs tend to work in a highly compartmentalised or “siloed” manner, dealing with one agency liaison up the collection chain and putting degrees of separation between the down-chain primary source contacts (informants who may be conscious or unconsciously helping the NOC and be paid or unpaid depending on who they are) in order to maintain tight operational security. The means of feeding intelligence up the chain are many, involving technical tools as well as personal interactions.

There is a sub-set of human intelligence agents that might be called “hunter-killers.” While all human intelligence agents will be trained in things like surreptitious entry, lock-breaking, concealed observation (static and in motion), eavesdropping and other such tradecraft, the hunter-killer sub-set includes assassination in their repertoire. The lethal means can include a range of tools, to include poison, blades, firearms, explosives or armed unmanned vehicles (for example, the CIA has its own UAV fleet, as does Mossad, among others). The individuals who engage in this type of activity are, at least when tasked to do such things, not true spies in the proper sense of the term since their focus is not on obtaining information but on acting on information previously obtained, although they may work in partnership with official or non-official cover agents because their priority focus is on tracking and eliminating targets. They are essentially assassins, although they may even engage in broader combat activities depending on circumstance. Intelligence agencies maintain paramilitary units for such purposes, and they can be embedded in or along with military forces. Given the threat environment in which a State operates and the nature of the adversaries being confronted, the number of hunter-killer agents, units or teams may be large or small. Israel has a large number of such people. The US has a fair number. New Zealand has none, as far as is known or admitted. In general and as can be expected given the nature of their rule, authoritarian regimes use hunter-killers more than democracies.

The ideal human intelligence agent must have a calm and even temperament, be able to display coolness under pressure, be resourceful, have a keen sense of curiosity and ingenuity when problem-solving, have the ability to think laterally and “out of the box,” and have a capacity to “silo” or compartmentalize their work so that their real work life as intelligence collectors is undetectable in their personal, public and private lives. They must be able to ward off being compromised, be it sexually, financially or socially. They must be able to keep a secret and rationalize their personal morals and ethics with their professional ethos and obligations. They must have a deep sense of and commitment to public service (service to the State on behalf of the Nation).

Selection to become a human intelligence agent varies from country to country. Along with the traits mentioned below, in authoritarian regimes party and personal loyalties to political elites are a significant factor in recruitment and selection. In democracies, they are not. Modern intelligence agencies in democracies maintain professional standards for recruitment and promotion that are neutral when it comes to partisan and personal politics. They use advanced psychological testing to determine a candidate’s fitness to serve. These include cognitive, physical and intellectual testing, often involving real-case scenarios in which a candidate is placed in a pressure situation in order to evaluate their decision-making capabilities. Once a candidate has been accepted into service and learned the tools of the trade (“spycraft”), they are matched with a suitable cover profile and trained in how to maintain that profile in the field (be it as a diplomat, military officer or undercover agent). There are variations to this scenario but the overall thrust is very similar in most developed States, and in fact in some instances (5 Eyes) intelligence agencies have exchange programs for officers from allied States in order to improve professional standards amongst them.

Question Two: It is said that Russia prefers human intelligence collection whereas the US and UK prefer technological means. Is this true and if so, why?

During the Cold War and the first 20 years of the post-Cold War environment, the US had a great advantage in signals and technical intelligence (SIGINT/TECHINT), moving far beyond the early 20th century techniques of eavesdropping on phones and/or in public and private places or using radar, sonar or advanced photographic techniques. It expanded the SIGINT/TECHINT collection domain to include space and submarine collection capabilities as well as sophisticated electronic and technical collection platforms using infrared, acoustic signature detection, computer intercepts and then cyber-hacking. As a result, it placed less emphasis on human intelligence collection, in part because it is a US cultural trait to believe in the superior benefits of advance technologies in everything from kitchens, cars and television to warfare. As a result, as of the 1970s the US diverted intelligence resources and focus towards signals and technical intelligence collection to the detriment of human intelligence collection. Also remember that CIA activities in Chile, Indonesia, and many other places had placed a stain on the reputations of field agents and undercover officers involved in those activities, so the move away from human intelligence collection was an expedient way of getting out of the unwanted limelight.

As a result, human intelligence collection (HUMINT) was maintained  but in diminished numbers. Given the changing priorities of the post-Cold War geopolitical environment, it left an unbalanced focus on post-Soviet dynamics without a shift to emerging threats such as ideologically motivated non-State actors like al-Qaeda.  For that HUMINT work the US increasingly relied on Israel and other allied countries. The emphasis on SIGINT/TECHINT was reproduced and compounded by the 5 Eyes network, which created economies of scale in that form of intelligence gathering that began to dominate the overall information acquisition process in their respective communities even if human intelligence agents were tasked with following up on information obtained and gleaned by SIGINT/TECHINT means by any of the partners.

The problem with over-emphasising signals and technical intelligence collection is that it often cannot discern real intent by separating bluster and idle talk from a commitment to action. Operational security counter-measures can also thwart effective SIGINT/TECHINT collection. In addition, the trouble with relying on partners for human intelligence collection and analysis is that the intelligence comes “filtered” by the interests of the sharing State, not all of which are exactly coterminous or identical to those of the US (and vice versa for its partners). In recent years the US has revived its human intelligence programs, but they are playing catch up when it comes to recruiting people with the appropriate language, social, cultural and personal skills to operate under deep cover (or even officio cover) in foreign environments. People with backgrounds in anthropology and sociology are high value recruits, but the number of them are small when compared to the amounts of subjects/targets that need covering.

As an example, when 9/11 happened the US military intelligence is reported to only have 3 Arabic speaking linguists in their ranks. NZ human intelligence (the SIS) had none, and even with the recruitment of Muslim, Chinese and Polynesian New Zealanders in recent years, it lags far behind when it comes to people with the requisite skills to undertake both official cover and NOC work given the threat environment in which NZ now operates.

As for the Russians, the situation was different. Because the Soviet Union/Russia and the PRC were considerably behind the US when it came to signals and technical intelligence well into the 1990s, they both emphasized and put resources into human intelligence collection. For decades even that form of intelligence collection was limited to internal intelligence and counter-intelligence (for example, against counter-revolutionaries, some of whom had foreign backing) and in their near abroad or against strategic adversaries (the US and its major allies). Over time the human intelligence capabilities of the USSR and later Russia expanded to have a global reach, something that China has emulated today. Other countries such as Israel have developed similar capabilities, using Jews in the diaspora as collection agents (known as “sayanim”). 

However, in the 21st century both Russia and China have put much effort and resources into developing state of the art signals and technical intelligence collection capabilities Although they do not have the economies of scale available to the 5 Eyes Anglophone signals intelligence network, they have developed sophisticated capabilities of their own. The advent of social media has facilitated and accelerated this effort, something seen in the disinformation and misinformation campaigns undertaken by the Russian signals intelligence agency, the GRU, against Western democracies via the work of dedicated units such as the Fancy Bear cyber-hacking group that interfered with and continues to interfere in US and other democratic elections while promoting socio-political discord and right-wing conspiracy theories (including in NZ).

Hence, while it is true that Russia has traditionally favored human intelligence collection methods, to include hunter-killer activities, that is no longer the absolute case. Both it and the PRC have a very expansive and sophisticated signals and technical intelligence capabilities, including in space, in the atmosphere, on land and under the sea.

Examples of technical and signals intelligence collection include photographic and thermal imagery from space, submarine interceptions (“tapping”) of undersea communications cables (such as by the PRISM system used by 5 Eyes), airborne photography, jamming and early-warning detection, metadata targeted and bulk collection of internet communications, and acoustic “reading” of vibrations from interior conversations on exterior surfaces such as windows. Plus all of the old fashioned techniques such as telephone wiretapping, coding and decoding, encryption and decryption, etc. Artificial Intelligence has been used for some years now even if the commercial applications have only become operational in recent times, and is set to become a dominant means of extracting actionable intelligence from vast quantities of data as well as more rapidly recognising, analysing and filtering threat assessments and other intelligence priorities.

Questions 3 and 4: How does UK intelligence operate and why does it treat intelligence gathering differently from espionage?

Before delving into the specifics of the question, allow me to note that oversight and regulation of intelligence operations and agencies differs greatly between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes use intelligence agencies for domestic espionage, paralleling or supplementing the work of police intelligence units that are focused on crime-fighting. In such cases the focus of intelligence agencies is on domestic political dissent, subversion, foreign agents (counter-espionage), and a number of other targets such as environmental activists and other non-conformists who the regime deems to be enemies of the State. Intelligence units are bound by their own internal rules and procedures, which usually are much looser than those in democracies. They also have para-military units of the “hunter-killer” type that are tasked with hunting down and eliminating opponents at home and abroad. The Skripal case is an example, as was the Operacion Condor network operated by the Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s. Authoritarian intelligence agencies and agents are not bound by the rule of law but by the boundaries set by the political (often military) leadership of the regime.

In contrast, intelligence agencies in democratic regimes operate according to the rule of law and constitutional principles. They are more restricted in their freedom or latitude of action. They tend to limit their domestic activities to counter-espionage and transnational crime with State or ideological connections, such as when monitoring and countering Hezbollah activities in the Tri-Corner region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay (where drugs, weapons an extremists congregate for mutually beneficial purposes). In general, however, domestic intelligence collection is a responsibility of the police or gendarmes, not intelligence agencies, who only work with the domestic intelligence units of the police and gendarmes when specifically tasked to do so and within defined legal authority.

Because of that intelligence agencies in democracies have a primary focus on foreign and transnational intelligence gathering and threat identification and analysis as well as counter-espionage. They are bound by numerous legislative and legal restraints on their activities and a system of checks via courts and other oversight mechanisms. Unless the circumstances are exceptional (say, a bomb about to go off in a crowded train station), they must adhere to civil liberties and other democratic rights accorded to the population. And even then they often need the authorization of a special court or judge in order to legally infringe on individual and collective rights and constitutional norms.

To be clear, these norms have been violated in many instances by spy agencies in liberal democracies, including in the US, UK and NZ, but if discovered they are liable under the law and can be held accountable by oversight agencies as well as legislatures (if the Executive will not act against them in such instances). Intelligence agencies do not operate according to the whims of the political leadership, but in accordance with and under penalty of law.

In terms of how the UK approaches intelligence matters, it conforms with the democratic model outlined above. It uses legal frameworks to determine the distinction between intelligence gathering by the British State, its allies and partners and even private parties like corporations, versus espionage by foreign States or British nationals working for foreign states or front entities (such as by and for Chinese firms and “friendship societies” connected to PRC military intelligence via “United Front” entities). Having a legal framework delimiting what is and is not permissible when it comes to intelligence collection and the means used to that end gives the British State (and other States in their own ways), legal cover and authority to disrupt and prosecute (often clandestine) intelligence-gathering activities deemed unlawful and illegal.

Put simply, in the UK and other democracies intelligence collection done under official cover is considered permissible up to a point. Intelligence collection done under non-official cover is considered espionage and punishable by law. If an official cover intelligence officer from a foreign embassy goes beyond his recognized intelligence gathering duties (say, by trying to poison a dissident in England), that person will be charged and a warrant issued for their arrest even if they are deported under rules of diplomatic immunity. If a Russian NOC attempts to poison someone and is caught, s/he is out of luck.

Espionage is what the bad guys do; intelligence collection is what the good guys do, and the legal distinction is there to preserve that fiction.

Question Five: Where are the Skripals?

The Skripal’s are likely in a 5 Eyes country. They need to be in a place where they can go relatively unnoticed, where security can be provided for them and where there are not many other Russians around unless those Russians are sympathetic to the Skripals and have been security vetted. They will be provided with fake identities and documentation and take language lessons to disguise their thick English/Russian accents. They will be coached on how to act under their assumed identities, for example, as a retired Bulgarian businessman and his middle-aged daughter who cares for him as per traditional custom. They could be located in a city without many Russians where they can disappear in the crowds or, contrastingly, in a rural area far from prying eyes. That depends on their personal characteristics. If they are urbanites then they would stick out in a rural setting and probably have difficulties coping, much less assimilating. Many factors will determine where exactly they are re-located and hidden from Russian intelligence.

Of course, they may be relocated to a non-5 Eyes country such as Argentina or South Africa. But Skirpal’s spying was done for the UK and 5 Eyes, not other States, so other States would be reluctant to incur Russia’s wrath in the event they are discovered. Plus, other States may be more susceptible to corruption, leaking and not be able to provide adequate levels of discrete but effective security for them. So it seems to that a 5 Eyes country is the most likely place where they have been relocated.

That could be Australia, which has few Russians, lots of anti-Russian sentiment and both large cities and remote rural areas. Likewise, Canada. Even Wales or Scotland might serve the purpose. New Zealand is too small, in my opinion, and the US, although immense, has large Russian expat communities that are not all opponents of the Putin regime and is over-run with Russian spies in any event. So my guess is that they will be in a medium sized town or city in a rural area of a large or relatively unpopulated country or area of a country with few Russians present. But there are people who are experts in this so I can only speculate as to their exact location.

One final observation. The Skripals were poisoned, like other Russian double agents. Russia reserves poisoning for traitors of some importance, not just anyone. People of lesser status fall out of windows, get run over or die in a variety of crashes and explosions, depending on opportunity (remember the Wagner Group boss Prigozhin’s plane crash last year). Lesser rivals such as journalists and whistleblowers get shot. It will therefore be interesting to find out what killed the dissident and opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who supposedly died of “natural causes” in a Siberian prison camp at age 47. My hunch is that he may have received the ultimate (ironic) honour in the way in which his demise came about.

Or to draw the analogy this way: my Italian grandmother was once discussing with my parents the death of a cousin of hers who had mob ties in New York City. My parents asked her about how he died and she said “from a heart attack.” When challenged because the press had covered the story of a low level mobster getting “hit” in some criminal feud, she replied “yes, he died of a heart attack when a piece of hot lead went through it.”

In Russia the heart attack is induced by poison, but only for the special few.

Article Link. “South America’s Strategic Paradox” in MINGA.

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).

It is not about age, it is about team.

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.

A toe in the fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does NZ’s flag-planting entail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Fever, War Mongering or War Fetish?

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.