Tag Archives: International relations

Plus ca change, or, does Labour have a foreign policy?

Among the things mentioned during the 2017 election campaign, foreign policy was not one of them. This is not surprising, as domestic policy issues tend to dominate election year politics in times of peace in virtually all democracies. The syndrome is compounded in New Zealand, where matters of diplomacy, international security and trade are notable for their absence in both parliamentary debates as well as public concern, only surfacing during moments of controversy surrounding specific issues such as foreign troop deployments, NZ involvement in Anglophone spy networks or negotiating trade deals that appear lopsided in favour of other states and economic interests.

Even if foreign policy is not a central election issue, it nevertheless is an important area of governance that should in principle reflect a Party’s philosophy with regard to its thrust and substance. Given that the Labour-led coalition that formed a government in 2017 represents a departure from nine years of center-right rule, it is worth pondering what approach it has, if any, to reshaping foreign policy in the wake of its election.

It should be noted that NZ foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the last 20 years regardless of which party coalition was in government. Dating to the break up of the ANZUS defense alliance on the heels of its non-nuclear declaration in 1985,  NZ has championed an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line that, if not completely integrating it into the non-aligned movement that rose during the Cold War, granted it some latitude in how it approached its diplomatic relations and international commitments. Foremost amongst these was support for multilateral approaches to international conflict resolution, concern with ethics, rules and norms governing international behaviour, advocacy of small state interests and a self-assigned reputation as an “honest broker” in international affairs. Issues of trade, diplomacy and security were uncoupled once the Cold War ended, something that allowed NZ to navigate the diplomatic seas without the constraints imposed by binding alliance ties to larger partners.

From the mid-90s there has been a trade-centric core to NZ foreign policy, to the point that promoting “free” trade and negotiating trade deals, be they bi- or multilateral in nature, is seen to have overshadowed traditional diplomatic and security concerns such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection and human rights promotion. This “trade-for-trade’s sake” approach was initiated by the Shipley government but deepened under both the 5th Labour government as well as the National-led governments headed by John Key. After 9/11 it was paralleled by a reinforcement of security ties with traditional allies such as Australia, the US and the UK, in spite of the fact that the move towards expanding trade relationships in Asia and the Middle East ran against New Zealand’s traditional advocacy of a principled foreign policy that defended human rights as well as the thrust of the geopolitics perspectives of security allies (which view NZ trade partners such as China and Iran as adversaries rather than partners).

Although both Labour and National continued to voice the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line during the 2000s, what actually took place was the development of two separate tracks where NZ pushed trade relations without regard to security commitments and human rights, on the one hand, and on the other hand deepened its involvement in US-led security networks without regard to broader diplomatic concerns. This was formalised with the signing of the bi-lateral Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012. For NZ diplomats, the parallel track approach was a matter of keeping eggs in different baskets even if it violated the long-standing principle of security partners trading preferentially with each other. That is not a problem so long as NZ trading partners are not seen as hostile to or competitors of the US and its main allies. Yet NZ chose to expand its trade ties with China with the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2008, something that has not only increased its trade dependency on China in the years that followed (China is now NZ’s second largest export market and third largest import market), but also put it in the unenviable position of trying to remain balanced in the face of increased US-China competition in the Western Pacific Rim. Similarly, NZ-Iranian trade ties, and the nascent talks about NZ-Russian bilateral trade, both run the risk of negatively counterpoising NZ’s economic and security interests in each case.

Following Labour’s lead, the National government doubled its efforts to reinforce its ties to the US-led security network while pushing for trade agreements regardless of domestic opposition to both. It committed troops to the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and continued to maintain presence in Afghanistan after its formal commitment to the ISAF mission ended in 2013. It revamped and upgraded its commitment to the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection partnership that includes the US, UK  Australia and Canada. It loudly advocated for the TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) even though the 12 country pact was largely seen as favouring US economic interests and serving as the economic component of a US containment strategy towards China in the Western Pacific.

Now it is the Labour-led coalition headed by Jacinda Ardern that holds the reins. What can we expect from it when it comes to foreign policy? Continuity when it comes to the “two-track” approach? A deepening of one track and softening of the other? An attempt to bring a third track–what might be called a humanitarian line that re-emphasises human rights, environmental protection and non-proliferation, among other rules-based policy areas–into the mix?

From what is seen in its foreign policy manifesto, Labour appears to want to have things a bit of both ways: overall continuity and commitment to an “independent” foreign policy but one in which ethical concerns are layered into trade policy and in which international security engagement is framed by UN mandates and multilateral resolutions (as well as a turn away from military combat roles and a re-emphasis on peace-keeping operations). A commitment to renewed diplomatic endeavour, particularly in international fora and within the South Pacific region, is also pledged, but the overall thrust of its foreign policy objectives remain generalised and rhetorical rather than dialed in on specifics.

A few months into its tenure, the new government has done nothing significant with regards to foreign policy. Jacinda Arden made some noises about resettling the the Manus detainees in NZ during her first official trip abroad, only to be rebuked  by Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and her own Opposition. She also made  ill-advised comments about who Donald Trump may or may not thought she was, leading to skepticism as to the veracity of her story. NZ First leader Winston Peters was named foreign minister more as a matter of style (and reward) rather than in recognition of his substance when it comes to foreign affairs. Likewise, Ron Mark got the nod to be Defense Minister in what appears to be a sop thrown to an old soldier who enjoys military ceremonies but cannot get his medals rack sorted correctly. Andrew Little was apparently made Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security because he is a lawyer and a reputed tough guy who as Opposition Leader once sat on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security, rather than because he has any particular experience in that field, especially with regard to its international aspects. The Greens, in the past so vociferous in their defense of human rights, pacifism, non-interventionism and anti-imperialism, have gone silent.

As for the Labour Party foreign policy experts, whoever and how many there may be (if any), the question is how do they see the world. Do they use (neo) realist, idealist, constructivist or some hybrid framework with which to frame their perspective and that of their government? Do they use international systems theory to address issue linkage in foreign policy and to join the dots amongst broader economic, social, military and political trends in world affairs as well the nature of the global community itself?  Are they aware of the Melian Dilemma (in which small states are often forced to choose alliance between competing Great Powers)? iven the predominance of trade in NZ foreign policy, how do they balance notions of comparative and competitive advantage when envisioning NZ’s preferred negotiating stance? If not those mentioned, what conceptual and theoretical apparatuses do they employ? On a practical level, how do their views match up with those of the foreign affairs bureaucracy and career diplomatic corps, and what is their relationship with the latter?

Issues such as the ongoing NZDF deployments in Iraq (and likely Syria, if the NZSAS are involved) have not (yet) been reviewed in spite of early campaign promises to do so. Nor, for that matter, has Labour taken a detailed critical eye to the stalled TPPA negotiations now that the US has abandoned them, or re-examined its diplomatic approaches towards the Syrian, Ukrainian and Yemeni civil wars, South China Sea conflicts, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, post-Brexit economic relations, maritime conservation regimes and a host of other important and oft-contentious topics.

Judging from the manifesto it is hard to discern a coherent intellectual underpinning to how Labour policy makers approach international relations. It is also difficult to know how the new government’s foreign policy elite relate to the careerists charged with maintaining NZ’s international relations. So far, there is no identifiably Labour approach to foreign affairs and policy carry-over from previous governments is the norm.

That may not hold for long. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has changed the global environment in which NZ foreign policy is formulated and practiced because if anything, he has rejected some of the foundational principles of the NZ approach (support for the UN and multilateralism) with his “America First” philosophy and has increased global tensions with his belligerent posturing vis a vis adversaries and his bullying of allies. That combination of provocation, brinkmanship and alienation of allies brings with it high risks but also a diplomatic conundrum for NZ. Given that NZ maintains good relations with some of US adversaries as well as allies, yet is intimately tied to the US in uniquely significant ways, its ability to maintain the dichotomous  approach to an independent foreign policy may now be in jeopardy.

After all, the US now demands open expressions of “loyalty” from its allies, for example, in the form of demands that security partners spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense (NZ spends 1.1 percent), and that trade partners give acknowledged preference to US economic interests when signing “deals” with it. In that light, and with Trump increasingly looking like he wants open conflict with one or more perceived rivals (and is on a clear collision course with China with regards to strategic preeminence in the Western Pacific), the “two-track” NZ foreign policy may now be more akin to trying to straddle a barbed wire fence while balancing on ice blocks rather than a matter of saving diplomatic eggs.

In light of this, it is time for the Labour government to stand up and be heard about where they propose to steer NZ in the international arena during what are clearly very fluid and uncertain times.

Media Link: Chinese influence operations, Hillary’s blame game, Trump’s incoherence and NZ’s 3rd world infrastructure.

As part of the series of radio interviews I do with Mitch Harris on RadioLive on Wed nights, this week we decided to be a bit more free ranging than usual (since the normal focus of the radio version of the “Letters from America” series tends to concentrate on matters of US politics and society).  The issue of Chinese influence in NZ is getting a fair bit of attention as of late, and the pipe rupture causing shortages in aviation fuel and petrol supplies provides a basis for pondering the down side of N8 wire culture. And then there is Hillary blaming Bernie Sanders and the Russians for her loss last year while taking no responsibility for it, and Drumpf ranting incoherently at his first UN General Assembly speech. There was plenty to talk about. You can find the interview here.

Letters from America, take two: An interview about Trump, North Korea and a bit more.

I have agreed to provide a weekly commentary to Mitch Harris on his Night Talk show on Radiolive. In the first instalment we roamed over a series of subjects,  but the focus was on the ongoing trainwreck that is US presidential politics.

Deja Vu all over again?

According to press reports US Defense Secretary James Mattis is considering sending between 3000-5000 additional US troops back to Afghanistan to bolster the 13,450 already there. Last week he is reported to have asked NATO members and non-NATO military partners to commit additional troops up to the desired threshold of 1,200. Fifteen NATO members and partners have apparently committed to the task, with the UK (which has nearly 600 troops in theatre) promising an additional 100 soldiers and Norway and Lithuania publicly stating their intention to do likewise (without revealing numbers or units involved). Given that New Zealand has non-member partner status with NATO, is a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and is a bilateral US military partner that earlier agreed to a request to send a handful of soldiers back to Kabul, it is certainly possible that it has also been asked to consider bolstering its presence in that country. Mattis conceded that in retrospect the earlier US drawdown of troops from Afghanistan was too large and too sudden given the prompt resurgence of the Taliban (especially in Kandahar province) and the rise of Daesh as a new adversary in theatre. So what he is asking is for reinforcements to re-stem the extremist tide and continue the mentoring and advising that, along with selected hunter/killer missions, have been the mainstay of the ISAF role since the drawdown began a few years ago.

The question is: has NZ agreed to this latest US request to send more troops back to Afghanistan and if so, in what capacity? Given Donald Trump’s demands that US military allies “do more and pay more” for their common “defense,” is it prudent for NZ to refuse the US request?

On a related topic, reports are now regularly surfacing that Iraqi troops and federal police are committing war crimes on a significant scale in the battle to push Daesh out of the country, including torture and summary executions of unarmed suspects. Many of the war crimes are being committed by Shiia members of the Iraqi armed forces, who see their acts as revenge for the atrocities committed by Sunni Ba’athists during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime (since many Daesh fighters in Iraq are Iraqi Sunnis with ties to the deposed regime). No mention has been made of where these personnel were trained, but given the urgent need to commit troops to battle, is it not possible that some of the 20,000 Iraqis trained by NZDF personnel at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad since 2015 might be involved in these war crimes? (the NZDF is now in its fifth rotation at Camp Taji and claims that its training involves instruction on “fundamental human rights law and the Law of Armed Conflict”). This question is particularly relevant given that the NZDF admits that most of the soldiers it has trained have been committed to the battle for Mosul where war crimes have recently been documented (WARNING: the link contains nasty imagery).

Given that the NZDF has in the past had problems with some of its foreign security partners with respect to the treatment of prisoners (such as the NZSAS handing over detainees to the Afghan secret police, who then tortured and purportedly killed some of them), is it not possible that its combat training at Camp Taji (which emphasises infantry skills) has overshadowed the ethics training component of the mission given the urgent need to commit Iraqi troops to battle? Or do the Iraqis simply ignore the ethics part of their training or go rogue afterwards? Could this have contributed to the commission of war crimes by graduates of Task Force Taji’s training program? Since a NZDF officer is serving as a spokesperson for the anti-Daesh coalition in the battle for Mosul (and has had to explain the use of white phosphorous munitions in urban areas), and NZSAS personnel are believed to be serving as intelligence gatherers and target designators in the theatre, it is likely that the NZDF would know if its Task Force Taji graduates are involved in committing war crimes.

The culture of secrecy and denial within the upper ranks of the NZDF will make finding honest answers to both sets of questions difficult, but they are certainly worth asking.

 

PS: I shall leave aside the incidental question as to why a senior NZDF officer is serving as the Coalition spokesperson for the Battle of Mosul when the ostensible role of the NZDF in Afghanistan is limited to training Iraqi soldiers at Camp Taji and a few other bases.

A tacit admission of decline.

In international relations theory, there is one standard that is commonly used to differentiate between superpowers and great powers. Superpowers intervene in the international system in order to advance systemic interests. That intervention can maintain or alter a balance of power or systemic status quo, but the point of  the move is to tinker with the system as a whole, something that is not done out of pure self-interest but in pursuit of something bigger or long-term in nature.

For their part, great powers intervene in the international system in order to pursue national interests. They do not have the capacity nor the desire to pursue systemic objectives outside of immediate national concerns.

Lesser powers can not make systemic changes but instead are subject to the actions of great powers and superpowers and the systemic effects of those actions.

I mention this as a prelude to a comment about the US position in the international system and Trump’s foreign policy actions to date. It has been clear for some time that the US is in decline. Once a pole in the bipolar balance of power that marked the Cold War, then the unipolar hegemon in the post-Cold War era when notions of the “American Century” and “Pax Americana” prevailed in US policy circles, the US has since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq been forced to deal with the rise of new and old powers when saddled with all of the hallmarks of domestic decline and yet remaining committed to a policy of perpetual war against non-state as well as state actors (although the form that conflict takes varies depending on the opponent and the nature of the battle space in which conflict occurs). Whereas once the US pushed liberal internationalism as a systemic virtue where international norms, regulations, law and institutions were seen as the foundations of a stable and peaceful world order, in the last decade or so the US has seen itself over-extended militarily in fruitless wars of convenience or opportunity that have eroded its international reputation and influence while its home front is rendered by decay and increased social division. Barack Obama tried to stem the adverse tide but a viciously disloyal political and media opposition undermined him at home and abroad.

No US politician can say, much less get elected or re-elected on the idea that the US is in decline and is no longer the first amongst equals in the international system. Barack Obama appeared to have understood the fact of US decline but could not admit it publicly. To this day US commentators, politicians and most of the general public believe or at least pay lip serve to the notion that the US remains an exceptional country, as the so-called “shining house on the hill” to which all other nations look for leadership as well as its role as the world policeman. They talk about defending freedom and American values as if those truly are the basis for US military interventions abroad and an increasingly coercive approach to ideological, ethnic, economic and cultural differences at home.

Enter Donald Trump, but with a twist. Trump also genuflects at the alter of American Exceptionalism. But his “America First” message, with its neo-islolationist, nationalist, monocultural and xenophobic undertones, is actually a tacit admission that the US is in decline. That is interesting because Trump was anything but tacit on the campaign trail when lamenting the state of the Union. Now, as president, he changed his tune and behaves as if the US as a nation-state is equivalent to himself in that it can buy, bully or negotiate its way to getting whatever it wants from others. That is where he is wrong, and his actions demonstrate otherwise.

By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and Paris Climate Accords, refusing to endorse NATO’s notion of collective defense, demanding that other nations pay more for US “protection” (as if it was a Mafia racket), deriding international institutions and regional organisations, rejecting international law (such as those prohibiting the use of torture), threatening firms with retaliatory penalties if they do not invest more in the US and dismantling years of cross-border environmental and corporate regulatory frameworks in the supposed interest of creating US jobs, Trump has tacitly admitted that the US is no longer a super power that can manage the international system in its preferred image and in fact can no longer do anything more than what a great power in decline can do–pursue its interests at the expense of all others in order to try and arrest the slide.

It is too late for that. As one meme put it, “Trump is cancelling Netflix so that he can give more jobs to Blockbuster.” The decline of the US is not just a reversible economic phenomenon. It is ideological, political, moral and ethical in scope. It is institutional as well as material in nature. The very character of the US is in crisis, where a history of idealism and virtue has met its match in a culture of excess, greed and venality. Solidarity and an egalitarian ethos have given way to opportunism and survivalist alienation.

The US decline is also a product of advancing technologies in an age of globalised production, communications, consumption and exchange. It exists in a context where other nations no longer look to the US first for support on many fronts, and in which competitors have grasped the fact of American decline and moved to capitalise on it. It may not be exactly Rome before the Fall, but the US is in many ways starting to resemble the USSR in decline–all military muscle but with no heart, dead eyes and a silly orange comb over.

The good news for the US is that it can work well as a great power if it understands that is what it has become. The Bush 43 administration tried to reassert US supremacy with its foreign adventurism and only succeeded in accelerating its (albeit unrecognised) decline. Now that its diminution is in full sway, the US needs to address its internal contradictions, something that perhaps requires a (however temporary) retreat from systemic tinkering and intervention. This could be a good thing because international systems theory posits that unipolar systems are inherently unstable whereas multipolar systems with 3, 5 or 7 great powers balancing each other on specific strategic issues and geopolitical fronts are more stable over the long term. With the US backing away from international commitments and systemic engagement, it may be a moment for other great power aspirants to fully shine. Theoretically, that could work out for the better.

Practically speaking and whether it works out for the better or not, multipolarity is the where the international system is headed. The current moment is one of international systemic transition, and the fact is that conflict is the systems re-equilibrator under conditions of semi- or restricted anarchy (in which adherence to some international institutions and norms is paralleled by non-adhernce or respect for others). Absent uniform and effective enforcement authority, states decide which norms to follow and which to violate until such a time a new consensus is achieved on the contours and rules of the emerging international system. When universal norms are not uniformly followed, that is when conflicts occur. We are in such a moment.

Admit it or not, under Trump the US is at this transitional moment retreating into its shell and away from its superpower pretensions. For rising and resurgent powers, this is a window of opportunity that can lead to systemic realignment. And at least for the time being, for many around the world having the US out of their lives is not a bad thing.

One thing is certain: the decline of the US as a superpower may not be acknowledged but it is real.

Media Irritants.

Terrorism Porn.

Coverage of the Manchester bombing has turned into an exercise in morbid titillation. The media voyeuristically interviews hysterical parents about whether they or their children saw carnage and how do they feel about that. They blather on about the identity of the perpetrator and his ties to Daesh.  In doing so they explain nothing more than what is already obvious and feed into the extremist narrative. It is all about shock! horror! the humanity! OMG, what depravity does this?!  Meanwhile kids are wiped out on industrial scale in non Anglo Saxon places and the Western media barely murmurs. Perhaps the people at the BBC, CNN, Fox News, Newshub  or TVNZ  believe that white children matter more than brown or black ones, but I for one do not. Unless coverage is given equally to Palestinian, Syrian or Yemeni children buried under the debris of their houses bombed from above, or to those destroyed in sectarian violence in the Sudan, Somalia, India and Pakistan, then the Western media needs to spare us their crocodile tears about “innocence lost.”

Let me put it this way: Last night on a 7PM show a NZ television outlet offered a panel with a comedian, a politician and some gender balanced eye candy ready to discuss the issues of the day. After a somber cross over to the UK to discuss the bombing with a follow up by a local academic, the hosts turned and said something to the effect of “now changing the subject,” whereupon they all went into yuck yuck mode over some stupid story about something inconsequential. Again, this included a politician of some apparent import in this land. That was shameful, debased and as clear a sign of the vacuousness of NZ media (and some politicians) as one can ever get.

If the media and UK government had a shred of decency and counter-terrorism sense they would have never mentioned the killer’s name, or his motivations, or streamed imagery of panicked teens running for cover and crying parents searching for their offspring. Instead, the authorities should have just reported that a mass murder occurred in which explosives were used and that the police were investigating and offering support to the victims and family. The corporate media should have follow suit and imposed restrictions on coverage even in the face (and especially because) of social media coverage of the event. That would help take the oxygen out of the extremist story, removes fuel for copycats and nut jobs, give no credence to motivation or ideology and treats the event as what it is: a violent criminal act, no more, no less.

Instead, we get discussions of the type of explosives used (and where to find the ingredients for them) and the emotional and psychological impact of the event. Sadists, jihadists and any number of terrorism “experts” are wanking themselves with delight at the way the story has been covered but the rest of us are no wiser for it.

Iran is not the greatest sponsor of terrorism.

The US government and the Western media continue to run and parrot the line that Iran is the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world and thus the major threat to peace in the Middle East. Holding a straight face, President Drumpf recently repeated this meme at a conference of Sunni Arab oligarchies hosted by Saudi Arabia–Saudi Arabia! Those paragons of governmental virtue and human rights advocacy applauded his words and the Western press, including that of NZ, reported approvingly of the statesmanship demonstrated by his remarks.

I call bullish*t on that.

Sure, Iran suports Hezbollah, Hamas, the Alawite regime in Syria, the al-Sadr and other Shiia militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is complicit in the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s (and I, as a US Defense Department official charged with Latin American affairs at the time have some knowledge of the financial and forensic investigations that trace back to Tehran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards). It clearly has nuclear ambitions and talks trash about Israel, but compared to North Korea with regard to the former and any Friday sermon in the Sunni world with regard to the latter, how is it appreciably worse? Seriously, does anyone with a fair and objective mind think that (Shiite) Iran is a worse sponsor of terrorism than, say, (Sunni) Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan (whose intelligence services were implicated in the Mumbai terrorist attacks and who continue to fund and arm extremists in India and Afghanistan, if not further afield), any of the other UAE countries or, putting aside sectarian weirdness for a moment, organised crime and –dare I say it–the US (which backed with money and weapons rightwing death squads responsible for the deaths of thousands in Latin America and elsewhere from the 1950s to the 1980s and with who covert connections are reported to continue to this day)?

Why does the media accept the US word about Iran and its links to terrorism? Why do they not question the criteria upon which this “assessment” is based. Because nothing I have read, heard or personally seen in three decades of working the interstices of unconventional warfare has led me to believe that Iran is the foremost sponsor/supporter of terrorism in the world yesterday or today. Instead, it is a revolutionary regime that has successfully stood up to the US and its Sunni allies using conventional and unconventional means, covert and overt, indirect and direct, diplomatic, military and economic. I am not a fan of the Iranian regime or its ideology, but what is so different about the way it operates when compared to other regional actors other than that it has an adversarial relationship with the US and others in the West? Iran may not be the best “behaved” country in the world either domestically or internationally, but again, compared to who and by what measure?

The NZDF are lying and covering up what happened during Operation Burnham.

The NZDF wants us to believe that contrary to all Western professional militaries, its special operators do not occasional make mistakes that result in the deaths of innocents and, moreover, do not carry cameras into battle zones, do not collect forensic evidence on those killed and need permission from the US to release video from the air cover provided during NZDF operations abroad (assuming of course, that the NZDF requests such video in the first place). Other than an intrepid few, the NZ media has just taken the NZDF word for it although it has now been caught out lying about photographic evidence taken by NZDF soldiers at the scene (“and oversight” it claims), and has generally stonewalled OIA requests for information about really happened.

I am not entirely convinced that the explanation of the Burnham mission offered by Jon Stephenson (whose reporting constitutes ninety percent of the book Hit and Run) and Nicky Hager (who took majority credit for it) is absolutely correct in all details, but I sure as hell know one thing: when it comes to the honesty, integrity and credibility of Mr. Stephenson versus that of the NZDF brass, I will take Mr. Stephenson every time. This is not about the soldiers on the ground that night. This is about who gave the orders to undertake the raid and who decided to hide what really happened in its aftermath. Were it that TV talking heads and comfortable columnists and opinionators be cognisant of that fact.

Where to draw the line?

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

From failure, opportunity comes.

When President Trump signed the executive order withdrawing the US signature from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTPA), he signed the death warrant of that multinational trade deal in its present form. The US was the core member of the TPPA and held the dominant negotiating position within it, so the decade-in-the-making, laboriously undertaken and vexing complex compact that was agreed to by the other eleven signatories is now all but null and void.

There are options, however, for the TPPA that may allow it to survive and thrive in light of Trump’s unilateral abrogation.

First, the other eleven member states can put the agreement into hibernation, wait for the 2020 US presidential election and hope that a more trade-oriented president succeeds Trump.

Second, they can hope that the Republican congressional leadership will force Trump to reverse his decision sometime between now and 2020. That would only occur if Trump is weakened by some failure and the GOP sensed that it could re-assert its traditional pro-trade stance at his expense. The Democrats would welcome the move for opportunistic partisan reasons even if some of its leading figures such as Bernie Sanders also oppose the TPPA and applauded Trump’s decision to pull plug on it.

Third, the members could look to themselves and re-draw an agreement that is less US-centric. Many of the provisions insisted on by the US could be reconsidered and even dropped in exchange for increased preferences for the interests of previously junior TPPA partners.

Fourth, the remaining TPPA partners could look to fill the void left by the US with another large market economy. The one that springs immediately to mind is China. That is where things get interesting, and where opportunity may lie.

China is already party to the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) that established a regional free trade area that is the largest in terms of population and third largest in term of trade volume and nominal GDP. Some of the ACFTA signatories are also parties to the TPPA (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam). This agreement is considered to be a “true” free trade agreement in the Ricardian sense because it reduces tariffs across 7,881 product categories to zero percent, with the result being that tariffs on ASEAN goods sold to China fell to 0.1 percent and those of China sold in ASEAN to 0.1 percent in the year the agreement went into force (2010)

The non-US TPPA members could opt to negotiate an agreement with ACTFA as one course of action. That may be difficult given that the TPPA is not a “genuine” FTA as much as it is an investor guarantee agreement (IGA) in which market regulations are altered to attract foreign investors and these are protected from legal liability in the event of disputes with the host state. What is not included in the TPPA are across-the-board reductions to zero tariff, and in fact many domestic industries remain protected or subsidised throughout the TPPA membership as part of the horse trading undertaken during negotiations over its central tenets. But it may be possible to reconcile the two trade deals in an effort to create a new super trade bloc on neo-Ricardian grounds.

Another option might be to invite China to the table. It has the second largest market in the world and is continues to grow at a sustained and rapid pace in spite of the vicissitudes of the world economy over the last two decades. It is making the transition from export platform to a mixed domestic mass consumption/value-added export model, and it has previously expressed interest in joining the TPPA. The US blocked consideration of China’s membership because it saw the TPPA as the economic equivalent of the military “pivot to Asia” announced by the Obama administration, that is, as a hedge against Chinese economic, diplomatic and military influence in the Western Pacific Rim in what amounts to a new Containment Policy in the Asia-Pacific.

With the US gone, China has an opening and the remaining TPPA members have an opportunity. The TPPA will have to be renegotiated, but it is likely that the non-negotiable provisions insisted by the US will not be supported by the Chinese and can be dropped in the effort to entice their interest. In turn, China might have to accept something less than blanket reductions in uniform tariffs and agree to a tariff reduction regime that is more segmented and scaled in orientation and gradual and incremental in application (i.e. more product or industry specific and phased in over a longer period of time). That is clearly within the realm of possibility, as is Chinese agreement to other TPPA provisions stripped of their US-centric orientation.

China has already signalled its intentions in this regard. President Xi used this year’s Davos Forum to preach the virtues of free trade and global commerce, arguing against protectionism as an impediment to international understanding and exchange. China has proposed the creation of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) along the lines mentioned above with regard to an ACTFA-TPPA merger but with the provision that the US be excluded. There are many details to be ironed out but the groundwork has been laid for that to happen.

What makes the turn to a China-included trade bloc a potentially win-win proposition for remaining TPPA signatories is that the key provisions demanded by the US–changes in market regulations and preferential market entry clauses for US business interests (including changes in patent and copyright protection) and imposition of limited liability clauses in the event US businesses are sued by local governments–were those that were most resisted by domestic audiences in several TPPA member countries. Removing them not only allows the agreement to be free of those constraints but also diffuses a source of domestic opposition in countries where such things matter.

One thing TPPA states should think carefully about, especially small states like New Zealand, is the invitation to negotiate bi-lateral trade deals with the US instead of the TPPA (something just announced by the Trump administration). The historical record shows that large asymmetries in market size favour the larger over the smaller partner in bilateral trade agreements. This is due to economies of scale, market dominance, and economic and geopolitical influence derived from market size advantages. The recent track record of bilateral deals between the US and smaller states reinforces this fact. Australia, South Korea, Chile, Colombia and the Central American nations plus Dominican Republic grouped in the CAFTA scheme all have bilateral FTAs with the US. In all instances the majority benefits accrued to US-based companies and industries and the benefits accrued in the partner states were limited to specific export markets (mostly in primary goods), with little flow-on, trickle down or developmental effects in the broader national economies.

So rather than “jump on a plane” to sign a bilateral deal with the US, as one wag put it, smaller states such as New Zealand need to think hard whether the bilateral alternative with the US is more long-term beneficial than a multilateral agreement, especially when it has shown that under a certain type of administration the US is willing to renege on its commitments even if they are multilateral rather than bilateral in nature. With the Trump administration also set to review and replace the tripartite North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA), it is clear that honoring commitments and maintaining continuity in trade policy is not, even if just for the short term, on the US agenda.

When one widens the lens on what the Trump administration is doing in terms of its threats to withdraw from various bi-and multinational defense agreements unless the partner states “pay more” for US protection, it becomes clear that the US is not, at least for now, a reliable international partner.

The reason is that the new US attitude to trade is part of a larger phenomenon. The neo-isolationist protectionism embedded in the “America First” approach adopted by the Trump administration has ended, however temporarily, over 50 years of bipartisan consensus in the US political elite on the merits of international engagement. Be it in trade, foreign aid or collective defense, the US policy elite, both public and private, have embraced globalisation as a means of projecting US power, influence and values world-wide. That era has come to end for the time being, and so long as Trump is successful in pursing his “America First” strategy it will continue to be so.

That may or may not make America Great Again but it could well have a negative impact on those who seek mutual benefit by engaging with it. They will be asked to do more, pay more and offer more concessions in order to be granted US favour.

In the absence of an alternative, that is an unenviable position to be in. But if alternatives are available, then the current moment in US politics provides a window of opportunity to countries that have found themselves marginalised by Trump’s policy directives. The re-orientation of TPPA is one such opportunity because, if for no other reason, a US return to the TPPA fold in the post-Trump era will see it with much less leverage than it had up until now. Add to that the possibility of increased benefits via a renegotiated deal with the remaining and possibly new partners, and the downside of the US withdrawal seems acceptable.

From a smaller nation perspective, that is a good thing.

War for war’s sake?

An article in a US magazine about the Senate confirmation hearings of US Secretary of Defense nominee General (ret.) James Mattis struck a chord. The author pointed out that the hearings basically involved patsy questions that were designed to elicit the standard responses about the US having the “greatest” military on earth but (somehow, given that it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined) needed much more money to counter myriad threats. That allowed Senators to push weapons programs being built in their home states such as the F-35 fighter jet and the next generation of nuclear submarines (all of which Mattis said the US needed and the acquisition of which he supported). The sense one gets from the hearings is that it was a stitch up so long as Mattis threw the usual sops to the usual pork barreling crowd.

No questions were asked of Matthis as to why the US goes to war and why, after being constantly embroiled in wars big and small for a quarter century and currently involved publicly in at least eight conflicts (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan), the US has failed to achieve a victory in any of them. What is the point of going to war if the result is inconclusive (Libya), a stalemate (Afghanistan) or a defeat (which Iraq can be considered if one looks at the national and regional situation before and after the US invasion)?  Or is the purpose now simply to feed a military-industrial complex that increasingly occupies a vanguard position in the US economy (even more so than when Dwight Eisenhower warned against the dangers of the complex that led him to coin that phrase)?

It seems that the answer is the latter. But it is worth delving into the backdrop to war-mongering for war and profit’s sake.

There are wars of necessity, wars of opportunity and wars of convenience. Justification for war is usually made on the grounds that they are fought defensively for existential purposes, in the face of grave threats to the nation-state. This is the basis of Laws of War (Jus ad Bellum) arguments. Even so, larger powers may engage (“expeditionary”) wars of offensive opportunity or convenience, most often against smaller or weaker states, if they feel that they can produce an outcome that enhances their international position or achieve a specific goal (political, military or economic). The US invasion of Iraq was a war of opportunity, as the neocons leading the US security apparatus thought that they could redraw the post 9/11 political map of the Middle East by removing Saddam and placing, as it was referred to at the time, a land based aircraft carrier full of US troops in between Iran and Syria that would intimidate both of them. Afghanistan may or may not have been a war of necessity. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan itself did not pose an existential threat to the US, but its aiding and abetting of the 9/11 conspirators, to say nothing of the repercussions of the attacks themselves, advised in favour of a strike against the al-Qaeda safe havens located in that country. Then the conflict morphed into something else. Nation-building, peace enforcement, counter-insurgency, regime support–you name it, but all of these renamed conflict justifications have one common theme: no victory or end in sight.

Russia’s incursions into Georgia and the Ukraine were and are wars of opportunity that have allowed it to reinforce its border buffer areas, something that has been a tenet of Russian geopolitical thought dating back to the Czars. Likewise, Russian involvement in Syria is opportunistically designed to defend the Alawite regime (with or without Assad at its helm), protect Russian interests in Syria (including 100,000 Russian citizens as well as the naval base at Tartus), and increase Russian influence throughout the Middle East in the face of US reluctance to commit significant force in Syria during the Obama administration.

China has claimed that any move to deny it possession of the disputed artificial islands it has built on reefs in the South China Sea will be seen as an existential threat leading to a major regional war. Whether a bluff or not, it is clear that China has used the opportunity provided by US reluctance to confront it early in the island-building process as a means of expanding its littoral claims in accordance with the “three island chain” or “string of pearls” maritime strategy it has long promoted but until recently has not been able to implement (and in which the South China Sea is considered to be Chinese territorial waters within the first or innermost island chain).

Generally speaking, the syllogism upon which wars are fought goes like this: geopolitical position (including diplomatic, economic and security partnerships)–> threat environment–> strategic orientation–> force composition–> weapons acquisition–> tactical orientation–> force deployment–> operational tempo. Depending on the specific nature of this syllogism, nation-states wage wars of an existential, convenience or opportunistic sort. For example, as a small isolated maritime nation New Zealand should, by virtue of the logic embedded in this syllogism, have a naval dominant defensive force structure that emphasis anti-access/area denial capabilities over its littoral waters and sea lines of communication.

However, in practice the NZDF is an Army dominant force with limited blue water naval projection, no air supremacy component and a special operations branch (the SAS) that mainly serves in overseas expeditionary roles that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland. The reason is that force composition is not just product of physical defense needs but also of alliance commitments and international politics, something that has seen the NZDF deployed in foreign combat zones that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland since the end of World War 2.

That returns us to the US and its penchant for continuous war without victory. Regardless of what US politicians say or how “great” its military is, the US is a declining super power transiting from unipolar dominance to great power status in a multipolar world. Yet even when it was the international hegemon it was not clear that it had a full grasp of the need to have strategic coherence before it went to war. For example, for the entire post Cold War period and existing yet to this day, the US claims that it has a “2.5 major regional war” fighting capability (2.5 MRW). That is, it can simultaneously fight two and a half (whatever that means) major regional wars unassisted and prevail in all of them. But the reality is clearly not the case. The US not only cannot fight and prevail in the 2.5 MRW scenario, but it has needed multinational assistance to fight (and still not decisively prevail) in those that it has fought in the last 15 years.

The US makes weapons procurements that are designed to counter a mix of threats without establishing a hierarchy amongst them. The US spends more money on weapons technologies than any other country by a far stretch. In fact, US “defense” spending and the justifications for it are akin to the arguments about the US health system–and the results are similar (high costs tied to corporate manipulation, much technological innovation, excellent high-end delivery systems but less than desired outcomes across the board for the nation as a whole).

US strategic incoherence is rooted in broader disagreements about the thrust of US foreign policy.  Realists, neo-realists, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists compete for foreign policy dominance, yet no single school of thought has prevailed since the mid 1980s (idealists and constructivists had a brief moment in the sun under the first Clinton administration but were soon smothered by the weight of international events). Both the political elite as well as the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies are rendered by divisions amongst these competing theoretical camps, something that has made impossible a coherent approach to the application of armed force in foreign theatres (let it be noted that the US foreign policy and strategic approach has largely been guided by liberal interventionist precepts since the Bush 43 administration, but not to the extent that it has coalesced into a comprehensive theoretical framework for the conduct of US international affairs).

That is the crux of the matter. It is not just, as vulgar Marxists would say, that the military-industrial complex dominates US foreign policy because of its neo-imperialist imperative. There is something to that, but the real bottom line is that without a coherent strategic vision that connects the resort to war to the national, as opposed to corporate interest, then the latter will step into the vacuum and prevail in discussions about national security.

Wrap those discussions in nationalist/patriotic rhetoric festooned with flags and military paraphernalia at everything from car dealerships to football games, add incessant rhetoric about valour and sacrifice defending “freedom,” “democracy” or the US “way of life,” push the uncritical veneration of a “hero” or “warrior” military culture, and you have, in the absence of a genuine strategic rationale for going to war, the trumped up (yes, I did go there) reasons for turning the US into an incessant but ineffectual war machine. Glorification of war as a PR exercise over the course of decades and commercially tied to the minutia of American life is the opiate that feeds public delusion that the US should be the world’s laws enforcement agency and can in fact win any war.

The result is that the US increasingly looks and acts like a jumped up version of the former USSR–a steroid-jacked muscleman with deteriorated internal systems having trouble coping with anger management issues. Yet unlike the USSR, which tested its muscles selectively and avoided constant physical engagement in wars of convenience (and still fell), the US is a muscleman that is always looking for trouble. And trouble it has found.

The strategically incoherent yet endless resort to war in pursuit of profit is one major reason for the US decline. I shall address others in a post to follow.