Saturday, 28 February 2015

What's Good For Them: Tony Abbott And The Australian Electorate

Tuning Out: Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his Chief-of-Staff, Peta Credlin, epitomise that faction of the political class which believes that popular consent is no longer essential to effective governance. The Australian electorate is fast disabusing them of this elitist political fantasy.
TONY ABBOTT, Australia’s beleaguered Prime Minister, is just the latest (and nearest) casualty of a steadily widening rift within the international political class. Essentially, this class is split between those who believe that effective and efficient governance is possible without popular consent. (Which, they assert, can now be convincingly simulated without political risk). And those who continue to believe that a certain, irreducible, measure of popular consent remains indispensable to the maintenance of a government’s political legitimacy.
Abbott is a particularly vivid exemplar of the non-democratic mode of governance. The speed with which he jettisoned his electoral promises to the Australian electorate confirms his entirely instrumental view of the electoral process. In Abbott’s eyes, a party manifesto should never be construed as some form of contract with the electorate. This is because electoral promises are not promises in the conventional sense. They are, rather, to be understood as straightforward voter motivators: an important means to the ultimate end of amassing more votes than one’s opponents and winning power.
Abbott’s extraordinary practice of making “Captain’s calls” – decisions made without reference to either his cabinet colleagues or his own backbench – epitomises his view of governance as a series of top-down directives – to be implemented without question or delay. In pursuing this strategy, Abbott is strongly assisted by his controversial chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, who has repeatedly demonstrated her contempt for cabinet ministers and back-benchers alike. Working together, Abbott and Credlin have perfected an Australian variant of government-by-decree – a practice more usually associated with hard-pressed presidential regimes (most infamously with the ill-starred Weimar Republic).
That Abbott sees himself as some sort of presidential figure was made clear in his outraged reaction to the suggestion that his colleagues might be preparing to over-turn “the people’s choice” for prime-minister. In advancing this position (with considerable support from the right-wing news media) Abbott was, in effect, turning the whole Westminster System of parliamentary government on its head.
Between elections, he was saying, the Prime Minister must be invulnerable to challenge. A notion which directly contradicts the long-established convention that the Prime Minister holds office at the pleasure of Parliament, and that democratic accountability is traceable through the people’s representatives exclusively. It is Members of Parliament who determine, by majority vote, the composition of the government – and no one else.
The problem with this convention, at least as far as the non-democratic faction of the political class is concerned, is that it places far too much power in the hands of politicians who are, themselves, vulnerable to the electoral power of the voters. Inflict too much pain on the electorate and it just might decide to turf the government responsible out of office.
That this is much more than a theorem of political science was demonstrated to the Australian political class by the voters of Queensland, who, only last month, rounded savagely on their proudly non-democratic premier and his unmandated assault on the people of the sunshine state by emphatically reinstalling a thoroughly chastened Labor Party to office.
It was this demonstration of the voters’ power (which, itself, followed hard on the heels of a similar upset in the state of Victoria) that prompted a significant minority of Abbott’s back-benchers to call for a leadership ballot. That Abbott held them off was in large measure due to the formal loyalty of his Cabinet. But even inside the Cabinet Room, a restive and growing group of Liberal Party ministers are rapidly coming to terms with the practical political dangers of persisting with the fiction that Abbott is some sort of elected Kaiser and Peta Credlin his Iron Chancellor.
The neoliberal zealots who populate the think-tanks, employer lobbies and commentariat of the Australian Right may have convinced themselves that elections are mere charades to be managed by public-relations mavens, pollsters and spin-doctors; and that, as soon as these irritating democratic rituals have been safely concluded, the real business of “responsible” governance can resume – regardless of promises made and any naive voter expectations that those promises will be kept. Wiser heads within the political class know better.
Major economic and social changes, imposed without a clear electoral mandate, can only be preserved through an ever-increasing reliance on political distraction, demagoguery, and outright deceit. Inevitably, this sort of political chicanery, accompanied, as it so often is, by the imposition of unannounced and unfairly distributed pain, will be answered by the sort of emphatic electoral rejection so recently demonstrated in Victoria and Queensland.
As the moderate faction of the political class absorbs these fundamental democratic realities, and their unease is communicated to the Liberal Party’s wavering politicians, Abbott’s position will become increasingly untenable. Sooner or later (and most probably it will be sooner) he will be made to pay the price for ignoring the pragmatic examples set by his more durable predecessors.
The best Aussie barbeques are those where the guests get to eat the steaks and salads they’ve prepared themselves – not the ones where the host alone decides what’s good for them.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 28 February 2015.

Friday, 27 February 2015

A Killing Joke: Halford Mackinder's Last Laugh

Defending The Heartland: Russian volunteers bar the eastward road to a US-installed Ukrainian government determined to derange the strategic equilibrium of Eastern Europe - even at the risk of igniting World War III.
IN THE CAPITAL CITIES of Europe, diplomats are sharing the following, rather grim, joke: It seems that Washington, having missed out on the beginning of World Wars I and II, is determined to be in right at the start of World War III.
No one in the European Union is laughing very loudly. The flames of war are already lighting-up Europe’s eastern horizon, and a fire in your neighbour’s house, if not extinguished quickly, can all-too-easily set your own ablaze.
Beneath the joke’s mildly anti-American punch-line lie a host of barely acknowledged European fears. For almost half-a-century after the end of World War II the nations of Europe were effectively relieved of the responsibility for formulating their own foreign policies. To the east, the nations of the Warsaw Pact followed Moscow’s lead. In the West the members of Nato allowed themselves to be guided by Washington.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the collapse of the USSR two years later, that all changed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire allowed a huge power vacuum to develop between the eastern border of the newly re-united Germany and the western border of a Russian Federation shorn of territories formerly regarded as integral and indispensable to the Russian State.
Diplomacy, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The West was thus presented with some very difficult – but crucially important – choices. Would the United States and her European allies take advantage of Russia’s temporary weakness and extend Nato’s reach hundreds of kilometres to the east. Or, would they acknowledge the historical justification for Russia’s demand that a buffer-zone of friendly and largely demilitarised states be erected between itself and the military might of the Nato powers? After all, the last time a large Western European state decided to move eastwards, 20 million Russian citizens lost their lives.
In spite of giving the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, his word that the Nato powers would not attempt to extend the alliance all the way to Russia’s new borders, the US President, George H.W. Bush, and his successors, attempted to do exactly that.
Their strategy was almost exactly the same as the one which had been urged on the Big Three victors of World War I, Great Britain, France and the USA, by the British envoy to Southern Russia in 1919, the geopolitician, Sir Halford Mackinder.
Sir Halford Mackinder: The father of geopolitics.
To keep the revolutionary Russian government weak, he argued, it would be necessary to construct a “cordon sanitaire” of Western-oriented regimes out of bits of the now defunct Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires. Crucially, among the territories to be included in Mackinder’s list of westward-oriented buffer-states were Georgia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine.
According to Mackinder’s own “Heartland” theory, whichever great power, or combination of great powers, ended up acquiring these territories – especially the Ukraine – would soon be in a position to rule the world. This was because the possession of these territories would open the way to the strategic heart of what he called “The World Island” – the geographically contiguous Eurasian and African land-masses.
Mackinder’s infamous geopolitical formula: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World”; was to inspire not only Adolf Hitler, but an alarming number of American geostrategic thinkers throughout the Cold War.
Geopolitics For Beginners: Frank Kapra's Why We Fight - a motivational series of films produced for American servicemen during World War II - leans heavily (and without attribution) on Mackinder's geopolitical theories. That  they were seized upon by German nationalists in the 1920s and 30s rendered Mackinder's ideas unfit for polite public discussion. (But not for Cold War strategy sessions!) The relevant section begins about 4 minutes in.
These same geostrategic thinkers, confronted with the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, immediately sought to apply Mackinder’s formula. The US and its Nato allies were urged to take control of East Europe as quickly as possible.
What was surprising was that the West European states, freed from the threat of Moscow’s armoured divisions, were unwilling to assert a more independent course. In spite of seeing the ruin all previous attempts to apply Mackinder’s geopolitical formulae had wrought upon Europe, her leaders made no attempt to restrain their American counterparts.
Perhaps those European leaders would have tried harder, had they known that Russia’s rising political star, Vladimir Putin, and his sinister coterie of foreign policy and military advisers, were every bit as enthusiastic in their admiration for Sir Halford Mackinder’s theories as their hawkish American adversaries. The West is not going to be permitted to rule East Europe on their watch. Not while Russia still commands nuclear weaponry.
Contemplating the outbreak of World War III is no joke.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, February 27, 2015.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Sharpening The Stick At Both Ends: "Lord Of The Flies" Comes To Parliament

"I've Got The Conch!" Democracy is a brittle construct and easily shattered. The Prime Minister's behaviour in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, 24 February 2015 plumbed new depths of intemperance and aggression. Like Jack in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, John Key evinces scant regard for the traditions of free speech and honest disagreement.
THE PRIME MINISTER’s conduct in the House of Representatives yesterday afternoon was disgraceful. It is doubtful if any of John Key’s predecessors have ever displayed such contempt for the dignity of their office. Shouting across the chamber in a manner which has been described, with considerable justification, as unhinged, Mr Key looked and sounded like someone on the verge of unleashing physical violence.
The Prime Minister, John Key: Unhinged?
“Get some guts! Join the right side!”, the Prime Minister screamed at the Opposition benches – as if it was an argument.
What happened then was, if anything, even more unnerving that John Key’s out-of-control demagoguery. As he dropped, exhausted, into his seat, the Prime Minister’s colleagues leapt to their feet, roaring and clapping.
Watching them on television, it was difficult not to mentally superimpose upon the screen the 1930s black-and-white footage of thousands of ecstatic Germans hoisted to their feet by the frenzied ravings of the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler. If those National Party MPs had stretched out their right arms and begun chanting “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!”, it would not have been any more outlandish than the Prime Minister’s own conduct.
It is to be hoped that, having had 24 hours to reflect upon their conduct during yesterday’s debate on the Cabinet’s decision to deploy close to 150 troops to Iraq, Mr Key’s parliamentary colleagues are feeling appropriately shamefaced.  Because, in the course of delivering his response to the other party leaders’ near-unanimous opposition to the Government’s announced troop deployment, Mr Key crossed a vital constitutional line.
Parliament’s rules, its “Standing Orders” insist that all members are “Honourable Members” – and must be treated as such. Without this rule, the conduct of the legislature’s business would rapidly descend into rancorous disorder. Rational debate would become impossible – raising the spectre of MPs coming to blows on the Floor of the House. It has happened many times in other jurisdictions, it would be tragic if it happened here.
Parliamentary democracy is a brittle thing and very easily broken. All it takes is for those who have agreed to abide by its rules to suddenly renege on their agreement. This democratic vulnerability and fragility is captured brilliantly in William Golding's famous novel, Lord of the Flies.
In the story, a group of English school-boys, stranded on a desert island, create a democratic assembly in which all important decisions are debated. Anyone wishing to speak at these gatherings asks for and is given a beautiful conch shell which, while held, guarantees the holder a fair hearing. The boys’ final descent into barbarity occurs when Jack, driven by his lust for power and control, kills the cleverest boy on the island, Piggy, as, conch in hand, he attempts to persuade the boys to keep working together. The murder weapon is a giant boulder which Jack dislodges from above. Piggy is crushed, and the conch shatters into a thousand pieces on the rocks below.
Yesterday, in the House of Representatives, John Key became Jack. His intemperate outburst, bristling with insults and barely concealed threats against everyone who'd dared to speak out against his government’s decision to commit New Zealand to another war in the Middle East, was as unprecedented as it was chilling. If not shattered, the delicate conch shell of parliamentary democracy was very roughly handled.
Tellingly, instead of reacting to their leader’s extraordinary display with the same stunned expression of horrified disbelief as the Opposition, the faces of the Government members registered only the most delirious approbation.
In Lord of the Flies, Jack’s followers whisper darkly that their leader has “sharpened a stick at both ends”. It is a metaphor well suited to this Government’s announced intention to not only deploy troops to the Middle East, but to pass legislation further strengthening the powers of the security and intelligence services. The same Parliament which the Executive refused to entrust with a vote on the Iraq Deployment, will soon be asked to invest that same Executive with even more powers to keep the New Zealand people under surveillance.
After catching a glimpse of the Jack that lurks beneath the mask of genial John, the House of Representatives would be most unwise to oblige the Prime Minister in this regard. Or, at least, not before he gives proof that he accepts and understands that the Labour, Green and NZ First parties (and, in the case of the Iraq Deployment, the Maori and United Future parties as well) constitute Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
That these parties have rejected the Government’s decision to re-join the Middle East conflict is both their right and their duty. In saying “No.” they are representing the very substantial number of New Zealanders who do not want their soldiers in Iraq. These people are not gutless. Nor are they on the wrong side of the argument merely because the Prime Minister believes himself and his government to be on the right side.
The aggression and intolerance which the Prime Minister displayed in the House yesterday afternoon should fill all New Zealanders with a deep sense of foreboding. If the Iraq Deployment gives rise to deadly reprisals by Islamic State, it is by no means clear that this government’s response will be either rational or restrained. Those who hold the conch of free speech in their hands will need to keep their eyes open and their backs against the wall.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Wednesday, 25 February 2015.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Iraq: The Unasked And Unanswered Questions.

Invasion Force: Western troops return from an exercise in the Saudi Arabian desert in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm (1990-91). St Thomas Aquinas enjoined his fellow Christians to avoid all wars in which the cost of their participation was, by any rational calculation, likely to be higher, in human terms, than their abstention. Is the Middle East a better or worse place after 25 years of Western intervention?
BY THE TIME you read these words, the dispatch of New Zealand troops to Iraq will, almost certainly, have been announced. For the fourth time in less than quarter-of-a-century, Kiwi boots will be kicking up sand in the Middle East. Unasked, presumably, by those seated around the Cabinet Table yesterday morning, were the questions:
“Has the Middle East become a better, or a worse, place since the West’s first, massive, post-war incursion, back in 1991?”
And: “Will it be a better, or worse, place for the Western “Club’s” intervention in 2015?”
It is worth reminding ourselves that Osama Bin Laden’s decision to shift Al Qaida’s focus to the “far-away enemy” was triggered by the arrival of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in the Arabian Peninsula – home of the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. Imagine how Catholic Christians would react to the sight of several Arab divisions setting up camp in the Vatican City, and you’ll have some inkling of how profoundly affected Bin Laden and his followers were by the Americans’ arrival.
The past has much less purchase on the sensibilities of the average Westerner than it does on the hearts and minds of those belonging to the Islamic faith. Even today, both Al Qaida and Islamic State denounce the military contingents of the West as “Crusaders” – referencing the Frankish knights who invaded the Muslim world early in the Twelfth Century. Nor is this mere rhetoric on their part. Through all the intervening centuries, street-singers from Beirut to Baghdad have kept alive the horrors perpetrated by the Christian invaders, and recounted proudly how Islam’s great captain, Saladin, recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem. The Crusades are as real to the people of the Middle East as the much more recent tragedy of Gallipoli is to us.
Every grain of sand kicked-up by Kiwi soldiers’ boots in Iraq will be weighted down with centuries of history. It is, moreover, a living past, inextricably intertwined with the present, and its effects can be deadly. The terrible punishments meted out to those who have fallen into the clutches of Islamic State are not the random choices of sadistic criminals, but the fate prescribed by Islam’s 1,383-year-old holy book, the Quran:
“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter”.
This is the world into which our government has decided to send one hundred or more young New Zealanders. Our soldiers will now be numbered among “those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger”. From the moment New Zealand’s participation in the war against Islamic State is announced, the fate of any Kiwi soldier, or citizen, falling into the hands of Islamic State, is sealed.
New Zealand is very far from Iraq and Syria; so far that it is possible the self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has forgotten we exist. The news that 100 New Zealand troops are on their way to join the ranks of the “Crusaders” will, therefore, come as a forceful reminder of our role in Middle Eastern history. It is to be hoped that Prime Minister Key has not forgotten how far the influence of al-Baghdadi’s regime now reaches. If he needs instruction, he has only to ask the citizens of Copenhagen, Paris, Sydney and Ottawa. The “Caliphate’s” arm has grown very long indeed.
If our Government has deliberately invited the religious fervour of the Middle East into these peaceful and hitherto tolerant islands, then we, ourselves, will have to answer the questions they refused to consider: “Has intervention worked in the past?”, “Will it work now?” And, “Is it justified?”
The first two answers are, obviously, “No.” But what about the third? What possible justification can we offer for dispatching troops to a country where millions of the people they’ve been sent to help will curse them as enemies of God?
Is it possible that we, like the gullible inhabitants of Medieval Europe, have allowed ourselves to be goaded into action by sermons filled with the details of hideous atrocities? Are our soldiers about to depart these shores with the red cross of the crusader knights emblazoned – if only metaphorically – on their uniforms? If so, then we are embarked upon a fool’s errand that can only end in horror and despair.
St Thomas Aquinas enjoined his fellow Christians to avoid all wars in which the cost of their participation was, by any rational calculation, likely to be higher, in human terms, than their abstention.
Our presence in Iraq cannot be justified. It will end badly.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 February 2015.

Gods And Monsters: Reflections On Saturday's "Auckland Pride Parade".

How You Can Tell That The Struggle Has Been Lost: When a parade intended as a celebration of people's rights is taken over by the State's primary instruments of coercion and control.
IMAGINE A MAY-DAY PARADE headed up by representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force. With Police and Corrections officers following close behind! A little further back, Members of Parliament from the governing party wave gamely at the crowds lining the parade route. Only after all these groups have marched past, proudly declaring their solidarity with the working-class, do the country’s trade unions finally make their appearance. (May Day is, after all, a workers’ festival!)  Even so, interspersed among the union bands and banners, are expensive floats, sponsored by some of the country’s largest and most successful banks and businesses.
What would such a parade say about the status and purpose of the country’s trade union movement? Surely a May Day parade in which the country’s soldiers, policemen and jailers were given pride of place could only have been organised in the old Soviet Union or one of its East European satellites?
The prominent presence of the state’s key institutions of coercion and control would be proof positive that the trade union movement had long since ceased to be in any way subversive, transgressive, or emancipatory. It would signal that trade unionists had become “okay” people to know, and that their representatives could safely be invited to gatherings frequented by the good and the great.
It would also proclaim that the state was no longer frightened of trade unions or trade unionists. And why would it be? When nothing trade unions did in any way interfered with or disrupted the smooth operation of the system. What was not to like, when trade unionists now counted themselves among the strongest supporters of the political, economic and social status quo.
The final proof that the trade union movement had been completely swallowed up by the Establishment would a media release from the Council of Trade Unions celebrating the parade as “bigger, better and more mainstream” than ever before, and praising the “massive symbolism” of the armed forces’ and the Police’s participation.
Presumably, the CTU media release would end by pointing out that: “The contrast between the bad old days, when the Police were better known for batoning strikers on the picket-line, and when the army’s trucks were used for the transportation of scabs; and the progressive present, when nearly all large institutions can boast at least one Trade Union Liaison Officer; could hardly be more striking.”
Watching a May Day Parade in which everyone from the Army and the Police, to MPs and City Councillors were proudly waving red flags and punching the air with clenched-fist salutes would be deeply, deeply depressing. It would mean that the movement I had devoted much of my adult life to promoting and defending had been drained of all its radicalism and danger.
I would feel as shocked and alienated as I imagine many LGBTIQA Aucklanders felt when they saw what used to be called “The Hero Parade” turned into a showcase for the “openness and diversity” of  the New Zealand Defence Force, the Police, the Department of Corrections, Air New Zealand, assorted commercial radio stations and the ANZ Bank. As if all the vicious prejudices and hidden brutalities of “mainstream” New Zealand society have floated away like so many helium-filled balloons over Western Park.
New Zealand led the world in passing legislation that not only made collective bargaining legal but also supported it with taxpayer-funded institutions. Did that legislation succeed in overcoming the stigma attached to all those who demanded a greater share of the wealth their labour had created? No, it did not. There remained, deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s capitalist society, the most powerful antipathy towards trade unions. So much so that, in 1991, the National Party passed the Employment Contracts Act – in which even the term “trade union” did not appear.
Has the passage of legislation decriminalising homosexuality, recognising civil unions and legalising gay marriage truly eliminated the deeply entrenched negativity towards all things LGBTIQA in “mainstream” New Zealand society? Are we really as welcoming of “diversity”, so forgiving of difference, as Saturday’s “Auckland Pride Parade” organisers insisted? The tragically large number of young people committing suicide in response to their families’ and their peers’ reception of their sexual natures suggests that we are still very far from that goal.
More than forty years ago, the radical sociologist Herbert Marcuse coined the phrase “repressive tolerance” to describe the way capitalist society was subverting the traditional concept of liberal tolerance and transforming it into its opposite – subtle domination. All those institutions and social tendencies considered hostile to capitalism’s interests were gradually being absorbed into its processes and neutralised. As I watched the Auckland Pride Parade make its way along Ponsonby Road on Saturday night, and contrasted its corporate slickness with the wild and gloriously transgressive Hero Parades of the 1990s, I silently congratulated old Marcuse for his insight.
Protest: Thankfully, there was at least one human-being at Saturday's parade who still knew how to say "No!"
And later, when I read about the young person whose arm was broken by a security guard for daring to protest against the oxymoronic travesty of soldiers, police officers and jailers celebrating unconventional sexualities, I offered up a silent prayer to the gods and monsters of perversity and resistance: the ones who embolden rebels and keep the authorities off-balance. Among that gawking and guffawing crowd, they’d reassured me, there was at least one human-being who still knew how to say: “No!”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 23 February 2015.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

While Evils Are Sufferable: What Would It Take To Rouse New Zealanders To Revolt?

Uprising: Kathe Kollwitz's vivid 1899 etching captures the moment when a people decide that the evils besetting them are no longer sufferable. What would a New Zealand Government have to do to forfeit all moral and political legitimacy? What would it take to make New Zealanders revolt?
WHAT DOES A GOVERNMENT have to do before it forfeits all legitimacy in the eyes of its people? It’s a question many people have asked down the centuries. In the modern era, no person has set forth the conditions under which all government legitimacy may be considered lost more eloquently than Thomas Jefferson. Author of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) Jefferson set forth in the rolling cadences of the Eighteenth Century exactly why governments are created, and exactly when they may, justifiably, be destroyed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Were Jefferson, transported through time to Barack Obama’s America, to publicly assert “The Spirit of ‘76”, it is highly likely that he would find himself under investigation by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, or both. For openly proclaiming the right of the American people “to alter or to abolish” their system of government – should it become destructive to their “unalienable rights” – he would, almost certainly, find himself placed on what Edward Snowden calls the “cast-iron watch-list” of the National Security Agency. There he would be subjected to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” considerably more despotic than anything contemplated by the loyal servants of King George III.
We New Zealanders, though lacking entirely the revolutionary tradition of a United States or a France, are able to boast the longest, continuous exercise of fully democratic government on the planet. Governments elected by universal suffrage have ruled New Zealanders since 1893 – much longer than is the case in the United States, the United Kingdom, France or Germany.
This long, unbroken stretch of government with the consent of the governed has instilled in New Zealanders a possibly over-large measure of the “prudence” which Jefferson cites as the explanation for human-beings’ disposition to “suffer, while evils are sufferable”. Rather than secure our rights by abolishing the form of government to which we have become accustomed – and which has, up until the late-1980s, at least, served us extremely well – we have been willing to cut our political masters an awful lot of slack.
Not being natural ideologues, we struggle to make the connections between the neoliberal policies imposed upon this country by successive governments since 1984 (none of which have ever had the courage to seek an explicit electoral mandate for the entirety of the neoliberal programme they intended to pursue) and the appalling social consequences to which those policies have given rise.
Although the cause-and-effect relationship between cuts to mental health services and successful suicide attempts is indisputable, very few New Zealanders would consider it fair or appropriate to lay those deaths at the door of the responsible Cabinet Minister. Similarly, most Kiwis would feel uncomfortable about sheeting home the blame for child abuse and domestic violence to a government’s failure to pursue policies of full-employment and the provision of public housing. Many of us regard such ills as the unavoidable “collateral damage” of responsible public administration.
Where most New Zealanders would draw the line, I suspect, is at the suggestion that their government might be willing to sacrifice the life, or lives, of a New Zealand citizen, or citizens, in the pursuit of purely partisan political objectives.
The protection of its citizens, both at home and abroad, is the first and most fundamental duty of any government. To abrogate that duty, for whatever reason (other than to ward-off an imminent and deadly threat to the whole population) would not be accepted by the vast majority of New Zealanders.
Were it to be proved that the government had been willing to allow one or more of its citizens to be reduced to a mere pawn and then ruthlessly sacrificed in some partisan political chess game, that might just be enough to see Kiwi “prudence” thrust angrily aside.
Such a government would have forfeited all claim to moral and political legitimacy. Channelling the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, many thousands of New Zealanders might even conclude that, in the face of such insufferable evil, it was their right – and their duty – to throw off such a Government, and provide new guards for their future security.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 21 February 2015.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Debating America's Wars

The Price Of Principle: Labour's new leader, Norman Kirk, follows his party's defeat on Election Night 1966. Labour's opposition to New Zealand's military involvement in the Vietnam War was an important factor in the National Government's re-election. Polls taken in 1965 indicated that upwards of 70 percent of voters favoured Keith Holyoake's decision to send New Zealand troops. By 1972, however, public opinion had shifted decisively in favour of withdrawal.

A PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE on whether or not New Zealand should participate in America’s latest war is long overdue. That New Zealanders will soon be going to the polls makes it even timelier. The deployment of New Zealand troops overseas is much too important to be left to National Party Cabinet Ministers alone.
The Leader of the Opposition, who will argue against participating in America’s war, has not been leader of the Labour Party for very long. Nor is he especially popular. The man he replaced as leader may not have been well-liked by the public, but he was beloved by the more forward-looking and liberal elements of his party. They resent the way in which the newcomer’s been foisted upon them with the near unanimous support of Labour’s powerful trade union affiliates. Many fear that, as the unions protégée, he will drag Labour back to the attitudes of the 1930s and 40s. They worry that the much-needed “modernisation” of the party, which his predecessor promoted, is destined for the dustbin.
If you’re thinking that the Leader of the Opposition described above is Andrew Little, then you’re wrong. Nor is the American war referred to the one threatening to flare up again in the Middle East. The set-piece parliamentary debate described above took place not in 2015, but during the penultimate week of the 34th New Zealand Parliament, in October of 1966. The war in question was raging across South Vietnam. The new Leader of the Labour Party was Norman Kirk.
Rather than go on escalating New Zealand’s military involvement in Indo-China, Kirk argued strongly for a humanitarian, aid-based response to the conflict. He remained unconvinced that a just peace in Vietnam could ever be secured simply by administering ever-increasing doses of military force.
Little’s current assessment of the most effective contribution New Zealand can offer to the struggle against Islamic State is remarkably similar to Kirk’s 1966 position on Vietnam. He, too, favours a humanitarian, aid-based response; arguing that only an economically strong, socially cohesive and religiously tolerant Iraq can hope to lure away Islamic State’s aggrieved Sunni supporters.
The parallels do not end there. If Andrew Little’s foreign policy and defence assessments mirror those of Norman Kirk’s, then the Prime Minister’s, John Key’s, position is remarkably similar to that of Keith Holyoake’s.
As New Zealand’s National Party Prime Minister from 1960-1972, Holyoake distinguished himself as an astute “consensus” politician. Pressured by President Lyndon Johnson to add New Zealand footwear to the steadily increasing number of US “boots on the ground” in Vietnam, Holyoake did his best to limit this country’s involvement. He rightly suspected that even his minimal offer of a single artillery battery would generate vociferous opposition from a sizeable minority of the electorate.
Token Force: New Zealand troops load an L5 howitzer on to an armoured personnel carrier in Vietnam circa 1965.
That the trade unions would oppose military involvement was a given, but Holyoake and his colleagues were genuinely surprised and dismayed when Labour opted to follow the unions’ lead. Up until the 1965 decision to send troops to Vietnam, National and Labour had maintained a solid bi-partisan consensus on foreign-policy and defence matters. Holyoake’s decision to hold a set-piece parliamentary debate on the issue, just a few weeks prior to the 1966 General Election, was not made in the hope that consensus would be restored, but that it would remain broken. He was betting that Labour, by holding fast to its principles, would cause the 70 percent of Kiwis who backed the Vietnam intervention, to also back his government. He won the bet.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is clear that Holyoake and National lost more than they won. The shattering of the bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy and defence presaged the even greater fissuring of New Zealand society. It was Labour, not National, which rode the radical changes of the late-1960s and early-70s to victory.
Nowhere was this radicalism more apparent than in Labour’s changing view of New Zealand’s place in the world: “Circumstances dictate that, while we preserve the warmest ties and closest sentimental attachments between our country and the United Kingdom,” said Kirk, in 1972, “we recognise that we have come of age and must now stand on our own feet to reject the role of the dependant and at every opportunity seize the initiative.”
“Big Norm’s” declaration of independence is reaffirmed in Andrew Little’s principled position on Iraq.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 February 2015.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

With A Little Help From Your Friends: Labour Betrays The Greens - Again.

With Friends Like These: Andrew Little's decision to exclude the Greens from Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee is proof of Labour's determination to shake the monkey of alleged Green "extremism" off its back. One is moved to inquire of the unfortunate Greens: "How's that Labour's left-wing conscience thing working out for you?"
DEAN PARKER, New Zealand’s leading left-wing playwright, tells a great story about two old Bolsheviks.
It’s 1917, half way between the February and October Revolutions, and these two old comrades are complaining about what’s happened to their local branch of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. They cannot believe the numbers turning up to branch meetings. Hundreds of people have been regularly packing out the little hall where, formerly, twenty was regarded as a good turnout. What’s more, most of the newcomers are people the regulars have never seen before. And so young! With no respect for older comrades who have been with the party for years and years – even when it was illegal – back before the Tsar granted Russia a parliament! Truth to tell, these poor old codgers actually preferred political life before the revolution. The meetings were quieter, and the comrades so much more polite.
According to Soviet historians, the membership of the “bolshevik” [majority] faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, in the year before the outbreak of World War I, 1913, stood at roughly 25,000. By the end of 1917, however, the ranks of the Bolsheviks had swollen to a figure in excess of quarter-of-a-million.
Dean’s story offers us a tiny glimpse of what that sort of explosive growth might have felt like on the ground. It is also a useful historical reminder of how ordinary people respond when politics suddenly stops being an elite sport and they find themselves invited to join the game. That’s when everything changes – including the rules.
The story should also remind us that the aspirations of most political parties – even those on the Left – are considerably less heroic when revolution is not in the air. In a capitalist society, under “normal” circumstances, the preoccupations of parliamentary parties are all about maximising their vote at the next election; securing more seats that their rivals; amassing sufficient funds; seeking out friendly journalists; and making themselves more electable by keeping the party’s radical elements under strict control.
It is absolutely pointless for non-parliamentary “revolutionaries” to wail about this state of affairs. Because behaving in any other way, under “normal” capitalist conditions, has been proved, over and over again, to be utterly self-defeating.
Which is why Andrew Little, as Leader of the Opposition, used the opportunity provided by Prime Minister John Key to humiliate and alienate the Greens. Rather than invite Metiria Turei to take Russel Norman’s place on the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Little nominated his colleague, David Shearer, to join him in over-seeing the work of the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau.
In the current political climate, Little is acutely aware that Labour’s close association with the Greens is a big political loser. Too many people who would like to vote Labour are declining to do so because they fear the influence of the Greens within what all the polls tell them would be a coalition government of the centre-left. It is one of the reasons why so many Labour supporters split their votes. They are happy to give their electorate vote to the Labour candidate, so long as, by party-voting National, they can keep the Greens out of government.
Clearly, by so publicly mistreating the Greens, Little hopes to convince potential Labour voters that his party is no longer willing to be lumped-in with Green “extremism”. His message is clear: in any future coalition government the Greens will serve on Labour’s terms – or not at all.
The Greens, having digested this latest helping of dead rat from their Labour “friends”, should ask themselves (one more time, and with feeling!) how the job of being Labour’s left-wing conscience is working out. Has the strategy of locating the Green Party to the left of the empty ideological husk that Labour has become been a good thing or a bad thing in terms of advancing the Green agenda? If it’s been a bad thing (and Lord knows, after 15 years in the wilderness, it’s hard to characterise it any other way!) might it not be time to consider a new strategy? One in which the slogan “Neither left, nor right, but in front!” is fleshed out programmatically in a way that leaves the Green’s parliamentary caucus open to offers from both sides of the political spectrum?
It took a world war and almost complete internal collapse to propel the Bolsheviks into the job of effecting the revolutionary changes demanded by the Russian people. As climate change begins to bite, and the planet’s carrying capacity is exceeded once, twice, three times over; what sort of party will find its membership exploding? Will it be the mean-spirited party of an attenuated social democracy? The party of discredited neoliberal extremism? Or, will it be the party which, like Lenin’s Bolsheviks, has never ceased telling anyone who would listen that this day would come?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 18 February 2015.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Where, Oh Where, Are The Left's Heroes?

The Face Of The Resistance: Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's Finance Minister, is leading the fight against the European Commission's brutal austerity programme. Policies which, as applied to the Greek people, Varoufakis  condemned, memorably, as "financial waterboarding".
“WHERE, OH WHERE is our James Connolly?” I’ve lost count of the times I stepped forward to ask that question. Every 16 June, for the best part of a decade, would be my guess. The song was a regular feature of the annual “Bloomsday” celebration organised by Auckland playwright, Dean Parker. Achingly sad, the Lament for James Connolly offered a brief respite from the raunch and laughter more usually associated with these perennial tributes to James Joyce’s literary hero, Leopold Bloom.
Unlike the central character of Joyce’s celebrated novel, Ulysses, James Connolly was a very real Irish hero. A staunch nationalist, firebrand socialist, and peerless trade union organiser, Connolly was the darling of Dublin’s hard-pressed working-class. Seriously wounded in the Easter Rising of 1916, he was sentenced to death by a British court-martial. Because he was too injured to stand and face the firing squad, the British authorities, undeterred, tied Connolly to a chair and shot him sitting-down.
It is difficult to conceive of an act more calculated to inspire a nation’s poets and balladeers to passionate outrage. Neither in Ireland, nor in any station of the great Irish diaspora, has the name of James Connolly, or the manner of his death, been forgotten. The Lament For James Connolly is always heard in sobering silence.
Yanis Varoufakis is no James Connolly. Far from being the slum-born son of impoverished immigrants, Greece’s new Finance Minister was raised in one of Greece’s wealthiest families. Indeed, with his expensive private education, and his industrialist father’s money, Varoufakis could very easily have ended up as just one more pampered member of the global 1 Percent. Looking down at their new-born son 53 years ago, his parents almost certainly did not see him growing into the firebrand Marxist leader of Greece’s fight against “financial waterboarding”.
What makes Varoufakis even more remarkable is his former status as an academic economist. It’s been a very long time since the economics profession was renowned for producing either firebrands or Marxists. On the contrary, most contemporary economists seem content to function as the high-priests of neoliberalism, reconciling the ways of the almighty market to its hapless human victims. That one of their number has not only turned rogue, but armed his critical vision with political power is as surprising as it is encouraging.
And no one can accuse Mr Varoufakis of setting about his mission in a dull or conventional fashion. His flamboyant disdain for sartorial convention (he visited the British Chancellor of the Exchequer wearing a tie-less blue shirt, knee-length riding coat and biker boots) is only matched by his disdain for the “Troika’s” (European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) demand that Greece’s newly-elected left-wing government adhere to its predecessors’ self-destructive austerity programme.
After detailing the exploits of the close-cropped and darkly handsome Varoufakis for the ZDF network, German television news-anchor, Maria Slomka, commented: “he is someone you could imagine starring in a film like Die Hard 6”.
That Varoufakis possesses a Bruce Willis-like potential for blowing things up is something of which Europe’s finance ministers are only too aware. “Grexit” – or a Greek exit from the Eurozone – is one deeply troubling possibility. Another, even worse, is “default”. But, as Varoufakis commented on his blog back in May 2010: “Simple logic dictates that if you cannot even conceive the possibility of leaving a negotiation, then it is preferable never to enter one.” In other words, if Europe is unwilling to take what Greece is offering, then Greece will exercise its right to leave.
Following Finance Minister Varoufakis’s European tour with a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration, the opponents of neoliberalism in this country are asking themselves why New Zealand’s opposition finance spokespeople are so unwilling to embrace the erstwhile Greek professor’s uncompromising economic radicalism.
One explanation may be found in Varoufakis’s social origins. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose 1930s “New Deal” policies broke sharply with economic convention, Varoufakis is a member of his country’s upper class. Being one of them, he harbours no deep psychological need to win their acceptance. Indeed, it is very easy to imagine Varoufakis echoing FDR’s famous boast: “They are unanimous in their hatred for me, and I welcome their hatred!”
Such morale-boosting confidence is also accessible through conviction: from the certainty that one’s programme is not only the right thing to do, but that it will also work. It hardly seems fair that Varoufakis has both – in spades!
Part of the reason for the New Zealand Left being in such a deep funk at present is the absence of any progressive leader displaying even half Varoufakis’s confidence and conviction. Thirty years of political compromises and the ruthless application of a Labour/Green version of the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” has left this country's hero-deprived Left lamenting: “Where, oh where is OUR Yanis Varoufakis?”
A version of this essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 February 2015.

Responsibility To Protect: But Who? And From What?

Cry, Havoc!, And Let Slip The Dogs Of War: If Islamic State has citizens, it is the West that made them.
DOES THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY’S “Responsibility To Protect” apply to Islamic State? (IS) Has the violence unleashed by IS against civilians living in Syria and Iraq reached a level of intensity comparable to the genocidal slaughter unleashed against Rwanda’s Tutsi population in 1994? If the present level of military intervention is not maintained, or stepped-up, are hundreds-of-thousands, perhaps millions, of innocent non-combatants in imminent danger of losing their lives?
The answer to this question is, clearly, “No.” The IS regime, while indisputably brutal in its treatment of non-Islamic religious minorities, prisoners of war, civilian aid workers, journalists, and persons found guilty of committing homosexual acts, has not (to date) engaged in the indiscriminate mass slaughter of entire populations.
The international community’s responsibility to the victims of IS violence is, therefore, to make every attempt to bring those responsible for what are clearly war crimes and crimes against humanity before an appropriately constituted international criminal tribunal (ICT). This would be modelled on of the bodies set up to deal with the massive human-rights breaches in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
The prospect of being arraigned before such a tribunal may or may not be acting as a deterrent to the IS leadership, but it is, demonstrably, influencing the personal political calculus of those IS operatives responsible for carrying out its many atrocities. The very fact that these individuals wear masks indicates that they know they are committing heinous crimes and are anxious to escape legal retribution.
The contrast between these masked perpetrators and the unmasked American military personnel who allowed themselves to be photographed tormenting Iraqi detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison is instructive. Had the latter known that their actions would one day be made public, most of them would never have participated, or, becoming involved, would’ve made absolutely certain they could not be identified.
Like the long-since destroyed videos of CIA waterboarding sessions, the images of Abu Ghraib were never intended to see the light of day. IS propaganda videos, on the other hand, are intended to both terrify the infidels and inspire the faithful. They are, therefore, made with guilty intent, and their creators are well aware of what will happen to them if they are identified and arrested by the agents of international justice.
It is as well to remember, however, that IS is by no means the first belligerent power to release video images demonstrating the strength of their will and the power of their weapons. The First Gulf War (1990-1991) is often referred to as “The Nintendo War” on account of the computer-game-like images of United States precision-guided munitions striking their targets.
Of course the US armed forces’ public relations team did not allow the audience back home to witness what was happening to the human-beings sheltering inside the buildings that were exploding in such dramatic fashion on their television screens. The carnage wrought upon human flesh by high explosives puts the gruesome efforts of IS executioners to shame.
Nor was it the practice of either the American or the international news media to give the military commanders who authorised these precision-guided missile attacks colourful monikers like “Jihadi John”. Soldiers following the lawful orders of their superior officers are generally not regarded as criminals – not even when those orders are publicly acknowledged to have been deliberately formulated to generate “shock and awe” in the civilian population.
Those who find themselves outraged and repulsed by IS propaganda videos showing prisoners being beheaded or burned alive should, perhaps, ask themselves if they experienced similar emotions back in March 2003 when the US media was gleefully beaming-out images of Baghdad aflame. The American message back then was as unequivocal as the IS message  is now: “This is what becomes of evil-doers.”
The crucial difference being that, in the case of the Americans, the message wasn’t personalised. Innocent people’s bodies were certainly ripped apart and/or burned beyond recognition in the manufacture of America’s message to the peoples of the Middle East, but we only got to see such “collateral damage” occasionally – as when a Cruise missile somehow went astray and incinerated scores of women and children taking refuge in a concrete shelter.
Repeat such exercises often enough and it is hardly surprising if the effect upon those in receipt of such explosive communications is brutalisation beyond the reach of pity or remorse.
Closer to home, those advocating for the deployment of 100 Kiwi soldiers to Iraq are arguing that the international community has a responsibility to protect the unfortunate inhabitants of Islamic State. But, didn’t that same international community have a responsibility to protect the people of Iraq when the world’s most powerful military machine was rumbling towards its borders in 2003? And wasn’t it that same terrible machine, raining down white phosphorous on the city of Fallujah, that nurtured, with every bomb dropped and bullet fired, the fell creatures who now hold sway across broad swathes of Iraq and Syria?
If Islamic State has citizens, it is the West that made them.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 16 February 2015.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

We Can't Handle The Truth! Democratic Compentency And Elite Opinion.

You Can't Handle The Truth! The snarling Colonel Jessup, from A Few Good Men, reiterates the long-standing conviction among political and military elites that the people cannot be trusted with all the facts. It is their contention that Democracy, if it is not to end in the ruin of the state, must be managed by its wisest and most experienced servants, through the judicious use of what the philosopher, Plato, called "Noble Lies".
IT WAS JUNE, 2008, at the University of Otago’s Foreign Policy School, that I discovered exactly how much the New Zealand political class despises democracy. The man who spelled it out was Lance Beath, one of that peculiar breed of military academics who flit between university departments, policy institutes, and those shadowy consultancies whose definitive client lists remain conveniently undisclosed.
Having delivered what I hoped was a robust defence of the people’s right to determine the foreign policy of their own country, I was keen to hear Beath’s rebuttal. It came in the form of a cautionary tale drawn from Ancient Greek history.
The story he told was of that of the Athenian politician-general, Themistocles, who was determined to protect his city from the Persian Empire. Since Athens was too small to defeat the might of the Persians on land, Themistocles knew that his city’s only hope of remaining free was to defeat them at sea. Athens needed to build a mighty navy.
Except that Athens, being a democracy, was most unlikely to voluntarily assume the financial burden which the construction of an effective battle-fleet would necessarily entail.
It was here that Beath began to warm to his task.
How did Themistocles persuade his fellow citizens to vote the Athenian Republic the taxes necessary to build a navy big enough to defeat the Persians? The answer, Beath told his audience of MFAT bureaucrats, foreign diplomats, assorted academics and ambitious students, was simple – he tricked them!
Athens had for some time been embroiled in a struggle with Aegina (a rival Greek sea-power) and Themistocles argued that only by constructing a powerful battle-fleet of 200 triremes could Athens finally put the Aeginetans in their place.
Without Themistocle’s trickery, argued Beath, the Athenians would not have been able to defeat the naval armada of the Persian Emperor, Darius, at the Battle of Salamis. Athens (and the rest of Greece) was saved, Beath snidely concluded, not by its much vaunted democracy, but by the shrewd manipulations of its political leader.
The message could not have been clearer. The people are too selfish and too stupid to recognise the true interests of the nation. It is, therefore, the duty of those wise and experienced servants of the state (among whom it is important to include the commanders of the armed forces) who find themselves labouring under the manifold disadvantages of the democratic form of government, to master the art of leading the masses, by trickery and deception, to those crucial decisions which they lack the wit to arrive at unaided.
Beath thus established, at the very beginning of the Foreign Policy School’s inquiry into what role the people should play in the setting of foreign policy, that only one answer would do: they must play the role of dupes.
Wiser heads must tell the people who to hate and who they should befriend. And if this requires the telling of lies – then so be it. They would be necessary falsehoods. What the Greek philosopher, Plato, called “Noble Lies”. The sort of political trickery resorted to by wise and benevolent rulers, not in their own interests (heaven forbid!) but in the interests of a population too ignorant to be entrusted with a more accurate account of events.
Beath’s message was indistinguishable from the one elucidated so dramatically in the movie A Few Good Men.
Defence counsel, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) demands that the witness, Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicolson) answer his questions. “You want answers?” sneers Jessup. “I think I’m entitled to”, Kaffee responds. “You want answers?”, Jessup sneers a second time, his voice rising in rage. “I want the truth!”, bellows Kaffee. And in a voice laden with scorn and derision, Jessup barks back: “You can’t handle the truth!”
Back in 2008, it was clear that Beath and his ilk still regarded New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy as a disaster: a cautionary tale of what happens when the democratic masses over-rule the wiser counsels of their betters, and begin to meddle directly in the formation of foreign policy. The latest “Noble Lie” is that, for the people’s own safety, the Government must participate in the war against Islamic State. No doubt today’s ‘wise heads’ see Prime Minister Key as New Zealand’s very own Themistocles. A political leader manipulating and tricking his ill-informed people – for their own good.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 February 2015.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Give War A Chance

Mars Takes The Field: The role warfare has played throughout history in reconciling the irreconcilable and solving the insoluble is beyond dispute. Sometimes, if peace is not in prospect, it pays to give war a chance.
THE RUBBLE in Europe and Asia was still smoking when representatives from 51 nations assembled in the undamaged United States city of San Francisco in June of 1945. Calling themselves the “United Nations”, they there inscribed their collective determination, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”.
Surveying the corpse-strewn landscape which separates us from those hopeful signatories of ‘45, you’d have to say that Peace has failed. Over the past 70 years, barely a day has passed without the scourge of war bringing untold sorrow to at least one unfortunate member of the family of nations somewhere in the world.
That the existence of the United Nations has spared us all a third global conflict is less a testimony to the wisdom and forbearance of a chastened humanity, than it is to the certainty that, being waged with nuclear weapons, World War III would’ve had no victors and no survivors.
And yet, in spite of the UN’s consistent failure to save succeeding generations from its effects, War continues to be both rejected and condemned as an instrument for the advancement of national policy. Though member states of the United Nations have regularly unleashed war upon their fellow UN members for precisely that purpose, the pious hopes enshrined in the UN Charter remain the official expression of what is – and is not – acceptable international conduct.
Is humanity well-served by this extraordinary hypocrisy?
Extraordinary Hypocrisy: The United Nations headquarter in New York City.
When a prominent politician from the United States, the nation which, in complete contravention of the UN Charter, launched a full-scale military invasion of Iraq, shamelessly castigates the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, for “violating Ukraine’s national sovereignty”, one struggles to muster any kind of respect for the existing international system.
Indeed, one wonders (heretically) whether the world might not be better off if the number of nation states belonging to the United Nations (currently 193) was significantly reduced. With the benefit of hindsight, isn’t it at least arguable that the much-vaunted principle of “national self-determination”, far from making the world a more peaceful place, has actually increased the incidence of organised violence?
In a similar vein, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to respond to global crises, such as anthropogenic global warming, if humanity was aggregated into larger, rather than smaller, political units? If it’s possible to construct banks and corporations that are “too big to fail”, might it not also be possible to create states that are “too big to lose”?
And where nations are embroiled in bitter conflict, as in the Middle East, shouldn’t it be acknowledged, honestly, by nations outside the region, that war may be the only effective means of re-arranging the pieces on the board?
Even more heretically, should we not ask whether nation states are even the most sensible solution to conflicts whose origins lie not in ethnicity or geography but in matters of religious doctrine?
Certainly, it is the view of James Traub, from the Centre for International Co-Operation, that what we are witnessing in the Middle East is not a “clash of civilisations”, but clashes within a civilisation. The war, argues Traub, is “not between ‘us’ and ‘them’ but inside the Islamic world.”
Would the planet be better or worse off if the outcome of this war inside the Islamic world was the emergence of a political entity roughly akin to the open, tolerant and inclusive Abassid Caliphate that once stretched all the way from Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, to Tunisia? Such an outcome would have less to do with redrawing national boundaries than it would with redefining the way Muslims express their religion.
The rules governing the relationships between nation states, as elaborated by we Europeans, are, in part, the product of our own civilisation’s inability to resolve religious schisms. But, whether the conflicts currently tearing the Islamic world apart can be resolved by the principles enshrined the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants, is highly debateable.
Beyond dispute, however, is the role warfare has played throughout history in reconciling the irreconcilable and solving the insoluble. Sometimes, if peace is not in prospect, it pays to give war a chance. Alexander the Great didn’t unravel the impossibly complex Gordian Knot with his fingers. He used his sword.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and the Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 February 2015.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Questions Of Sovereignty: Who Has The Final Say In New Zealand? – And Should We Be Frightened Of Finding Out?

Day 506: On 25 May 1978 a massive Police operation, backed by the NZ Army, evicted 218 protesters from their occupation village on Bastion Point. This was the last time a Kiwi prime minister unequivocally answered the question: "Who has the final say in New Zealand?"
ONLY A FOOL would attempt to portray sovereignty as an unimportant issue. (See The NZ Herald, Editorial, 11/2/15) It takes a special sort of smugness and a huge amount of ignorance to suggest that “practical” people don’t really care who has (or should have) the final say in their country. Only someone for whom the idea of not having the final say is genuinely inconceivable would make so absurd a claim. And only someone with no real knowledge or understanding of the past could possibly believe that sovereignty is ever acquired cheaply or relinquished lightly.
The question of precisely where sovereignty is located in Aotearoa/New Zealand is by no means an easy one to answer. Indeed, it has been many years since anyone seriously tried. The first instinct of our politicians, bureaucrats, and even of our police officers, whenever the question of sovereignty raises its deeply problematic head, is to fudge, fudge, fudge, and, if necessary, fudge again.
The last time a New Zealand political leader unequivocally asserted the indivisible sovereignty of the post-colonial Settler State was Rob Muldoon. Faced with the refusal of Ngati Whatua protesters to abandon their 506-day occupation of Auckland’s Bastion Point, Prime Minister Muldoon ordered their forcible eviction.
This was by no means a straight-forward exercise. Hundreds of Police, supported by the NZ Army, were required to remove the 218 people who refused to vacate their ancestral land. The images broadcast to New Zealand on the evening news of 25 May 1978 were deeply disturbing to a great many of its citizens – so much so, that no similar operation was authorised until the ill-starred “Operation Eight” of 2007.
Certainly, when confronted with the Whanganui people’s occupation of Pakaitore (Moutoa Gardens) in 1995, the government of Jim Bolger steadfastly refused to authorise the use of force to secure their eviction. Nearly 20 years on from Bastion Point, and with many Maori openly asserting tino rangatiratanga, or Maori Sovereignty, it was by no means certain that the protesters and their supporters would “go quietly”.
Fortunately, for the peace of the realm, the Whanganui people were equally unwilling to answer the question: ‘Who has the final say in New Zealand?’ Instead, like their warrior ancestors, they quietly “abandoned the Pa” – slipping away into the night and leaving the gardens empty.
Though the ill-fated “Operation Eight” was not launched in response to a land occupation, the manner of its execution left a great many New Zealanders – Maori and Pakeha – with a bitter taste in their mouths. The television images of heavily armed Police manning road-blocks and carrying out property searches and interrogations throughout the tiny Tuhoe settlement of Ruatoki revealed just how high the sovereignty stakes had been raised since 1978.
Any New Zealand government intending to assert state power over Maori in the second decade of the twenty-first century must anticipate considerably more than the passive resistance of Bastion Point, and the self-restraint of Pakaitore. It must be ready to use deadly force.
The Herald’s editorial writer would, of course, reject all such statements as alarmist. He is quite certain that “practical” Kiwis will never let things come to such a pass. But that is only because a willingness to compromise has always been the strongest component of the Maori-Pakeha relationship. Faced with stepping forward into open and uncompromising confrontation, Maori and the Crown (some disgruntled Pakeha might say ‘especially the Crown’) have, for the most part, chosen to step back.
But it requires an heroic leap of faith to accept that one’s country’s rulers are going to be lucky all the time. A day may come when New Zealand is again ruled by a person with the same autocratic temperament as Rob Muldoon. When the issue in dispute is too important for compromise. When neither side feels able to step back from the brink without suffering a catastrophic loss of mana. It is on that day that the all-important question: “Who has the final say in New Zealand?” will be answered. And the only “practical matters” to be considered on that day will be: Who’s will is the stronger? and, Who has the most guns?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 11 February 2015.