Friday, 30 October 2015

In Germany, thinking about a post-Merkel reality

The European Union has had a rough year. And by most indicators, it’ll only get worse before Christmas.

Greece is about to move into the next cycle of combat with its creditors. And the big story is how refugees by the hundreds of thousands are still pouring into the bloc with almost no compunction shown by the various EU authorities to stop them. The humanitarian demands for leniency on amnesty applications has all but disappeared into silent embarrassment as the reality of who is actually applying becomes clear.

Originally, the media built a narrative of poor, desperate Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting in the Levant and brow-beat EU governments to open their borders and towns. Of all the people arriving at Europe’s doorstep, special consideration should be given to these people, said the caring groups. Almost immediately the narrative was proven wrong as the majority of refugees weren’t from Syria after all.

Now European leaders, not to mention the various voting publics, are questioning how they were so easily duped into believing this fiction. They have no one to blame but themselves and the decades of institutionalised progressivism and multiculturalism which sapped their politics of clear thought about dealing with the world’s new problems.

Poland is only the first government to fall as a result of the EU’s refugee redistribution policies. There will be more political casualties to come.

The usual suspects of France, Italy, Greece and Turkey are in the headlines with governments struggling under the refugee weight. Importantly, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is in the spotlight too. And if I had to isolate one nation to keep an eye on as this refugee problem spirals, it would be Germany.

Don’t look for Mrs Merkel’s fall, as this is now all but confirmed, but watch for who will replace her. Germany has been reticent to accept its obvious leading role in Europe for almost the entirety of the EU project timeline.

Whether it’s just Mrs Merkel’s personality, the sentiment of her party, the feeling of the German people or something else driving this avoidance is not clear. But Germany’s refusal to grasp and wield its power has been an important factor in hamstringing the EU over the years. At almost any opportunity, Germany has preferred to defer its obvious authority over to Brussels or avoided making important decisions completely, following the EU constitution to the letter.

I understand EU members would be none too happy if Germany dials up its authority, especially given the history of the twentieth century. Yet the size of Germany has always been perpendicular to how it conducts itself on the EU stage. This has led to it making some almost impossible decisions over the years, usually in the negative direction. Decisions that in any other country would never be contemplated, let alone implemented.

The refugee problem is probably the high-water mark of the current series of EU obstacles. The supranational institution has moved far beyond teething problems now. The refugee problem has hit the countries at the cores of their being. It attacks the essence of what it means to be French, Austrian, Polish or German.

There’s nothing Europeans despise more than a dilution of their traditional and diverse cultures at the hands of malicious and rapacious outsiders. Multiculturalism was probably a workable idea when immigration statistics never budged past a few thousand each year. But this is getting ridiculous, so the EU will bring out the guns (both rhetorically and, maybe, physically).

But there are consequences to every action. Mrs Merkel is showing a crippling level of battle fatigue leading to a series of dumbfounding decision making about the refugees. She might also be failing to think long term as so many short term factors hit her political walls. However, she has forgotten that she commands the largest and most important country in the EU and it is creating dangerous political and cultural agitation.

And like a full soda bottle, the lid might tightly be held for the moment but after a while it always comes loose. When it does, this European bottle will feel as though someone has been shaking it since November 1, 1993.

I’m not sure something bad will happen. What I am sure of is the various paths of a post-Merkel reality in which a new leader emerges, striding into power suggesting Germany takes its rightful place at the top of the EU food chain. Everyone watching the EU drama closely knew the bloc would face this circumstance eventually. It is now becoming a serious possibility.

No one’s quite sure a reinvigorated, 21st century German leadership will be a bad thing for Europe, especially if it’s managed inside EU mechanisms. However, almost every significant legal and sovereign mechanism has taken a brutal battering over the past few years, so it’s not clear they can cope if Brussels has the reins yanked from its grasp.

After all, the EU was built as a net around Germany to balance the economic forces of Berlin and Paris. Those sorts of nets have a nasty habit of entangling their owner.

Every politician worth their salt knows better than to waste a good crisis. The refugee problem is boiling into a perfect storm for whomever is waiting patiently in the side-lines in Germany for an opportunity to reshape the EU into a structure more suitable for those, like them, who understand the reality of where the power truly sits today. Power abhors a vacuum.

Will the EU project collapse? Maybe. I would be a poor student of history to expect any supranational organisation to persist forever. But every important detail about its strategy and the foundational reasons for which the EU was created have not altered with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees. That strategy centres on a simple, but deadly worry: what will Europe do about the German question?

So in the next few months, keep an eye out for any of Germany’s major political players moving or finding convenient reasons to strengthen Germany’s intense EU power. Some countries will ask for this, others will ring the warning bells. Whatever happens, the next phase of the EU project could be the deciding factor for how the world grapples with the geopolitical pressures of the 21st century.

At the very least, the EU will be radically different after this. At worst, well…no one appreciates it when their culture is threatened by enemies – real or imagined. And it’s now painfully clear this feeling is no longer only a German sentiment.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Sitrep - 28 Oct, 2015

Fresh regime offenses in Syria this week attempt to build on gains made earlier in October, yet they are being stymied by counter-offensives from rebels and the elements from the Islamic State which are threatening the regime’s supply lines. Nevertheless, Russia continues to launch airstrikes against rebel positions, softening up the various groups’ lines of control for the predicted new offensives.

Russia’s goal in Syria is daily becoming more obvious as a plan to bolster the Syrian regime and create favourable conditions on the ground in preparation for rumoured power-sharing negotiations. Russia is also hoping to divide Syrian rebels from each other by targeting some over others. The US appears to have come to an understanding with Russia on areas of operation in Syria.

Further north in Europe, Poland emerged this week from a general election with a new political party in control. The conservative Law and Justice Party won a large percentage (40%), placing it considerably far from other competitors to govern alone. It is the first time since 1989 that a Polish party will be able to rule without a coalition.

This new party will face the same demands and constraints as prior leaders, foremost of which is the reality of being geographically squeezed between an aggressive Russia and an economically degraded Europe. It will likely delay its required accession to the Eurozone and push back against policies regarding the redistribution of immigrants. It will also develop greater security ties with the US and UK with the crisis in Ukraine.

The US surprised many observers by making good on a promise to sail guided missile destroyer USS Lassen within a dozen miles of Subi Reef in the South China Sea. Other reports suggest the warship also sailed past the nearby Mischief Reef. The US warned China it would conduct a similar “freedom of navigation” exercise, which Beijing has called “provocative.”

China has been building artificial islands in the area for months, much to the frustration of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia which also claim sovereignty in the region. The US’ display of force is both meant to reassure these US allies and reinforce the concept of freedom for all countries to sail unopposed inside international waters.

As such, it is no surprise the operation occurred a few weeks after the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), both actions US President Barack Obama will use to prove his administration’s “Asia Pivot” strategy is serious. A free flow of navigation through international waters is crucial for the US and its allies across the world. However, Japan and other nations will insist on continued US Navy patrols in the South and East China Seas.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

How US power factions shape the world

I experienced acute pareidolia in a recent visit to Washington DC. That’s the scientific theory describing how human brains recognise patterns in inanimate objects, the Virgin Mary and toast is the most well-known.

It happened because from a distance the US looks like a coherent country, a shining example and custodian of the concept of the international community. Perhaps Washington DC is peculiar to the rest of the country, but something about the city made it easier to notice how factionalism, disparaged in other countries, is deeply woven into the US fabric too.

Take for instance the US Articles of Confederation. It is a ragged parchment, faded and unglamorous sitting in the National Archives building on Pennsylvania Ave. It was written after the nation’s first hundred years following the Civil War, after which the country was referred to as “these” United States, not “the” United States. And has remained that way ever since.

The usage of the plural pronoun is a deliberate recognition that while the Union was victorious in the conflict, the country will always involve at least two parallel realities. History is always written by the victors and we study history not to understand the present, but the past. The Union was victorious while the Confederate south was decisively beaten. Everything follows from this reality.

Underneath all this is a quiet understanding that the North’s victory isn’t permanent and requires constant maintenance. The victory is only part of the country’s assumptions, not a fact of nature. The glue holding the country together is a belief that “these” United States, under a Union-formed federal government, is the correct narrative without which the country cannot do.

Yet there is an entire counter-history written by the defeated South describing how it sees the Civil War. Suffice it to say, the US story is only the most dominant narrative written by people with their own agenda in a time of violent nation building. This same thing has happened countless times around the world, as it is today in Iraq and Syria. Military defeat is never enough, the ideology must also be eradicated. This didn’t happen in the US south, and so discontent bubbles away.

The entire game of the present structure of the US government is to maintain itself by suppressing alternate forms of government, such as the counter-history of the South. In other words, there is no magical law of the universe dictating that the status quo must persist forever. Without vigilance and a strong narrative, it could collapse at any time – as in Iraq and Syria. We can see this by asking whether the US government is truly “monolithic”.

Without delving into the history of the US political spectrum, a closer look reveals there are at least two competing power factions with their own agencies and departments. They represent the interests and historicity of the country as it was before the Civil War, and before the creation of “these” United States. Each faction wishes to mold the US, and the international community, in its own image.

On the one side of the battlefield, we have… Washington. Or more precisely, Foggy Bottom and the State Department. And on the other side of the battlefield, we have… Washington. Or more precisely Arlington and the Pentagon. The executive branch is filled by whichever faction benefits from the swings of the public pendulum. Note: this isn’t the Republican and Democrat split.

I can see how Foggy Bottom broadly represents the interests of the North and the progressive Left, while Arlington broadly represents the interests of the South and the conservative Right. I’m sure it’s more complicated than this, but the point is the US is not a monolithic entity with a single history at all. Far from it. Much more is going on under its skin.

Arlington controls its client states in the international community by moving masses of men and metal – hard power is its vehicle of influence. If a country or ethnic group diverges from the status quo and threatens the “national security” of the US, then missiles can bring it back into line. Arlington even has its own intelligence agencies and departments to get the job done.

Foggy Bottom
Meanwhile, Foggy Bottom creates fiscal and economic dependency in members of the international community and spreads American-style egalitarianism with education. Shutting off US dollars is often just as effective – if not more so – than missiles to spoil secessionist plans. Soft power, as Foggy Bottom’s vehicle of influence, is a bit harder to spot, so the Arab Spring is a good example.

In 2011 there was no shortage of educated, capable, intelligent and energetic Egyptians - in short, American Egyptians. There weren’t millions of them, let alone tens of millions. But there were certainly tens of thousands. All they lacked was the power to rule Egypt. Not that they were without power. Anything but! Thanks to their American friends at Foggy Bottom, CNN, Human Rights Watch and all their many Twitter followers, the Egyptian liberal was anything but powerless.

After all, if this group was powerless, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would still be in power. But Mr Mubarak, and before him Anwar Sadat, wore America’s jewellery, took its money and sold it his soul. And after 35 years of dependency, this meant the Egyptian regime was defenceless against Foggy Bottom when the time came for change.

The Assad regime in Syria was smarter - it decided to remain a Soviet client, and later transferred its allegiance to Iran and Russia. No "Arab Spring" for them! Peace with the US was the death of Nasser's Egypt, albeit with a somewhat delayed fuse. The lesson is: on an American planet, anti-Americanism is the only path to independence. An excluded, poor and perpetually unsafe independence – but independence nonetheless. Just ask Somaliland.

Mr Mubarak, while he ruled, was free. Those he ruled were not free, for to be free is to rule. Now the novelists, filmmakers and surgeons are freer and Mr Mubarak is not free - in fact, he is detained in military hospital. And so it goes. Someone always rules; everyone else is always ruled. This is the reality of the international community in three words: sovereignty is conserved.

Now the two US power factions are once more fighting over Egypt’s sovereignty. Warplanes are sold and university professors are delivered. Winning is unimportant for them, the point is to keep the game going because the real battlefield is back in the US. Yet the problem for both factions is the Islamists who don’t respond to either Foggy Bottom or Arlington. Hence the missiles. But will this game last forever? We’ll have to wait and see.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Obama's ideology and the responsibilities of empire

Eight years ago, on the long US campaign trail, the then Senator Barack Obama thought the US presidency was the most powerful position on Earth.

Of all the candidates, he made his every promise sound as though he truly believed they could all be achieved. As his tenure approaches an end, the extra lines on his face suggest he wasn’t able to dispel those beliefs entirely. He depressingly discovered the presidency is the illusion of choice. The mess of Afghanistan and Syria prove the realities of holding an empire are inescapable, even for an ideologue like him.

Mr Obama planned for US combat forces to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The “good war,” as he called it, could finally be ended after more than a trillion dollars had been spent and at the cost of thousands of US and allied troops lives, not to mention the unknown number of Afghan casualties.

Keeping a steady path to limit the Taliban’s sporadic guerrilla attacks and coordinating training programmes for the Afghan National Security Force was all he had to do. And to an impressive extent those missions were successful in the ultimate meaning of the word. With New Zealand, ISAF and NATO forces in assistance, much of the country is safe today due to these long-term foreign commitments.

But it wasn’t enough for victory. Mr Obama’s decision to retain 5500 combat troops in theatre after his presidency ends in 2017 was therefore a good, if reluctant, choice. At its height in 2011, foreign troop numbers reached 130,000 throughout Afghanistan and still the commanders struggled to cover all vulnerabilities. The Pentagon asked for at least 9000 troops to remain past 2017, knowing that even this number would be far below the requirement. The decision was made to split the difference and add a few more engagement rules. Because, while Mr Obama clearly doesn’t want any combat forces there, it was ultimately not his decision to make.

In reality, it wasn’t any single person’s decision. Geopolitics doesn’t work like that. If countries are simply groups of people working together within specific constraints, then some bare predictions can be made as to any country’s decision-making processes about what truly matters. What a country can and cannot do is often written like a narrative and laid in front of its leaders. Heads of states may not be happy to read the script but read and follow it they must.

Mr Obama’s Afghanistan decision must be soul-destroying. He believes the US has been too imperial since World War II and must focus more on its domestic problems. If he were a selfish and power-hungry leader, the necessary decisions for survival would be made unhesitatingly. But he is an ideologue, so they are made begrudgingly and, ultimately, inadequately. They are made nonetheless.

Afghanistan has a long way to go toward becoming a viable and functioning nation. The influence of the government in Kabul extends only to its city limits. Without US forces and diplomatic pressure on various tribes, it would be a broken and lawless state in the middle of restive Central Asia.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are still talking to each other and the Islamic State (IS) is reportedly encroaching around the edges. Russia and China are also interested in occupying a power vacuum should the US depart prematurely. Pakistan is always involved somewhere, too. The recent attack on Kunduz in northern Afghanistan probably took the Taliban months or years to plan. And despite what Mr Obama wishes, the remaining 5500 US forces will certainly be in harm’s way.

The security demands for Syria are equally constraining the US president’s range of possible choices. Mr Obama doesn’t want US battalions manoeuvring across the Iraqi/Syrian deserts. Nor does he want to make a rash move to break the stalemate. But the safety of the US homeland requires him to prevent two neighbouring Arab states from collapsing.

So his decision to cancel the expensive training programme for factions of Syrian rebels appears confusing, unless a wider lens is used. Finding the correct members of democratic and liberal rebels among the hundreds of nationalistic and Islamic rebels has been a nightmare for Pentagon planners.

While the media focus obsessively on the west of Syria, where Russian, Iranian and loyalist troops are conducting fresh offensives against rebels and the IS, the eastern rebels are building on impressive gains in the other direction. Kurdish forces, along with the newly minted Syrian Democratic Forces – a coalition of anti-IS Sunni Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian Christian militias – are pressuring the Islamic State and loyalist positions across the Euphrates river valley and beyond.

US weapons supply drops to those forces have increased over the past week and appear to be in anticipation of a series of upcoming offensives against the IS. That’s important for two reasons.

First, US-supplied anti-tank guided missiles employed by rebel groups across the country severely disrupted Syrian loyalists in the west in the past few months leading to impressive and quick gains in the third quarter of this year. Indeed, this probably forced Russia’s hand to overtly defend its ally Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Second, it also shows the US is still committed to defending rebel forces congruent with its democratic ideals for the whole region. It reinforces the US’ unwillingness to create a power vacuum or let the wrong forces prevail.

The Taliban and al Qaeda both claim they can play the long game better than the US. But Washington officials are the only ones with a nascent empire. If any force can build a presence and wait out an enemy anywhere in the world, it is the US military. And it appears ready to do that.

Mr Obama might not want this to be true but what he wishes and what can happen are often two different things. The casual observer would do well to remember this. The US might hope to be just another nation but it cannot. It has power and with it comes responsibility. It also has a deep strength the international community desperately needs if it is to stay coherent.

That is why Mr Obama decided to stay in Afghanistan beyond his desire and why his Syria programme continues. The responsibilities of empire are bigger than anyone’s ideologies, even those of the most powerful man in the world. That’s a lesson every leader learns eventually.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Sitrep - 14 Oct, 2015

At least two Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace during bombing runs this week, while an unidentified aircraft harassed two Turkish F-16s by locking its radar on the Turks for five minutes. NATO is demanding an explanation, calling the violations “irresponsible and dangerous.”

The Russian aircraft are part of Moscow’s intensifying airstrike campaign against rebel forces in northwestern Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The overflights into Turkey reflect the tight working conditions of the theatre and were meant to soften up rebel positions in preparation for a looming loyalist attack, bolstered by Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian ground forces.

Further east, the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz is in its tenth day of fighting as the Afghan National Army (ANA) attempts to expel Taliban forces. The militants attacked the city earlier this month after the group confirmed a new leader. The overall competency of the ANA is under question after the attack.

However, during the fighting a US AC-130 gunship responded to a request for fire support by targeting a trauma hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières. More than 20 people were killed. US commanders say its special forces personnel were fighting with ANA troops near the hospital, but the ANA called in the airstrike. The attack is a strategic disaster for the larger US campaign.

And after more than ten years of meticulous negotiations, 12 countries of the Pacific Rim struck a deal on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The deal aims to regulate rules and trading process across the Asia Pacific region.

The deal is a major jewel in US President Barack Obama’s strategy of an “Asia Pivot” to rebalance US focus away from the Middle East and towards the Asia Pacific. The US wants to reassure its allies in Southeast Asia of its continued commitment and ensure China doesn’t gain a preponderance in the region. But Mr Obama faces a tough final year in office as the political fight to ratify the TPP heats up.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The complex planning of 'surprise' leader visits

On October 7, Mr Key surprised New Zealand by making a sudden, unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad and to New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel working at Camp Taji.

Prime Minister John Key has now visited Iraq as many times as US President Barack Obama, and using many of the same security procedures. While any head of state’s trip to a warzone is dangerous, the importance and timing of these visits often outweigh the risks. They serve to highlight a country’s commitment to a defence programme, help a leader gain a personal understanding of the theatre and encourage a country’s own troops.

However, the inherent risks of sending leaders to unsecured countries such as Iraq compels the prime minister’s protection team to shroud the visit in unusual and high levels of security. To those unfamiliar with government procedures, this practice appears as unnecessary secrecy. Leaders are acutely aware of this juxtaposition, but understand the need to balance a transparency with the realities of international security.

A press release about Mr Key’s surprise two-day stopover says he also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and President Fuad Masum in Baghdad to discuss the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (IS). New Zealand’s contribution includes 143 NZDF personnel based at Camp Taji, deployed to train Iraqi troops as part of a joint Building Partner Capacity mission with Australia. New Zealand is working with 60 other countries to reinforce the Iraqi state.

“Our soldiers have a world-class reputation and are carrying out their training mission brilliantly, in tough conditions…New Zealand cannot and should not fight Iraqis’ battles for them but we are making a valuable contribution,” Mr Key says.

Although the New Zealand public only discovered Mr Key’s Iraq trip after he landed at Baghdad International Airport (BIA), his close protection team would have been planning it for months.

The specific arrangements of his arrival would have begun in earnest during the prior three to five days. The trip details required coordination with New Zealand’s diplomatic staff in Iraq, the NZDF and other government agencies. The detour from a publicised overseas trip to New York, where Mr Key attended the recent UN General Assembly, increased the operational security of his visit to Iraq.

Generally, any time a prime minister flies internationally they use a modified Boeing 757 as a VIP transport.  The New Zealand Air Force presently has two of these aircraft, fully outfitted with communications gear and defensive systems. A C-130 military transport aircraft is also available for shorter flight distances, as in Mr Key’s flight between BIA and Dubai International Airport in the UAE.

Mr Key’s transport aircraft is likely equipped with countermeasures meant to defeat heat-seeking and radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) which IS militants may be using. The Islamic State possesses an unknown number and type of advanced weaponry.

The countermeasures include decoy flares of pyrophoric (igniting on contact with oxygen) elements which burn hotter than an aircraft’s exhaust, laser systems to redirect the heat-seeking SAMs away from the aircraft and metal strips that discharge from the fuselage to confuse radar-guided SAMs.

The immediate minutes during an aircraft’s approach and those immediately following take-off – before the aircraft reaches cruising speed and altitude – are the most dangerous. Flying over a warzone this risk is magnified, with Mr Key’s pilots performing a series of evasive manoeuvres such as a “corkscrew” designed to further spoil any SAM attacks.

Once on the ground, a large security operation is built to protect the prime minister. While Baghdad is in many respects a functioning city, it has suffered hundreds of IS attacks this year. Moving between secure locations requires more flight time in helicopters, equipped with similar countermeasures, and likely performing even more drastic stomach-churning manoeuvres.

Reporters travelling with the prime minister say the helicopters were US Army Chinook models. These 30 metre-long, slow, twin-engine aircraft can carry between 33-55 troops. They were necessary because travelling on roads would be out of the question due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and militant attacks.

The helicopter flights between Mr Key’s ground visits are the most dangerous parts of the trip. While these would last only 10-15 minutes, the helicopters would have flown low and fast over the landscape to minimise exposure to weapons.

The prime minister’s close protection team, usually specially-trained New Zealand police, would have shared their role with members of the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) during Mr Key’s stay in Iraq. The soldiers are responsible for Mr Key’s safety while on the ground, and very likely had a number of contingency plans to ferry him back to Baghdad in case of emergency.

These plans would be formed and updated over a period of months prior to the visit and an up-to-date assessment of the security environment in both Baghdad and Camp Taji during the 72 hours before the prime minister’s arrival. An armoured motorcade may also have been available to evacuate Mr Key in an emergency.

During Mr Key’s visit, the NZSAS would have been at the centre of security operations, with support from Iraqi military and police units. Depending on the size of the protection team available, NZSAS countersniper teams, a quick-response force (QRF) and other specialised units will secure the perimeter.

According to press photos, Mr Key’s close protection team provided concentric rings of security during his meetings with Iraqi and NZDF forces. Again, depending on the manpower available and the perceived risk, a technical team will have been present to provide hazardous material response and check for IEDs in the area. These units would also require coordination.

The security situation on the ground in Iraq is highly dangerous. This reality requires an increased level of secrecy surrounding Mr Key’s travel plans in and out of the country. According to reporters, the planning appears to have been compartmentalised to enhance operational security with a specific requirement for secrecy. They were told not to reveal any of the limited knowledge of the overall travel plans they might possess.

This compartmentalisation allows the close protection team a certain level of confidence that details and timing of the prime minister’s visit would not be leaked while he was in Iraq. The death of a foreign leader would be of incredible value for IS, especially a member of the coalition. It is therefore standard procedure to limit media exposure of such a visit to avoid giving militants time to prepare attacks.

During other conflicts where New Zealand leaders visited troops – such as William Massey in World War I and Peter Fraser in World War II – the overall security situation was different. The threat of death to the leader was realistic, but unlikely given the nature of the two wars. Militancy and insurgency inject a high level of uncertainty to a conflict zone, far more than in a conventional war.

Former prime minister Helen Clark also performed a surprise visit to NZDF personnel in Afghanistan in 2003. The security situation there was equally dangerous after the removal of the Taliban-led government caused Taliban forces to splinter and adopt guerrilla tactics. Many of the procedures used in Mr Key’s Iraq visit would have been enacted for Ms Clark.

While these measures might appear to be a public relations victory for IS – having “forced” the leader of a foreign country to secretly enter a country – that is only half the story. The flipside is that it shows how even the leader of a small country such as New Zealand can travel anywhere he or she wishes in Iraq, regardless of how much control the militants boast. It is a public relations win for Baghdad.

Dust storms near the capital delayed Mr Key’s final departure by almost a day. During this time, the Iraqi government released images of his visit while he was still in the country. Whether this slip resulted from a miscommunication about his exact departure time, or a larger blunder, is unknown. But it highlights the importance of operational security and the necessity for increased government secrecy during dangerous state visits.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Sitrep - 7 Oct, 2015

At least two Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace during bombing runs this week, while an unidentified aircraft harassed two Turkish F-16s by locking its radar on the Turks for five minutes. NATO is demanding an explanation, calling the violations “irresponsible and dangerous.”

The Russian aircraft are part of Moscow’s intensifying airstrike campaign against rebel forces in northwestern Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The overflights into Turkey reflect the tight working conditions of the theatre and were meant to soften up rebel positions in preparation for a looming loyalist attack, bolstered by Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian ground forces.

Further east, the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz is in its tenth day of fighting as the Afghan National Army (ANA) attempts to expel Taliban forces. The militants attacked the city earlier this month after the group confirmed a new leader. The overall competency of the ANA is under question after the attack.

However, during the fighting a US AC-130 gunship responded to a request for fire support by targeting a trauma hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières. More than 20 people were killed. US commanders say its special forces personnel were fighting with ANA troops near the hospital, but the ANA called in the airstrike. The attack is a strategic disaster for the larger US campaign.

And after more than ten years of meticulous negotiations, 12 countries of the Pacific Rim struck a deal on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The deal aims to regulate rules and trading process across the Asia Pacific region.

The deal is a major jewel in US President Barack Obama’s strategy of an “Asia Pivot” to rebalance US focus away from the Middle East and towards the Asia Pacific. The US wants to reassure its allies in Southeast Asia of its continued commitment and ensure China doesn’t gain a preponderance in the region. But Mr Obama faces a tough final year in office as the political fight to ratify the TPP heats up.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The TPP and the choice of inclusion or exclusion

What should we make of a world that chooses to cohere under a massive trade deal while it fractures along geopolitical lines?

Large chunks of the world clearly aren’t happy with the status quo, and anyone with an internet connection knows this is hurting plenty of real people in real places. A group of 12 Pacific countries aren’t happy with the status quo either, but this region spilled ink not blood in its quest for change. 

The signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) earlier this morning will be the glue sticking the Pacific Rim together for hopefully much of the 21st century. Although the final text is still forthcoming – and its details will be important to grasp – the constituent parts of the TPP are less important than what it means for the international community.

As I’ve argued in the past, the world system is built on the central question every countries must answer: does it want to be included or excluded?

Singapore’s foreign minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam, whose country is part of the TPP agreement, asked this exact question only a few months ago. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, but it’s not something many officials talk about in public. Not because they are secretive, but because they simply can’t articulate the reality underpinning the question.

“If you don’t do [the TPP], what are your levers of power?” Mr Shanmugam asked. “The choice is a very stark one: Do you want to be part of the region, or do you want to be out of the region?”

The answer depends on how much power a country thinks it has. That’s not an easy calculation to make, because a state’s assumptions about its power are often a mix of disinformation, misinformation and self-deception. Some nation leaders confuse themselves with this mix. Bad things happen when a state incorrectly thinks it is powerful enough to change the world system.

If a nation state’s choice is in favour of exclusion, then the country had better possess the correct amounts of hard and soft power to perform the break. Otherwise, the velocity required to escape the world system’s gravity simply won’t be enough, and it will embarrassingly fall back into the default international community.

What if a country decides to be included? Well, this would mean using at minimum a fiat monetary system, a parliamentary government and an egalitarian jurisprudence. But above all, it requires a country to be part of the international community. In other words, it requires a country to be a country.

This might sound obvious, but it goes to the heart of why 12 countries chose to enact a trade pact this week and it’s important to outline, especially today. Buckle up, because understanding why the TPP was signed requires reviewing a bit of history, but don’t worry, it won’t take too long.

Inclusion in the international community requires a country to be legally independent, as opposed to illegally independent.

To be legally independent requires a country to make a series of choices in a particular direction. The result, of course, is only the appearance of independence, but the branding serves to save the country from the nasty realities of being truly (illegally) independent and essentially excluded.

A group of people living in a contiguous landmass can choose to be independent in one of these two directions; there is no third choice. To be illegally independent means losing access to institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, the UN, WHO and other acronym-adorned organisations. That’s because choosing to create a parallel system outside of the international community is a big no-no.

Back in 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia became the final step in the creation of the concept of a nation state. This concept was not natural and needed a sprinkling of human invention, yet it has formed the backbone of the world system ever since and it feels natural. Although this idea won’t be with us forever, in 2015 the world is divided into hundreds of these nation states.

Some places, such as Antarctica or Somaliland, aren’t part of this system for different reasons. Antarctica’s exclusion was a conscious decision by the international community not to extend the concept onto the ice shelves. This might change in the future, but for the time being Antarctica today is “everybody’s” continent, which means in a very real way it is still part of the international community.

Somaliland is different again. You won’t find it on any official map because it isn’t officially recognised. It is an illegally independent state occupying a contiguous landmass inside the legally independent state of Somalia in East Africa. It has its own president, currency and justice system. It even has its own flag. But the international community does not recognise it, let it access the IMF or World Bank or give it a seat on the United Nations

If this is starting to make you question just how truly independent your country actually is, well, you’re paying attention.

The international community exists and operates like an anthill. It is the sum of individual vectors pointing in different directions. A few powerful nation states, such as the British and French empires, have managed various parts of it. I emphasise the word “manage” here because they were only the custodians of the international community. These nation states were called colonial powers for a reason.

Notice how those two empires chose only to control countries, not create a wholly new world system. They chose inclusion even back then. In fact, wherever they went the first things they did was create new nation states. They dragged the European system of the international community around until the known world was riven along fresh border lines.

This process continues today, except the British and French empires are of course historical dust. In their place is a new custodian of the international community: the United States. And it’s no surprise that the US is happy to continue defending the concept of the nation state by organising rules (such as liberal democracy and free trade) to incentivise the world’s countries to choose inclusion over exclusion.

This is the context of the TPP. In 2015, the international community is the most current iteration of what began in 1648. It is the dominant concept forcing every country to answer whether it wants to be included or excluded.

The TPP is a story of 12 Pacific countries choosing to be included in the international community. It is the next inevitable step in a tale stretching back to the very beginnings of the nation state concept. The US is driving this deal, it is an US story. After all, as custodian of the international community, it the US’ job to reinforce this idea in people’s minds.

Countries wishing to rip apart this concept are considered malevolent by the international community. Russia – and China in many ways – choose exclusion, rather than inclusion. The Islamic State is another example altogether, but the reason it is considered an enemy is because of its choice of exclusion.

So this is the lesson of the TPP: the choice to be like Somaliland isn’t exactly, shall we say, incentivised. The TPP is 12 members of the international community choosing to strengthen a system that has been in place for 367 years. Given the way the world works, this shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether being part of the international community is preferable to being outside it. And we all must decide what the TPP means for the future of this world system. But one thing is clear, the choice of inclusion and exclusion remains the only question remaining worth answering.

The TPP is a US story, don’t forget

It is poetically fitting that the 12 members of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) emerged with a deal from five days of solid talks in Atlanta, Georgia. It is fitting because the TPP is an American story, despite how New Zealand sees it.

Although it many years from inception to agreement, almost 40% of the world’s GDP is part of a deal which will set the parameters for future 21st century free trade negotiations. New Zealand is one of the smaller members, and it is encouraging to hear it forced the larger members to take New Zealand’s economic needs seriously. But it wasn’t easy.

Finding common ground in a meticulously negotiated agreement is tough between two countries, let alone 12. But the sticking points of dairy, medicine, IP and automobiles which stalled the deal for more than two years were eventually navigated by some of the best trade negotiators alive.

Of course, that’s what the negotiators would say. Yet they each must now return home and submit a TPP text to 12 very different governments in the world’s most dynamic region. US President Barack Obama’s ownership of trade “fast track”, which forces Congress to say either yes or no without amendments, is the most important next step to watch.

The TPP will now go through “scrubbing” by lawyers and the various country’s citizenry and legal experts will no doubt comb through the text. The devil, as they say, will be in the details. If people thought the political debate was raucous before, they can expect it to truly begin now.

Taking a step back to view this deal on a geopolitical level, this column gets a strange feeling. Sure, Mr Obama can now end his eight years as the world’s most powerful man safe in the knowledge the US has made a significant step towards a post-9/11 world. But the geopolitical climate that compelled the TPP talks is markedly different today to when it was begun in the final term of the George W. Bush presidency.

The Asia Pacific, simply by the numbers, has become more dynamic as a region showing no sign of stopping this phenomenal growth, especially in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, Europe has not yet recovered from its declination in 2008 and may not recover at all. The two regions – one a producer the other a consumer – are not similar. The US and New Zealand have both noticed.

Also, one of the Asia Pacific’s bulwark nations is no longer performing quite so spectacularly. Back in 2008, China was registering double-digit growth rates. China-watchers knew the country faced significant constraints and would slow down eventually. That was a matter of if, not when. Today China’s growth figures hover near more normal rates as the country’s economic system evolves.

Thinking back to the Bush administration, both of these dynamics convinced the US it needed to focus on the Asia Pacific to rebalance its political economy away from the Middle East. It also suspected China’s rise might translate into direct military challenge and needed a way to corral the enormous regional power.

The TPP became just the economic jewel needed for Washington’s new political crown. The US has pretended to focus on the Asia Pacific ever since, casually letting talk about the TPP being a “containment” of China persist in the media and then placing the predominance of its naval force in the region. But its true focus was still on the Middle East and Europe: Asia Pacific came second.

This confliction inside Washington was made possible precisely because China failed to emerge as the aggressor that the US thought it would. Despite China’s purchase of a modern naval force, Beijing’s traditional focus remains on the Eurasian landmass. It has never considered control of the seas a serious geopolitical goal, and the US is starting to understand China’s worldview.

China even called the US’ bluff by formalising a request to join the TPP discussions in 2013. It was too late to enter the first round, and it is questionable whether it will join a second round, but its question required a response. Washington decided a cooperative play was better, and in so doing dispelled any notion of the TPP as a Chinese containment. Yet Washington remains suspicious and moved the TPP to the top of Mr Obama’s list.

The TPP is part of a long process of integrating the globalised world with rules. That’s extremely important for the coherency of such a world. Yet at another level it is only part of the shifting international patterns of the region. Patterns which include the “normalisation” of Japan, growing ASEAN dynamism and cooperation and China’s economic uncertainty.

The TPP may no longer be about containing China, but the original impetus for its creation hasn’t entirely disappeared. The US must rebalance away from its long war against terrorism in the Middle East to consider other geopolitical demands. Washington also knows if it doesn’t help write the trade rules for the Asia Pacific, then another power might.

The emerging American empire might be immature and still learning how to interact with its newly formed and probably unwanted imperial project, but the larger game of chess in the Asia Pacific region suggests players in Washington know how to make good moves to balance its competition. Sometimes, that’s all an empire needs to do.