Friday, 26 February 2016

A few thoughts on the EU refugee crisis

After last year’s unparalleled influx of refugees into Europe, the continent’s leaders promised to use the calmer months of winter to draw up a plan to deal with the millions at their borders. Yet the EU is no better prepared, and in some ways the situation is worse. Unfortunately this makes sense because the “EU refugee crisis” has less to do with refugees and everything to do with the EU.

Many European countries will experience profound demographic decline over the next 50 years. One major factor for this trend is that as a society gets richer, women tend to delay or cancel having children. But since demographic replacement rate is reached with an average of 2.1 births per woman, ensuring a society meets its replacement rate is a task for responsible government.

Unfortunately, many EU countries are already below this mark, in some places significantly so. A few leaders who can see the approaching demographic cliff are trying to offset it by skipping the unproductive childhood stage and encouraging refugee adults to migrate instead. This is part of a larger trend in most advanced countries towards viewing humans as a capital resource. Advanced countries with poor birth rates will compete for access to this human capital over the next century.

The wave of refugees solves two other EU problems: it quickly increases the total numbers of producer/consumers to maintain the EU’s commercial output. It also builds what Indian politicians lovingly call a “vote bank”. This will keep status quo progressives in power for the next 100 years and retain the structure of the welfare state.

A marginal, but not unimportant, effect is how refugee migration sidesteps the nasty immigration paperwork while neatly ticking the desirable boxes of humanitarianism and other progressive ideals to frame the EU as an responsible member of the international community (it’s important to retain such standing in countries with similar ideals, such as the US and NZ).

The societal impact from the refugees and the changes to the individual EU country's cultures will be evolutionary at worst. And far from being a large refugee intake, government figures suggest less than 2 million refugees are awaiting process. The true figure is likely 1.3 million. To put this in perspective, the total EU population is approaching 400 million.

The parts of European culture which fail to adapt to the influx of will be marginalised, while the parts which do cope will find an equilibrium. For example, observe the societal evolution in much of southern France since Algeria’s independence. The regions have largely subsumed these migrants over time, mixing French and Algerian cultures together.

The complaints about increasing levels of sexual abuse from refugees are accurate, and one should never discount how viciously the immune system of a society will fight back against a force which threatens “their” women, but it is unlikely that this abuse will lead to powerful counter movements. Many right-wing and nationalist forces are already present.

Where refugees will impact EU politics is to stoke these existing divisions among its members. This can be seen in the immediate reaction of the French government after the November 2015 Paris attacks to shut down the nation’s borders. They achieved this so efficiently that it is assumed Paris already had similar plans before the attacks.

Those plans are a result of the fraying relationships between France and its EU neighbours, especially Germany. Likewise, the angst in Poland over the past few months reflects Warsaw's frustration both with EU fecklessness regarding Russian adventurism and the clear failing of a robust NATO and EU defensive promise.

The obverse is true in Greece, however, where Athens has chosen to accept refugees, send its coastguard to “save” as many as possible, but refuses to house them in internment camps because it says such an act would be inhumane. Instead, Athens sends refugees north into the Balkans towards Germany because Athens complains it cannot afford to house them on its territory.

The Greek minister responsible for migration, Ioannis Mouzalas, warned on February 28 that the number of migrants trapped in Greece could balloon to between 50,000 and 70,000 in the coming month. Greece is still fighting an intense political battle with Berlin and Brussels over this eye watering debt level to secure new tranches of relief from EU banks.

Many EU members are also feeling increasingly unhappy with the EU structure, which is viewed as weak and irrelevant. Each are looking for ways or excuses to further dilute Brussels' power and increase their national sovereignty. The refugee crisis is a pre-packaged excuse to pull further away from the union.

In other words, plenty of smart and power-hungry people are using the refugee crisis to expand their political strategies, many of which were already in train well before the influx of refugees late last year. This is precisely why we are all reading about it in the media. As an arm of the state, what is released in the papers and TV channels can only by definition boost the status quo. One just needs to understand the status quo to see how refugees are both a tool and an opportunity.

This analysis doesn't include how the US and other Western countries view the crisis. Nor does it address the causes of the influx into Europe. The EU can only deal with this larger problem if it is aligned on the broader questions of the union. Unfortunately for both the EU and the refugees, the political winter appears to be just getting started.

Turkey’s game of patience

A truck bomb killed 28 people in the Turkish capital Ankara last week making headlines across the world because it was easy news. It was easy news because it sidestepped explaining the context of Turkey’s tightrope strategy in the Middle East.

Of course, this context can’t be captured in a short article, so the journalists covering the bombing garner some sympathy. But Turkey’s world is changing and while bombings don’t alter strategy, they are creating and removing Ankara’s choices at an alarming clip.

Turkey would prefer it wasn’t the centre of a fractured region. But it is. Not only does it bridge Europe and Asia, the landmass interacts with Russia on the Black Sea and stretches into Central Asia through the Caucasus. Turkish movements will always have a disproportionate impact on geopolitics.

Now the country can no longer avoid the conflagration in Syria and Iraq. A few years ago Ankara amateurish support of Syrian rebels may have helped trigger chemical weapons usage in the town of Goutta. It also clumsily moves weapons and intelligence to all corners of the conflict, flipping capriciously between secular and jihadist rebel groups.

Then Russia’s entry into Syria shook Turkey into seriousness. The lands south of Turkey are its historical backyard, and Russian escapades were too much. The eventual shoot-down of a Russian aircraft last year was almost certainly a high-level policy decision, reflecting the depths of animosity Turkey was feeling against Moscow.

Strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan understands and respects that Russian intervention is about painting Moscow as power capable of projecting force externally. But at the expense of Turkish influence in its region? Not a chance. For Turkey, both Syria and Iraq are strategically important in precisely the same way eastern Ukraine is for Russia.

Ankara doesn’t want to dash itself on the sharp Syrian rocks. Yet circumstance and Russian adventurism is forcing its hand. The world is also looking similar for both Ankara and Washington. Turkey was the linchpin of the US/NATO containment strategy during the Cold War and the US wants it to play that role again.

But Washington needs to be careful of what it wishes for a post-civil war reality in Syria. Russia is obviously committed to, at minimum, a Baathist remnant in Damascus. While the US seems to be accepting this as an inevitability too, through gritted teeth. But Turkey will not even entertain the thought of al Assad or a Baathist regime remaining intact.

The Kurds also worry Turkey because a fractured Syria makes it simpler for the group to carve a proto-state from the wreckage. And since the truck bombs were claimed by Kurdish militants, and Turkey continues to pound Kurdish military positions with artillery, a “beneficial” outcome in Syria for Turkey is probably very different to Washington’s.

Ultimately, Russia and the US can leave – Turkey cannot. Ankara would prefer to act in Syria with the promise of US support, but since that is not forthcoming, it may have to act on its own. A few years ago, Turkey was pretending all this didn’t exist. But as Russia collapses under the weight of low oil prices, Ankara could soon be responsible for much more than just its southern regions.

Turkey’s risks are high. But in a way the opportunities, both strategically and commercially, are opening up in ways it perhaps only dreamed of in past decades as a result of the mess around it. Perhaps this is exactly the circumstance Turkey has been waiting for. After all, it has the military and historical pedigree to pull all the pieces together. The question is when it will start this process, and how competently it will conduct itself.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Sitrep - Feb 24, 2016

A truck bomb targeting a barracks in the Turkish capital of Ankara killed 28 people February 18. Turkish officials immediately blamed Kurdish militants, and two Kurdish groups eventually issued competing claims of responsibility. Meanwhile, Turkish artillery continues to target Kurdish positions in northern Syria.

The explosions are part of a long internecine conflict between Turkey and Kurdish separatists, exacerbated by the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. Turkey’s strategy is to avoid conflict with Damascus and the Islamic State, preferring to prosecute its fight with the Kurds first. However, Turkish grand strategy suggests its reticent engagement with the region’s conflicts could be changing.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron finalised a deal with Brussels over the relationship between Britain and the supranational bloc. Among other new provisions, the British business community will be better protected from many new laws in the EU. Eurosceptic forces in the UK say the deal is insufficient, while Mr Cameron is selling the deal as helping the UK in new ways.

The UK will conduct a referendum in June on remaining inside the EU. Supporters of both sides are organising their arguments and this new deal will provide fodder for both. However the relevance of the EU as an institution is diminishing for the UK and much of Europe, so it is unclear what impact an “out” vote will have on the overall British economy should it transpire.

NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden told media he was willing to return to the US for a “fair trial with a jury” to face accusations he committed treason by releasing classified intelligence documents in 2013. No official response from the US Justice Department has been offered.

The privacy debate reinvigorated recently reignited in a spat between Apple and the FBI over the latter’s access to iPhones. The FBI wants data held on a terrorist’s device, but Apple is pushing back claiming the request amounts to a “backdoor” for all phones. Both sides are concerned about the rise in encryption and weakening of law enforcement in the wake of Mr Snowden’s disclosures.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

An unimpressive Saudi/Russia oil production deal

A secret meeting in Doha between senior energy officials from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Venezuela agreed this morning to freeze oil output productions in an attempt to reduce the current supply glut.

However, the deal is contingent on all Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) agreeing to the plan. Iran’s absence from the meeting points to severe disagreement on how best to cut production, making it unlikely the half-hearted proposal will reduce the growing oversupply of crude and raise market prices.

Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi told media after the talks that freezing output at January levels will be “adequate” and Riyadh still wants to meet the demand of its customers.

A hurting oil market and disappointed OPEC member Venezuela were hoping for a more robust deal to stem production but the deal exacerbates a painful trend in crude markets.

The agreement freezes production at near record levels, based on production output measured in January. Last month saw some of the highest production levels among OPEC countries in decades.

Saudi Arabia produced 10.2 million barrels per day (mb/d) in January, a figure close to its 10.5 million barrels per day (mb/d) peak last summer. (The country typically produces more oil during the summer months to feed domestic cooling needs.) Before 2015, the OPEC heavyweight had not produced more than 10 mb/d in over thirty years.

The other party in the talks, Russia, is also at near record levels of production. In January, it pumped 11.2 mb/d, close to its peak of 11.3 mb/d earlier in 2015. Neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia can appreciably increase production beyond their current levels anyway.

Once again, Saudi Arabia’s obvious snub of Iran in the talks underscores the two country’s geopolitical competition played out in the oil markets. Given their competition, a broad agreement across OPEC was unlikely anyway, even if Iranian officials were invited to the talks.

Iran plans to increase production by 500,000 to 1 mb/d this year, and just as it shakes off years of sanctions, it is hardly in Tehran’s interest to cap production. Its first Europe-bound shipment of crude will also soon arrive. Europe was an important market for Iran before the stricter 2012 sanctions cut off trade and Iran is hoping to retrieve some of its old market share.

Should Iran and OPEC adhere to the deal – a situation not guaranteed – the production freeze may not be effective in easing the oversupply glut. Judging by the reaction in the markets – oil prices staged a brief rally but the gains were quickly obliterated as reality set in – oil traders are disappointed with the outcome.

Meanwhile, rumours persist that OPEC members could bring its planned June 2 meeting forward in what would constitute an emergency summit.  UAE’s energy minister Suhail Mohammed Faraj Al Mazroui told the Wall Street Journal OPEC is “ready to cooperate,” though only with “total cooperation from everyone”.

Whether the emergency meeting takes place or OPEC decides to wait until June, its officials will use the intervening time to reappraise their current production strategy. But judging how misaligned OPEC appears in this weak deal, it may not be until 2017 before the energy market corrects itself, says Energy Aspects' analyst Dominic Haywood.

In the meantime, Russia and Saudi Arabia show no signs of trimming production and are clearly prepared to weather extended low prices as part of a strategy to drive out higher-cost producers and secure greater market share.

The participants in the Doha talks plan to meet with the oil ministers of Iran and Iraq in Tehran on February 17.

Sitrep - 17 Feb, 2016

A meeting in Munich between the major powers of the Syrian civil war managed to negotiate a ceasefire, set to begin February 19. The US and Russia led the talks, but Syrian President Bashar al Assad can count them as an overall win. Neither ISIS nor the other jihadist groups were invited, and the vast majority of the rebel factions had no representation either.

The ceasefire’s effect will be limited because it consolidates the gains made by regime forces over the past few weeks. Russia will also retain its freedom to conduct airstrikes. Regime forces surround the northern city of Aleppo while pressing rebel forces in other locations. The ceasefire will strengthen the regime’s position and fails to compel him to negotiate further.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates also announced their intention to send ground troops into Syria to “forcibly remove” Mr Assad from power if the ceasefire collapses. The three have since tempered this threat after Russian officials warned such an action might start a “world war”.

Riyadh’s bellicosity outweighs its true military strength. Of the four major power in the region (Israel, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) it is the weakest and already overstretched by military commitments in Yemen. Saudi Arabian strike aircraft and special forces have been prepositioned in southern Turkey, but any sufficient ground invasion will be impossible without US and Turkish support.

A special ASEAN summit this week in California is encouraging deeper integration between the South East Asian nations and the evolution of trade ties. The US is approaching the summit as a reinvigoration of its cooling “Asia Pivot” strategy. Both the recently concluded Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal and China’s provocations provide this impetus.

The US wishes to avoid a direct diplomatic spat with China over the latter’s South China Sea adventures, preferring to utilise the vehicle of a multi-national body such as ASEAN instead. The feeling is mutual among members which also feel threatened by China. However, whether ASEAN can provide the necessary cooperation will depend on more than a common adversary.

Monday, 15 February 2016

How US political philosophy shapes the world

We are living in a world undergoing a massive transition. Like all transitions, it won’t finish in a few years nor in one generation. Its movement is the slow turning of enormous gears in the hazy distance, creaking like tectonic plates. And before this emerging framework can be named and formalised, much water must flow under the geopolitical bridge.

Right now, the game of nations – in which the objective for all players is to keep the game going, not so much to win as to avoid loss, because the alternative is war – is playing out in the artificial countries of Syria and Iraq. Civil war is not as dangerous as interstate war, but the risk of this particular conflagration spilling over into more powerful territories is ever-present.

These tectonics aren’t explained by news reports. No, right now, news is noise. And the latest bellicosity from Saudi Arabia promising to send ground troops into Syria or the decorative Syrian ceasefire agreed to in Geneva this week are the geopolitical equivalent of a chess player briefly grasping a pawn before returning his hand to a pensive chin.

Chess is a good analogy here because this column operates from a specific model. First is the reality of the US as an empire. Second is that the nation state and Western economic institutions dominate the ordering of human society. Third is that neither of these dynamics are permanent and require consistent reinforcement lest they be overridden by more tenacious ideas.

But only by describing the philosophy of the ruling class of the US can we fully understand Washington's “humanitarian imperialism”. In comparison to ancient imperial projects, this one is remarkably less brutal. But it does have its own high death count. Consider how any government not following Washington's script of Social Justice, Peace, Equality and Community are forced on pain of financial rejection or military intervention to conform. Don't they know? Democracy is for their own good…

From Washington’s perspective, peace means the victory of righteousness. Both factions of US politics are entwined around this philosophy. President Barack Obama is only the latest in a long line of US leaders since the 1960s to form his policy decisions from this philosophy. People call the script various names, but the most common is “progressivism”.

It is a direct descendent of John Calvin’s postmillennial eschatology, delivered to Plymouth Rock by Puritan Christians. Seen in this light, it would be a mistake to say secularism and atheism are synonyms. When Friedrich Nietzsche said “God is dead”, he was really asking: “what did you replace Him with?” Connecting natural human rights to the Bible is not hard at all. All the central tenets of progressivism are interchangeable with mainline Calvinism.

Indeed, the “organised US Protestantism's super-protestants” (yes, this is a direct quote) created a “new programme for a just and durable peace after World War II” with a handful of goals outline in a March 16, 1942 Time magazine article. Those goals include:

Ultimately, “a world government of delegated powers.”
Complete abandonment of US isolationism.
Strong immediate limitations on national sovereignty.
International control of all armies and navies.
“A universal system of planned as to prevent inflation and deflation.”
Worldwide freedom of immigration.
Progressive elimination of all tariff and quota restrictions on world trade.
“Autonomy for all subject and colonial peoples”

Here, then, is the basics of mainstream Washingtonian philosophy. Perhaps philosopher John Gray was correct to point out that political progressivism is simply Christianity without the supernatural. A post-Christian modern religion, retaining all the disruptive and dangerous antecedents of its great-grandfathers’. Washington is in the business of building God’s kingdom on earth. The city-on-a-hill vision is a continuous tradition from John Winthrop to Mr Obama.

Today the problem is not this hallowed script, but its internal contradictions. On the one hand, progressivism wants its good news to reach every corner of the world. After all, an empire cannot function without an overarching ideology.

On the other hand, a major vertex of progressivism is social justice and cultural autonomy for any and all ethnic groups. Which is fine in theory or when governing a single nation state, but entirely destructive when maintaining an empire - humanitarian or otherwise. Cultural autonomy in the Middle East is now dealing with the question: what if people don’t choose democracy?

And so we circle back to Syria. Mr Obama has struggled to lucidly explain the State Department's foreign policy. Only by looking at the enormous, slowly moving gears and understanding US philosophy can this grand strategy become clear. The strategy dictates that the US cannot police all parts of the globe simultaneously, it must rely on local allies to secure their regions. This is fundamental for any imperial project.

But this transition is encountering friction. When Washingtonian progressive elites demand the destruction of foreign hierarchical political structures in favour of decentralisation, a mature empire would know it needed a safety net. Should the US send its army (Iraq/Afghanistan) or stir up unrest (Arab Spring/Iran), it should always be with the maintenance of empire in mind. But progressivism is a utopian philosophy, and not a very good imperial philosophy.

This is precisely why the young philosophy of US progressivism is insufficient for the realities of the geopolitical chessboard. It may one day develop into a functional imperial philosophy, but presently it is immature. But the US is a young empire and its pendulum has a wide arc. What it doesn't understand is that the glue for holding an empire together is peace through security.

Encouraging local allies to prosecute the Syrian civil war is a mature strategy, sure, but it is not being coupled with the grand strategy of empire. The danger the US now faces in this transition to mature empire is the potential for deep insecurity in the Middle East, spilling outwards. Left to rot for too long, Washington may struggle to overcome this and maintain its much more important philosophical hegemony over the wider “international community”.

In any conflict between X and Y, there are three paths to peace. X can prevail, Y can prevail, or X and Y can agree to leave the battle lines where they are. If Washington decides who occupies X or Y, then to give up that prerogative by using a contradictory ideology creates a vacuum. And as we can see in Syria, others will be drawn into that vacuum at dizzying speeds. It is more difficult to repair than to maintain an empire, Washingtonian elites should remember that.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Sitrep - 10 Feb, 2016

North Korea announced a third satellite launch, putting South Korea, Japan and the US on red alert. Activity around the launch site over the past few weeks indicated a launch was imminent. The launch occurred early 7 February. US and South Korean vessels are presently recovering the missile’s wreckage in the Yellow Sea and listening for signals from the newly placed satellite.

The fresh launch will invigorate the planned talks between South Korea and the US for the placement of a terminal high-altitude area defence (THAAD) anti-missile system on the peninsula. The launch follows a surprise nuclear test in January, however while both programmes bear close surveillance, they are equally primitive and do not constitute an increased threat from the kingdom.

A passenger aircraft flying from the Somali capital Mogadishu to Djibouti made an emergency landing after a small explosive device ignited. The explosion tore a hole in the fuselage just forward of the wing but appears only to have killed the terrorist. CCTV footage reportedly shows airport workers collaborating with the alleged terrorist prior to boarding.

While no official claim of responsibility has been received, immediate suspicion points to the al Qaeda affiliate known as al Shabaab. The group has operated alongside other al Qaeda groups in the past, and may have used a similar laptop or “soda can” explosive device used by the more competent al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The attack highlights both the continued vulnerability of and attack desire against passenger airlines and the relative incompetence of most terrorist operatives.

A banking crisis still simmers in Italy after Rome and Brussels reached an agreement earlier this month to intervene in the struggling country’s high debt. A CEO of a major Italian bank this week encouraged investors to purchase new bank shares – given their low rate – while another official demanded a revision of the EU’s so-called “bail in” rules.

The slow breakdown in Italian banks bears close watching because the country is the fourth largest economy in the EU and the eighth largest in the world. Presently the problem stems from massive nonperforming-loans (NPLs), making up 17% of Italy’s GDP. A recent decision allows the government to offload these loans to new entities, but investors and citizens will bear the initial brunt of any debt repayment which could cause significant unrest.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Counterinsurgency and the chief failure in “hearts and minds”

Why is it that, in a period characterised by the unquestioned dominance of the US military, angry groups and usurper movements are spreading?

It seems to defy logic that the Islamic State, Russia, al Qaeda and even perhaps China can act in ways counter to the enormous firepower of the US. Surely its spy satellites, all-seeing surveillance and advanced strike systems would deter even the sneakiest of actors. It should be this way, but maybe the groups know something we don’t?

As I've previously explained, the central US project is to protect its trade routes. To achieve this US military forces are positioned in other nation states. Those states must therefore be friendly towards Washington. So they must be encouraged to think and behave in a philosophically comparative way to State Department elites.

The greater amount of Western (re: American) institutions a country adopts, the more likely it is to agree with Washington. From the Beltway’s perspective, this is not viewed as manipulation. Rather, the process is sprinkled with beneficent terms such as “freedom”, “democracy” and “human rights”. Washington elites believe these ideas to be self-evident, and think everyone else should too.

This is a game of statecraft on a global scale, which is not surprising because the US is an empire. Washington elites don’t like to think of their dear country as an empire, but reality always cuts through ideologies. The process towards the goal is simple: if everyone thinks the same as Washington, then everywhere is open for trade. This is not a critique, it is just a photograph.

The essential element of this process is what the British called “hearts and minds”. In its purest form this idea is applied to counterinsurgency, as a procedure to limit a distributed military uprising inside a nation state. But it can also be thought of as the overarching governance of a modern state.

To “legitimise” a government, leaders and officials must constantly reinforce in citizen’s “hearts” a sense of love and desire for the structure by aligning all vertices of government – press, universities, the judiciary, the treasury and banks, the civil service proper, NGOs and transnationals, the military and corporate holders of official monopolies – towards the same project of whatever ultimate ideology, be that monarchy, democracy, anarchy, oligarchy, etc.

Everything else will follow, but only if the second aspect, “minds”, is coupled with the first. Securing minds requires getting a population to think, not feel, that the government has the power to deny.

The key for securing “minds” is to squash a counter-ideology before it grows inside a nation state to a point where it wishes to use force. The usurper must view the government in such a way that it knows its insurrection will fail. Flip this around to the obverse: insurgencies occur because, and only because, the insurgents perceive a chance of winning.

And so we can see why great swathes of the world are in flux, as if squirming out of an invisible bag. The ideas poured into the globe by Washington over 200 years, the “hearts”, have never been stronger. What dissipates is the belief in people’s “minds” that alternative ideologies must not upset the status quo. Usurper groups and strongmen are seeing light between hearts and minds and exploiting the gap.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a good example. He has encouraged Russia to introduce and maintain a checklist of Western institutions ranging from parliamentarianism and elections to protests. But in practice none of these institutions operate anything like their peers in the US or New Zealand. Up until the middle of the last decade, that didn’t matter because the gap between “hearts and minds” wasn’t wide enough yet.

Now, Mr Putin is not beholden to the “heart” of democracy and his “mind” no longer feels compelled by the prospect of US retribution for squirming free of this invisible bag. Mr Putin’s actions come in to focus when thinking about the Islamic State. He watched the failure of the “hearts and minds” campaign in Iraq and saw a weakness in US ideals.

In Iraq, the US was conducting colonial government. There is no other way to describe it. The solution to the problem of colonial government is to govern: to enforce order instantly and without compromise, tolerating no challenge to the occupying authority whether military or political, religious or criminal.

But to progressive Washington elites, the only way to govern Iraq was to persuade Iraqis to fall in love with the new government. They say “hearts and minds”, but what they really mean is “hearts.” They believe people’s hearts are always for sale, a theory leading to the concept known as “aid.” If this showed any evidence of working, then Mr Putin and ISIS wouldn’t be such a problem.

Colonial-era British elites would be horrified that the US tolerated not only native Iraqi political parties, but parties with armed paramilitary wings. The essential tactic in a colonial occupation is the construction of mixed authorities in which foreign administrators exercise executive authority over native troops and civil servants. Mixed authorities work by combining the independence and professionalism of foreign leadership with low cost native manpower.

In other words, replacing an ideology with a new ideology requires directly managing the entire process long after the guns stop firing. More importantly, avoiding insurgency requires the occupiers deliver overwhelming force against usurpers wherever they may be. “Hearts and minds” must work in concert, otherwise the ultimate goal will always fail. People must be compelled not to rise up.

What we are witnessing today is the result of three decades of a robust US “hearts” strategy suffering from a half-hearted “minds” strategy. So even while many nations appear to operate democratic institutions, some suspect an insurgency just might have the chance of winning.

Reality has a way of cutting through ideology. Washington desire to encourage worldwide democracy and freedom cannot coexist with pacifism and cultural autonomy. Hate it all you like, but a secure world requires the threat of a big stick. An empire’s “hearts and minds” strategy must be total. Anything less leads to the turmoil of today.

Friday, 5 February 2016

An open letter to TPP and other protesters

“Who has the power? WE have the power. This is what democracy looks like!”

So went the chant of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) protesters outside SkyCity’s convention centre on Thursday. It’s not often the mantra of a protest group perfectly encapsulates the malaise, frustrations and niggling feelings of impotency in the wider modern society. And this one fails as well.

I watched this week’s protests “on the ground” as journalists like to say. I felt sorry for those thousands of people. Down to a person, each demonstrator was convinced their activity would be effective. That was a vague hope for many, because no two people appeared to have the same grievances but it was hope. Why else would they participate if they didn’t think it would work? Yet all they did was help people like me make money.

The reason “peaceful protests” don’t work anymore is because none of its participants have access to the machinery of power and, far worse, they let themselves be used by the machinery of power to become a slave and a battery. This machinery of power is the arm of the state commonly known as the media, and it controlled every step the protesters took this week.

I was prompted to talk about the intersection of the media with grassroots political action after I was overtaken by TPP protesters on my way to the office on Thursday. Protesting is a perfectly respectable activity, don’t misunderstand me. But do not believe the lie that marching gives you power or a voice. It is a comprehensive surrender to the media.

Most people don’t realise that inviting media coverage of a movement will not “get your message out.” It doesn’t: Instead, it gets the NZ Herald or NBR’s message out. Pithy chants and bright placards stand no chance of being delivered as intended when the journalist’s camera chooses what will be included inside the frame. All the emotion, all the rage, all the anxiety – brought to you by Kia and the editors at TVNZ.

It is impossible for protests to change anything because they are not designed to affect change. They are designed to dissipate the frantic energy of people who lack the power to change anything. The fact that protesters are allowed on to the streets of a major city such as Auckland is proof positive that they are operating 100% in support of the system. After all, the best place for a controversial movement is in plain sight.

I’ve previously noted how the presence of the media at a protest is a sure indicator of the imminent failure of that movement. The media doesn’t care for nuance and reasoned debate: It wants a cage fight because that makes for good clicking. The media’s job is to package a protest as a Manichean commodity, and which side is the light or dark is entirely up to the editors and journalists.

When the regime was stormed during the Russian Revolution, the message the revolutionaries carried was urgent and immediate. And before the press had time to catch up and interpret the new revolution, the movement’s message had already been digested by the public, changing the system irreparably. Only after the system was fully changed was the media then co-opted as a tool of the new power structure.

The way protests reinforce the system is perfectly captured in the picture below. It is a group of men selling Guy Fawkes masks, understood to be the international symbol of anarchist groups. Not only are these protesters selling the masks at $4, they are making a profit. I assume the irony of all this occurring at an anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist protest was entirely lost on them.

So it will never matter how many people walk down Queen St. Every placard is irrelevant. The only people who have any real power are people like me (a journalist), and I am stronger and faster than all of the demonstrators. I don’t care how quickly the TPP protesters overtook me when I walked to work, I will always be three or four steps ahead of them and forever in control.

Put a journalist in front of a teeming protest and hit record. Once it plays on YouTube the viewer won’t remember anyone else in the footage apart from the reporter. And for the majority of viewers, that is the only experience they will ever have of the protest – packaged as a commodity. The system has won.

In Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis, the protagonist commutes through a city with a female aide when a violent protest explodes around his limousine. The resulting conversation shows how protest action is a tool, a commodity or at least expected:

Protesters were rocking the car. He looked at her and smiled.
"You know what capitalism produces. According to Marx and Engels."
"Its own grave-diggers," he said.
"But these are not the grave-diggers. This is the free market itself. These people are a fantasy generated by the market. They don't exist outside the market. There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside."
The camera tracked a cop chasing a young man through the crowd, an image that seemed to exist at some drifting distance from the moment.
"The market culture is total. It breeds these men and women. They are necessary to the system they despise. They give it energy and definition. They are marketdriven. They are traded on the markets of the world. This is why they exist, to invigorate and perpetuate the system."

The protesters in Auckland were operating in a world built on a set of rules they did not create; rules they lack the ability even to name, let alone change. Because of this, they will never be as fast or as strong as a media that operates outside those rules and exists to reinforce the structure the protests are attempting to upend.

So here’s a tip to future protesters: if you want to effect real change, you must refuse the presence of all media. Yes, that includes your own smartphones. Put them away or, better yet, throw them in the sea because those devices represent the toxicity you so adamantly claim to fight against. Do not think organising and spreading your protest plans on Twitter is a good move. The social network is a commercial enterprise attached at the hip to traditional media.

This is what I mean by slavery. All the “activism” people think they’re undertaking is simply ad revenue for shiny suits in Manhattan and a fresh tsunami of data sucked up to sell your own warped ideas back to you.

Ideally you wouldn’t even start a protest in the first place, because if you had the power to change anything you’d go right for the jugular. You wouldn’t dawdle around the edges “getting your voice heard.” Playing inside a rule-box someone else created is to lose the game before it starts. So if a guy approaches asking you to sign something, punch him in the throat. He’s your enemy. Until you understand this, until you realise that what holds you back is your self-imposed slavery, until you know this – not feel it – you will never be powerful.

Once the protests expired, I watched city council workers clean up the discarded placards and calm people stroll through Auckland’s streets again as if nothing happened. The frantic energy of political impotency had dissipated and been replaced by the lingering illusion of democratic power.

A protest is just the system offering you a punching bag. Think back to that slogan they all chanted – “Who has the power? We have the power...” Then why does everyone act in exactly the same way? Do you see? The choice to protest was no choice at all, it was facilitated by the system.

The conversation in Mr DeLillo’s limousine continued.

“How will we know when the global era officially ends?”
He waited.
"When stretch limousines begin to disappear from the streets of Manhattan." Men were urinating on the car. Women pitched sandfilled soda bottles.
"This is controlled anger, I would say. But what would happen if they knew that the head of Packer Capital was in the car?"
She said this evilly, eyes alight. The protesters' eyes were blazing between the red-and-black bandannas they wore across their heads and faces. Did he envy them? The shatterproof windows showed hairline fractures and maybe he thought he'd like to be out there, mangling and smashing. "They are working with you, these people. They are acting on your terms," she said. "And if they kill you, it's only because you permit it, in your sweet sufferance, as a way to re-emphasize the idea we all live under."
"What idea?"
"Destruction," she said.
On one of the screens he saw figures descending a vertical surface. It took him a moment to understand that they were rappelling down the facade of the building just ahead, where the market tickers were located.
"You know what anarchists have always believed."
"Tell me," she said.
"The urge to destroy is a creative urge."
"This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed.
“Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future."

This is what I mean when I say that if a protest isn’t throwing rocks, then the protest will fail. I’m not telling you to throw rocks, I’m explaining why your march won’t work.

Truly radical action this week would have been to pile up every protester’s life-savings outside the building and set it alight. The smell of the burning plastic would expose the naked truth that money and rules are equally illusory and their power over us is self-maintained. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre: “you weirdos are freer than you know.”

The melting heap would be painful but it would be a consciousness-raising example demanded by proper revolution – the kind of self-sacrifice every protester wielding a smartphone is incapable of performing.

And since this did not happen, the conclusion must be either that these people cannot see their servility or that power over the system is the real goal – not change. The first is forgivable but the latter is horrific. A small group will always use the crowd for a power grab. Their goals are rarely to usher in a fresh and egalitarian society. These people will simultaneously count you among their numbers even as they ask you to die for their goals. Or kill, depending on how much power they get.

Dear TPP protesters: Do you want change or power? What you did not fight for, and this is to my point, is the specific power of being taken seriously without the need to protest.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Who knows what’s happening in China?

February is Chinese New Year, so admittedly it’s a bit strange to be talking about former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. But would he make similar mistakes about China as he did about Vietnam? Given that data and statistics seem integral to both, one can only assume he would have.

Mr McNamara’s central mistake in prosecuting the Vietnam War had little to do with his decisions. By most accounts from his aids he was decisive and aggressive in explaining his choices to President Kennedy. What made his decisions so ineffective was the decision-making process he imported from the business world: a reliance on numbers and data to paint an accurate image of the war.

This approach simply didn’t work. And one suspects something similar is happening in China today. Since the country is so enormous, it’s impossible to know the truth of its economy. Most countries have a similarly fuzzy image, which is why the invention of government data collection is such an integral part of securing and maintaining power inside a nation state.

Thankfully, China is entirely synchronised with this status quo. It dutifully delivers measures of economic activity each month. In fact it believes in the status quo so deeply that it often falsifies this data to impress foreign institutions and investors. Beijing knows westerners think in the framework of numbers and statistics and, like Mr McNamara, it’s how we eventually make decisions.

Looking at some recent data released from China, all indications suggest the country is dipping into a sustained low economic growth period. Most businesspeople, even in New Zealand, are resigned to the fact that China will not “overtake the US” sometime in the next half decade. Or any future decade. That was a poor reading of the Chinese and US economies ten years ago, and it is a poor reading today.

What do these figures show? China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) this week revealed a lower than expected manufacturing output of 49.4 and a non-manufacturing output down to 53.5 in January. A measure over 50 represents growth. These figures could indicate a contraction in available jobs, or a shift, but it’s hard to assemble a robust story about China from only these.

The NBS also shows that industrial profits fell 2.3% in 2015, the first time an annual decline was measured in over a decade. Beijing also says its economy grew only 6.9% in 2015, down from 7.3% in 2014. Some contend the real growth rate is 4.0%, while Chinese businesspeople often suspect in private the rate is nearer 2.2%. Again, too much ambiguity to make sense.

On the other hand, electricity usage was down last year. This could indicate a weakening economy, but it might also be a sign that Beijing’s plan to encourage consumerism in China is actually working. Domestic consumption and services use less power than industry, especially industries that fuel China’s exports.

Adding in data from other countries trading with China clears up some ambiguity. The latest figures from Statistics New Zealand show exports to China increased 9.2% year-on-year in October, and China became New Zealand’s largest export destination in November. Yet in January, South Korean exports to China plunged by 18.5%. China is South Korea’s most important trading partner.

Firstly, the New Zealand figures aren’t indicative of anything. Our main Chinese exports are “middle-class” goods such as protein and wine. China’s middle-class is gigantic and growing, and in theory could purchase everything New Zealand produces even if China’s economy is declining because the total export earnings are so small ($8.41 billion) on a global scale.

Secondly, the South Korean figures don’t help either. Although the country derives about 50% of its GDP from exports, mostly destined for China, there’s more going on. For instance, Seoul hopes to start discussions with the US about an advanced anti-missile shield for the Korean peninsula. Beijing doesn’t like this at all.

Since the highly political discussions about the missile system began a few years ago, China’s pushback has verged on bullying. It knows South Korea is dependent on China and has threatened to tighten or cancel import orders. Beijing believes the shield alters the region’s balance of power, so the economic dip with Seoul shouldn’t discount politics.

Ultimately, Mr McNamara’s lesson to distrust data isn’t vogue in modern times. Data-driven consensus predicts China is in a serious slowdown, affecting everybody. But data is simply data, it requires human minds to transform into knowledge. And there are many narratives, not to mention countless data not collected or data which cannot be collected.

It’s quite clear that China is changing and scaring many sober analysts. Yet given the sheer size of the country and the obscure nature of data, perhaps the best we can say is that China has problems. But which country doesn’t? We’re in a bit of a grey zone at the moment and more than ever China desperately needs close attention and understanding, especially at the edges.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Sitrep - 3 Feb, 2016

A report from UK judge Robert Owen shows that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably” ordered the assassination of former intelligence officer and dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Mr Litvinenko defected to London in 2000 and had threatened to expose sensitive information about the Putin regime and alleged high levels of corruption in the Federal Security Service (FSB).

But his death ironically confirmed his accusations, proving that little has changed in Russia since the end of the Cold War. Mr Putin has been attempting to repair the country and reinforce the FSB and the security state. To achieve this, he required full support and loyalty from the FSB. None of that was possible while Mr Litvinenko was free to criticise Moscow with impunity.

In the Western Pacific, the US guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) by sailing within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island near Paracel Islands group. Control of the Paracels is disputed between China and Vietnam. China condemned the US transit saying the warship entered Chinese territory. Washington rejected that claim.

However, the FONOP highlights that the connecting glue between the major players in the region (China, Japan and the US) is freedom of navigation. Trillions of dollars of goods float across the waters each year and the US demand to sail anywhere, anytime is a bedrock of international law. The various military actions are likely only posturing, not a prelude to war. But the presence of impressive numbers of military equipment in the region increase the likelihood of miscalculation.

Further north, the US announced it could enter into talks with South Korea about the potential deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) battery on the peninsula. Seoul is increasingly concerned that North Korean submarine and land-based ballistic missile programmes are more advanced than currently understood.

Although Seoul has been discussing the deployment for years, the major obstacle is China. Beijing is concerned that the deployment would introduce a stronger anti-ballistic missile capability to Asia, undermining China’s nuclear deterrent and shifting the balance of power in the region. Seoul wishes to become more independent of the US and says it will decide on the deployment this year.