Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Drawing NZ’s national security strategy

What does drawing have to do with geopolitics? To outline the machinery of the world system one must discard symbols and draw what one can see - to perceive things correctly - and focus on the shape of the negative space.

If I were to draw a person, I would draw a circle, then two smaller eye ovals, a triangular nose, and double line for a mouth, then tubes for arms and legs. That’s probably why all my drawings look like they belong on a refrigerator. A book by Betty Edwards titled The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain explains why my eyes are probably working fine - it’s the cognitive shortcuts ruining the figures.

Mrs Edwards calls this the "tyranny of the symbol system," because it dictates the strokes, forcing the hand to draw symbols instead of what is seen. Her more nuanced point isn't simply that people draw using these symbols, they perceive their entire world this way. They don’t see the shape of a head because it was never important to do so. The symbol of a head - the cognitive shortcut - is drawn instead.

Drawing what we see requires practice. The aim is to perceive things correctly: without the aid of symbols. The first lesson is to draw something upside down. Focus on the lines, not what you think the object is. Notice how a face becomes a series of shades, patchwork and curves under the pencil.

And when drawing a chair, the mind focuses on the shape. Since the drawing is 2D, negative space predicts the spaces between the chair are just as real. One should be able to draw a chair by sketching everything else except the chair. It forces the artist to concentrate on the shape and contents of the negative space.

What does it have to do with New Zealand’s geopolitics? Right now, this country’s foreign policy establishment is organising New Zealand’s first National Security Strategy. It may come as a surprise the government hasn’t already been operating from such a structure, but that’s not the most insightful question.

Instead, consider how it was possible New Zealand made it to 2016 without such a strategy. Assume the lack is the negative space, around which the edges of the physical object become observed. The object coming into view can be described as the pile of default assumptions about the existence of New Zealand as a nation state. There are many, but one object is more important than the rest, and it is rarely discussed. Draw what you see.

The establishment concentrates on how New Zealand must create an independent foreign policy, from the bottom up, in which the interests of this country are supported. It asks how New Zealand can cooperate with its South Pacific neighbours or include itself within the rules-based international community, among other goals. All of which are the default, unquestioned building blocks for this security strategy.

But this is like starting a 100m running race at the 70m mark and forgetting how to ask why this is possible. Almost every high-level policy paper places New Zealand’s economic health front and centre. It has gotten to the point where the security strategy itself is subordinate to the maintenance of trade ties. This is not a bad thing, but it is a priority decision which could only be made in a state of luxury not afforded to most other countries.

The negative space reveals why New Zealand has survived for so long without a written strategy. The object at the edges is the US Navy. The US may be hated for its actions around the world, but every day on the world’s oceans its tireless fleets conduct patrols keeping open the sea lines of trade and communication for every country to use without concern for security. It does this quietly and without fanfare.

New Zealand, possessing one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world and a tiny population of just over four million, simply does not have the resources to maintain these sea lines of communication by itself. Or, put another way, if it did spend money on such a project, it wouldn’t be able to support its present population size.

This country is rich because it can spend an inordinate amount of money on investment and infrastructure. The US stations tens of thousands of troops in South Korea, Germany and Japan as well. Those countries are now some of the richest in the world precisely because they do not need to fund a strong military to defend their interests. The US does that for them.

Draw what you see. In drafting New Zealand’s National Security Strategy, Wellington should practice painting the lines and shading to avoid the distracting cognitive shortcuts. It may be tough for a young and impetuous country to realise it isn’t independent after all, but no matter how poorly the picture is drawn, the object always exists. And it exists in only one form.

A strategy which doesn’t begin from the assumption that Washington’s will is the underlying force guiding all of New Zealand’s foreign policy decisions - as London was before it - is either naive or arrogant. One can hate the object or love it, but the object remains. New Zealand can wiggle belligerently within the boundaries set by the US military but ultimately cannot create its own box. It would be folly to try.

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