Hearts and minds come before guns

United States Admiral Dennis Blair brought a subtler message last week than the one Helen Clark swatted away – one Ms Clark in a different guise might have run with.

Admiral Blair did not just say we should do more. That has become obvious from East Timor: having to scrape up reservists for that venture has uncovered a manpower hole in peacekeeping policy that has been known, but masked, for most of the past decade.

Nor did Admiral Blair just say we should buy sophisticated high-tech gear. Ms Clark rejected that as beyond our economic resources. She did not add, but her sympathisers would, that, to them, “high-tech” also equals “warlike” – that peacekeeping is noble but kitting out our Orion aircraft with state-of-the-art tracking gear is not.

Admiral Blair’s message was subtler: that New Zealand, as does the United States, could “take civilian work and put it into military operations”, thus expanding capability and improving safety and increasing the contribution to peacekeeping activities.

His message was that this need not be star wars or cost megabucks: “Size and a big military research sector don’t determine whether you can have advanced military capability”. We should, the admiral said, let smart young lieutenant-colonels “have their head” in search of innovation.

Swap “defence” for “economics” and “entrepreneurs” for “lieutenant-colonels” and that advice would fit comfortably Ms Clark’s vision of a society making the traverse to the e-economy on the back of smart, local, exportable up-tech innovation.

But insiders say Ms Clark, in deciding on what to spend her hundreds of millions, has listened to conservative generals, not smart young lieutenant-colonels (and majors), from some of whom I have heard in the past a Blair-ish line.

This is miles distant from National’s argument for a “balanced force” that must include three frigates and jet fighters. Admiral Blair distinguished this obsession with “platforms” from his advocacy of smarter ways of extending capability.

But Ms Clark has no political need to shift ground. Indeed, she might well be foolish to. The centre of gravity of public opinion is close to her policy.

The bother is external, not internal. Admiral Blair was blunt about the Orions. The Americans want military-level air surveillance of our patch of the ocean.

So do the Australians. And they are angry because, if we stop, they feel they will have to do it, which will mean buying and equipping at least four more Orions at great expense. It is small wonder that Jenny Shipley, after seeing Australian Prime Minister John Howard in September, reported the frustration Mr Howard has, I am assured by Australians, communicated to our ministers.

At a defence seminar run by the National party on Saturday Mrs Shipley committed her party to reviving the Orion project, keeping a fighter wing and doing something about the frigates, possibly through trans-Tasman integration.

But talk is cheap. To make her policy stick, she must first re-educate the public. This was the most politically cogent point made at the seminar by Sandy Macdonald, chair of the Australian Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade committee and a trenchant critic of New Zealand’s defence rundown. There must be “public ownership” of the defence debate, he said.

Australia next week will commit itself to a raising defence spending 3% a year in real terms through this decade. This follows extensive public consultation (including town meetings) on a discussion paper of objectives which Mr Macdonald reckons has generated that “public ownership”.

So if National is to get serious about lifting defence spending from 1.2% to 1.5% of GDP, as its internal defence lobby group is pushing, it will need to lead and win over public opinion.

To do that it will have first to live down its savaging of defence spending in the 1990s – and Mrs Shipley her role as a pro-savaging minister, including opposing the third frigate.

That task is all the harder now that Ms Clark is posing, with some justification, as the saviour of the army after National’s neglect – an army which is doing popular things in East Timor. In this, as across a growing swathe of the political battlefield, Ms Clark has the superior weaponry.