A hack at foreign affairs

Colin James to the Wairarapa Institute of International Affairs, 15 October 2003

I am here because Ian Grant, who has done me too many kindnesses over the years to refuse him outright, felt it was time you had some light relief.

I do brush up against the world in my columns from time to time because occasionally the world intrudes on politics just as does crime, monetary policy, biotechnology, the Treaty of Waitangi and cooking. But be clear about my credentials: a journalist is a baggage carrier and to carry baggages one needs know only their dimensions and weight, not the contents. The journalist is expert at not being an expert; a journalist’s expertise is in inexpertise. The journalist is a hack: hence the real title of the assemblage of anecdotes and random observations I am about to offer is “A hack at foreign affairs”.

To me foreign affairs seems to be conducted in one of two ways. One way is in abstract nouns. The other way is with bombs. That is to say, international affairs are smoke signals or the smoke of burning buildings and people. The great contribution of the twentieth century to the abstract noun version of international affairs was the United Nations — multilateralism and what Michael Howard calls “the invention of peace”. That century’s great contribution to the bombers’ way of conducting foreign policy was to make civilians legitimate military targets and to slaughter incalculably large numbers of them. It was both the noblest of centuries and the basest of centuries. That is to say, it was a quintessentially human century. International affairs are human affairs.

My first brush with foreign affairs was with the bombs version, when at age 12 I was carted in an ancient, stinking army truck from Mosgiel to Dunedin and there kitted out in wrong-size pretend army clothes. That was school cadets and each year for the rest of my secondary school life it consumed a week every February, then half a day every fortnight.

I quickly judged school cadets a silly scheme run by silly people. Fat, crimson-faced, brain-dead sergeants turned up from Dunedin to screech unintelligibly at cowering kids. This apparently caused Krushchev and Mao sleepless nights. Once a year we went shooting with venerable rifles. As a measure of our tormentors’ numeracy, I was at first judged an excellent shot and was briefly in the school shooting team. Since then I have shot only rabbits.

Not all boys came to my conclusion. Some even cashed in their holidays to go to NOCTU at Burnham camp to earn stripes (I might say that gave a special slant to Shakespeare’s line about Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane). By my last year at high school I alone had not availed myself of this benevolent opportunity to conform. I preferred to make money in the Outram market gardens in my holidays. To avoid embarrassment, the teacher-officers made me sergeant of the armoury, where I idled my time practising stripping and reassembling bren guns, indenting for linseed oil to slosh over the woodwork of the World War One drill rifles (and thereby mess up regular kids’ uniforms) and playing chess with my lance-corporal assistant.

A few years out of school I escaped compulsory military service in the bizarre lottery which then decided these matters. But the lottery did provide me with ID for use in pubs except that in Dunedin you didn’t need ID for use in pubs. It was a civilised town, a place where when 10 o’clock closing came in, the opening hours shortened.

I do think I would have joined up for the real thing if I had been 20 in 1939 or 1940. And I have also always had a modest interest in the grand sweep and strategy of war and have a number of books on my shelves. But the schoolyard degradation in peacetime of the noble notion of securing the nation’s borders prompted me never to acquire in my twenties the interest in tanks and frigates that was common among many of my male colleagues in journalism.

And there it rested until Gerald Hensley invited me to do a piece for Defence Quarterly on peacekeeping. Perhaps he thought I was suitably damp; maybe the SIS had slipped him details from its pie-stained dossier on my illustrious school military career and on my brief mid-1960s fling with the anti-Vietnam movement though Gerald and the SIS could not have known that I had by the early 1990s become one of the tiny few who moved from opposing the western involvement (on grounds of self-determination for the Vietnamese) to a belief that, botched though it was by the Americans (now earnestly botching Iraq), their confronting of military communism in Vietnam contributed to setting a high tide mark on communist international political success. Nowadays, I would place more weight on economic factors and perhaps see more coincidence than causality.

Whatever Gerald’s recondite reasons for inviting me into his lair by this nicely camouflaged back entrance, I became intrigued. The peacekeeping excursion persuaded me that defence was not some technical sub-branch but high foreign policy.

However, when I tried this notion on other people, including leading politicians, almost everyone gave me a white-coat stare, sometimes kindly, sometimes not. This was especially the case with Labour politicians.

This was is a generation of Labour men and women who cut their political teeth on Vietnam. They were anti-American, anti-nuclear peaceniks. They were, and are, internationalists, anti-imperialists to the core (except when the empire was is China). Surely, if any political cohort was likely to see peacekeeping as a demonstration of desirable foreign policy in action, it would be these morally superior Labour people.

But morality is a slippery basis for foreign policy. Let me illustrate.

When these Labour politicians got back into office in 1999 they got rid of the air force strike wing. They stopped re-equipment of the Orions because some of it was solely military. They confirmed they would not buy a third frigate because a frigate is potentially an offensive weapon. The defence forces are to be used as instruments of reconstruction and consolidation in distant territories that strike a spot of bother.

Events have postdated this romantic rejection of militarism: the Balkans, Fiji, the twin towers, Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia and the Solomons, not to mention Rwanda. The frigates have been on sentry duty in the Gulf. The SAS was in combat in Afghanistan. The army is a pacifier in the Solomons and Afghanistan. Army engineers are in Iraq, a zone at least of terrorism and maybe guerrilla warfare.

But, and here’s a nice irony one that dawned on me when writing the peacekeeping article for Gerald the army doesn’t have enough soldiers to do all this. The peaceniks are not spending enough on peace.

The moral of this is that morality has a price.

Morality is also the refuge of extremists. I got emails at the time of the Iraq war asserting that it was immoral to oppose George Bush’s sublimely moral crusade. I also got emails asserting that Bush was Beelzebub incarnate, that only total peace was moral, regardless of Saddam Hussein’s penchant for boiling enemies in oil.

It seems to me that states, particularly liberal democratic states, need to be very careful in claiming to act on moral grounds. They can go badly wrong. The moralists can too readily be bitten, as Tony Blair has found. Both Bush and Blair harnessed immorality in service of their moral mission: selective use and even manufacture of supporting evidence.

So the government here had good reason for rejecting the moral arguments of both the pro-war and anti-war brigades.

Let’s stay with Iraq a moment and let’s get practical. There, too, the room for dispute is wide.

One practical argument for invasion verged on the moral: that Hussein was a monster to his own people, so decent people elsewhere had a “responsibility to protect” his people if he wouldn’t, the responsibility to protect being the first duty of any state. To my knowledge, no politician argued this for the very self-interested reason that this idea, dreamed up by an international commission funded by Canada, strikes at the inviolability of the state as conceived at the peace of Westphalia and practised since.

A competing practical argument was a utilitarian calculation of gain and loss. It verged on the immoral: that New Zealand should send troops into Iraq to curry favour with the United States, not least to get a free trade agreement. Some in the National party thought so. Others weren’t so sure. The government said it wouldn’t trade lives for trade.

ACT and some in National chose a different dimension altogether: atavism. We should be tribal: fight alongside our traditional allies right or wrong (and all the more convenient if some argument could be adduced to suggest right). This is an interesting stand to take in the supposedly urbane twenty-first century and takes us close to the Huntington thesis of a “clash of civilisations”. Translated into foreign policy, that boils down to: beat them or they will beat us.

You can dress Huntington up in strategic clothes: liberal-democratic capitalism against fundamentalism or medieval islam. Some who backed Bush did argue that at least part of his mission was to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East, to civilise islam. This was either disingenuous or ingenuous I’m not sure which is worse in the circumstances. It would take generations to achieve such a conversion, if, indeed, it is possible, and might perversely achieve the opposite (as holy wars tend to do) that is, harden Arabs’ and muslims’ non-western attitudes.

If you want a pointer closer to home, ask many of those who speak loudest on the Treaty of Waitangi and indigenous rights whether liberal representative democracy is appropriate for the government of iwi and hapu and where whanua fits in the handling of state funds.

A more convincing strategic argument on Iraq was that the invasion was but one campaign in the war against terrorism, the first being in Afghanistan with many more to follow. I initially thought there was something to that. But, while Tony Blair might have believed it, the revelations from Washington over the past month suggest Bush’s advisers and progenitors of the invasion had other things on their minds. Now they’ve got enough to do getting Iraq functioning again without trying to democratise the whole region. And there is no sign yet of a third campaign in this war on terrorism. In any case, the government here argued a third and, it said, greater strategic imperative: building a multilateral, rules-based world. However imperfect the United Nations and the WTO and the ILO and all the other multilateral agencies spawned since 1945 we should support the United Nations and not step outside its aegis.

You can see why I shrink from claiming an understanding of international affairs and foreign policy. It is far too complex for a hack who makes a living out of cardboard cutouts.

So let me retreat to simplicity and bring foreign policy back where it belongs, at home. All foreign policy, after all, is domestic policy. That much I do know, from experience.

In my view the determining fact of our foreign policy is that we are small. A subsidiary element is our isolation, included in which is what Gerald Hensley once aptly called “the distance of tyranny”, punning on Geoffrey Blainey’s famous book title.

Small countries, most agree, have a choice: powerful allies or multilateral rules. National and ACT go for powerful allies; Labour goes for multilateral rules. This is a fundamental difference between the two sides in our politics.

Labour’s roots are internationalist, the brotherhood of man [to which you would have to add now, the sisterhood of woman, or to be truly PC, perhaps the siblingness of humankind]. In the first flush of its first spell in government Labour broke with mother-Britain and opposed Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia shades of the anti-nuclear break with the United States half a century later. Today’s heirs to that tradition couched their refusal to join the Iraq adventure as requiring United Nations backing. Peter Fraser, who did a stint in prison in the first world war, was a significant builder of the United Nations after the second. Internationalism is also an ingredient of Labour’s enthusiasm for multilateral environmental action, such as the Kyoto protocol. [And I note here in passing that the environment is increasingly a branch of foreign affairs, as is human rights, social and workplace minimums, technical and professional standards, not to mention mass migration and the oceans and many other matters of international interdependence and dispute, but I shall leave all those aside.]

National’s roots are traditionalist: loyal membership of the empire, succeeded at the end of empire by loyal alliance to the United States. It has never been fully comfortable with the United Nations (notably during Holyoake’s and Muldoon’s prime ministerships) and for a time, when black and Asian nations made their presence felt, National regarded even the Commonwealth askance.

Of course, this is not a black and white dichotomy. There have been many blurrings of the boundaries. In the early cold war years Labour sought the Anzus Treaty. It fought in Malaya in the late 1950s. It rejected the International Monetary Fund. On the other side of the coin, National has backed the WTO process as our best trading option and kept the anti-nuclear policy in place in the 1990s.

But Iraq demonstrated that when the chips are really down, the two sides divide.

So a “bipartisan” foreign policy by which in these days of MMP you might say a foreign policy based on broad consensus about priorities and methods is not a natural state. The two main parties have been divided now since the Vietnam war, nearly 40 years. That is not about to change, unless we face a severe national security crisis.

Mostly, however, this doesn’t matter much. That is because there is a lot in Sir Robert Muldoon’s aphorism: “foreign affairs is trade”. Much of the debate on Iraq was in the context of an FTA with the United States. The defence dimension apart, on trade there has been for nearly 20 years now a firm political consensus in favour of rules-based freer international trade through the WTO and APEC and, if we can’t get that, high-quality bilateral, plurilateral and sub-regional free trade agreements.

There are several elements to this.

The first is unilateral liberalisation. New Zealand is a textbook empirical demonstration (were economists to take any notice) of the theory that unilateral liberalisation increases welfare. Productivity growth doubled in the 1990s compared with the two previous decades. GDP per capita growth matched that of the OECD and Australia and the United States from 1992-2002.

Second, there is reciprocal liberalisation. In that we are at the mercy of the big boys. The big boys messed it up at Cancun, so any pickings from a new general liberalisation are at least postponed and possibly in jeopardy, as the big boys play favourites in reciprocal deals and, close to home, ASEAN maybe at last develops its own common market. The big boys can’t be bothered with us for bilateral or plurilateral deals. ASEAN doesn’t want us. We have to make do with Singapore and Chile, maybe Mexico and maybe Thailand. No one else will play unless, just possibly, China is prepared to deal. President Hu’s visit next week is an opportunity.

Which brings me to United States Ambassador Swindells’ speech or, rather, speech notes last week.

Since I am not skilled in analysing the significance of nuanced syllabic variations -� that is to say, in analysing bombless foreign affairs I do not know whether this was a bit of calculated thuggery by the State Department or a bumbling incursion into the world of abstract nouns by someone eminently unqualified in that black art. What I do know is that it reiterated what was already well known and had been articulated clearly in a briefing to journalists in Wellington more than a year earlier: that the United States sees no point in a trade agreement because New Zealand (a) is too small, (b) is not a friendly country in a hostile region, (c) is not poor and therefore useful for demonstration effect, (d) is not an ally deserving reward and (e) has agriculture. When the National party decides it will agree to nuclear-powered warships visiting, that will make no difference to any of the above factors. Only grovelling might turn the trick. Even the National party, which managed about four policies on Iraq in two months, baulks at that.

The third element to trade is aid.

Aid is usually thought of as the sort of charity to be expected of a good international citizen, often, it has to be said, a charity tainted with self-interest among the big, rich countries, buying off the hungry to stop them coming to raid their larders. The Bush administration has at times touched on a third dimension, the conversion of dangerous peoples to western values by making them better off.

The most sensible version is one Oxfam now espouses: the best aid is open trade. That’s why New Zealand offers zero tariffs to the 49 least-developed countries. But the rich world, especially hypocrite-Europe, prefers to dispense aid and that in derisory amounts which will ensure the poor stay poor. [Their governance arrangements is a major contributor but that is not a barrier to trade.]

Which brings me to Cancun. Whatever the arguments about exactly how the collapse at Cancun came about, China, Brazil and India made it clear that the WTO process has to change. That is not necessarily an end to the WTO; it is an end to its domination by an old-school-tie lot who think brinkmanship and cynical one-minute-to-midnight concessions amount to negotiation.

Leave Brazil out. It is a shambles, with a president who gives a very good imitation of befuddlement on trade issues. China is rapidly enriching itself. India is at last stirring. China is already a major player in Asia; India may well challenge it. Some analysts I spoke to in Japan last month see a tripolar Asia emerging: China, India and Japan-United States (plus maybe the periphery, including ASEAN). Add to that Asia’s stronger economic performance than that of Europe and the United States over the past 20 years and quite possibly a repeat of that in this decade, and you have an obvious subject for study by this small, isolated dot adrift in the far South Pacific.

Which the government is doing, belatedly, through the Seriously Asia project being run by the Asia 2000 Foundation. The government took its eye off the Asian ball while, quite properly, it got excited about an expanding Europe and negotiated the rapids in its relationship with the United States. As the Prime Minister has grasped, hitching ourselves to the Asian star has more promise than grinding out increases in mature markets but we will have to work a lot harder at it than we have so far. It doesn’t help in that endeavour that we look askance at Asian migrants who can make the links and over this century Asianise us and help us gain entree.

Australia is in the same boat, as Paul Kelly pointed out in this morning’s Australian. We have three choices in relation to Australia in conduct of our international relations: pretend we don’t know the loud-mouths; or try to piggyback if it can get deals and we can’t; or join it.

There are big differences between New Zealand and Australia, in geology, geography, climate, flora and fauna and size. What unites us is an ethnic accident, colonisation by the British, and that is now being eroded by the Asianisation of both countries and the polynesianisation of this country. Nevertheless, I think we will draw closer for a time yet, by way of joint regulatory agencies, from which Australia has something to gain by spreading the pool of technical expertise: food safety already, therapeutics next and a raft of other candidates. As well, competition and securities regulation authorities are cooperating more. Gradually, the operating environment for business will be, if not harmonised then made more compatible. We will get used to operating jointly. Ten, 15, 20 years down the track, that could lead painlessly to a joint Reserve Bank and a joint currency. Statehood, too? Only in a crisis.

And the Pacific? I know nothing about the Pacific other than that friends go there to warm up while waiting for Pete Hodgson’s far-too-long-delayed global warming. And that declaration of ignorance is an appropriate place for a hack to stop.