Thursday 29 January 2009

Whose Crisis?

Proletarian squalor, as captured by the 19th Century artist, Gustave Dore. For more than a century this has been the vulgar Marxists' mental picture of the working class's predicament. But, in a modern industrial society, such as New Zealand, does the working class really live like this?

STEVE COWAN, in his blog "Against the Current", takes me to task (yet again!) for failing to take the side of the New Zealand working class in my posting entitled "Ending the Phoney War".

This is irritating.

When I insist, as I do in the penultimate paragraph of the posting, that:

What the Prime Minister must not do is seek to appease the greed of those who financially backed his party’s election victory. Any attempt to shift the whole burden of New Zealand’s economic recovery on to the backs of its long-suffering citizens will merely guarantee that John Key leads his one-term National-Act-Maori Party Government to electoral oblivion.

Exactly whose side does he think I’m on?

If, as the British Marxist theorist, Alex Callinicos, insists, the socio-economic territory occupied by the citizenry and the proletariat is, in a modern industrial state, 70 percent co-extensive, then the above paragraph can only be read as a demand that the working class not be required to bear the burden of the economic recession on its own.

Steve also appears to have difficulty with the expression "equality of sacrifice". This is a term with a long and proud pedigree, stretching all the way back to World War I when it was used to demand that wealth – no less than men – be conscripted for the war effort. In the context of World War II it’s meaning was made plain by the imposition of food-rationing, confiscatory rates of progressive taxation, the requisition of stately homes, and the effective nationalisation of privately-owned natural resources such as coal.

This is what most people understand the term "equality of sacrifice" to mean, but for some reason Steve interprets it as "calling for ordinary New Zealanders to pay the price of an economic crisis not of their making".

There are any number of responses I could make to this extraordinary non sequitur, but, for the sake of brevity, I shall limit my reply to just three critical observations.

First. The looming economic crisis is indeed an exogenous event. It’s origins lie in the excesses of the US financial sector, and Steve is quite right to say that Kiwi workers have had no part in its making. Their innocence will not, however, prevent the effects of what is now confirmed as the most serious economic downturn since World War II from washing over New Zealand. And, that being the case, the National-led Government cannot avoid dealing with its impact.

Second. When it comes to the most appropriate governmental response, Steve is clearly of the view that the 70 percent of New Zealanders who belong to the working class should not be asked to play any role in dealing with the crisis. Logically, this leaves the remaining 30 percent of the population to come up with a solution on its own. Now this is rather odd, because, from his own writings, it is very clear that Steve abhors the very notion of the upper and middle classes deciding the fate of working people.

Of course, what Steve might actually be suggesting is that the middle and upper classes should bear the entire weight of the crisis on their own shoulders. If so, I would like to hear him explain why these Kiwis (who are also, presumably, innocent of any role in the creation of the global recession) should be the ones to make all of the sacrifices. Apart from utterly impoverishing these groups (and thereby transforming them into members of the working class) what purpose would be served by such an inherently unjust policy?

Which brings me to my third and final point: Steve’s apparent unwillingness to concede to individual members of the New Zealand working class the slightest hint of personal autonomy or social responsibility.

To Steve the proletariat can only ever be mired in absolute and irremediable destitution. In his mental universe its members no doubt resemble those extraordinary woodcuts by Gustave Dore depicting the poor of Victorian London. These are not people who drive around town in imported second-hand SUV’s, or take out hire-purchase agreements on flat-screen television sets. They do not belong to families who have just come back from a holiday at the beach. They are not paying off mortgages, or helping their kids through polytechnic. They do not have trade certificates and are certainly not paid $28 per hour. In short, Steve’s Dickensian working class bears not the slightest resemblance to the real 21st Century workers passing by him every day in the street.

To suggest that this vast swathe of the New Zealand population possesses neither the capacity, nor the inclination, to participate in any plan for getting their country through the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s is as outrageous as it is condescending.

And, just so there’s no mistake, Steve: Yes, I do support a rise in the minimum wage for low-paid workers. And yes, I do believe that families dependent on the domestic purposes benefit deserve a substantial lift in their weekly income. It might also be a good idea for the National-led Government to offer temporary tax relief to this country’s tens of thousands of small, family-owned and run businesses. It should also embark on a massive state house construction programme, and reverse its decision to halt the insulation of old/cold homes. I’m also in favour of a substantial increase in the top marginal tax rate for persons earning over $100,000.

These are all measures any self-respecting social-democrat would be proud to support, and the NZ Labour Party has already suggested most of them. It’s what we mean when we talk about ensuring "equality of sacrifice".

Because, believe me Steve, if the New Zealand working class is not encouraged to become a leading actor in the unfolding economic drama, then the only role it is likely to be assigned is that of victim.

Monday 26 January 2009

Ending the Phoney War

In 1939-40, Neville Chamberlain, hailed here as "The Pilgrim of Peace", represented a profoundly compromised British ruling class. Even after the war with Germany had begun, there were many aristocratic Englishmen who favoured a negotiated peace with Hitler. In the face of the present economic crisis, ruling classes around the world are similarly divided on how best to defend their interests.

I’M glad the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues are keeping the intensifying economic crisis uppermost in their minds.

Ever since the global economic situation became critical in October of last year, I have been unable to shake the impression that New Zealand has been living through a "Phoney War" period in relation to the turmoil beyond its shores.

The metaphor is apt in many ways.

The Phoney War was the name given to the seven month period between the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 and the invasion of France in May 1940. It earned this title because, in spite of the fact that all the major Western European powers were at war, nothing much seemed to be happening.

Although we still don’t like to talk about it, there was a very good reason for this singular lack of serious bellicosity. It was because, at the highest levels of the British, French and German governments there was a deep reluctance to take the final step into full-scale war.

Hitler didn’t believe that his British and French opponents’ hearts were in the conflict, and with the rapid defeat and occupation of Poland, he simply couldn’t understand why they repeatedly refused his offer to make peace.

Because there were many in the upper echelons of British and French society who were eager to accept Hitler’s offer. At the very highest levels of the British aristocracy, in particular, there was a deeply ingrained view that the Western nations must stand together against the threat posed to their way of life by Soviet communism.

Others (including George, Duke of Kent) were fearful that the prosecution of "total war" against Germany would fatally weaken the British Empire and usher in a period of American hegemony.
Interestingly, Hitler agreed with them.

And certainly there were many in the upper classes of France who feared their own, home-grown socialists and communists much more than they feared Hitler’s Nazis.

The Phoney War may, therefore, be understood as a period of intense political struggle within the ruling classes of France and Britain: a struggle between those who favoured a negotiated peace with Hitler’s Germany, and those who recognised in the Nazi regime a qualitatively different form of authoritarian government – one which posed an existential threat to the whole of Western civilisation.

Only with the final victory of this latter faction, led by the redoubtable Winston Churchill, on 10 May 1940, did Hitler feel constrained to unleash "Plan Yellow" (Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and France) – thereby bringing the Phoney War to an end.

A similar internal struggle is currently being played out with the ruling classes of the capitalist countries in relation to the global economic crisis.

On the one hand we have those who characterise the current difficulties as a simple (if brutal) market correction. Let it play itself out, they advise, and the system will swiftly regain its equilibrium.

On the other side of the argument stand those who see in the unfolding crisis an existential threat to the global economic order as deadly as that posed by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

These two factions are well represented within the National-led Government and the civil service. Which is why I’d love to have been a fly on the wall of the Prime Minister’s office on 15 January as he and his senior ministers examined the various options for dealing with the crisis.

We must hope that in this fight the Prime Minister takes historical inspiration from Winston Churchill and not Neville Chamberlain.

Because with every passing week it becomes clearer that, if the people of the world are to come through this economic crisis without enduring enormous hardship and suffering, then political leadership of truly Churchillian courage and determination will be required.

What the Prime Minister must not do is seek to appease the greed of those who financially backed his party’s election victory. Any attempt to shift the whole burden of New Zealand’s economic recovery on to the backs of its long-suffering citizens will merely guarantee that John Key leads his one-term National-ACT-Maori Party Government to electoral oblivion.

But, if the Prime Minister ends this Phoney War against the recession by requiring genuine equality of sacrifice from all New Zealanders, then they will readily dedicate their "blood, toil, tears and sweat" to its defeat.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star on 16 January 2009.

Friday 23 January 2009

The Choice of Hercules

The 44th President of the United States of America - Barack Hussein Obama.

IT was moving – how could it not be? To see an African-American standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, fulfilling the dream enunciated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just two-and-a-quarter miles distant, but forty-six long years ago, was a sight to gladden the heart of all but the most convinced cynics.

And yet … and yet … there was something missing from the inaugural address which Barack Obama delivered to the million-and-a-half Americans who had gathered in Washington’s winter sunshine to bear witness to their new president’s historic triumph.

What was it – this absent, but crucially important, element? It was only after downloading the address from the Internet and reading it through several times that I realised what was missing. Change. Where were the references to change?

In spite of running on the slogan "change you can believe in", in the nearly two-and-a-half thousand words of Obama’s inaugural address the word "change" appears only once. And the context in which the word appears hardly celebrates the power of the human will to transform and/or transcend the circumstances which constrain it. On the contrary, when Obama declares: "For the world has changed, and we must change with it", he is telling his people that when it comes to change they have no choice. A case not so much of "yes we can", as "yes we must".

Why this reluctance to promote the cause of radical change in America – Lord knows if anyone has a mandate to transform the United States of America it is Barack Obama. And who can doubt that a man of his oratorical power could have had that record crowd of citizens chanting "Yes we can!" until the marble halls of the Capitol building echoed with the people’s voice.

The answer, of course, is because a President cannot always have 1.5 million supporters standing ready to endorse his every word. The American republic is a representative democracy like our own, and in practice that means the executive power, when determining policy, is obliged to balance the many and often competing interests of a large and complex society. One can govern neither effectively nor democratically by heeding only your own echo – your opponents have rights too.

And Obama has many opponents – among both the people and the elites – whose opinions and likely reactions need to be carefully weighed and factored into his administration’s decision-making. In this respect the burden Obama has assumed is every bit as great and no less daunting than the one assumed by John F. Kennedy on the Capitol steps 48 years ago.

The man against whose formidable rhetorical skills Obama’s are most frequently compared was sworn in as president at the very peak of the ideological, military, scientific and economic competition between the capitalist and communist blocs. As the leader of the "Free World", Kennedy was required to demonstrate that the USA remained committed to the "revolutionary" ideals of its founders (the words ‘revolution’ and ‘revolutionary’ appear over and over again in his inaugural address) and to reassure the post-colonial regimes of the Third World that America was on their side. Indeed, the bulk of Kennedy’s address is directed not at his domestic, but at his foreign audience. At home the economy was booming, and the great post-war economic and social consensus had never been stronger. The most famous line from Kennedy’s speech: "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" acknowledges this rampant materialism even as it summons America’s youth to the ideals of public service and personal sacrifice.

Obama takes up the office of president at a time of acute economic crisis and ideological uncertainty in America. The great republic’s military power – vast and unchallengeable – has been revealed as an altogether inadequate substitute for intelligent and solidaristic global conduct. At the same moment, the hitherto triumphant dogma of the free market has been revealed as a tawdry exercise in untrammelled individual greed and rampant social irresponsibility. As President, it falls to Obama to lead his people out of this Slough of Despond and back into the light. If his oratory lacked the snap and sparkle of Kennedy’s, it was only because his task was not to prove that the United States was as vital and vigorous as the young man who delivered it, but to bring home to Americans the sombre realities of the crisis their years of heedless narcissism have unleashed upon themselves – and the world.

My old comrade and occasional mentor, Rob Campbell, sensing the magnitude of the task Obama faces, forwarded to me a posting from "The Epicurean Dealmaker" blogsite, based on a classical fable entitled "The Choice of Herakles". Written more than 2,000 years ago by the philosopher Xenophon, the choice which Herakles (or Hercules, to give him his Latin title) must make is between Virtue and Vice. It is a fascinating dialogue, and be it by accident or design it’s ancient themes echo powerfully through Obama’s inaugural address.

Lasting fame and true nobility come not to mortals save through pain and labour. If thou, O Hercules, seekest the gracious gifts of Heaven, thou must remain constant in prayer; if thou wouldst be beloved of thy friends, thou must serve thy friends; if thou desirest to be honoured of the people, thou must benefit the people; if thou art anxious to reap the fruits of the earth, thou must till the earth with labour; and if thou wishest to be strong in body and accomplish heroic deeds, thou must teach thy body to obey thy mind. Yea, all this and more also must thou do.

Thus wrote Xenophon. Now hear Obama:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

Obama knows that if he is to carry his people – supporters and opponents – with him, then he must first convince them that the foundational ideals of the American republic have found a safe custodian. More than that, he must instil in them the understanding that it is only by adhering to those ideals that their nation can grow and prosper. That is why the word ‘change’ appears only once in his inaugural address: because there is only one change that matters; only one change Americans can safely believe in – and that is the change they must make in themselves.

Friday 16 January 2009

Is Israel A Racist State?

Blinded by hatred.

The following ‘From the Left’ Column was originally published in The Dominion Post of 7 September 2001. I republish it here to reassure the readers of Bowalley Road that I am not in the pay of the Israeli Defence Force’s secret propaganda department.

AS the United Nations Conference on Racism struggles to repair the damage done to it by the calculated withdrawal of the United States and Israel, there might be some value in examining the ostensible cause of their displeasure – the characterisation of Israel as a racist state.

The state of Israel did not come out of an historical vacuum. David Ben Gurion’s triumphant 1948 proclamation was the culmination of more than half a century of agitation by the advocates of Jewish nationalism – proudly calling themselves Zionists.

Zionism was the brainchild of Theodore Herzl, a Hungarian-born Jewish journalist, who, in 1897, convened the First Zionist Conference at Basle, Switzerland. The Conference resolved to "secure for the Jewish people a home in Palestine guaranteed by public law".

Conceived as the only practical solution to the virulent - and apparently ineradicable - anti-Semitism which had deformed Europe for the best part of a millennium, Zionism eventually won the sympathy of British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, who on 2 November 1917, declared British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine - provided that safeguards could be reached for the rights of "existing non-Jewish communities".

The so-called "Balfour Declaration" formed the basis of the League of Nation’s 1920 decision to award Britain the "mandate" of Palestine – effectively placing the Palestinian people under British rule.

Crucial to the success of Zionist policy in Palestine was Dr Chaim Weizmann – a brilliant biochemist whose influential position in Britain’s wartime armaments industry gave him privileged access to key figures in British politics. Weizmann’s advice was highly valued by the British Foreign Office, and later by his close friend Winston Churchill.

The coming to power of the Nazis in the 1930s, and the accompanying persecution of European Jewry, fuelled Zionist demands for ever greater numbers of immigrants to be granted entry to Palestine. Conflict with the Palestinian people – led by Haj Amin el Husseini, the Mufti (Islamic religious leader) of Jerusalem - escalated. It was in this rapidly heating political crucible that the full contours of modern Zionism took shape.

Here are just a few examples of the thinking of the Zionist leadership of the 1930s and 40s:

"There is no choice: the Arabs must make room for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael. If it was possible to transfer the Baltic peoples, it is also possible to move the Palestinian Arabs."

"Zionist colonisation must either be terminated or carried out against the wishes of the native population. It is important to speak Hebrew, but it is even more important to be able to shoot – or else I am through at playing with colonising."

Vladimir Jabotinsky, 1939

"There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries, not one village, not one tribe should be left."

- Joesph Weitz, 1940

Such was the intellectual and political atmosphere in British Palestine on the eve of the Holocaust. Jewish nationalism embraced the concept of wholesale ethnic cleansing at almost exactly the same moment as the Nazis.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, with the conscience of the West still reeling from images of Auschwitz and Belsen, Zionism seized its chance to gain the whole of Palestine by military force. Zionist terrorists, furious at the British Government’s refusal to abandon the Palestinians to their fate, turned their guns on British troops. When an exhausted Britain finally withdrew, heavily armed Jewish forces lost no time in razing over 500 Palestinian villages to the ground.

From this poisoned soil has grown a deadly harvest of war, oppression, rebellion and yet more oppression. The US and Israel may not like to hear the truth - but that should not prevent the delegates at Durban from speaking it.

Saturday 10 January 2009

Disproportionate Response

Keith Locke

"NOW is the time for New Zealand to stand up and be counted", says the Greens foreign affairs spokesman, Keith Locke.

What we’ve all been taking lying down, says Keith, is "Operation Cast Lead", Israel’s "murderous assault" on Gaza – which, he unabashedly asserts, "is clearly a war crime".

A fairly substantial chunk of the New Zealand Left would echo Keith’s view. In part this is because a great many leftists see Israel as the primary instrument of "US imperialism" in the Middle East – making the Palestinian cause one of the World’s last great unresolved struggles for national liberation.

For leftists of Keith’s generation, people who came of age in the early-1960s, when the empires of the European powers were being challenged by a multitude of national liberation movements, the anti-colonial struggle was something to be supported wholeheartedly and unequivocally.

Even more exciting for these young leftists was the fact that most liberation movements espoused some variant of the socialist ideology, and many enjoyed the backing (overt or covert) of the Soviet Union and/or the Peoples Republic of China.

National liberation struggles and the socialist revolution seemed inextricably linked.

That the United States was determined to prevent the former colonies of its European NATO allies from falling under the sway of the communist powers incensed the Left. And when that determination was translated into GI’s boots on the ground – as happened in Vietnam – anti-American feeling reached fever pitch.

By combating American imperialism, and supporting the worldwide struggle for national liberation, most leftists genuinely believed they were helping to set people free.

The post-war struggle for national liberation in the Middle East mostly followed this anti-colonial, pro-socialist path, with many of the newly-independent Arab states subscribing, at least initially, to the Soviet model of economic development. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was awash with revolutionary socialist rhetoric.

But, just as the Catholic Church resolutely set its face against "atheistic communism" in the West, conservative Muslim clerics mobilised the faithful against what they saw as the corrupt, essentially secular, Soviet-aligned, post-colonial regimes of the Middle East. Unable to defeat the "Zionist entity" (Israel) in a succession of regional wars, the quasi-socialist secularists who led these regimes were discredited, and the ideological initiative shifted to radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots – one of which is the Islamic Resistance Movement or Hamas.

Hamas is anything but secular and quasi-socialist, and its dedication to the elimination not only of Israel, but of the entire Jewish people, is unequivocal. In the words of its own charter:

The Hamas has been looking forward to implement Allah’s promise whatever time it might take. The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree.

The last time people talked about the Jews in this way, they were wearing brown shirts and jackboots. And the fate they had planned for the Jewish people gave new meaning to the word disproportionate".

Which is why I find it so hard to respond with any degree of positivity to Keith Locke’s call for New Zealand to stand up and be counted among the outspoken opponents of what is happening in Gaza.

Were Hamas a secular and socialist organisation dedicated to the creation of a secular and socialist state of Palestine: a state where all those with an historical and/or religious attachment to the Holy Land; Jews and Arabs, the followers of Judaism, Islam and Christianity – all the people of the Book – could live together in peace and harmony; well, then I might feel differently.

But it isn’t.

So, to Keith I say this: "Confronted with a government which connives in (if it doesn’t actually direct) the launching of deadly rockets against civilian targets in Israel, but then complains bitterly to the world when the Israelis respond with deadly force against military personnel and installations which that government cynically shields behind the bodies of its defenceless citizens, then, surely, you should devote a word or two of condemnation to that government’s ‘murderous assaults’ and ‘war crimes’?"

Anything else sounds like anti-Semitism.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 9 January 2009.

Thursday 8 January 2009

Cleansing Solutions

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine began in 1948. The nakba - or "catastrophe" - which overwhelmed the Palestinian people began with the Jewish-Arab war that gave birth to the State of Israel and has never really ceased.

FIVE daughters of Palestine fell asleep – never to wake. Their distraught father, standing atop the pile of rubble that was his home demands: "Why did they have to die? They weren’t making rockets. They were studying."

An appalled and angry world echoes his question: "Why did they have to die?"

In Ashkelon, a little town within easy range of Hamas’s rockets, an elderly Israeli citizen didn’t make it to the family shelter in time. His daughters also weep. The children of his children ask: "Where is Grandpa?"

The leaders of Israel make reply with F-16 warplanes and battle tanks.

And so, once again, the twin volcanoes of Palestinian and Israeli rage pour out their molten tributes of death and suffering. Terrifying in their ferocity, these eruptions spew forth the hot lava of accusation and counter-accusation. Within hours, grim stories of tragedy and loss congeal and harden into yet another layer of impenetrable hate.

"But they are not ‘twin’ volcanoes!", object the partisans of Palestine. Israel towers above the helpless Palestinians – a vast Vesuvius against the tiny fumaroles of Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah. Just look, they say, at the disparity in fatalities: 17 Israelis killed by rockets launched from Gaza in the past seven years; 400-plus Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in Gaza in the past seven days.

"Ah, yes," reply the friends of Israel, "but lift up your eyes and take in the wider picture." Israel stands alone, an island of Judaism in an Islamic sea. How many Arabs inhabit the nation states bordering Israel? 110 million. How many Jews live within its borders? 5.4 million.

Had the Israelis simply exchanged a life for a life they would long since have ceased to exist as a people. Only the credible threat of massive and disproportionate retaliation keeps the State of Israel from sinking beneath the waves of a multinational jihad. To show mercy is to invite Israel's own catastrophe.

So, what is to be done?

Does history offer a solution?

Well, that sort of depends on who is asking the questions.

The Palestinians can point to the crusader kingdoms carved out of the Holy Land by Frankish knights in the 11th and 12th Centuries. The most significant of these, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, lasted from 1099 to 1187. A mere 86 years, before it was effectively destroyed by the Uma’s great champion, Saladin. Not even the fearsome IDF of their time, the Knights Templar, were strong enough to resist the jihad their arrogance and cruelty had unleashed.

To the Israelis, however, a more persuasive precedent might well be found in their own history. After all, in ancient Judea, wasn’t it the Jews who found themselves in exactly the same position as present-day Palestinians: under the heel of a brutal army of occupation? Was not the Great Jewish Revolt of 66-73AD, and the second, far more destructive Jewish-Roman War of 132-35, the intifada of their time?

And what was the outcome of those revolts? Massive retaliation: countless deaths, towns destroyed, lands seized, and, in the wake of that final, cataclysmic defeat, the "ethnic cleansing" of Judea – the 1,900-year Jewish Diaspora. To many Israeli politicians a Palestinian Diaspora must recommend itself highly as the most effective remedy for Israel's ills. One last push; one last sweep; and, following the precedent of Imperial Rome, these stiff-necked opponents of peace and order could be driven from the land forever. (Or, alternatively, for 1,900 years - which amounts to much the same thing.)

"Impossibel!" you say. "Unthinkable!" Not really. What, after all, was the policy of the Allied Powers regarding the German speakers of Eastern Europe at the end of World War II - if not "ethnic cleansing"? The intractability of the problems caused by ethnic Germans living amongst Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and Rumanians led to the wholesale uprooting of entire communities. Families which had lived in the same towns, farmed the same land, for hundreds of years were simply put on trains and "resettled" in the West. Under the auspices of the "Big Three" - the USA, the USSR and the British Empire - Eastern Europe was ruthlessly, and very effectively, "cleansed" of its German-speaking population.

The Germans, of course, had sent six million of Europe’s Jews in the opposite direction, to an altogether more permanent kind of "resettlement".

And can anyone seriously doubt that, should Hamas "win", their "final solution" would be any different?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday 2 January 2009.

Friday 2 January 2009

Foreseeing the Unforeseeable

The Battle of Midway

I am reprinting my keynote address to the "Defence - A Debate" symposium, organised by the Centre for Strategic Studies and held at Victoria University of Wellington on 30-31 May 2001, for two reasons. First, because elements of it now seem strangely prophetic, and second, because, with a new National Government and a new Defence Minister, the key elements of that pre-9/11 debate are probably due for a re-airing.

I WOULD like to begin this short address by quoting a few lines from the Australian novelist, Frank Moorhouse’s, Grand Days. The novel is set at the headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1920s. The heroine Edith Campbell Berry, a young, idealistic Australian, employed in the Secretariat of the League, is discussing the Kellogg-Briand "Pact of Peace" with Robert Dole, a cynical English journalist:

"Dole leaned over their table. ‘You know that the pact is really France trying to marry America,’ he said. He went on to say that the Kellogg-Briand Pact, if signed, was simply France manipulating America into a military alliance disguised as a peace treaty."

This is too much for Edith who "becomes defensive, arguing in what she called her ill-behaved voice, which rose unpleasantly to just below a shrill."

Later, Edith’s lover, Ambrose, admonishes her: "'Edith, you give it all too much heart.'" But the young Australian won’t admit defeat: "'Please – before we change the subject – you agree, don’t you? … Everyone agrees that since Locarno, and since the proven power of the League to settle conflicts – Germany in the League, and so on – you agree that things have never looked better?’ He smiled. ‘I agree. It is a historical fact. Things have never looked better. But you must also keep a realpolitik view of things Edith.’"

When I hear the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, dismiss the critics of her defence policies with the airy assertion that New Zealand faces no discernible threat to its security for the foreseeable future, I am reminded of Miss Edith Campbell Berry and her touching Antipodean faith in the efficacy of diplomatic devices, like the ill-fated Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 - which "outlawed war as an instrument of national policy". Like Ambrose, I feel the need to remind her to "keep a realpolitik view of things".

That is not always easy. For there have been moments in history when the prospects for international peace and security have, indeed, "never looked better". Ms Clark’s predecessor, Sir Joseph Ward, surveying the world in May of 1929 would have encountered just such a state of affairs – a beneficent global order which the best brains of the era confidently predicted would continue well into the foreseeable future.

There were many reasons for this sanguine assessment of international relations. Four years earlier, Germany, with France and Great Britain, had signed the Treaty of Locarno by which she guaranteed the existing frontiers of France and Belgium and undertook not to alter her eastern boundaries except by negotiation. In 1926 Germany was admitted to the League of Nations, and in 1928 joined the other peoples of Europe in signing Edith’s ill-starred "Pact of Peace".

In the United States an unparalleled economic boom roared on and on – prompting the newly elected President, Herbert Hoover, to predict that the USA was "in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from the nation". Japan, though racked with internal political difficulties, remained at least nominally democratic. China and Russia, struggling to rise above the vicissitudes of famine and civil war, posed no military threat to anyone.

As a loyal Dominion Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward happily left the serious business of international relations and national defence to the British. The Royal Navy provided all that was needed by way of strategic guarantees. New Zealand’s army was tiny, ill-equipped and intended primarily for the maintenance of internal security. As a separate branch of the armed services, the Air Force did not exist.

If asked, Sir Joseph would undoubtedly have had as much difficulty as Ms Clark in identifying any foreseeable military threat to New Zealand’s security.

Ten years later, in May of 1939, the world had changed – changed utterly. The happy dreams of "outlawing" war had disappeared – worldwide economic failure had seen to that. Germany and Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations had rendered it powerless to resist aggression, and everywhere re-armament was proceeding at breakneck speed. Japan was engaged in a bloody war of conquest against the Chinese; the Spanish Republic was in its death throes; and Hitler, having swallowed up Austria and Czechoslovakia, was preparing to dismember Poland. All over the world people recalled the horrors of the First World War and despaired. No one bothered to ask if war was coming; the only question in May 1939 was when it would break out.

These sombre observations, as you will no doubt have guessed, place me in the camp of the Robert Doles of this world – rather than the Edith Campbell Berrys. Those bright moments in the historical landscape – such as the 1920s and the 1990s – when world peace seemed possible, were more often than not periods of rest and recuperation following the terrible exertions of war.

The League and its philosophy had its hey-day in the decade following the "war to end all wars". The relative peace of the 1990s followed the aggressive assertion of US power against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf, the final collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ending of the Cold War in 1991.

A prolonged period of international stability should put statesmen – and women - on their guard. As the grizzled cavalry scout always says in the old westerns: "I don’t like it. It’s too quiet."

Should it suddenly get noisy – how is New Zealand placed?

The answer, sadly, is "not well". Most New Zealanders have experienced an enormous feeling of pride at what our troops have accomplished in East Timor. But New Zealand’s professional soldiers are only able to perform so creditably in that theatre (with military equipment inferior to that issued to the Australian territorials!) because of the superb training they have received as part of a fully integrated military force.

By decommissioning the combat wing of the RNZAF, the Labour-Alliance Government has fundamentally compromised the future combat readiness of our defence force. Without the contribution of close-air-support training, the capability of the New Zealand infantryman and woman will rapidly diminish. Our future ability to inject and extract military personnel into and out of combat zones - without sustaining heavy casualties - has been seriously degraded by the Government’s decision to scrap the Skyhawks.

At this point in any dispute over New Zealand’s military posture, someone inevitably throws down the challenge: "So, who is going to attack us? Who should we be preparing to fight?" It is a challenge that politicians, academics, and "responsible" journalists are loath to answer for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident, or being branded that most risible of creatures – a "conspiracy theorist".

Since I am none of the above, I have no hesitation in identifying the Peoples Republic of China as the most likely source of military aggression in the Pacific Region.

My reasons for viewing the PRC as a potential military aggressor are probably identical to those of the Pentagon and the US State Department.

The modernisation of the Chinese economy is producing a tidal wave of lay-offs and redundancies as the inefficient plant and machinery of the Maoist era is being upgraded and replaced by much more efficient and less labour intensive technology. Millions of industrial workers, and tens of millions of agricultural labourers, are being tipped out of the labour market into a society whose welfare and housing provision is still intimately bound up with the workplace.

This is a recipe for social and political disaster.

To make matters worse, China’s political institutions are singularly ill-suited to managing the looming social crisis. In essence the Chinese Communist Party leadership has only two options – to democratize the country’s political system, or to divert the grievances of the Chinese people down the channels of aggressive nationalism. With the sobering example of the Soviet Union before them, China’s leaders are unlikely to embrace the democratic option. Nationalism is, therefore, the most likely strategy to be adopted. That can only mean the re-conquest of Taiwan, and that can only mean war with the United States.

This scenario – which anyone involved with strategic studies in Australia will tell you pretty much underpins current US military doctrine – requires the New Zealand Government to make a choice between the two great powers of the region: - the PRC or the USA.

The choice is not as straightforward as it may seem; while our common language, and shared cultural values impel us towards the United States, there are pressing economic reasons for keeping on the right side of the PRC. In fifty years, barring a full-scale military confrontation with the US, China will boast the world’s largest and most dynamic economy, and all of East Asia will move to the rhythms of what will have become a Sino-Japanese condominium. If Australia and New Zealand decide to place themselves outside the strategic and economic perimeters of the Western Hemisphere, then our diplomatic and economic priorities will increasingly be determined in Beijing.

Every political fibre of my being tells me that Australians and New Zealanders will not tolerate a foreign affairs and defence policy which isolates this nation from its cultural, linguistic, historical and ideological allies. We are heirs of the European Enlightenment and Liberty - not of Confucianism and the one party state.

As a Marxist, I consider myself to be a part of the West’s long pursuit of human emancipation, and so my choice is simple. Though the United States has been guilty of many crimes in its brief history as an imperial power, its extraordinarily open society has always proved equal to the task of challenging the delinquency of its leaders. Vietnam was a terrible error of American policy – but it was an error corrected by the robustness of American democracy. The "mistakes" of the PRC’s leadership – be they the 25 million dead of the Great Leap Forward, or the thousands massacred in Tiananmen Square, have never been the subject of popular correction – for the simple reason that the Chinese people are not free. And if the 20th Century taught me nothing else, it is that the freedom which socialism is supposed to deliver can never grow out of the barrel of a gun.

The Australians need no lessons in the superiority of open societies to closed dictatorships. They, like the Americans, have accepted the challenge of foreseeing the unforeseeable, and have glimpsed very similar pictures. They realise, for example, that it would not require a Chinese invasion of the Australian continent to place the Australian people in mortal danger – merely the assertion of Chinese hegemony throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

The Australian Government – unlike our own – has not forgotten that Britain dominated the 19th Century world by controlling the sea, not the land. In the 21st Century that means a tightly integrated air and naval capability - something which both major political parties in Australia have chosen not only to preserve – but to enhance.

At some point in the future – and it may be a lot closer than people think - Helen Clark, Jim Anderton and the Greens are going to face the choice the Aussies have already made. I hope they chose wisely. In a small, under-populated nation, political disagreements should cease at the water’s edge. The secret to preserving our independence, and safeguarding the welfare of our citizens, lies in contributing to the collective strength of our friends – not in relying upon the good-will of our neighbours.

Coming to our cinemas in a few days time is a movie called Pearl Harbour. I hope that the subject matter of the film serves as a wake-up call to young New Zealanders; that it reminds them that last week’s "unrealistic fears" can all-too-easily become this week’s unbelievable headlines. I hope also, that Pearl Harbour reminds them that New Zealand can never isolate itself from the great events of planetary history.

In the weeks after the real Pearl Harbour, before the crucial Battle of Midway, terrified New Zealanders cursed the parsimony and short-sightedness of previous governments; recalling, too late, the ancient Roman adage: He who desires peace – should prepare for war.