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.


Will de Cleene said...

Neutrality's not an option?

Anonymous said...

wow. that is what you used to write like. :)
Observing realpolitik is essential, I would agree.

Realistically New Zealand is following the more pacifist European approach. It is no better or worse in US eyes than the Germans, Italians or Spanish.

The internet is busy reducing the tyranny of distance and eliminating the ability of autocratic governments to control the flow of information to its citizens. Give it 30 years and even China will have moved closer to Democracy.

As a former territorial who trained in the mid eighties on a Bren made in the early 1940s I share your concern about defense spending. Nevertheless the canning of air attack was a sensible decision imho. As with all government spending there are limited resources. Our air attack would never conceivably be allowed to fly with US forces in action given age and capability. The only integrated training we had was a single lowlevel flyover by skyhawks. scary but limited.

New Zealand defence spending on air capability should be on decent helicopters to improve force projection and air mobility. Far more bang for our buck. It is easy to imagine NZ choppers being used in Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq for both peaceful and military objectives. It is difficult to realistically envisage the same for a strike force.

Anonymous said...

"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."
Brillant Chris, I think you have hit the nail squarely on the head...If the PRC avoids a war (and at the moment it looks like the KMT govt in Taiwan will simply sell Taiwan to the PRC) then we will face ever increasing diplomatic and econmomic pressure from them.

Having lived in Taiwan for 9 years,in a state under constant PRC pressure,that is not something I would wish for NZ. I feel that if there has to a "world policeman" I'd rather it was the USA, at the very least the USA pays lip service to freedom and democracy, and can ocassionally be called on it, the gerontocracy running the PRC certainly can't. We only need to read some the press releases coming out of the PRC Embassy in Wellington to see that compromise doesn't appear in the Communist vocabulary.

Will de Cleene, I think that NZ independence is quite frankly far too comprised already for "neutrality" to be an option. I'd recommend you find and read a book/report called "NZ after Nuclear War" (research funded by the French after the Raibow Warrior bombing)'ll see just how dependent NZ was on international trade in the 1980s, even before Rogernomics and Ruthanasia "opened" our economy. If we want to maintain our current standard of living, we may very well have to fight for it. Neither the PRC nor the USA or even the Australians owe us any favours.

BTW Chris, look out for PRC sock puppets adding comments here shrilling defending the glorious Chinese people/nation and communist party :-)

Anonymous said...

Well at the grievous risk of being labelled a "sock-puppet" (whatever that is), could I just query when we can expect the "looming social crisis" and "social and political disaster" in China that you predicted 7 years ago Chris?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but they seem to be doing ok by all accounts - certainly compared to that pillar of propriety that you and Mr Anonymous champion - you know the one, the one that invaded Iraq (and more than a few other sovereign states) and that has all its errors "corrected" by its "robust democracy". (And I'm sure the millions of relatives of dead victims of US "global policing" will be oh so reassured by your faith in half US voters' ability to pick one of two millionaires every four years as a "robust correction")

And Pearl Harbour as a reason to muscle up in NZ in 2001? Sorry, just speechless.

NZ even considering a potential Chinese invasion is as risible as Tonga arming for an NZ invasion: even if imminent, what the heck's the point?

Sorry, Chris, usually love your stuff, but this was one to leave on the shelf.

Bogusnews said...

Well said Chris. I don't usually agree with many of your commentaries (and how marvelous we can peacefully disagree) but this piece of yours is about as spot on as it can be.

Everything looks pretty benign at the moment, with no obvious threats, but you are completely correct in saying this is strikingly similar to the situation just before WWII.

The old saying that the only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history is very applicable. Sadly, I think it will take some sort of major disturbance (and wars, when they happen, change things very quickly) to make NZ'er realise how utterly naked our defence is currently. "Lest we forget" unfortunately no longer applies to us.

rouppe said...

I actually agreed (or more accurately didn't disagree) with Helen Clark's decision to scrap the SkyHawks. They hadn't fired a shot in anger - ever.

However this was predicated on the assertion that the RNZAF is still required, at its fundamental core, to deliver 'things' to an intended target.

Those 'things' could be any or all of soldiers, supplies, or ordnance.

What Helen Clark has left us with is a particular inability to deliver ordnance. And there is no reason for it.

You said that the lack of close air suport training is withering the effectiveness of the army. That is correct. However you don't have to be travelling at 500 knots to provide close air support. You have to be able to deliver ordnance.

Has anyone else seen what a Hercules fitted out as a gunship can do? My God, the amount of lethal force that can come out of one of those is remarkable. I cannot imagine that there isn't a way to set up our Hercules fleet to be able to fulfil either a cargo role (soldiers and supplies) or a gunship role with little more than a couple of hours conversion. A roll-on, roll-off gunship module perhaps.

Secondly, the Orions original function was not search and rescue. It was seek and destroy. Neglecting to equip these aricraft with long range air to surface missile capability is just a waste. A few of those down the guts of a few illegal fishing boats would solve a few problems in one go.

Had these things happened, then the loss of the SkyHawks would have been irrelevant. However the opportunity was wasted.
The Navy has built boats that don't work well when they're most required to.
The Army bought vehicles different from our allies and which can't even all be deployed.
The Air Force can only deliver soldiers and supplies.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Anonymous two, in my anonymous comment you should carefully note I said "lip service" and "occassionally". Please do not take my comments to mean any support for GWB et al. Take them rather as a look at the lesser of two evils.

You obviously have a clear understanding of US actions; living in Taiwan I had a pretty clear view of PRC actions, and from a NZ point of view I know which I'd prefer...
NZers have relatively freer lives with NZ as a US ally than we would have as a PRC tributary state.
Note too, I say that NZ independence is already highly anonymous 2, which compromise would you rather live with..a PRC or a US one?
In addition, I don't see Chris referring to a Chinese invasion of NZ anywhere...but it is not necessary to invade NZ for a superpower to get what it wants from us anyway. As for Pearl Harbor... I think you are simply reading the point way too literally.

Ayrdale said...

A very good analysis. Congratulations, I missed reading it when first written.

Anonymous said...

Very well written. I too generally disagree with you but this is very true. It is great to see someone is thinking clearly enough to say this sort of thing.

Will de Cleene, neutrality is only an option if you have a strong enough defense force so no-one will try to attack you. That is how Swiss neutrality has historically worked for example, they have had a massive part-time army. You can't rely on people not attacking you just because you ask nicely.

Anonymous said...

Great article Chris. I was one of those made redundant in 2001 as part of this stupid decision. As for those who say that the Skyhawks "were never used" (in anger or otherwise) I suggest you go and do some research. When I was on 75 Squadron we spent at least 4 months each year overseas practicing the art of deployed operations in support of our allies and friends, including being on standby for the 1991 Gulf War, 1999 East Timor crisis and post 9/11. And I dissagree that the Skyhawks would have been unsuitable and unable to work alongside our British and US allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. An ex kiwi A-4 pilot who now flies ahrriers in the RAF and has flown several combat tours in both conflicts says NZ's updated Skyhawks are far superior in their Avionics and weapon systems than anything in the RAF inventory in the Close Air Support and maritime strike roles. Unlike Helen Clark he would know!

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with the writer,like they say history has a way of repeating itself.
The Skyhawk may not have fired a shot strictly untrue, maybe not behind the NZ flag but some of the the fleet has seen action in Vietnam.
Having been away on excercises supporting the Skyhawks & their pilots they can more than truly hold their own against more advanced aircraft/crews.A lot will depend on the situation.The Skyhawk is not a frontline fighter anymore but have heard it said as a training platform they are more than suited.Sadly now that they have seen fit to scrap the Strike Wing such a big lost, we'd never catch up.Have heard it said that the Kiwi pilots are highly skilled if their field, its no wonder other airforces around the world have snatched them up,as the saying goes -"our lost their gain".
If anything does happen I wouldn't be surprised our nieghbors will be to busy themselves to do us any favours.
Its better to have it & not use than not having it at all. If you compare it to a Fire Extinguisher, if you had never used it would you throw it away because it expired?
Turning our C130 into gunships is good and well but who is going to cover their arse.I think if you tried that our C130 will probably fall apart structurally,even with the new upgrade.

Anonymous said...


For additional commentary and analysis on this topic:

New Zealand Defence is a documentary in 18 parts that aired on the Rialto channel in 2006, and TVONE (at midday on a Sunday) that examines New Zealand’s place within a geopolitical world.

17 defence commentators with differing backgrounds, opinions and perspectives form the narrative.

It contains the kind of information that you would never see talked about on the news.

Alliances, Media, the UN, Imperialism, and New Zealand’s Foreign Policy are discussed.

The first part can be found here:

Please post it if you feel it relevant.

Many thanks

Scott Ewing