Tuesday 2 October 2012

The Kiss Of Fealty

The Kiss Of Fealty: In return for their protection, we place ourselves in the thrall of those powerful enough to provide it. Their enemies become our enemies, and when they ask for "a service", or "make us an offer", we dare not refuse. No matter whether the powerful be kings, gangsters or nation states, the relationship is always the same.
NEW ZEALAND is a vassal state: always has been; probably always will be. We are a small and vulnerable country whose security remains the obligation of much stronger powers. For a quarter-century, while the rest of the world re-arranged itself after the Cold War, we have enjoyed the illusion of independence. Now, thanks to Kim Dotcom, the age of illusion is over.
“Nuclear-Free New Zealand” may have ruffled the feathers of the American eagle and turned the ANZUS Treaty into a dead letter, but it did not amputate the New Zealand pinky finger from the Anglo-Saxon fist. Our membership of the UKUSA Agreement linking the intelligence agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand remained intact throughout.
The United States may have excluded the New Zealand Defence Force from its military and naval exercises and blanked our diplomats at Washington cocktail parties, but its National Security Agency (NSA) never shut down the continuous feed of signals intelligence (SIGINT) from our Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).
Labour and National Governments may come and go, but “Echelon”, the NSA’s global SIGINT collection and analysis network, is forever – as are the GCSB’s electronic eavesdroppers at the Tangimoana and Waihopai “listening posts”.
It’s what vassals do: they pay their dues.
Medieval lords held their lands from the king and within the boundaries of those lands their word was law. In return, the king’s vassals were obliged to take the king’s part in all quarrels, pay his taxes and send men and supplies to fight in his wars. Those who served a medieval vassal needed two good eyes. One to watch over their lord’s needs and the other to look out for the interests of their king.
It did not suit the United States to make too much of their vassal state’s breach of fealty in the late-1980s. It’s anti-nuclear policy may have posed “the threat of a good example” (to use Noam Chomsky’s trenchant phrase) but for the makers of the Washington Consensus that threat was more than off-set by the Lange Government’s radical example of free-market economics. So long as New Zealand remained a part of the Echelon network, a few relatively gentle diplomatic slaps would suffice as punishment.
Had David Lange and his ministers got serious about severing New Zealand’s military and intelligence connections to the US, and attempted to pull the plug at Tangimoana and Waihopai, then the reaction of the Reagan Administration would have been very different – and much more painful.
The full force of American retribution was, however, avoided because the servants of the New Zealand state all had two good eyes. While Treasury kept Washington’s good-will by persuading the Lange government to implement the most radical structural adjustment programme ever attempted in the OECD, the New Zealand foreign affairs, defence and intelligence communities quietly reassured their American counterparts that a bi-partisan policy of incremental reconnection to the United States was the New Zealand (if not the Labour) government’s Number One priority.
The king was thus reassured by his errant vassal’s own servants and men-at-arms that their lord’s lapse of loyalty was purely temporary and that his successors would doubtless prove considerably more obliging.
And so it has proved. The smiling face of Mr Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defence, and his good news about New Zealand’s warships’ re-admittance to America’s naval facilities, was startling vindication of our foreign affairs and defence establishment’s patient diplomacy. The king’s favour has been restored: the kiss of fealty given and received.
Fitting, too, that just days after receiving our liege lord’s blessing, New Zealand’s Prime Minister and his deputy were forced to reveal its price. Remembering always that a king’s enemies are his vassal’s enemies also. And Mr Dotcom is, without doubt, the United States’ enemy.
Those New Zealanders who were surprised and alarmed by the extreme light-handedness of the political oversight of our security and intelligence services are still trapped in the illusion of independence. Our political leaders learned long ago what lapses in loyalty can mean for a vassal state. Much better to leave these matters to the permanent guardians of our own – and our masters’ – interests.
How else to explain Bill English’s casual admission that, were he given it all to do again, he wouldn’t hesitate to re-order the suppression of all evidence relating to the activities of the GCSB. Why else would John Key refuse a comprehensive and transparent inquiry into the illegal surveillance of Mr Dotcom? And be backed in his refusal by a former Labour Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer?
 “You can’t have an open inquiry like a commission of inquiry with evidence in public about that,” Sir Geoffrey told TV3’s The Nation, “because these agencies will cease to be any use if their secrecy is not preserved”.
Of use to whom?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 October 2012.


Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. Panetta came here, if not to beg, then at least to ask nicely.

The Americans are refocusing themselves on the Pacific due to China's increasing influence and find themselves having to play nice to a bunch of small, island nations.

I see no reason why we shouldn't accept their overtures with good grace.

mugly2k said...

@ Anonymous

Do you really think the Americans are in the habit of asking nicely? You obviously haven't been anywhere near a history book. To accept America's overtures with good grace would be to naively presume such overtures are made in good faith and with an attitude of genuine respect. I'm afraid it's too little to late. And in politics it's about winning, not good intentions. We're better off to 'play a game' that Niccolo Machiavelli would be proud of.

Kingi said...

Useful to whom indeed. Its the question that should, but wont, be answered.
Anonymous, you have either completely missed, or are willfully ignoring, the point.
We do not need closer military ties to the USA and we certainly don't need the Secretary of Defence telling us that they will seek retribution for the lives of NZ soldiers lost in Afghanistan.

peterpeasant said...

Beware of Americans bearing gifts.

Kat said...

Bob Dylan set the 'standard' for a generation in singing the value of autonomous thinking in rallying against participating in war and general international mayhem. Long may that song prevail. Blind patriotism and expedient political concessions are the telling enemy.

guerilla surgeon said...

There were good reasons for New Zealand governments to seek American protection in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As seen by the standards of the time anyway. The Labour Party wasn't particularly left-wing at this time, and both it and national saw a threat from communism, particularly after the Korean war. And judging by the state of North Korea today, they were at least half right. Of course we've always been paranoid about needing a protector, Britain was fading, and what's often forgotten is that in the event of another war, our troops were committed to defend the Middle East, which left us with the problem of defence at home with all our troops thousands of miles away. That may not have been the major factor but was certainly influential in seeking an American alliance. There was also an overwhelming fear of a Japanese resurgence, and the Commonwealth was no longer a gentleman's club but was severely fractured. Personally though I've always thought that if it was in American interests to defend us they would do it whether we wanted it or not. And if it wasn't in their interests, we would probably go hang.
Now of course the threat from China is less military than economic, and the Americans are looking for allies again. I would have hoped that Key and company might have resisted the temptation to resuscitating kind of Anzus Treaty, but what the heck – they're the direct descendants of those that signed the original one.

Victor said...

Unfortunately, we are now the vassals of two competing feudal lords: Washington and Beijing.

It's going to be hard work satisfying both of them and, sooner or later,we could fail disasterously.

Meanwhile, Australia, a considerably more powerful vassal, has clearly signalled its ongoing fealty to the US.

I'm left pondering the following questions:

Is true independence possible?

Can it be achieved by playing both these behemoths off against each other?

If so, do we have the skills to do so?

Can we get away with declaring some areas off limits to both parties (e.g. the integrity of our legal system)?

Would we be better advised to put all our eggs in one basket?

If so, which basket?

I don't have a certain answer to any of these questions. But they need to be asked.

And we can no longer assume that all the threats to our independence will always come from the same direction.

Brendan McNeill said...


Very good questions as they go to the heart of the matter.

These days I'm less inclined to 'default' to support of the USA although that is my pre-disposition given our common historical allegiance, religious world view, political ideology and shared history.

While I have a great deal of empathy with individual Americans whom I find in general to be, generous, gracious and compassionate, politically, their foreign policy particularly in the middle east is absurd.

Why are they involved in wars that can never be won? Why are they spending billions of dollars in aid (which they cannot afford) to countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, and Palestine just to name four, where the general population, and the political leadership either openly hate the USA, or pretend friendship while waring jihad against them and the West in general?

Why do they believe that a policy of appeasement of hostile rouge Islamic states will win them friendship in the region? Surely that's a bizarre proposition.

The Chinese on the other hand strike me as commercially pragmatic, and open to trade and improved relationships in this region.

The question is, are they seeking to achieve economically in the South Pacific what they dare not attempt militarily?

Are we smart enough to play one off against the other, while attempting to retain some kind of political neutrality?

Is selling our land, dairy farms and other strategic assets to the Chinese sound commercial policy, or folly?

Personally, I don't think we are smart enough to play one off against the other.

So what then?

I suspect that we have little choice but to shelter under a physical, economic, and strategic umbrella provided by Australia.

Where they go, by and large, we need to follow, albeit we retain the right to question, dissent, and row our own diplomatic and economic waka when necessary.

We have a cultural / religious / legal and political heritage in common with Australia that we need to confidently articulate and strengthen. If we do that, then we have a future, if we fail in this, then we will surrender to the loudest voice, the strongest economy, the most confident religion.

Either way, if we want to retain control of our own destiny, passivity is not an option.

Nick said...


The question of the US fighting wars it cannot win perturbs me. There must be a reason for these "wars" being fought by the US and they keep doing it despite "losing". Do they lose?

They are all fought offshore in some third world state, and despite overwhelming force available this rarely gets fully deployed to force a result a la Genghis Khan etc. The "Empire" rarely fights on "valuable ground". So what is it all about?

I suggest it is the demonstration of "imperial reach", they don't want to destroy, merely show teeth to others who might follow suit and avoid tribute (i.e being part of the imperial periphery from which wealth is extracted). Are they losing? I think not.

Victor said...


We seem to have approached this matter from diametrically opposed positions and reached not too dissimilar conclusions.

I've spent most of my now lengthy adult life in a stance critical of US foreign policy, particularly as manifested in the Middle East, Latin America and South East Asia.

I was, for example, totally opposed to the Vietnam War and similarly incensed by the blood-stained folly of the assault on Iraq. And, even as I write, I’m engaged in an exchange of Facebook invective with a guy who’s strangely insistent on defending Reagan’s outrageous sponsoring of torture, terror and general mayhem in Nicaragua.

I’m also a Sinophile of many decades standing and, despite my dislike of authoritarian regimes, rejoice at the success of Deng Xiaoping and his successors in raising hundreds of millions of their compatriots out of poverty.

But I’m also a realist and recognise that all great powers have perceived strategic interests. Moreover , unless these countries are held together by powerful ties of friendship, culture and ideology, they are likely to end up seeing each other as rivals. Minnows, such as ourselves, have to fend as best we can amidst these competing leviathans.

Similarly, I don’t think that any nation is, in the long term, either wholly good or wholly bad. There is much that can be said in criticism of both traditional US foreign policy and its devotion to market fundamentalism (albeit I don’t expect your concurrence on that last point).

But you, I or a young woman from Shanghai could all, subject to immigration laws and job opportunities, go to America and become Americans, in a way that you, I or a young woman from Bangalore could not go to China and become Chinese.

On the one hand, we have an established if ailing empire, held together by an increasingly inclusive civic patriotism with (often dangerously overblown) notions of universality. On the other hand, we have a resurgent empire, buoyed up by an often racist sense of nationalism and a strong (and highly understandable) sense of national grievance.

The US will often, no doubt, see us as mere pawns in its great game. But I doubt whether China’s rulers will ever see us as anything but that. And who can blame them? After all, that’s how the West collectively used to see China and probably still would,were it not for economics. Should this be a consideration in setting foreign policy? I’m genuinely not sure.

Of course, the huge current preponderance of US military hardware makes China’s surge towards commercial supremacy seem comparatively benign. But the US is suffering from acute imperial overstretch and China is arming fast and with the aid of great technological sophistication.

Moreover, whatever last month’s alarums in the East China Sea prove, they surely show Auntie Helen’s nostrum about us living in a benign strategic environment to be totally outdated.

Meanwhile, there have been times (including very recent times) when we've benefited greatly from pursuing a different foreign policy trajectory to Australia's. But, frankly, I'm not sure if this is still one of those times.

As might be clear from the above, I've no certain or firm convictions about how we should comport ourselves in this new Asia Pacific order. But of one thing I'm certain: we can't afford to imitate the actions of an ostrich!

Paulus said...

Do you think the the incoming Labour Green Winston Government in 2014 will get rid of GCSB and perhaps SIS ?

Brendan McNeill said...


I believe the USA thought they could win the Vietnam war, and by all accounts they should have.

Today, America does not have a clear objective in the wars it fights, other than perhaps regime change and nation building.

Changing regimes is easy if you are a super power, nation building American style in the middle east is (in my view) a utopian idea; read impossible.

Does Iraq look like a rebuilt nation to you? It is a nation of sectarian strife, car bombings, kidnappings, and murders.

Do you think that in Afghanistan civil society and the rule of law, religious freedom and women's rights will be the norm after the US departs?

Is Egypt going to be a better place for the average Egyptian under it's new USA backed leadership, or Libya, or Syria if the USA backed and funded Islamic 'rebels' depose the current dictator?

Perhaps we should ask the Coptic Christians and Jews who still remain in those regions that question.

It could be that you are correct, and this is the last gasp of a dying empire demonstrating to the world that it is in charge, however that does seem improbable to me.

I suspect that the last few American presidents have genuinely believed, that if they implemented regime change in these countries, then democracy would flower, peace prosperity and happiness would emerge, and that ultimately the indigenous people of those nations would thank America for its initiative.

Sounds naive I know, but that along with wanting to extend its 'influence' in the region are in my view the primary reasons for the wars.

Albeit, they were prompted to engage to a large extent at least initially by the events of 9/11.

They cannot win them because:

a) They refuse to clearly identify the enemy, and in particular the religious ideology that drives them.

b) They have not defined what 'victory' really looks like.

c) By and large, they do not have the support of the local people.

d) They have no interest in remaining and ruling the regions as an imperial conquer.

e) Without a willingness to do (a or b) above and possibly (d) as well, then it has been demonstrated that the US military can be defeated by goat herders using fertiliser, and time.

If you don't think they are losing then I feel we must both be watching different wars. :-)

Steve Withers said...

Well said, Mr. Trotter. That John Key is able to say - at the same time - that he knows almost NOTHING about what the GCSB does but that he is responsible for what they do simply ins't credible. It very much leads one to conclude that either Key is an outrageous incompetent liar or the GCSB is an unaccountable power unto itself.

Now that they know they were breaking the law (I don't for one second believe they didn't know)....will their behavior change? With Key's deliberate negligence applied in full....how would we ever know either way?

It wasn't Key who worked out what they were doing was illegal....yet under current operating structures, he is relly the only person who legally COULD know. Justice Neazor certainly wasn't looking for any trouble.....and never would. He didn't know either.

Oversight? There is no oversight. We kow very well who is running the GCSB and it isn't anyone in New Zealand.

Nick said...

Brendan, I think that all you say is quite probable: I may not have made my point well. The issue I see is that so long as the facade of empire is upheld less marginal places than Afghanistan (like NZ) will tow the line because we fear the same events might visit our shores. Winning is not the point of imperial demonstrations of power: fear and compliance is. Consequently the "Empire" wins without winning.

Tony Flewellen said...

Off the subject but...I just watched Q&A from this morning. I know I was seeing Russell Norman but I kept hearing Bruce Beetham.

Woodbrook said...

Not sure we were or are vassels, but at least with the Brits we got something big in return - more or less free trade. Remember when we exported huge amounts of lamb, cheese and butter to the UK without the tariffs and restrictions the EU imposes on us and others? I can't see the US giving us free trade access for diary products or lamb.