WHAT WOULD YOU EXPECT from a course devoted to “Strategic Studies”? A reasonable expectation, surely, of a university course devoted to the study of global strategic issues, is that it would be ideologically neutral. After all, the struggle for global advantage: economically, militarily and diplomatically; is driven by a wide variety of international actors. Breaking down the conduct of nation states by passing it through a single ideological lens (of whatever manufacture) could hardly be described as good scholarship. It would risk turning out students who were singularly ill-equipped to identify and interpret the strategic issues at play on the international stage. That can hardly be the goal of a course called “Strategic Studies” – can it?
Which is not to say that powerful nations, the United States in particular, have not in the past actively rewarded, rather than discouraged, a lack of intellectual curiosity, professional competence, and fundamental human empathy. The administration of George W. Bush, for example, was famously suspicious of fluent speakers of Arabic. They feared that such people might “go native” – i.e. demonstrate too much understanding of the nation the United States was planning, in flagrant disregard of international law, to invade. The government of the United Kingdom similarly distinguished itself by requiring it advisors to provide spurious grounds for joining the US in its illegal invasion of Iraq.
If by “Strategic Studies” is meant the training of students to view international events from a single, thoroughly biased, perspective; and to dutifully supply their employers with material based on falsified data and outright lies; then intellectual curiosity, professional competence, and fundamental human empathy might, indeed, prove prejudicial to rapid advancement in their chosen career.
Having read his Newsroom posting entitled “Russian Aggression Exposes Gap In NZ’s Diplomatic Toolkit”, it is very difficult to avoid the suspicion that Professor Robert Ayson subscribes to something disappointingly close to the above definition of Strategic Studies. It will doubtless come as no surprise that the professor’s perspective on New Zealand’s foreign relations locates the United States of America squarely in the centre of the big picture.
Interestingly, the posting begins with what amounts to a huge sigh of relief that the dangerously heterodox Winston Peters is no longer this country’s Foreign Minister.
The good professor wastes no time in reassuring his readers that: “Labour ceased subcontracting foreign policy to New Zealand First after the 2020 election. Peters’ quest to advance free trade discussions with Russia and its Eurasian economic partners, which was written into the 2017 coalition agreement, is now history.”
The notion that New Zealand might derive considerable benefit from distributing its export eggs across several baskets clearly does not fall within Professor Ayson’s definition of strategic studies. Also excluded, presumably, is the idea that the Russian Federation is a strategic player meriting a level of analysis more rigorous than the shrieking of Fox News.
Clearly, the brand of Strategic Studies favoured at Victoria University relies heavily on setting forth the measures best calculated to disrupt and punish the activities of a frightening cast of international bogeymen, the biggest and baddest of which is, of course, Russia – as it has been, off-and-on, since the late-nineteenth century.
Judging by his enthusiasm for the concept, Professor Ayson appears convinced that the most helpful contribution New Zealand can make to discombobulating the Russian bogeyman is to join with the United States and its other sycophants – sorry, “allies” – in imposing “autonomous” (i.e. unauthorised by the United Nations Security Council) economic and diplomatic sanctions.
In other universities, strategic studies professors might encourage their students to calculate how close such unilaterally imposed sanctions come to actual acts of war. In these other universities, strategic studies professors might even invite their classes to consider the consequences of the economic sanctions imposed on Japan in 1940 – most particularly the “embargo” on oil and scrap-metal exports. To what extent were such strategic gestures intended to produce a strategic response? Did the USA’s “autonomous sanctions” make Pearl Harbour inevitable? Was that their purpose?
Certainly, as one reads the professor’s post, it is difficult to rid one’s mind of the image of him bouncing up and down with excitement at the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Not only would an invasion allow the Ardern Government to join “a largely Western chorus of condemnation” and announce (probably reluctantly) New Zealand’s own autonomous sanctions against the Russian Federation, but it would also vindicate the “Bogeyman School” of strategic studies.
That the current Foreign Minister might be a less than fanatical convert to the Bogeyman School clearly concerns Professor Ayson: “Partway through 2021, Nanaia Mahuta – Labour’s replacement for Peters – publicly expressed concerns about Five Eyes auspices being used to criticise the human rights records of other governments (in this case China).”
As well she might! In the eyes of some strategic scholars (although probably not those at Vic) the “Five Eyes” penchant for throwing their weight around descends in a direct line from the egregious Anglophone imperialism that transformed millions of Chinese citizens into opium addicts – reaping super-profits for the same British drug cartel that seized Hong Kong.
Not anymore! Professor Ayson is certain that: “whatever remains of that sentiment is unlikely to stand in the way of New Zealand joining a Five Eyes statement condemning a Russian invasion. Such an act of military aggression by one sovereign state on another is a good fit with the group’s traditional intelligence and security agenda.”
Is Professor Ayson on record demanding an equivalent statement of condemnation when three of the Five Eyes powers engaged in an act of military aggression against the sovereign state of Iraq in 2003? Or, was he one of the depressing number of New Zealand strategists who appeared to regard the waging of aggressive war (for which politicians were executed at Nuremburg) as a “good fit” for this country’s “traditional intelligence and security agenda.” Fortunately for New Zealand’s excellent international reputation, our prime minister, Helen Clark, did not.
It is always possible, of course, that there is at least one student attending Professor Ayson’s classes with sufficient gumption to ask why the United States does not accord to President Vladimir Putin the same right to defend his nation’s sphere of influence as it claims for itself. For very nearly 200 years the “Monroe Doctrine” has warned-off from the entire Western Hemisphere any and all states with designs to project their power into it. So, that same plucky student might ask his professor why sauce for the American goose is not also sauce for the Russian gander? It would certainly be interesting to hear Professor Ayson’s view on the most likely response of the United States to Russian troops taking up positions alongside their Mexican allies along the Rio Grande.
One shudders to think of the grade an essay advancing these ideas and questions might receive from the head of Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Strategic Studies. One suspects, at the very least, a fusillade of academic criticism would rake its author’s position.
Too much intellectual curiosity – not enough Fox News.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 January 2022.