Self-destructive stupidity, New Zealand style

Aug 23, 2023
Chair with flag of New Zealand.

‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad’
What a pity it is that we no longer believe in capricious gods because that would offer a good explanation for the otherwise quite perplexing habit of governments, with intelligent and informed people theoretically at their disposal, to embrace policies which are manifestly an example of self-destructive stupidity. Clever people doing stupid things.

New Zealand’s latest Defence Assessment is a case in point. The public face of it – The Defence Policy and Strategy Statement 2023 – was launched by Defence Minister Andrew Little. On the occasion he pontificated:

As we see conditions changing, not just in the Pacific but in the broader Asia-Pacific region, we have to be thinking about what that means for us.

“If for example, conflict does break out in the South China Sea, where $20 billion worth of our exports goes through every year, we have a stake and the nature of our relationships with our partners means we may be called on to play a role should conflict breakout.”

This is a very bizarre statement. $20 billion of New Zealand exports may go through the South China Sea, but Little omits to mention that some 70% of that goes to China. By ‘playing a role during a crisis’ he means assisting the US military whose function would, of course, not be to keep China’s trade routes open but to close them. The South China Sea, like the Straits of Malacca, is a choke point for China imports, not least oil from the Middle East, and a key objective in conflict, or even crisis, would be to close it off. If the defence minister had said that the Yellow Peril had to be stopped at all costs and that NZ would need to be prepared to sacrifice its foreign trade that might be considered paranoid, but would at least have an element of logical argument. But to say that the best way to preserve the trade is to destroy it suggests a deep dissociation from reality.

That, unfortunately, is par for the course.

Little is quoted as claiming “we do not live in a benign strategic environment” and that touches on the core issue. The New Zealand ‘national security industry’ has a fundamental problem; the country has no credible natural external enemies. Its geographical isolation means that it has no territorial disputes and it offers no locational advantages on a strategic chessboard, unlike for instance the Korean peninsula where Russia, China, Japan and the United States meet and contest. There are only two countries which could physically coerce New Zealand – Australia and the US. A cynic might ask, why bother? Australia owns it economically (all the major banks are Australian for instance) and the US controls it politically (think Vietnam, Afghanistan, South China Sea). No other country has the ability or any conceivable motive to threaten New Zealand and none has done so publicly. The only exception would be Japan, and that, significantly, was within the context of a war with the United States and its allies.

The stated threat-perception of the military is shared by the spooks. New Zealand’s Security Threat Environment 2023 just released by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) solemnly tells us:

There are a small number of states who conduct foreign interference in New Zealand but their ability to cause harm is significant. This report highlights the activities of three states in particular: the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia

Iran? Really? And how did the US, the UK and Australia escape their attention?

This is the first time that SIS has ‘shared’ its threat assessment with the public. There may, of course, be a real assessment that SIS keeps under wraps but its Director-General, Andrew Hampton, claims:

Our goal for this report is for it to be a starting point for a greater level of awareness and a healthy conversation.

A ‘healthy conversation’ is perhaps the last thing they want but the first is clearly the raising of the perception of threat from designated enemies, and an associated campaign against dissenters who might challenge the official narrative.

So we have the spooks conjuring up imaginary (but useful) threats and the military beating the drums of war, with a focus on China. Not merely are the threats bogus but the possible consequences – economic and perhaps military- are disastrous. It is significant that a senior minster is proposing increasing military expenditure during an election year. The governing Labour Party is facing defeat, the health and education sectors are in crisis, there are huge costs arising from climate change and yet he is squandering money which could both help the country and assist election appeal. To sacrifice national interest is one thing, but to risk electoral defeat is another, and indicates considerable pressure from Washington

How do we explain all this nonsense? There are many threads in an answer but they would all lead in the same direction towards imperial strategy.

New Zealand (and Australia) have always been cogs in an imperial strategy. From the beginning of European settlement until the Pacific War it was centred on London, since then on Washington. In terms of fantasy the present situation is reminiscent of the Russian Scares of late 19th century which had the gullible believing ‘The Russians are Coming’ and which left a number of unused (but, like AUKUS, no doubt profitable) forts on the coast of New Zealand and Australia. In terms of consequence it is akin to the string of imperial wars which has left cenotaphs in the cities and towns of New Zealand (and Australia) and so many bones overseas. Bad as those wars were, one with China would be far more consequential; this time the enemy can retaliate.

Why the talk of war? US hegemony is under threat from the rise of China and although the challenge is primarily economic, technological and diplomatic, militarisation is so deeply embedded now within the US political and economic structure, that the response is overwhelmingly military and coercive. Since the US is in relative decline, its subordinate allies become ever more important, hence constructed war fever in NZ and Australia.

Clearly the sensible thing for New Zealand to do would be to nudge America into the peaceful acceptance of multipolarity; Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani provides an example.

However, at the moment New Zealand is following Australia on a suicidal path, with just a few signs of dissent within the political elite. Let us hope that the malevolence of the gods will be foiled and doubts, such as that expressed by former Prime Minister Helen Clark, will grow and develop into a movement for resistance to the US, for enlightened self-interest and the pursuit of peace. Those hopes will only be fulfilled if we are able to break through the twin carapace of propaganda and censorship to raise public awareness of the self-destructive stupidity of current policies.

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