11 July 2022

A fiercely independent like-mindedness..

Do an internet search on "Jacinda Ardern + like-minded" and you get a lot of hits. The "like-minded" phrase does not belong to her alone. It has been taken up by the New Zealand media and by, dare we say it, like-minded statespersons overseas.

For example:

Stuff 27/09/2018 - "Like-minded leaders (from left) Chile's Sebastian Pinera, Canada's Justin Trudeau and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a meeting in New York ... (Pinera is a billionaire supporter of the ruthless former military dictator of Chile Agusto Pinochet and has a dodgy past of his own. Which begs the question of just what "like-minded" means in this context).

TIME 20/02/2020 - "Ardern .. signing ... treaties with such like-minded nations as Norway, Iceland and Fiji ...(Can it be said that Fiji with its legacy of repeated military coups and a coup leader currently in charge is "like-minded"?)

The New Zealand Initiative 1/07/2022 - "A major part of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's itinerary while in Europe ... a closer alignment with like-minded democracies through NATO (How "like-minded" are NATO members Turkey and Hungary or for that matter the United States?)

19/04/2022... "PM Jacinda Ardern in Singapore: 'We're like-minded on many issues" (Could not the "like-minded on many issues" stamp of approval be applied to virtually any state, if we so choose?)

Newshub 27/05/2022 "It's incredibly important for New Zealand in this fraught time of global politics, when we have not only a pandemic and the climate crisis, we have conflict, for us to be engaging with like-minded partners like the United States," Ardern said. ("like-minded" where gun violence is rampant from the Pentagon to the ghetto? like minded on the climate crisis? Well, perhaps it may be the case on both counts but is it something to celebrate?)

Ursula von der Leyen President of the EU: 30/06/2022 - "And dear Jacinda,. Of course, you are such a like-minded partner..." (an EU aristocrat condescends to the Prime Minister of New Zealand on Twitter).

Otago Daily Times 30/06/2022 - "The prime minister also made a plea for diplomacy, de-escalation, peace and stability, adding that on those terms "like-minded partners" would be welcomed to the Pacific. (Why would one not welcome anybody, like-minded or otherwise, on those same terms?)

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General at Madrid summit: "Like Russia, it [China] seeks to undermine the international rules-based order. So, we must continue to stand together and work with like-minded partners around the world to protect our values and our freedom and to promote peace and prosperity."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern discussing the Ukraine war at the NATO summit in Madrid: "The undermining of people's humanity was the driving force to any foreign policy interventions the New Zealand Government chose to make rather than political ideology. And on that basis... it's a war of Russia versus all those who hold a basic sense of humanity and chose to act on it." (Ardern's longstanding reluctance to discuss "political ideology" leaves her with no option but to deny the humanity of those with whom she disagrees.)

These quotes show how flexible the concept of like-mindedness can be, how useful to those who do not wish to examine political realities too closely and how it is increasingly becoming a lynchpin of the official political discourse in this country.

The notion of like-mindedness is seductive yet dangerous. The search for like-minded others, if advanced with moderation and if successful, can be a source of great comfort and security, but those who become overly attached to the notion will never be satisfied. Friends fall out over the detail. Disagreements spark enmity. When like-mindedness is the test of worth, authoritarianism takes hold, and with it the fear of being seen to think differently. Schism, sectarianism, ostracism and divorce may be the ugly end for those who started out in the innocent search for like-minded others.

Every person has thoughts and behaviours in common with every other, yet each is a unique entity. Therefore the dichotomy of "like-minded" and "unlike-minded" is simplistic. We delude ourselves if we think that anyone or any state has a mind absolutely like our own. We share some thoughts and ideas and beliefs in common with people of every other nation, some more than others, but none completely and absolutely.

Furthermore, people are inconstant and nations even more so. They may act "out of character" or their character may change over time, for better or for worse. Japan was an ally in the First World War, a bitter enemy in the Second and is now an ally once again. Whether the Japanese state changed in reality or merely in perception twice over the space of forty years does not alter the fact that the concept of like-mindedness in states is particularly fraught.

Lastly we should remember that while we can assume much about the character of a person or a state we never reach the point where we can claim to know their full and true character. Life is a never-ending process of "getting to know" those around us, a process which should not be curtailed by dividing our acquaintance into two groups, one "like-minded" and the other not. There are things that go on within the mind of a person, and within the cabinet rooms of a state, to which we are not privy. The concept of the mind of a state is particularly problematic. If the mind of the United States is represented in Joseph Biden then it is also represented in Donald Trump. One may argue that the differences between Trump and Biden, Jacinda Ardern and Christopher Luxon are inconsequential but to do so is to challenge the value of democracy and substitute the concept of national identity as the determinant of "like-mindedness".

We cannot and should not rush to judge the minds of persons or states. However we can judge their actions, to which end we need a set of rules by which to judge. The New Zealand government talks about a "rules-based order" but it has failed to elaborate on just what those rules are or how they should be arrived at and it has shown no consistency in applying such rules as it can identify.

If we go back only three years, Jacinda was using the phrase "like-minded" to describe the associates of mass murderer Brenton Tarrant and New Zealanders took pride in the notion that their foreign policy, far from being "like-minded", was in some way unique. What has changed?

Well, quite a lot has changed, but with just a little foresight we would have seen the changes coming.

To understand the politics of like-mindedness we need to have a sense of the principles that guide it even if the proponents of like-mindedness give us very little help in that regard.

We can say with some confidence that like-minded states are secularist, capitalist and globalist. Thus on objective grounds Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and possibly Cuba are excluded from the like-minded category, but China and Russia are not, and singling out Russia and China is the whole point of the exercise.

If we add in the requirement for democracy it becomes complicated. There is a presumption that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel are "like-minded" yet their claims to be democratic are contentious, and Russia and China which are definitely not considered like-minded are no less democratic than these supposedly like-minded middle eastern allies of the United States.

Although no one is saying it openly, there is a tacit recognition that "like-mindedness" has a relation to class affiliations and their socio-political ramifications. The primary purpose of Jacinda Ardern's visit to the United States was not to meet with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris but to speak at the commencement ceremony of Harvard University which is attended by the sons and daughters of the well to do on America's eastern seaboard.

Ardern's speech was an unabashed celebration of her personal success designed to show the youthful audience that they also could achieve great things. Ardern also spoke in support of some of the policies close to the heart of America's affluent liberal elite, such as gun control, abortion and gay rights. Her paean to liberalism was received with rapture (although she might have had a different reception in the other half of the United States: the mid-West, the rust belt, small town and rural America). At this event Ardern glowed. She was on fire, surrounded as she was by thousands of like-minded young people and with the like-minded aristocracy of east coast liberalism sitting behind her on the stage.

The audience applauded reports of bans on gay conversion therapy and public ownership of semi-automatic firearms along with a proposed ban on hate speech, legal recognition of same-sex marriage and free access to abortion. In this catalogue of liberal triumphs there was no place for mention of the struggles of the poor, drug abuse, homelessness and the precarious state of the working class in the new era of liberal democracy. Indeed her only acknowledgement that neo-liberalism has its critics came in a contemptuous reference to "the keyboard warrior... a lone person unacquainted with personal hygiene practices, dressed in a poorly fitted super hero costume – one that is baggy in all the wrong places". In other words the challenge to liberalism comes only from "the great unwashed", those who do not enjoy the company of affluent, elegant, well grooomed and urbane like-minded others. However the reaction of the audience, taking its cue from those wiser heads sitting behind Jacinda, was quickly reduced to a muted nervous laughter. The liberal establishment of the eastern seaboard well remember the anger generated by Hilary Clinton's "deplorables" comment, and saw that this mockery was even more telling of liberal arrogance.

But on the whole Ardern's speech was a well contrived and carefully qualified intervention in the politics of a country where Joseph Biden and his Democratic Party need all the help they can get and Ardern gave him more than a speech. She had two pro-Trump organisations - The Proud Boys and The Base - designated as terrorist entities in New Zealand, a country in which they have no interest and no influence. If Biden had attempted to designate these groups as terrorist entities in the US on such flimsy grounds as were provided by the US authorities to their New Zealand counterparts there would have been a domestic uproar, but the designation could be made at his behest by a like-minded other in the Realm of New Zealand with not a word heard in protest.

While "like-mindedness" is essentially the property of the liberal, affluent, middle and upper classes world-wide, even when Donald Trump sat in the White House it was serving a purpose. As a concept it can stretch to accommodate Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative so long as it remains wedded to the ideal of a secular, capitalist, globalist and uni-polar world order under the tutelage of the United States of America.

The definitive test of like-mindedness when it comes to relations between states seems to reduce to "respect for a rules based order". States which are neither liberal nor democratic can be like-minded if they give lip service to the notion of a rules-based order. However that does not mean respect for international law as defined in the Geneva Conventions and the Charter of the United Nations. If it did, like-minded countries such as the UK, US, Australia and Israel would be in breach (for the invasion of Iraq, economic sanctions and political assassinations directed against Iran and Cuba, and human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories respectively) and could not be categorized as like-minded which once again would defeat the point of the exercise. A "rules based order" is, quite simply, one in which the greatest of the great powers both sets and interprets the rules.

The only consistent and rational test for like-mindedness and respect for a "rules-based order" is compliance with the geopolitical ambitions of the preeminent global power, the United States of America. That covers the NATO states (the US itself, the UK, Canada and most of western Europe, notable exceptions being Austria, Switzerland, Ireland and the Vatican), Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Some, like India and Singapore are teetering on the brink of being like-minded, but in general most states in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Polynesia are not like-minded. States claiming jurisdiction over more than half of the world's population are not and probably never will be like-minded, regardless of their political evolution.

Like-mindedness means abandonment of the United Nations as a guarantor of world order which was until recently a cornerstone of New Zealand's foreign policy. Now Jacinda Ardern speaks to NATO rather than the UN while saying "we must continue to seek reform of the UN" (by removing the Russian power of veto). Ardern knows that kind of reform is not possible and so she is signalling that henceforth New Zealand will participate within NATO - along with exclusively "like-minded" states - rather than within the United Nations in which all, both like- and unlike-minded, are represented.

New Zealand defends its abandonment of the United Nations on the ground that the UN has failed as an institution. There is some basis to this claim, which is not to say that the pivot to NATO is morally or politically justifiable. The UN was formed by five powers which had achieved victory in a world war against two other powers. In this new international organisation they gave themselves special privileges which incidentally served to protect them from being fully accountable for their actions. Three of those powers have now decided that the other two are undeserving of that privilege, and they effectively propose another global conflict, starting in Ukraine, to remove that supposedly undeserved privilege from the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of China.

The United Nations is an imperfect organisation but when New Zealand charges the UN with "failure" it is really just saying that it has failed to deliver in the interests of the three "like-minded" states which wish to have an exclusive power of veto. The problem is not that the UN has failed but that from its inception there has been a drive to war between competing blocs of nations with New Zealand as an active participant.

Thus by eliminating all other possibilities such as respect for democracy and international rule of law it becomes clear that "like-minded" means supportive of a uni-polar world order with the United States at its head and entrusted with making the rules of that order. That signifies the end of New Zealand's claim to a "fiercely independent foreign policy" and probably an end to the "nuclear free" policy to boot.

That is what New Zealand's un-debated and deliberately undefined "like-minded" foreign policy looks like. There are the like-minded countries who accept the global leadership of the United States. Every other country consists of people who are not like-minded. People who have something wrong with them. People who do not have "a basic sense of humanity" and therefore are not truly and fully human in the way of the NATO states and their handful of partners.

The like-minded policy also has practical consequences for New Zealand. The United States aims to be the dominant power in a uni-polar world. To that end it needs two things. A stable, coherent and harmonious society at home and loyal, reliable allies abroad. At the present moment the United States is struggling in both areas, but most particularly on the domestic front. Therefore it cannot afford to distribute the largesse which is needed at home among its friends and allies abroad. So not only will New Zealand get no direct assistance from the US, the US can provide nothing that might trickle down to New Zealand through Britain, Australia or the EU. New Zealand's dilemma is that in order to be a loyal and reliable ally of the United States, it also needs to have a stable, coherent and harmonious society and that will become increasingly difficult as the demands placed on New Zealand by the alliance conflict with the New Zealand's own needs for economic viability and social stability.

Whenever like minded people come together for a common purpose - whether in sports clubs, religious bodies, cultural associations or political parties - they inevitably form a hierarchy and once you have a hierarchy opposing interests come into play. So while the Realm of New Zealand, the United States and its allies may be like-minded there is indisputably a hierarchy in place and their like-mindedness is insufficient to eclipse their separate and opposing interests. One way out of the dilemma is for the New Zealand government to tacitly redefine itself as primarily an ally of the United States and only secondarily as having sovereign responsibility for the welfare of the people of New Zealand. In other words, Jacinda's focus must shift from Wainuiomata and Amberley to Washington and Brussels. We see signs of such a shift taking place, but ultimately it must end in failure because she is worth nothing to the US unless she can bring the people of New Zealand with her.

The strategy of association with and subordination to a great imperial power worked for New Zealand from the mid-nineteenth century into the mid- to late-twentieth century. New Zealand went into the Second World War as it went into the First, with Michael Savage and and after him Peter Fraser saying of Britain "Where she goes we go. Where she stands we stand.." Like-mindedness indeed. But even in 1939 the writing was on the wall for the British empire and New Zealand persevered with the policy of British imperial alliance long after its rationale had collapsed and right up to the point of Britain's entry into the European Union. Since 1972 New Zealand has vacillated on the question of whether it should form a new alliance with a new imperial power, the United States of America, or pursue "independent" foreign affairs and trade policies. At one end this swinging of the pendulum led to New Zealand military involvement in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and economic sanctions against Cuba, Iran and North Korea. At the other end it resulted in recognition of the Peoples Republic of China, free trade agreements with a range of countries which were not necessarily "like-minded", the nuclear- free policy and enforced withdrawal from Anzus.

The economic reforms of the Lange-Douglas Labour government were pivotal in all these political vacillations because the reforms served the cause of global capitalism rather than any particular imperial order. Being essentially globalist, they did not discriminate between British, Australian, American or European capital and commodity markets, or for that matter between western and middle eastern, Russian or Chinese capital and commodity markets. But at the time, in 1984, global capital was western capital, and western commodity markets were pretty well all that mattered. So the authors of Rogernomics, people like Richard Prebble and the ACT party which he and Roger Douglas spawned, could simultaneously argue for globalization and loyalty to the western imperial order without any sense of internal contradiction.

Now we can see that New Zealand cannot have a global approach to markets along with unqualified loyalty to the western alliance. New Zealand under Labour has reverted to its position of 1939 by identifying its interests exclusively with a like-minded currently dominant global power which is already past its peak and is no longer capable or willing to offer a quid pro quo for New Zealand's unequivocal geopolitical support.

I write "New Zealand under Labour" but that is not to say that it is solely a Labour Party position. It has broad support in Parliament, in fact it would not be going too far to suggest that it has the unanimous support of Parliament. The reason for this also harks back to the legacy of the economic and political reforms of the nineteen eighties. Before 1984 the management of the New Zealand state focused on internal issues and involved direct responsibility for the provision of banking services including lending, management of the currency, housing, rural land development, electric power, the postal service, telecommunications, broadcasting, publishing, rail and air transport,forest products and steel and indirect responsibility for a host of other commercial activities. For better or for worse politicians were hands on and up to their elbows in the affairs of New Zealanders.

No longer. They are now, at best, interested observers of the New Zealand scene. Their previous roles have been either privatized or delegated out to state owned enterprises and quasi-autonomous departments of state. They set broad policies and concern themselves with matters of social and cultural significance, which, paradoxically, make them more concerned about what is happening in other jurisdictions, such as culture wars in the UK, Roe v Wade and Black Lives Matter.

With nothing much to do inside the country, the politicians become interested observers of international as much as national affairs, their gaze turns outside, and outside they see two possibilities. Alignment or non-alignment; neutrality or alliance. Non-alignment and neutrality would be more consistent with their internal policy of "hands off" but it would not serve the purpose of making them seem relevant to themselves and others. There is a pseudo-heroic aura to be gained from standing up for Ukraine and flying the Ukrainian colours, but none to be found in working for a peaceful resolution to the war.

For all politicians of the right, left and centre, commitment to a global order under the leadership of the United States is proof of their commitment to something, and of their ability to be an influence in the world. New Zealand politicians have become players in global politics precisely because of their intrinsic inability to effect any positive change within their own jurisdiction. Unfortunately their off-shore plays can make no meaningful difference to off-shore outcomes, but may have a devastating effect upon the domestic economy and with it social cohesion within New Zealand.

A wide range of perceptive commentators on both the right and the left of New Zealand politics recognise this reality, but Jacinda Ardern and the New Zealand Parliament as a whole, do not. Even Don Brash, the man who promised the United States that New Zealand's nuclear free policy would be "gone by lunch-time" if he was Prime Minister, cautions against the catastrophic consequences of the New Zealand government's like-mindedness policy.

The uniformly "like-minded" institutions of the west no longer reflect the interests, beliefs or aspirations of their peoples as a whole and this is nowhere more true than it is in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern has the knack of coming up with a phrase for the times. "Let's do this". "Kindness". "They are us". "Team of Five Million". And now "Like-minded".

It would seem uncouth to ask "Do what exactly?", "Does kindness extend to the homeless?". "Are the unvaccinated us?", "Will the five million have equal shares in the team's winnings?", and now "What do the like-minded have in mind?" but these are questions that must be asked and answered.

New Zealanders adopted Jacinda Ardern's approach to politics with enthusiasm, but now they must confront the problem that in following the like-minded they will end up as accomplices in actions that they would consider reprehensible in any unlike-minded state.